The Taliban and the Towers

Barnett Rubin offers an explanation for something we’ve been pondering for some time: why has the Taliban been blowing up cell phone towers in Afghanistan?

Setting up a cell phone tower anywhere in Afghanistan requires the consent of whoever "controls" the territory, or at least has the power to blow up the cell phone tower.

I have not yet been able to conduct a systematic survey of where the four mobile phone companies in Afghanistan (Afghan Wireless, Roshan, Etisalaat, and Areeba) pay the Taliban or other powerholders taxes/extortion/bribes to protect their phone towers, but one friend in the business says that the companies have to pay the Taliban in most of southern Afghanistan, right up to Kabul province.


I have been told that Taliban (or people claiming to represent them) sometimes call up mobile phone companies and claim that they are right at a tower with explosives, which they will detonate unless money is immediately transferred to their mobile phone. This is a new technology that enables migrant workers to send cash home without going through either a hawala or Western Union.

What to make of this? It has contradictory implications. My inquiries thus far indicate that Taliban (or people claiming to be Taliban) are able to launch profitable small military operations (blowing up cell phone towers) or at least to make credible threats of doing so in most of the area south of Kabul and as far west as the southern part of Herat province. This does not mean that Taliban "control" these areas. No authority "controls" most of these areas. But Taliban, insurgents, or criminal armed groups can operate there with impunity. They can infiltrate. If these groups can also be coordinated (a big question), they have much greater capacity for disruption than they have shown thus far.

On the other hand, their behavior is nothing like al-Qaida. I have not seen any such documents emanating from Ayman al-Zawahari’s office giving his cell phone number. The document shows that some Taliban, at least, are trying to operate within the administrative structure of the Afghan state, even if they are trying to subvert it (or extract money from the private sector operating with its consent). Protection of cell phone towers in Wardak is an eminently negotiable issue, unlike, say, replacing the nation-state system with an Islamic caliphate or ending all US influence in the Muslim world. [my emphasis]

In other words, the threats and destruction of cell phone towers is a good old fashioned protection racket, with the added benefit that cell companies can fill phones with "currency" almost instantaneously (does Rubin mean this is real currency, or just minutes?).

47 replies
  1. NelsonAlgren says:

    Have they been watching AMC this weekend? Protection racket is right. Isn’t that what the mafia used to do a lot of? Are we to be suprised that the Afghans are acting like Vito Corleone?

  2. WilliamOckham says:

    There are services in South America that allow you to send money directly to a cell phone number. The cell number is linked to a debit card that can be used to spend the money.

    • emptywheel says:


      So a way around hawala. THat does get interesting, doesn’t it? Particularly since we’ve been watching the hawalas and we’ve infiltrated Western Union.

      Cell phones. The new terrorist banking enterprises.

      • readerOfTeaLeaves says:

        EW, I don’t know whether they’re the new terrorist banking machinations, or not.
        But they could be.

        You’ve previously pointed out that the US hasn’t had a good, public debate about Internet security. IMHO, the news in this post underscores your prescience, yet again.

  3. bmaz says:

    And you thought my “pay phone” quip was a joke? Heh heh. Just wait till the terrists get iPhones; they will be able to transfer debt/equity swaps and other derivatives…..

  4. Loo Hoo. says:

    Kinda obvious to the “authorities” who the dirty deeder is then, huh? Why be anonymous in your criminal activity?

    • anwaya says:

      I went to India at Christmas and took an old Razr phone with me. With the help of a friend, I was able to get a SIM card that let me on the networks
      in less than half a day, and could then go to any 64-square-foot cellphone retailer to “recharge” my phone for Rs100 ($2.50). I would expect this system is also used in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Given the rate at which information flows through the bureaucracy there and the degree of corruption, I would not expect anyone to be able to track a phone to a person or a location with any certainty. Unless they’re triangulating on the phone’s signal.

      • john in sacramento says:

        … I was able to get a SIM card that let me on the networks … I would not expect anyone to be able to track a phone to a person …

        Yea, that’s true. I was going to do a comment like yours but wasn’t sure if anyone was still around to read it.

