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[infowar.de] How Tiny Swiss Cellphone Chips Helped Track Global Terror Web
Wer erninnert sich noch an die Aufregung weil die Schweizer angeblich
Terror mittels der "anonymen" Pre-Paid Karten unterstützen? Die wurden
auch bald per Gesetz abgeschafft. Jetzt kommt heraus, gerade diese
Karten haben geholfen Terroristen zu fangen!
March 4, 2004
How Tiny Swiss Cellphone Chips Helped Track Global Terror Web
By DON VAN NATTA Jr. and DESMOND BUTLER
ONDON, March 2 ? The terrorism investigation code-named Mont Blanc
began almost by accident in April 2002, when authorities intercepted a
cellphone call that lasted less than a minute and involved not a
single word of conversation.
Investigators, suspicious that the call was a signal between
terrorists, followed the trail first to one terror suspect, then to
others, and eventually to terror cells on three continents.
What tied them together was a computer chip smaller than a fingernail.
But before the investigation wound down in recent weeks, its global
net caught dozens of suspected Qaeda members and disrupted at least
three planned attacks in Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, according to
counterterrorism and intelligence officials in Europe and the United
The investigation helped narrow the search for one of the most wanted
men in the world, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who is accused of being the
mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, according to three intelligence
officials based in Europe. American authorities arrested Mr. Mohammed
in Pakistan last March.
For two years, investigators now say, they were able to track the
conversations and movements of several Qaeda leaders and dozens of
operatives after determining that the suspects favored a particular
brand of cellphone chip. The chips carry prepaid minutes and allow
phone use around the world.
Investigators said they believed that the chips, made by Swisscom of
Switzerland, were popular with terrorists because they could buy the
chips without giving their names.
"They thought these phones protected their anonymity, but they
didn't," said a senior intelligence official based in Europe. Even
without personal information, the authorities were able to conduct
routine monitoring of phone conversations.
A half dozen senior officials in the United States and Europe agreed
to talk in detail about the previously undisclosed investigation
because, they said, it was completed. They also said they had strong
indications that terror suspects, alert to the phones' vulnerability,
had largely abandoned them for important communications and instead
were using e-mail, Internet phone calls and hand-delivered messages.
"This was one of the most effective tools we had to locate Al Qaeda,"
said a senior counterterrorism official in Europe. "The perception of
anonymity may have lulled them into a false sense of security. We now
believe that Al Qaeda has figured out that we were monitoring them
through these phones."
The officials called the operation one of the most successful
investigations since Sept. 11, 2001, and an example of unusual
cooperation between agencies in different countries. Led by the Swiss,
the investigation involved agents from more than a dozen countries,
including the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Britain
Cellphones have played a major role in the constant jousting between
terrorists and intelligence agencies. In their requests for more
investigative powers, Attorney General John Ashcroft and other
officials have repeatedly cited the importance of monitoring portable
phones. Each success by investigators seems to drive terrorists either
to more advanced ? or to more primitive ? communications.
During the American bombing of Tora Bora in Afghanistan in December
2001, American authorities reported hearing Osama bin Laden speaking
to his associates on a satellite phone. Since then, Mr. bin Laden has
communicated with handwritten messages delivered by trusted couriers,
In 2002 the German authorities broke up a cell after monitoring calls
by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who has been linked by some top American
officials to Al Qaeda, in which he could be heard ordering attacks on
Jewish targets in Germany. Since then, investigators say, Mr. Zarqawi
has been more cautious.
"If you beat terrorists over the head enough, they learn," said Col.
Nick Pratt, a counterterrorism expert and professor at the George C.
Marshall European Center for Security Studies in
Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. "They are smart."
Officials say that on the rare occasion when operatives still use
mobile phones, they keep the calls brief and use code words.
"They know we are on to them and they keep evolving and using new
methods, and we keep finding ways to make life miserable for them,"
said a senior Saudi official. "In many ways, it's like a cat-and-mouse
Some Qaeda lieutenants used cellphones only to arrange a conversation
on a more secure telephone. It was one such brief cellphone call that
set off the Mont Blanc investigation.
The call was placed on April 11, 2002, by Christian Ganczarski, a
36-year-old Polish-born German Muslim whom the German authorities
suspected was a member of Al Qaeda. From Germany, Mr. Ganczarski
called Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, said to be Al Qaeda's military
commander, who was running operations at the time from a safe house in
Karachi, Pakistan, according to two officials involved in the
The two men did not speak during the call, counterterrorism officials
said. Instead, the call was intended to alert Mr. Mohammed of a Qaeda
suicide bombing mission at a synagogue in Tunisia, which took place
that day, according to two senior officials. The attack killed 21
people, mostly German tourists.
