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Taliban demand night-time cell tower shutdown

Anti-Wi-Fi fatwa feared

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Reports out of Afghanistan say that the Taliban have threatened attacks on mobile phone companies unless "signals" are "stopped" at night. Reportedly the hardline Islamic militia believes that cell towers are being used to locate and track Taliban gunmen.

The BBC quotes Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujaheed as saying: "If those companies do not stop their signal within three days, the Taleban will target their towers and their offices." Reportedly the demand is for the "signal" to be cut off from 5pm to 3am local time.

The mobile companies have long been thought by the Taliban to be colluding with NATO and Coalition forces operating in Afghanistan, and in fact it would be surprising if they weren't. The Afghan government is heavily dependent on the international troops. Use of the mobile networks for intelligence is an obvious step which is well-nigh certain to have been taken, just as governments have done in every country. And it's well known that masts can be used to locate a phone which is powered up.

What's less clear is why the Taliban have chosen to demand a shutdown of mast signals at night. Even the most paranoid phone-security advisers would normally suggest taking the battery out of one's phone, rather than menacing local cell operators unless they went off the air. (The idea of removing the battery is to guard against someone having modified the phone to switch itself on without the owner's knowledge.)

It could be that the Taliban want to operate their own networks, of course. Micro/pico/femtocell equipment is widely available, and there's said to be a strong tradition in wild and woolly rural Afghanistan of unregulated, private wireless comms. It might be that guerrilla commanders merely want to clear other operators off the spectrum so that they can use it themselves.

Even so, Western military or spook electronic-intelligence units will still be able to intercept, identify, locate and track active mobile phones in an area of interest, even if they are communicating (or meant to be communicating) only with Taliban-controlled cells. The reported threats still don't make a huge amount of sense in terms of the reasons given.

Another possibility is that the Taliban simply want to deny ordinary Afghans phone service at night, perhaps to stop people reporting on militia movements and/or prevent them phoning for help if attacked. Or it might be that the Taliban - the Taliban press office, anyway - simply isn't up on the technical issues.

Or, it just could be that there's an element of good old-fashioned UK-suburban-style technofear mast phobia brewing among the hardcore religious zealots of Central Asia. We may see a fatwa on Wi-Fi in madrassas.

Read less about it from the Beeb here. ®

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