Text Message Insurgents

Somalia is getting attention from BBC NEWS | Africa, for having a “text message insurgency”.

The leaders of the group – which has taken over swathes of central and southern Somalia – are unknown to their subordinates.

The middle lieutenants get their orders through text messages, or phone calls from recognised voices, giving them proof the instructions are coming from the right person.

The leaders of al-Shabab are called “emirs” and they do not usually come from the region they administer.

Although I see the attempt at novelty, the story feels a bit thin to me. The insurgents also use pickup trucks and machine guns. Why are text messages so different from other technologies in terms of our expectations for use by rebellious groups?

More interesting to me is the fact that these soldiers have a weak link to their superiors and are given no way to authenticate instructions other than recognized voice. That certainly does not help for SMS messages. How do they find trust? Unless there are keys or secrets, compromising the insurgent command structure therefore seems trivial. I wonder what would happen if the telecom(s) they use sent a “disband and return to work now” SMS. More sinister would be a “gather at x location and wear a bright red hat” instruction.

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