Friday, January 21, 2005

previous entry | main | next entry | TrackBack (4)

When information technology weakens terrorism

One meme that has been a constant since the September 11th attacks has been that terrorist networks have been so adroit in using information technologies to plan, coordinate, and execute acts of violence.

However, an even older meme is that civil society can exploit these technologies to improve their lot in life as well. Two stories out of Iraq today highlight this fact.

Ellen Knickmeyer reports for the Associated Press that Iraqis are using text messaging as a way of outing terrorists:

In the volatile Shiite-Sunni towns south of Baghdad known as the ''triangle of death,'' Iraqi civilians increasingly are letting their thumbs do the talking, via Arabic text messages sent from the safety of their homes, Iraqi security forces and U.S. Marines say.

At a time when U.S. and Iraqi security forces are desperate for information on attacks preferably in advance mobile phone text messages allow civilians to pass on information from a discreet distance, their identities shielded from security forces and their neighbors.

Although a cell phone displays the caller's number, phone records are so chaotic in Iraq that chances are slim anyone could track down a tipster. And text messages can be sent to the most trusted officer, a far safer avenue than calling a police station that might be riddled with informants.

''Many, many people tell us about the terrorists with this,'' [Iraqi National Guard Major Mohammed Salman Abass Ali] al-Zobaidi said, tapping his black cell phone and thumbing down to show more messages.

''All the time, I hear his phone beep beep beep beep, beep beep beep beep,'' said Sgt. Eddie Risner of Ocala, Fla., part of a Marine contingent working with guardsmen to try to block attacks and put a credible Iraqi security force on the street.

In the Chicago Tribune, Aamer Madhani reports on one radio station in the Sunni triangle that's strongly encouraged Iraqis to vote in the upcoming elections:

For someone who recently was threatened with having his tongue cut out for encouraging people to vote, Rafit Mahmoud Sayed has surprisingly little sympathy for those who say they fear going to the polls Jan. 30.

On a recent special edition of his radio show, Sayed initially listened patiently to a caller who talked about his desire to vote but feared a suicide bomber might attack the polling station. After a few minutes of the caller speaking about what a waste it would be to die on his way to the ballot box, Sayed interrupted and upbraided the caller.

"Be sure, this election is about the security situation in Iraq," said Sayed, who named his show "Good Morning, Orange City" after the restive city of Baqouba, the orange-growing capital of Iraq. "If you go vote, you can be sure the security situation will be improved. If you don't go vote, you can expect nothing."

Sayed and the 70 other employees at the Diyala province's government-owned radio and television station outside Baqouba have taken on the task of promoting voter participation with somewhat unexpected zeal. Until recently, most of the programming on the station was fairly simple--music, a children's show, some call-in programs and a few reporters putting together news broadcasts, relying heavily on information provided by a U.S. psychological operation's unit stationed next door to the station.

But when the voter registration process began in November, Sayed, who is also the station's general manager, decided to make election coverage the station's priority.

There have been consequences. In the past few weeks, Sayed said, several of his employees have received death threats through anonymous notes left at their homes or through neighbors. The threats have jangled nerves, but no one has quit, he said....

While the television station hasn't been able to compete with the Arabic-language news giants Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, Radio Diyala has become popular in the province for its call-in programs that often criticize local government officials and insurgents....

During the special election show, the two phone lines for listeners rang non-stop. Some called to say that they would be voting, and others asked for clarification about just what they would be voting for. A few wanted to speak out against the insurgency and read poetry they had written to express their patriotism.

These uses of technology toward improving life In iraq mesh with recent polling evidence suggesting that there is greater support among ordinary Iraqis for the elections than previously expected. As Karl Vick points out in this Washington Post report:

"I think people will be shocked," said an official of another international organization deeply involved in preparing Iraq's nascent political class for the ballot. The official, who insisted that neither he nor his organization could be identified because of security concerns, said most Iraqis remained intent on exercising their right to elect a government after decades of dictatorships.

