Taliban continue campaign against cellular service in Waziristan

Published 25 March 2009

Taliban and al-Qaeda militants believe that the CIA and U.S. military rely on cellular communication intercepts to track and kill members of the two organizations; Taliban leaders warned Pakistan not to expand the cellular network in the areas under Taliban control; those networks already in place must be shut down overnight

The Taliban yesterday warned the Pakistani government to stop expanding its mobile telephone network in Waziristan, claiming the network would be used to spy on them. They Islamic organization circulated a pamphlet in Wana, the main town of South Waziristan, telling authorities to stop the network expansion and ordering vendors to stop selling SIM cards, residents and officials said. “A Jewish, Zionist-backed company is setting up the mobile phone network in Waziristan, which would be used to spy on Taliban activities and for drone attacks,” said the pamphlet.

This network is equipped with a global positioning system (GPS) and can give the location of a person even if his mobile phone is switched off,” it said. “In Iraq and Afghanistan such a system has been used to launch attacks against mujahideen,” the leaflet added. “The government and those selling SIMs will be treated as criminals by us,” it warned.

A local administration official confirmed that a leaflet had been circulated in Wana.

Taliban militants blew up a telecom tower last month in southern Afghanistan following a warning to phone companies to shut down the towers at night or face attack. Then, too, the militants said they feared U.S. and other foreign troops were using mobile phone signals to track insurgents and launch attacks against them. A Taliban spokesman said militants would blow up towers across Afghanistan if the companies did not switch off their signals overnight.

Insurgents made good on that threat, destroying a tower along the main highway in the Zhari district of Kandahar province, said Niaz Mohammad Serhadi, the top government official in Zhari. The tower was owned by Areeba, one of four cellular companies in Afghanistan. Company officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

Phone companies moved into remote areas of Afghanistan after talks with tribal elders, who asked for the towers to be built, said Abdul Hadi Hadi, spokesman for the Telecommunications Ministry. “When they destroy any tower, it shows direct enmity to the people of that area. I don’t think the destruction of the towers has any direct effect on the government. It is the people who suffer,” he said.

Thousands of customers will be affected by the tower attack, Serhadi said. Police have increased security around other phone towers, he said.

Militants have threatened mobile phone companies in the past, accusing them of collusion with the US and other foreign military forces.

Communications experts say the U.S. military has the ability, using satellites and other means, to pick up cell phone signals without the phone company’s help. Cell phones periodically send signals to the network even when they are not making calls. The United States has said it has killed more than 50 mid- and top-level Taliban leaders over the last year.

Mobile phones were introduced to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. They have become the principal means of communication and one of the fastest-growing and most profitable sectors in the country’s economy.