        I was going to say that if you were … I don’t know, Boris and Natasha, you could buy a bunch of SIM cards and keep swapping them out

  5. MadDog says:

    OT – From CREW: Court Orders White House To Hand Over Documents In Crew Lawsuit

    Following an on-the-record conference call on March 28, 2008, District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly issued an Order (PDF) on March 30, 2008 in CREW v. Office of Administration, ordering the Office of Administration (OA), a White House component, to produce documents and information related to its decision that it is no longer an agency subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)…

    • bmaz says:

      Well clearly the OA already has already verbally indicated the coming assertion of executive privilege, thus Kollar-Kotelly pimping them by setting a briefing schedule ahead of time. She is obviously dubious of their crap and tired of it. Cool! Remember, Kollar-Kotelly is the former FISC chief judge that was tired of the administration BS and duplicity there too. She may be pretty unfriendly to their schticht about now…

      • readerOfTeaLeaves says:

        Let’s hope she’s tired of their crap! They’ve made her look like an absolute fool.

  6. Peterr says:

    There’s also the ability to sell pre-filled cell phones for cash as well. The phone companies can pay in minutes, and those who sell the prefilled phones get their cash from those who purchase the phones.

    It’s all good.

  7. bobschacht says:

    Aren’t cell phone transmissions trackable? I thought that there have been several incidents where drone aircraft were used to bomb “insurgents” by tracking their cell phones. So, in principle, shouldn’t the phone companies be able to collaborate with the U.S. to track down the extortioners?

    Bob in HI

    • Hmmm says:

      If the extortionist calls from right next to the tower, bombing immediately would wipe out the tower. If the extortionist turns the phone off (removed battery) immediately after funds are transferred, there is no phone signal to track as they move away from the tower and merge into the world at large. Seems a pretty devious, indeed nigh-perfect, plan. Constant surveillance of towers would seem the only defense.

      • marksb says:

        Surveillance of towers I would think gets you little; the towers in a region like that are remote; the process of identifying a threat, seeing the threat on cameras or the like, generating a report of the threat to whatever central authority, having that threat disseminated to the local authority, the time it takes for the local authority to roll to the tower site (if they will respond at all—being under the payroll or threat of the criminal threatening the tower)… Well. It’s just not going to happen before tower goes boom.

      • bigbrother says:

        John what a funny to crack…a case withinspector cluesoe,
        I haven’t laughed like this in a while.

  8. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Complying with those requests is informed, knowing, intentional, active support for terrorist activities. It probably also violates a slew of treasury regulations, money laundering rules, etc. They can plead extenuating circumstances when they have their day in court. The FBI will surely raid the Northern Virginia headquarters of these cell phone companies this week to arrest their top executives. Sauce for the goose.

    • bmaz says:

      None of those companies look american owned, at least on the surface anyway. I think you are right on your characterization of it, just not sure we have any such jurisdiction to do any of that, unless US companies are active majority partners or something. We could blacklist the companies I suppose, but that wouldn’t do much.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        Yup, belatedly saw that. My bad. Interesting to see if they are local subsidiaries of US telcos, but it’s not obvious they are. But then, shouldn’t State list them as foreign terrorist supporters, prohibiting US companies from doing business with them?

  9. marksb says:

    We kicked this idea around the lunch rooms in Stockholm in 2001, and lookie lookie, it’s here! Backed by the GSM Association no less, which puts it in the hands of most of the world’s population. Wow. Didn’t take the criminals long to figure it out, did it?

    Spearheaded by a special group of 19 mobile operators with networks in over 100 countries and representing over 600 million customers, the GSMA believes the programme could double the number of recipients of international remittances to more than 1.5 billion, while helping to quadruple the size of the international remittances market to more than $1 trillion by 2012.