Through electronic surveillance, the German authorities traced the
call to Mr. Mohammed's Swisscom cellphone, but at first they did not
know it belonged to him. Two weeks after the Tunisian bombing, the
German police searched Mr. Ganczarski's house and found a log of his
many numbers, including one in Pakistan that was eventually traced to
Mr. Mohammed. The German police had been monitoring Mr. Ganczarski
because he had been seen in the company of militants at a mosque in
Duisburg, and last June the French police arrested him in Paris.
Mr. Mohammed's cellphone number, and many others, were given to the
Swiss authorities for further investigation. By checking Swisscom's
records, Swiss officials discovered that many other Qaeda suspects
used the Swisscom chips, known as Subscriber Identity Module cards,
which allow phones to connect to cellular networks.
For months the Swiss, working closely with counterparts in the United
States and Pakistan, used this information in an effort to track Mr.
Mohammed's movements inside Pakistan. By monitoring the cellphone
traffic, they were able to get a fix on Mr. Mohammed, but the
investigators did not know his specific location, officials said.
Once Swiss agents had established that Mr. Mohammed was in Karachi,
the American and Pakistani security services took over the hunt with
the aid of technology at the United States National Security Agency,
said two senior European intelligence officials. But it took months
for them to actually find Mr. Mohammed "because he wasn't always using
that phone," an official said. "He had many, many other phones."
Mr. Mohammed was a victim of his own sloppiness, said a senior
European intelligence official. He was meticulous about changing
cellphones, but apparently he kept using the same SIM card.
In the end, the authorities were led directly to Mr. Mohammed by a
C.I.A. spy, the director of central intelligence, George J. Tenet,
said in a speech last month. A senior American intelligence official
said this week that the capture of Mr. Mohammed "was entirely the
result of excellent human operations."
When Swiss and other European officials heard that American agents had
captured Mr. Mohammed last March, "we opened a big bottle of
Champagne," a senior intelligence official said.
Among Mr. Mohammed's belongings, the authorities seized computers,
cellphones and a personal phone book that contained hundreds of
numbers. Tracing those numbers led investigators to as many as 6,000
phone numbers, which amounted to a virtual road map of Al Qaeda's
operations, officials said.
The authorities noticed that many of Mr. Mohammed's communications
were with operatives in Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. Last April, using
the phone numbers, officials in Jakarta broke up a terror cell
connected to Mr. Mohammed, officials said.
After the suicide bombings of three housing compounds in Riyadh, Saudi
Arabia, on May 12, the Saudi authorities used the phone numbers to
track down two "live sleeper cells." Some members were killed in
shootouts with the authorities; others were arrested.
Meanwhile, the Swiss had used Mr. Mohammed's phone list to begin
monitoring the communications and activities of nearly two dozen of
his associates. "Huge resources were devoted to this," a senior
official said. "Many countries were constantly doing surveillance,
monitoring the chatter."
Investigators were particularly alarmed by one call they overheard
last June. The message: "The big guy is coming. He will be here soon."
An official familiar with the calls said, "We did not know who he was,
but there was a lot of chatter." Whoever "the big guy" was, the
authorities had his number. A Swisscom chip was in the phone.
"Then we waited and waited, and we were increasingly anxious and
worried because we didn't know who it was or what he had intended to
do," an official said.
But in July, the man believed to be "the big guy," Abdullah Oweis, who
was born in Saudi Arabia, was arrested in Qatar. "He is one of those
people able to move within Western societies and to help the
mujahedeen, who have lesser experience," an official said. "He was at
the very center of the Al Qaeda hierarchy. He was a major
In January, the operation led to the arrests of eight people accused
of being members of a Qaeda logistical cell in Switzerland. Some are
suspected of helping with the suicide bombings of the housing
compounds in Riyadh, which killed 35 people, including 8 Americans.
Later, European authorities discovered that Mr. Mohammed had contacted
a company in Geneva that sells Swisscom phone cards. Investigators
said he ordered the cards in bulk.
The Mont Blanc inquiry has wound down, although investigators are
still monitoring the communications of a few people. Christian
Neuhaus, a spokesman for Swisscom, confirmed that the company had
cooperated with the inquiry, but declined to comment.
Last year, Switzerland's legislature passed a law making it illegal to
purchase cellphone chips without providing personal information,
following testimony from a Swiss federal prosecutor, Claude Nicati,
that the Swisscom cards had become popular with Qaeda operatives. The
law goes into effect on July 1.
One senior official said the authorities were grateful that Qaeda
members were so loyal to Swisscom.
Another official agreed: "They'd switch phones but use the same cards.
The people were stupid enough to use the same cards all of the time.
It was a very good thing for us."
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