Banning Cellphones in Conflict Zones Counterproductive

Posted on May 22, 2006  /  3 Comments

This article shows that government’s instinct to ban cellphones from conflict zones because of the belief that it will be used by militants/terrorists to further their cause, actually neutralizes one of the security agencies most potent weapons to track subversives. I doubt that the Sri Lankan government will allow cellular service to be available any time soon in the North. But at least it gives the security agencies some food for thought. The Indian government was similarly reluctant to have cellular service in Kashmir, but the Indian security agencies are their biggest proponents now.

Troops in Kashmir master new weapon: cell phones
By Sheikh MushtaqSun May 21, 1:53 AM ET

Minutes after a bomb exploded recently in Kashmir and wounded Indian soldiers, a senior member of an Islamist rebel group called local newspaper offices to claim responsibility for the blast.

A few hours later, troops smashed the door of his hideout and arrested the militant “commander” after a brief gun battle.

Indian intelligence officers credited the bust in south Kashmir to the tracking of his mobile phone.

Until a few years ago, intelligence officials resisted attempts by the federal government to lift a ban on cell phone services in the region, fearing mobile phones would aid militants in planning attacks.

Now they know better and security officials say troops have eliminated many militants by tracking their mobile phones and tapping conservations, citing the example in south Kashmir.

“Such a quick strike operation was just impossible three years ago,” a senior intelligence official told Reuters.

“We tracked the calls made from his mobile to local newspapers which led to his arrest and that of some other suspects.”

India has been battling a 16-year Muslim separatist revolt in its part of Kashmir. Tens of thousands of people have died in shootings, bombings and other violence.

In 2003, New Delhi allowed mobile services, eight years after the rest of India, now the world’s fastest-growing market for cellular services.

At that time, India said it was a move to win the hearts and minds of Kashmiris, weary and alienated after years of conflict in India’s only Muslim-majority state which is also claimed by neighbor Pakistan.

After three years, there are now more than 850,000 mobile phone users in a state of 10 million people. And the spin-off for anti-insurgency operations has enthused security officials.

“So far, we have arrested or eliminated dozens of them (militants) including many senior commanders through mobile-tracking,” the intelligence officer said.

“It is easier to track them if they use mobile phones.”


Elsewhere across some trouble spots around South Asia, mobile phone services are still seen as a bane.

In Sri Lanka, which is teetering on the brink of a return to civil war, Tamil Tiger rebels do not allow mobile phone services in areas held by them.

“We do not allow mobile telephones because of security concerns,” said rebel media coordinator Daya Master. The Tigers fear they could be tracked and targeted through mobile signals. So they use satellite phones instead.

In Nepal, the ousted royalist government of King Gyanendra resorted to shutting down mobile services when the monarch’s opponents planned big rallies against his rule to foil the protests.

Indian security officials admit their initial resistance to mobile phones in Kashmir was misplaced.

“Earlier, we thought it would help terrorists in their communications and help their subversive activities,” army spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel V.K. Batra said.

“But it is proving counterproductive to them.”

Militants also use satellite phones from their forest hideouts. But security forces say they are able to intercept or jam such communication.

Police in Kashmir say mobile phones have also saved the lives of hundreds of people trapped in buildings stormed by suicide attackers.

Hostages have often communicated with the police through mobiles and managed to guide security forces to rescue them amid gunfire, said K. Rajindra Kumar, a top police officer.

“This is the success story of mobile phones in anti-militancy operations,” Kumar told Reuters.

(Additional reporting by Simon Gardner in COLOMBO)


  1. From Telegeography:
    Telenor to expand in Azad Kashmir and Northern regions

    Mobile operator Telenor Pakistan says it will apply for new operating concessions covering the Azad Kashmir and Northern regions of the country, in response to an invitation from the government to improve communications services in the areas. The licences will cost USD10 million, half of which will be paid up front and the remainder over the following ten years.

    Telenor was awarded its GSM licence in April 2004 and in July that year it selected Nokia to build out its network, which includes the facility to upgrade to 3G based on W-CDMA technology. It launched commercial services on 15 March 2005 in Islamabad, Karachi and Rawalpindi, and on 24 March expanded to Lahore, Faisalabad and Hyderabad. In January 2006 Telenor Pakistan announced that it had signed up more than two million customers, less than a year after launching services. By the end of April 2006 it claimed to have coverage of 286 towns and cities, putting it well on track to meet its goal of covering 70% of the population by its fourth year of operation.