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Al Qaeda boss confused phone SIM with cloaking device

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Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Al Qaeda's technological expertise is perhaps somewhat less than it's cracked up to be, we note from a New York Times report on events surrounding the arrest of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in Karachi a year ago. Mohammed, and indeed other Al Qaeda operatives, seems to have used a Swisscom 'anonymous' mobile phone card under the quite weird misapprehension that its insertion in a phone somehow, er, anonymised the phone.

Well, that's the only possible explanation we can see for his reportedly switching handsets frequently, but keeping the same SIM, and an "official" quoted in the NYT says he wasn't alone. "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."

Well indeed. In addition Mohammed, who has a degree in engineering from North Carolina Agricultural and Technology University (oh yes he has), even "ordered the cards in bulk" from a company in Geneva.

Fortunately Al Qaeda appears not to read The Register, otherwise they would have noted our observation last year that thinking terrorists would be unlikely to use Swisscom anonymous SIMs because they would effectively be a CIA-magnet: "But if a Swiss pay as you go system turned up in operation in, say, Pakistan, then it is to be expected that alert lights will go off, the phone's location will be tracked, and the security services will move in."

Oddly enough, although it appears there was massive surveillance of Swisscom SIM use, and the NYT piece is pitched as a victory for technology over terror, the key seems to have been good, old-fashioned raids and two people who were sloppy with their phone books.

Mohammed's arrest was the result of a tip-off, and yielded a large stack of phone numbers for people he was in contact with. The presence in Pakistan of a Swisscom SIM that later turned to be one used by Mohammed was discovered after a raid in Germany on a suspect who was also careless with his phone numbers. It would seem that this man's phone book suggested that the Swisscom SIM was a weapon of choice for at least the blockheaded wing of Al Qaeda, which resulted in close monitoring of traffic. This did not yield much in the way of conversation, as they were careful about what they said, but it clearly helped in narrowing down the location of suspects.

The story's coming out now because those involved have now either been rolled up or have figured out they might just have a problem with their phone methodology. And, we suspect, because the authorities feel some positive press might be nice. As for Al Qaeda's technology wing, just cross your fingers they still haven't figured out how to buy an anonymous SIM, how SIMs actually work, and how to stay anonymous while using them. ®

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