    To combine the strengths of the mobile and financial ecosystems, mobile operators are partnering with banks at a local or regional level, while the GSMA is setting up a pilot with MasterCard Worldwide, a global payments leader whose cards and network provide international authorization, clearing and settlement. The GSMA and MasterCard, which has a 25,000 member-bank network, plan to pilot a global hub that will link together national markets and the local payment systems run by mobile operators in partnership with those local banks. The hub will enable migrant workers to trigger international money transfers using their mobile phone and their families to be notified via their mobile phones.

    “The creation of a global hub will enable the mobile networks, which now cover more than 80% of the world’s population, to offer the world’s burgeoning migrant population a convenient way to securely and cost-effectively transfer money to their families back in their home countries.” said Rob Conway, CEO of the GSMA, the global trade association for mobile operators. “We are mobilising financial services for the billions of people who are unbanked and the underbanked.”

    • klynn says:

      And the freeing up of analog when we transfer to HD will allow the telecoms to use analog to provide a very inexpensive cell telecom service. A friend high in the telecom industry, explained to me “that” was a driving force to switch to HD…the $$$ for inexpensive cell service built on analog and mobilizing financial services for the unbanked and underbanked.

  10. Mary says:

    I think there’s too much complaining here. After all, hasn’t the US being trying to find a cash crop to replace poppies?


    At least industry in Afghanistan has diversified under the US led occupation.

  11. Mary says:

    OT (except for the words part)

    Hayden to Russert: [now that we have amnesty and insurance in place and evidence destroyed] waterboarding is “uninteresting for the CIA.”

    And oh yeah – that debate thing? Hayden’s says it’s easier to win if you don’t use words. “We cloud the debate when, when we throw the word torture out there…”

    Funny how that works – what with the word terror never having clouded a debate. It’s good to see Timmeh defer so easily to the man who didn’t want to cloud the debate over FISA and the Fourth Amendment by throwing words like “warrant” and “probable cause” out there either.

  12. Mary says:

    From Froomkin on the Kurnaz story that finally ran on 60 minutes:

    “‘They used to beat me when my head is underwater. They beat me into my stomach and everything,’ he says.

    “‘They were hitting you in the stomach while you’re head was underwater so that you’d have to take a breath?’ [CBS’s Scott] Pelley asks.

    “‘Right. I had to drink. I had to . . . how you say it?’ Kurnaz replies.

    “‘Inhale. Inhale the water,’ Pelley says.

    “‘I had to inhale the water. Right,’ Kurnaz says.

    Hayden: “uninteresting”

  13. Mary says:

    JIS – Horton is about the best.

    Torture was introduced as a result of conscious decisions taken at the pinnacle of power in Washington.

    Hayden: Uninteresting.

  14. bmaz says:

    Hey, you gotta hand it to the Bushies, they really do promote family values!
    In a historic but little-noticed change in policy, the Army is allowing scores of husband-and-wife soldiers to live

    and sleep together in the war zone — a move aimed at preserving marriages, boosting morale and perhaps bolstering re-enlistment rates at a time when the military is struggling to fill its ranks five years into the fighting.

    The family that kills together, can be killed together. How sweet. Maybe they can send some of those FEMA Formaldehyde Trailers over there as an extra bonus. Man, this country has really jumped the shark of sanity.

  15. MadDog says:

    More OT via TPMMuckraker and TPMCafe:

    Jane Harman Comments on The Release of Bush’s Law by Eric Lichtblau

    …When I became Ranking Member of the House Intelligence Committee in 2003, I was included for the first time in highly classified briefings on the operational details of an NSA effort to track al Qaeda communications using unique access points inside the US telecommunications infrastructure. The so-called “Gang of Eight” (selected on the basis of our committee or leadership positions) was told that if the terrorists found out about our capability, they would stop using those communications channels and valuable intelligence would dry up (which had happened before)…


    …The Gang of Eight was not told – nor did it occur to me – that the Administration was violating FISA, despite Congress’ clear legislative intent when FISA was passed that it was the “exclusive means” for monitoring the communications of Americans connected to foreign intelligence…


    …The New York Times story ran on December 16, 2005. The next day, President Bush publicly confirmed the program’s existence in his weekend radio address. That day, a Saturday, I did two things: I tried to get our full Committee briefed and I consulted experts on the law.

