SRINAGAR, (Peerzada Ashiq): New generation phones used by ultras in Jammu & Kashmir have multiplied the challenges for security agencies and local techies

iPhones are not a fad only among wealthy youth, they are also prized possessions among militants in the Kashmir Valley. These high-end mobile phones, with their near-foolproof security features, enable them to elude security forces.

The security forces realised this while pursuing Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) operational commander Abu Dujana.

The LeT commander, in his late twenties, is believed to be a “skilful gadget freak”, dodging the round-the-clock cyber monitoring of the counter-insurgency operations. Dujana is the brain behind introducing the iPhone as “a security cover for the LeT’s inner circle” in the Kashmir Valley.

On Valentine’s Day this year, a special team of the security agencies came close to nabbing Dujana when the car he was travelling in was intercepted in Pulwama district of south Kashmir.

However, the militant, with his hallmark Balti haggard-and-thin beard and long flowing hair, got down from the car, opened fire at the special team and managed to escape, sources said.

However, Dujana left his iPhone7 behind, a window for the security agencies into the LeT’s command-control structure within and outside the Valley. However, that window is firmly shut.

“For days, we used every local techie’s help to break the phone’s lock. We failed because the phone provides layers of security cover for consumers. We could see an emerging trend among militants to avoid other brands of phones but not iPhones due to its security features,” said a counter-insurgency top official.

Sources said the local police then turned to the National Investigating Agency (NIA) for help to break into the phone.

“In March, the iPhone7 was sent to New Delhi and Hyderabad to the lab so it could be unlocked. However, so far we have failed to access the phone that may contain rare details of the Lashkar operations and the cross-border handlers,” said the top police official.

The NIA, it’s learnt from highly placed sources, has since shipped the phone to the U.S. and sought the help of security agencies there to unlock it.

Since the 1990s, the security agencies have faced a tough time cracking the technology used by the militants, such as the Thuraya satellite phones. Later, when militants began using phones without SIM cards to avoid being located and tracked, it took “more than two years to work out a by-pass mechanism to technological barriers,” the official recalled.

“Over time, the security agencies are facing increasing challenges on the technological front, both in terms of software and hardware. Earlier, it was just the secured Blackberry we struggled with. The technology used by applications like Signal, WhatsApp and the new generation phones have only multiplied the challenges for security agencies. We deal with it on a daily basis now,” a central security establishment official told The Hindu.

Apple’s refusal to cooperate with the U.S. government on security issues “makes it more difficult to unlock Dujana’s iPhone7 even in the U.S,” he said.

In 2016, Apple refused to comply with court orders to produce iPhones that could be accessed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The FBI had approached a court to help unlock an Apple phone recovered from one of the shooters in a December 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, that killed 14 people and injured 22. The agency asked the phone company to create and electronically sign new software that would enable it to unlock a work-issued iPhone 5C. Apple refused to comply with the court order.

Security agencies tracking LeT cadre in south Kashmir told The Hindu that a series of bank robberies, where militants have snatched more than ₹40 lakh since 2016, “may have been spent to procure hi-end smart phones locally.”

“The militants avoid getting phones from Pakistan and procure electronic gadgets locally, except for satellite phones and global positioning systems,” officials of the counter-insurgency cell said.

Security agencies are trying to track the latest instant messaging, video conferencing and audio transmitting apps being used by the LeT.

Applications like Surly, Dialer, Skypee and iBootel are some of the apps used by the LeT in the past. “Many of them were tailor-made for militant groups like LeT,” the police said.

Dujana, who took over from Abu Qasim as LeT operational commander after the latter’s death in October 29, 2015, has survived five cordon operations and two naka parties in the past year.
Courtesy: The Hindu

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