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US runs warzone man-tracking 'Manhattan Project'

Mystery snoop-tech used in wave of assassinations

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However they work, the use of such techniques was actually quite well-known already. In early 2007, for instance, five Taliban prisoners were released by the Afghan government in exchange for an Italian journalist who was being held hostage. The move was seen at the time as a humiliating setback for the Coalition forces, but in fact it was a targeted intelligence operation. One of the released prisoners was Mullah Shah Mansoor, the brother of top Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah.

Mansoor was tracked by a US spec-ops formation referred to as "Task Force Orange" - possibly a current operating name for the organisation variously known as the US Army Intelligence Support Activity, the "Army of Northern Virginia" etc etc. The Activity has long had a policy of changing its name every so often, and has operated in the past under such names as "Grey Fox", "Centra Spike", "Torn Victor" etc. The organisation focuses on intelligence - on finding and monitoring enemies - rather than carrying out direct action killings itself. Such jobs are usually handed on to US "tier one" spec-ops teams from Delta Force or DevGru (what was once SEAL Team Six), or trusted allies like the British special forces.

Having remotely tracked the released Mansoor to a Taliban base across the border at Quetta in Pakistan, the US knob-turners then reportedly became interested in a particular satellite phone - the one belonging to Mullah Dadullah himself. Dadullah apparently thought this phone to be clean, but it seems that merely carrying it to a meeting with his newly freed brother was enough to flag it up. As soon as Dadullah went back across the border into Afghanistan, he could be attacked - and was. A squadron of Britain's Special Boat Service (SBS) special forces, accompanied by Afghan troops, assaulted Dadullah's compound at Bahram Chah in the south of Helmand province during May 2007. Dadullah was shot dead - receiving two bullets to the body (a classic special forces "double-tap") and one to the head, hinting perhaps that nobody was especially interested in taking prisoners.

Mick Smith, telling the story for the Times (the gaff was originally blown by the Afghan government, apparently) merely said that TF-Orange had used "sophisticated signals technology to monitor Mansoor’s movements".

However, the website specialboatservice.co.uk - which has connections with a former SBS covert operator, mercenary and novelist who writes under the name Duncan Falconer - says:

It is speculated that the [released] Taliban had somehow been tagged with trackers, perhaps in their bodies.

This tends to suggest the more-feasible sounding miniature implant theory on the new kit, rather than unique body heat-signatures or whatever - which in any case would seem unlikely to work through walls. Teeny-tiny tracker technology has certainly been in use for some time by British secret forces, though usually placed inside cached weapons and suchlike (the slang term in Northern Ireland for this was "jarking" - with the weapons usually being sabotaged as well). Of course, it may be that the men's clothes or other personal items were bugged rather than they themselves.

Just people-tracking might seem a little basic to be referred to as a "Manhattan Project", unless it had some other special sauce as well. It's surely also true that there have been new developments in mobile phone trickery, airborne surveillance and - probably even more importantly - in bringing together information from many different sources in a timely fashion. But following individuals remotely, en masse, relatively inexpensively and without needing to put large teams of followers on the ground - that might be a real game changer.

It might also be something to worry about in a civil-liberties context, if it really does operate as described.

However the new stuff works, it would seem that terrorists or other malcontents on the run from sinister US government agencies in future may soon need to don their trusty tinfoil hats, garments etc. not so much to keep out federal/alien mindcontrol rays as to keep in the transmissions from possible implanted bugs.

A case of enemies within the enemy within, as it were. Or it might just be a lot of hype. ®

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

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