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Thread: How Hams can monitor for terrorists

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    Default How Hams can monitor for terrorists

    How Hams can monitor for terrorists

    Bill Pasternak WA6ITF
    Joe Schroeder, W9JUV
    Prologue

    Tuesday, 11 September, is a day that changed America, and the world like never before. It proved beyond any shadow of a doubt that even the world’s only super-power is vulnerable to attack from extremist elements. As this is written in early October, the United States Government has pointed the finger of guilt at a cowardly terrorist leader, hiding in caves in Afghanistan, named Osama bin Laden. President George Bush has promised full retribution for these heinous acts of terror in New York City and just outside Washington DC.

    By the time you read this, there is a very good chance that the United States and our allies will be at war against bin Laden and all who follow his doctrine. This will be the kind of war never before seen by Americans because it will, in effect, be a clandestine war. A war to ‘seek out and destroy’ what amounts to ‘ghosts’ living in the desert and ‘hiding under rocks.’ Press coverage will be minimal or non-existent because the good-guys don’t want the bad-guys to be watching CNN and knowing our next move.

    Shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the FCC asked the nation’s Amateur Radio Community to keep its ears open for any suspicious communications and report it. About a day later, the Federal Bureau of Investigation set up a toll free telephone number and a web site. It also requested that all American’s use only these avenues to submit leads and other pertinent data that might have some bearing on the twin tragedies. As of 1 October, the FBI, which is the lead domestic organization investigating the terrorist attack, says it has received over 100,000 leads and the list is growing daily.

    Amateur Radio holds the promise of being able to provide extra ears (and eyes) for our government as it continues the hunt for any co-conspirators or other terrorist cells still in operation. The downside is the fact is that few Hams probably know what to listen for, or where to listen. A person with experience in this area is Chicago writer and consultant Joe Schroeder, W9JUV. A Ham and SWL for over half a century, Schroeder is well aware that ‘listening is an art.’ In the following paragraphs, he shares some of what he has learned with all of us.
    How to listen

    WR: You have been a Ham most of your life. You love DXing. I would guess that to be a good DXer you also have to be a good listener. Is that correct?

    W9JUV: By all means. DXing is 98% listening and only 2% transmitting.

    WR: Do you think terrorists in need of communications will even bother with the Amateur Radio or CB bands?

    W9JUV: We Hams do listen to one another as we tune around listening for DX, friends or just a chat. So if this communications is actually in-band and is enough of an unusual nature it would attract attention. So if I were a terrorist operative or such, I would probably set up outside of the Amateur Radio bands.

    WR: So if you were a terrorist trapped without any other way to communicate, and were scared that Hams might discover you, where would you go?

    W9JUV: Well, he would want to put it at a frequency where the equipment is still going to work pretty well. Of course, nowdays, most modern Amateur Radio equipment will work most of the way throughout its design range with the necessary modifications that are made for such services as Civil Air Patrol and MARS.

    Back in what we might want to call the early days, I used to do some listening up above 14.500 MHz, and I heard many interesting things which I will guess was drug trafficking. Or at least suspected drug traffickers. So, I would say out of band — but not way out of band.

    This could be an interesting exercise for someone with the time to tune up above 14.350 MHz. In major cities like Los Angeles or here in Chicago there is always the possibility that there could be a terrorist group with a small, inconspicuous, antenna trying to maintain contact with others of the same ilk.

    WR: Our government believes there could be several clandestine terrorist cells still lurking. With all normal means of communications (telephone, cellular, e-mail, the Internet, etc.) being so tightly monitored, let’s suppose that the bad guys need to communicate. They will need alternate and perhaps rudimentary routes and may take to the ham bands or nearby frequencies. Starting with the HF bands, what type of communications might that be?

    W9JUV: That’s a tall question because there are so many variations to it. But anyone who is an active Ham pretty well knows what a normal Amateur Radio conversation is. Whether it’s a group that gets together every morning to chat on 20 Meters or a DXer exchanging a quick report with another DXer. So, anything that seems to depart from that obviously is worth listening to.

    WR: What about languages?

    W9JUV: Yes, coming across people who are speaking in an unusual language. Note that I say “unusual.” Let me explain.

    I suspect that just about anyone who listens to the DX bands has heard stateside stations talking to friends in places like Germany and speaking German. Or, stations talking to South America or Spain in Spanish. Or France in French, or the other many well-known languages. But the various Middle-Eastern languages we do not hear very often — unless you are listening on the low-end of 10 Meters to the cab drivers [unlicensed illegal stations]. Those deserve our attention — even if we do not understand the words being said.