    I tracked down NSA Director Michael Hayden, who was shopping for holiday presents in Annapolis, and asked him to brief the full Intelligence Committee later that day. He said yes, provided the White House signed off. Bush Chief of Staff Andy Card at first agreed, but called me back an hour later saying the briefing was off. (It was months before the White House briefed additional Members of the Intelligence Committees. I even spoke with Vice-President Cheney about the need for a full Committee briefing, but he turned me down flat. Finally, on the eve of Gen. Hayden’s confirmation hearing to be Deputy Director of National Intelligence, the Administration agreed to brief all committee Members.)…

      • MadDog says:

        Who could have possibly known it was freaking illegal?

        And to add fuel to the fire – From sailmaker’s comment at TPMMuckraker:

        Her bio says she is a JD Harvard Law, and served as special council to the DoD, served on the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights, and she served in the Carter administration when FISA was passed.

        This is no blond bimbo…

        It must be true that the water in DC has magical properties in that everyone who drinks of it seems to forget everything they’ve ever learned.

        • bmaz says:

          I am just a chump in the desert, and I knew there was illegal shit going from the get go. It didn’t take a combination of James Bond and F.Lee Baily to figure this out. Complete BS.

  16. lllphd says:

    this taliban scheme is not that dissimilar to the drug lords of colombia shaking down chiquita bananas. both chiquita and the telecoms are paying off ‘terrorists’ to protect their property.

  17. PJEvans says:

    If she couldn’t figure it out, she shouldn’t be on that committee. It was, as bmaz says, pretty obvious to a lot of people – outside DC. Inside – well, that insulation has an R-value that would keep buildings warm in Antartica, without heating.

  18. Mary says:

    F Lee Bailey – aww, memories.

    To start with, I question her reference to the Gange of 8, since it has been mentioned over and over that only a “made up” Gange of 4 was briefed and that not only did Bush skip briefing the full intel committees, as required by the National Security Act for covert domestic programs, but he also skipped EVEN briefing the full Gang of 8, as required for covert action programs that were too sensitive to initially brief to the full committees.

    Instead, he just blithley made up a “gang of 4″ and Pelosi (who as a former member of the Gang of 4 who was being briefed and then a member of the Gang of 8 that was NOT being briefed, knew what kind of violations were taking place) just went along with it. I will say to give Harman some credit that when the program came out she commission the Cong. Research report on why the full intel committees were required to be briefed and she kept pushing for that, even though it still hasn’t really happened since DOJ is still refusing to turn over info in compliance with the Act.

    But what fascinates me is what the hell she meant (if anything) by saying they were told that there was a “NSA effort to track al Qaeda communications using unique access points inside the US telecommunications infrastructure”

    What did she think that meant? Something other than the fact that NSA and telecoms had installed these rooms that pretty much let NSA have EVERYTHING? To me, “unique access points” sounds like NSA was doing the accessing too – that the telecoms basically just let them set up shop on the telecom lines to take anything they wanted from these “unique access points” What could she have imagined “unique access points” meant other than splitting off EVERYTHING for NSA —- and how could they have begun to believe such a thing was legal, much less a prudent use of “adding more hay to the pile where the needle is lost” when there are all kinds of backlogs of untranslated (or really poorly translated) intercepts?

    • bmaz says:

      People can say what they will, Lee was a hell of a lawyer.

      As to the rest, agreed. I will add that this just wasn’t hard to peg. For instance, the logic might could go like this:

      Gee FISA isn’t being used here, but they said “inside the US telecommunications infrastructure”. Um, what the hell is the basis here?

      Actually, I guess that is what you said…..

  19. anwaya says:

    There’s one other thought I had about this – if it really is the Taliban shaking down the local telcos and not just their teenage kids, then there’s probably a lot less money flowing into their coffers than during the ’80’s, when the CIA was buying their munitions and throwing sacks of money at them. And that’s with record-breaking oil prices.

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