Terrorists in Europe more difficult to track

Published 7 January 2008

As intelligence services and law enforcement use ever-more-sophisticated technology to monitor and track terrorists, al Qaeda operatives and sympathizers are countering by using different measures to avoid detection; they avoid places that they assume are bugged or monitored, such as mosques and Islamic bookshops, use more sophisticated codes, and more

Recall the HS Daily Wire’s informal motto: Where there is a security need, there is a business opportunity. Here is an example: In an age of spy satellites, security cameras, and an Internet which stores every keystroke, terrorism suspects are using simple, low-tech tricks to cloak their communications, making life difficult for authorities who had hoped technology would give them the upper hand. The Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock writes that counterterrorism experts say that across Europe, al Qaeda operatives and sympathizers are avoiding places that they assume are bugged or monitored, such as mosques and Islamic bookshops. In several cases, suspects have gone back to nature — leaving the cities on camping trips or wilderness expeditions so they can discuss plots without fear of being overheard. Overall, terrorist cells around the world have become noticeably more skilled at avoiding detection, European counterterrorism officials and analysts said in interviews. For instance, operatives now commonly use Skype and other Internet telephone services, which are difficult to trace or bug. At times, they have displayed impressive creativity. Defendants convicted last April in a plot to blow up targets in London with fertilizer bombs communicated via chat rooms on Internet pornography sites in an effort to throw investigators off their trail, according to testimony.

Italian authorities are among the most skilled in Europe at monitoring telephone traffic. According to information made public in court cases, they employ a technique known as “funneling” to trace all cellphone calls made in the country during a certain period of the day or to another country or specific geographical region. “Unfortunately, the technology changes so quickly that we’re always playing a catch-up game,” the senior Italian official said. “The bottom line is that we’ll have to work more and more with human sources.” Other Italian officials, however, said the trackers would always have one important advantage: Because conspirators must communicate, they will always be vulnerable to eavesdropping in some form. “Many times I ask myself, how is it still possible to obtain important information if the suspects know we can do this?” said Spataro, the deputy chief public prosecutor in Milan. The answer, he said, is that “as members of a criminal association, they have to speak, they have to communicate with each other, they have to make plans.” Terrorism suspects are “certainly more careful,” said Armando Spataro, the deputy chief public prosecutor in Milan. “They know we will intercept their conversations and track their mobile phone traffic.”