    WR: What about signal strength and time of day?

    W9JUV: Any time you run across an unusually loud signal at a time when the propagation should not be available in the direction the station indicates he is talking to, or is using prefixes that do not fit the time of day, I would say that would be an indicator.

    Also, a station that is extremely loud at a time when a given band is not open in the indicated direction and who is talking in a language that you cannot identify. Most of us who are DXers can identify the common Asian languages, the various Russian based languages even though we might not understand what is being said. At least you have an idea of who it is.

    WR: Anything special they might try?

    W9JUV: Frequency hopping comes to mind. If they have any sense at all, they are not going to sit on 14.225 or 14.425 day after day. Rather, they may have a pattern between transmissions to shift frequencies. But, as I said earlier, if you hear someone who is so loud that he is obviously in your neighborhood, and he is not understandable — and particularly if he is outside the Amateur Radio bands — I would say that is a real flag that you should respond to and report.

    WR: I would think that a terrorist cell or a spy would want to be as inconspicuous as possible. I might want to bury myself in low power CW. Or use a place such as ‘Freeband’ or 11 Meter Class D CB where I might go unnoticed. But you are saying to listen for high power voice. Why not low power Morse?

    W9JUV: That gets you into an entirely different area. I would not be concerned with CW at all for two reasons. The first is that it requires a skill that I do not see these people using. And two, frankly as a communications means in this day and age, Morse is simply too slow.

    If I were interested in communicating other than by voice I would use PSK-31 or one of the other digital modes. Some of the results we see Hams getting with extremely low power transmitters and the capability of the computer controlled data communications systems to pull signals out of the noise that the ear cannot even detect — and do so with 100% copy — doing it at the speed of manual typing or RTTY would be an ideal means for terrorists to use.

    Most Hams running across it might not realize what it was. But, if Hams familiar with digital communications modes were to run across something that really sounds suspicious, it should be reported.

    Let me add that as a consultant, I have long been involved with law enforcement people. There is one thing that they always say — any time you see anything that you believe may have any suspicious character to it, let them know. They would rather get hundreds of alarms and possibly catch the one that’s real than not get any alarms at all. And I think that’s the case here.

    WR: So far we have been talking of a spy or covert operative trying to contact home base. What about the terrorist leadership trying to contact the operative — like those number stations nobody seems to understand the meaning of.

    W9JUV: What you are talking about are called blind transmissions. That’s where the transmitting station expects no response but the message is transmitted on a variety of frequencies and possibly, at a variety of times. The clandestine operative at this end merely has to be listening at one of the right times on one of the right frequencies and he gets the message.

    It’s certainly a possibility, but I have to ask how one determines a particular transmission is the case. We all know that you can be sitting there on 20 Meters and listen to a signal from the Middle East, Australia, Europe or wherever. He is talking to a stateside station with a 40 over S9 signal. He stands by and even if there is no QRM on the frequency, you do not even hear a whisper from the stateside station due to propagation characteristics. How amateurs in different geographic areas would be able to determine that we are listening to a blind transmission may not be feasible.

    WR: What frequency or band would you start with?

    W9JUV: In my case, I would start in or near the 20-meter band — mainly because I have good antennas there. But you really need to think in terms of international vs. inside the United States communications.
    For example, inside the United States it could take place inside or near the 75-meter band. For international, certainly the 20-meter band and adjacent spectrum is the place to begin. Then listen up or down about one half megahertz from the band edges. I would also listen around the 10 MHz band and possibly the 18 MHz band, not 21 MHz or above. These bands are just not that reliable for people who really want to get a message through and do it quickly.

    WR: So far we have talked about the HF bands, 2 MHz through 30 to 35 MHz. What about terrorists who need local communications? Where would they bury themselves? FRS? CB?

    W9JUV: CB on 11 Meters I do not see as an option. FRS probably not an option either because there are just too many people using it. It’s not so much the chance of being overheard and having the whistle blown. More likely, some kid is going to inadvertently break in and break up the communications — especially in a mall or some downtown area.

    “I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that terrorists were caught using FM on 144.000 MHz”

    I would also say that the Amateur Radio bands are not a good alternative because there is too much of an opportunity for radio amateurs to come across such communications and recognize that it is not normal Ham radio talk. What goes on in the amateur VHF and UHF bands is has such a conventional pattern. In many areas the regulars on VHF/UHF can recognize each other’s voices. Something unusual in content or accent would stick out much more than on an HF band like 20 or 40 Meters.

    This being said, I would suspect that they might get some Ham equipment, but they would modify it for out-of-band operation.