"I think the real story of this election is what's gone on beneath the radar," the official said. "They may not know what they're voting for. But I think they recognize it's something called democracy."

The one thing that bugs me is that all of these behind-the-scenes efforts mean nothing unless people are physically willing to show up on Election Day. And unlike the transfer of sovereignty, the election date can't simply be moved up at the last minute. An no amount of information technology can alter that fact.


UPDATE: Reuters reports on one way to blunt the terrorist threat on Election Day: "the location of voting centers will be revealed only at the last minute in some areas." Another Reuters report quotes UN election official Carlos Venezuela stating that, "(Conditions) are not the best and certainly far from ideal, but if the security measures work there is a very good chance that the elections that take place will take place successfully ...and will be accepted as legitimate."

posted by Dan on 01.21.05 at 10:16 PM


Let's see. They have a way to make anonymous tips to accuse their neighbors. This is progress, yes. Kind of.

posted by: J Thomas on 01.21.05 at 10:16 PM [permalink]

"I think the real story of this election is what's gone on beneath the radar," the official said.

Hmmmm kind of like another recent election that the media completely missed what was going on...

posted by: Steven Andrew Miller on 01.21.05 at 10:16 PM [permalink]

All the insurgents have to do is flood the tip line with red herrings to render it inoperative.

And the fact that it's currently ringing constantly isn't necessarily a good sign. According to Knight-Ridder's moving average of Pentagon figures, the number of attacks, number of casualties, and number of killed have all gone up and remained near or at highs. In other words this is like a little boy trying to plug a leaking dike with his finger. Admirable in character but hardly likely to hold back the dam.

I see however Dan that you're apparently no longer above grasping at anecdotal evidence when the simple numbers no longer support your position.

posted by: oldman on 01.21.05 at 10:16 PM [permalink]

Er, isn't there probably also a similar tip-line reporting "collaborators" to the insurgents?

posted by: Jon H on 01.21.05 at 10:16 PM [permalink]

I'm sure there is. But the insurgents don't need to go after people who secretly offer minor help to the americans. They have no lack of targets just going after official paid employees of the americans, and paid employees of the "puppet" government. They don't need a witch hunt.

It makes sense that various employees would try to hedge their bets by spying for the insurgents. But unless the insurgents are particularly well organised, one group won't know who's spying for another group, and so the safety that would provide would be minimal.

Very messy.

posted by: J Thomas on 01.21.05 at 10:16 PM [permalink]

I am glad to see the posters here using 'insurgents' rather than terrorists. This indicates an acceptance of the reality that we are fighting against a war of national (and religious) liberation. We are the occupiers -- and I say this as a veteran.

posted by: stari_momak on 01.21.05 at 10:16 PM [permalink]

Stari, there clearly are terrorists in iraq. Also gangsters.

Ideally we would provide security to the iraqi people by protecting them from the gangsters. But we can't. We're too busy fighting the insurgents.

It's hard to tell the gangsters from the terrorists. We don't really have any way to tell either of them from the insurgents, and they may be mixed. The same guy might be a gangster when he's extorting money from iraqi civilians, and a terrorist when he's blowing up iraqi politicians and an insurgent when he's attacking US troops.

The only way it would matter to make such distinctions would be if you wanted to claim that there are only gangsters and terrorists, and no real insurgency. But we're way past that now. It would be idiotic to argue there's no insurgency, and someone who tried to claim that would only get laughed at. Bitterly.

posted by: J Thomas on 01.21.05 at 10:16 PM [permalink]

Voter-turnout is an overrated measurement of the strength of democracy. High or low turn-out in the first election will not make or break democracy in Iraq. Many, many, many countries have held fair elections with high participation, but then seen democracy crumble under the weight of economic hardship, corruption, ethnic divisions, and legislative dead-lock, or power-grabs.

In fact, I've never seen research that shows that high voter turn-out is associated with stable democracy.

posted by: sdsam on 01.21.05 at 10:16 PM [permalink]

Post a Comment:


Email Address:



Remember your info?