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One Technology That Changed Everything
by James Dunnigan
February 14, 2014

Recently Somali Islamic terror group al Shabaab tried to ban cell phones that could access the Islamic terrorists. That is not working out too well. It’s all part of a social revolution sparked by these cheap and compact devices. Cell phones have revolutionized life and culture in poor countries. Before cell phones came along few people in poor nations had phones because landline (traditional cooper wire) networks were expensive to build and operate. It was even worse because these telephone networks were usually government monopolies and the government officials were corrupt and inept. Cell phone networks were cheaper to set up and in poor countries the governments generally let foreign operators come in, after paying the usual bribes. Cell phones proved to be far more popular than local rulers expected and became too popular to mess with.

Even Somalia, after ten years of anarchy in the 1990s, found local businessmen willing to set up cell phone networks. Again, the popularity and usefulness of these devices were something that even local warlords became dependent on. The warlords still demanded protection money from the cell phone system operators, but not so much that the operators would go out of business.

Ten years ago, about the same time cell phones began showing up in Somalia, Islamic radical groups began growing in power. The largest of these groups Al Shabaab tried to impose lifestyle restrictions on people they controlled. This included banning the use of cell phones that provided Internet access. The Islamic terrorists believed that because you can use these devices to access porn they are forbidden to Moslems. According to al Shabaab porn means any picture (especially videos) of a woman showing skin. Not all, just a lot of more than al Shabaab allows on the street. Previous attempts to ban cell phones in general failed because these devices were and are too popular. Al Shabaab persisted, if only because many Somalis used their cell phones to let the security forces know what the Islamic terrorists were up so.

Cell phones and email make it possible for terrorist groups to stay in touch and make plans, thus many terrorists wanted to keep their phones. Al Shabaab also tried to ban the use of money transfers via cell phones, saying this results in unIslamic banking practices. The use of cell phone accounts to store and transfer money has been a boon to undeveloped areas that lacked banks. The locals and the people in charge of al Shabaab finances wanted to keep the phones for banking services also. Worse, for the Islamic terrorists was that the widespread prevalence of cell phones also insured that photos of al Shabaab atrocities got out.

The Islamic terrorists had good reason to fear cell phones, something many of them also used. In Afghanistan the Islamic terrorists tried to shut down cell phone service at night because they believed that the Americans were able to track them via cell phones the terrorists had. In some parts of Afghanistan the Islamic terrorists damaged or destroyed cell phone towers and forced the cell phone companies to shut down service at night. Actually, NATO had several ways to track the Taliban at night. Few in the Taliban seem to understand how ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) works, so these this campaign against cell phones is simply a desperate reaction to many smart bomb attacks, or police raids, on houses where Taliban were spending the night. The Taliban themselves make heavy use of cell phones, especially since service was installed in many rural areas. The cell phone companies made deals with the local tribal leaders, who wanted cell phone service. Not so much to call in the police, but to stay in touch with friends, family and the few government services that are available. The phones also were good for business, because useful information was easier to get and it was now easier to buy and sell products. This cell phone popularity forced the Islamic terrorists to compromise, and not try and shut down rural cell phone service entirely. But even trying to shut it down at night becomes one more thing that makes the Islamic terrorists unpopular.

It was the same story in Iraq, where five years after Saddam was ousted in 2003 there were three million cell phones in Iraq and many rural areas were getting access to phone service for the first time ever. The phones are very popular, especially among the young. Islamic terrorists fought cell phone use in Iraq as well. Sometimes they would try to ban musical ringtones for cell phones, and insisting that clerics, reading verses from the Koran, be used instead. The Islamic radicals were particularly upset at how cell phones allowed young men and women to operate more freely than in the past. More of them, for example, were skipping the usual arranged marriage and just taking off with lovers.

In 2008 there were nearly two million cell phone users in Somalia, with about 18 percent of Somalis having one (compared to 40 percent in their southern neighbor, Kenya). Local service could be had for $10 a month, while overseas calls cost about thirty cents a minute. Since then cell phone use in the area has nearly doubled, mainly because it remained cheap enough for most adults. In the last few years smart phones have become the thing to have, especially since cheap (under $300) Chinese models have shown up and sold well even in places like Somalia.

 


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