    Possibly use 2-meter equipment below 144 MHz or above 148 MHz on a channel they’ve found inactive by monitoring.
    The same rule would apply to the 70 cm. band or even the 222 MHz band. The 222 MHz band would be of definite interest because of its relatively low usage even by radio amateurs. As I said earlier, if you are going to do any monitoring, also tune either side of any VHF Ham band just as you might do on HF.

    WR: Is using a scanner a good idea for monitoring the world above 50 MHz?

    W9JUV: Scanners will provide a problem because there is so much legitimate activity in these frequency ranges. If you do use a scanner, use the mode where it stops on a busy channel for a few seconds and then, if you do not manually stop it, it resumes scanning. In the first few seconds of any transmission you will be able to determine if it’s police, fire, taxi-cabs or whatever.

    Also, many new radios, HF, VHF and some scanners have a panoramic visual display of band activity. This capability could prove to be very handy around the Amateur Radio bands if set to about 100 kHz bandwidth on the HF bands. On VHF and UHF you would want a wider display bandwidth. Either way you will soon get to know the regular signals in a given band and know to ignore them.

    WR: In contrast to HF, what would you listen for on VHF?

    W9JUV: People coordinating a terrorist attack would probably be communicating in the native language just from the standpoint that all of those in the plot understand it and those who might be listening in and are not in on the plot will not understand it at all. I cannot imagine, for example, a group of Middle Eastern terrorists whose native language might be an Afghan dialect communicating with one another in some form of broken English.

    WR: How important is it for Hams, SWL’s, CB operators, etc., to be alert for outgoing or incoming clandestine transmissions?

    W9JUV: I think it is pretty important. I characterize it in the same way I do SETI, the Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Literally, hundreds of thousands of hours have been invested in listening for signals from outer space. Those of us who truly believe that we are not alone in the universe do not consider it a waste of time — it’s invested time.

    I think that the probability of one of us actually intercepting a terrorist’s message that leads to thwarting of some future terrorist’s act is relatively small. But it’s absolutely not zero percent. I think that it behooves those of us who have the time, equipment and the opportunity, to invest some of that time — 100,000 radio amateurs listening just a few hours a week adds up to monitoring a sizable portion of the spectrum that our government might not have the time to look at. Bottom line — anyone who would like to try it, should.
    How to record audio transmissions

    One thing suggested by law enforcement is to tape any suspicious communications. Doing so eliminates the problem of relating second hand what you may have heard and accidentally adding your own interpretation.

    If you do record, we would suggest using fresh tape and also using a direct connection to your recorder from your station receiver. This will eliminate the chance of room noise obscuring what you are trying to record.

    Also, use simple cassette recorders and good quality normal bias cassettes.

    Stay away from exotic recording modes like Mini-Disc, DAT, CD, .wav files and the like. The reason is simple. There are millions of cassette tape recorders in the hands of all mankind but not every investigatory agency has the latest home entertainment type gear.

    Keeping it simple will deliver the message with the greatest speed.
    How and where to report suspect activities

    If you do happen across something that needs to be reported, the best place to forward it is directly to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI has set up a toll free number for leads or other information on the terrorist attack. It’s at area code 866/483-5137. Leads can also be sent via a special website at: www.ifccfbi.gov.
    Some final thoughts

    On Sunday, 30 September, Attorney General John Ashcroft appeared on the CBS news program “Face The Nation.” During that broadcast, he warned the American public that additional attacks were likely and the risk of such strikes could increase following any military action taken by the United States and its allies in the “War on Terrorism.”

    There is one thing that we as amateurs (or SWLs or CB, GMRS, FRS operators) should remember as we listen for possible terrorist communications. Though these are pretty bright people, many from well-to-do backgrounds and holding college degrees, they are not likely to be at all sophisticated about radio. Consider how little your sharpest non-Ham friends understand about radio communications!

    So it’s well within reason that, needing some form of wireless communications, they’ve simply walked into a local two-way radio provider or retailer and bought equipment off the shelf. The manuals provide enough information to make it work, but where? I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that terrorists were caught using FM on 144.000 MHz, since that’s the default frequency on some 2-meter rigs! Or find them on SSB on 14.080 MHz because there is less voice QRM there!

    They may well have been provided with professional advice, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be as crafty as we might be and always follow it. This is especially true now that the FBI is hot on their trail.

    Let’s keep our ears open. “It might be one of us who foils the next terrorist plot!”
    Libertatem Prius!


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    Default Re: How Hams can monitor for terrorists

    Libertatem Prius!


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