Thursday, May 24, 2007

Information Warfare: Cellular Battlespace and Legend Killers

JD Johannes from Outside the Wire reports on "Cellular Battle Space"


"Enta shonek habebe?" the Army company commander says into his cell phone.

"Zhien, zhien."

Twenty to thirty times a day Army Captain Brian Ducote's cell phone rings in his shoulder pocket.

Ducote, the commander of the 1-28 Infantry's Bravo or 'Battle' company answers nearly every call, going through a set of greetings himself so that the Iraqi callers know it is him they are talking to before he hands the phone to an interpreter.

The calls range from tips to complaints to pleas.

I'll interpret a few words there from the top: Enta=You; habebe=friend, dear one, etc; Zhien=good.

JD writes under "Assymetric Battlespace":

In Iraq, thinking in terms of territory is often a useless exercise. The sectarian violence is not about territory--it is about people, money and the wasta, the power and power of legends and the near irrelevance of facts to the average Iraqi enhance the assymetric battlespace.

If the assymetric battlespace works against U.S. equipment, tactics and adherence to the Geneva Conventions--the cellular battlespace plays to the U.S. strengths.

The enemy does not have secure communications and you don't need to know much about the NSA to know that the enemy that talks on cell phones is an enemy that is easy to find.

That last reminds me of a scene from an early 1990's movie, "Patriot Games" with Harrison Ford. Agent Ryan (Ford), goes to Colombia where he meets other CIA/NSA folks, goes into a secure room where technicians isolate the voice of a drug lord's enforcer from cell phones, use voice recognition software to match it to other voices to confirm that is the same person they were looking for and verifies that this group is the responsible party for recent murders.

Recent reports indicate that the US was recording hundreds of phone calls and using software to isolate specific words and target particular phone numbers for tracking. Or, technicians who use noise reduction to single out sounds and other voices for ideintification. Or, simply identifying cell towers or phone numbers to track for determining the location of a suspect.

All of these things are possible in Iraq and even Afghanistan, though I imagine that the volume is so significant that the resources are held for high value efforts. What is going on here is a much more low key and right at the heart of the battle. It is direct information gathering using the simplest of tools.

The enemy has been using this tool all along. In fact, in a recent discussion regarding operational security at the Milblog conference, the point was made that the enemy has much more information and in a timely fashion than simply trolling electronic boards and blogs. An innocuous looking Iraqi can be sitting on his front stoop, cell phone in his pocket, blue tooth device in his ear, telling his insurgent friends that a patrol has just left a base, number of trucks, men and armaments. No one would even know he was doing it. The insurgents know within minutes what, when and where.

We are finally giving our men the tools to do the same and use the vast resources of the Iraqi people instead of limiting our communications to internal radio and secured phone lines. This vast network of people did not have access to this communication and were forced to often approach the military directly or try stealth means, putting them at great physical risk and opening them up for intimidation. This had previously limited the amount of information we could get.

In a recent article, a writer had complained that the US military should have set up a military government in Iraq until it could transition to Iraq nationals. He complained that this failure had reduced the amount of information that could be collected through regular interaction of civilians with the military government for common every day activities like passports, licensing, tickets, etc. While his over all assessment was correct, he had a "failure of imagination" missing the obvious intelligence gathering tools available on this battlefield: cellphones and email.

Another tool that the military has finally taken advantage of is "YouTube". They are posting videos of activities on it regularly, though not nearly as often or as well produced as the insurgents. However, the simplistic nature of the videos showing soldiers walking around in neighborhoods or in direct combat are much more "real" without all the fake production and chanting that the enemy likes to overlay. However, there is also an intelligence gathering ability using YouTube. On a recent stroll through the YouTube space, this blog site located hundreds of uploaded videos showing people giving lectures on militant Islam, showing insurgent activities and other important information that can and, hopefully, is being mined for information. This takes the place of public media that the enemy has limited control of and limited interaction with except through pre-produced, packaged materials. While the YouTube videos are often "packaged", there are many that are simply raw video.

The cellphone doesn't just allow the regular citizens to contact the US military. So does the enemy:

"The Wolf called me habebe," Ducote said, referring to how quickly Iraqis will use the term of strong friendship with Americans.

The Wolf is a Jaysha Mahdi assassin.

The legend is that he has killed more than 100 Sunni. Nearly every day Ducote or another member of the battalion receive a tip about The Wolf.

Ducote has talked with The Wolf on his cell phone. "We had his brother and started calling around, leaving messages. Then The Wolf himself calls."

Duocote has a conversation with the Wolf that paints a picture of how and why people have joined forces with these disparate groups. It also paints a picture of the battle space and the players.

Address books, video clips, voice mail messages, text messages, pictures, the last numbers called...the cell phone of a JAM or AQIZ is always a trove of information.

Immediately after Abdeel, the JAM Boss for Jihad and Mahala 885 was picked up, the intel staff interpreters started going through his cell phone.

It was a map of the cellular battlespace.

Later in the evening, Lt. Colonel Patrick Frank decides to make a call to Abdeel's boss.

Frank has spoken to dozens of bad guys on their cell phones and needs little introduction.

"One gentlemen I called, who is affiliated with JAM stopped me when I was introducing myself. He said, 'I know who you are. You are Asad Aswad. The Black Lion.'"

JD points out that the Iraqis live by rumor and legends. Reality is whatever the strongest person with the best connections (even with limited tools) can make of it. As the point he made earlier regarding the "Wolf" who is a legend and alleged to have killed over 100 Sunni (probably many who were simply unarmed civilians, but, in Iraq, that does not matter because everyone is an enemy if they do not belong to your group, even three year old children). The way to combat such people as the "Wolf" is to show people that he is not anyone but a 19 year old murderer who, like many such serial killers, likes to hear his own name and exploits. Talking with the commander gives him a certain cache, but, like all those who can't resist the lure of talking to the police, he will eventually give up enough information to have him captured.

The other way to defeat such legends is to create another that is bigger, badder and much more influential, even among the other "legends". That is where the "Black Lion" comes in: Asad Aswad. He is the "legend killer".

Until one day, standing in the market of West Farut, as a group of merchants complain about the mortars the Shia are firing, Captain Ducote asks them when was the last time a mortar landed in the Mahala?

The merchants all look at each other. Ducote knows the exact date the last time mortars fell in the area--because his Company captured the mortar tubes, rounds and team that was shelling West Farut.

Suddenly things begin to make sense to the merchants.

Maybe The Wolf is not immortal. That sniper has not been around...the other assassin has not been around...

Later that night Ducote is repeating the same refrain on the phone to men who heard it in person this morning--fighting a battle of gross rating points with his own voice.

I suggest reading JD's piece thoroughly. It is an excellent insight into our current battle and should spark some ideas on how we could use other tools and techniques, not normally associated with the military, to defeat an insurgency.

1 comment:

Tom the Redhunter said...

Hi Kat

Actually it was "Clear and Present Danger" where Clancy's Jack Ryan fought the Columbian drug lords. "Patriot Games" was the one about the Provos/IRA.

But I don't mean to pick.

Your larger point about communications and warfare is well written. And I, too, am glad that MNF-Iraq has finally set up their own Youtube site. It's ridiculous that it took us so long but better late than never.