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Stopping Terrorist Violence, One Cellphone Shutdown at a Time

Stopping Terrorist Violence, One Cellphone Shutdown at a Time
16th June 2021 Fatima Mustafa
In Insights

In 2008, terrorists were involved in carrying out deadly attacks in Mumbai which killed 172 people and were spread across several locations including a hospital, two hotels, a restaurant, a Jewish centre and the railway station. The men involved in this act of terrorism were constantly on their phones during the attack. They were receiving a string of orders from higher-ups as well as constant updates on the movement of Indian security forces during the attacks. Their use of cellphones was not out of the ordinary: increasingly, research shows that terrorist groups rely heavily on cellphone and Internet networks to organise and execute attacks, circulate propaganda, gain supporters, and disseminate information. In turn, governments across the world have relied on network shutdowns to combat various forms of violence and protest. In 2020, at least 155 incidents of network shutdowns were reported across the world by Access Now’s Shutdown Tracker Optimization Project (STOP) which included countries like India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Ethiopia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Belarus and Uganda among others. Countries have relied on network shutdowns for a variety of reasons – to prevent terrorist violence, tackle protests, maintain law and order, repress dissent and control public discourse. To prevent terrorist groups from being able to coordinate with each other, police departments in the US have considered shutting off cellphone coverage during a terrorist attack. And yet, despite the persistent use of network shutdowns by governments across the world, we know surprisingly little about the effect of these network shutdowns on various outcomes (such as protests, terrorist violence and levels of dissent).

In particular, digging more deeply into the link between network shutdowns and terrorist violence, there is little existing literature on the effectiveness of network shutdowns as a tactic to limit terrorist violence. Despite this limited evidence, countries like Pakistan have consistently relied on network shutdowns to prevent terrorist attacks on certain days in specific districts. In my research, I explore Pakistan’s network shutdowns in great detail, trying to understand both the logic behind these shutdowns as well as the effectiveness of using network blackouts to tackle terrorist violence.

Rehman Malik, Pakistan’s Interior Minister between 2008-2013, explained the government’s reasoning behind these shutdowns in the following words: “One, they [terrorists] use them [cellphones] to detonate bombs. Two, the terrorists communicate among themselves with them. And three, they communicate with the masterminds behind the attacks using mobile phones.” Scholars like Pierskalla and Hollenbach echo this logic, arguing that cellphone use facilitates the planning and execution of terrorist attacks by allowing terrorists to coordinate with each other, receive orders from superiors, overcome collective action problems and even to detonate bombs. Yet the few existing studies on this topic offer mixed findings: some, like the paper by Pierskalla and Hollenbach, find that the expansion of cellphone networks leads to increased violence; others argue the opposite, suggesting that cellphone networks can be used by civilians to report violence, leading to a decline in incidents of violence. Many of the existing studies on the relationship between cellphone use and violence examine changes in levels of violence once cellphone networks are expanded to regions that previously did not have cellphone coverage. This approach can be problematic because the factors that influence the expansion of network coverage in a region (such as economic deprivation) often also influence the likelihood of violence. Moreover, many of the existing studies on the role of communication networks in violence rely on cross-sectional data for the analysis, making it harder to control for all the factors that vary between regions and influence the relationship between cellphone use and violence.

In my study, rich panel data from Pakistan on cellphone shutdowns and incidents of violence across districts, spread over a period of 6 years, offers the opportunity to overcome some of the limitations of the existing work on communication technology and violence. Comparing the same districts of Pakistan over time in a panel data format allows us to hold certain factors constant, like population density and geography, which might otherwise vary between districts and influence levels of violence in each district. I collected and compiled this panel dataset, covering a period from January 2012 to December 2017, from several different sources. I gathered data on incidents of violence across districts of Pakistan from the Digital Database on Conflict and Security, maintained by the well-respected Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS). The data on cellphone shutdowns during this period was drawn from newspaper archives, reports and the database on network shutdowns maintained by the Pakistani think-tank Bytes for All. The dependent variable in this data is the daily number of terrorist attacks in each district of Pakistan from January 2012 to December 2017 and the key independent variable is a cellphone variable that captures whether a cellphone shutdown occurred on each day.

An analysis of this panel data shows that terrorist attacks decline on the day of cellphone shutdown and increase on the day after cellphone shutdown in Pakistan. This presents a mixed picture. The decline in terrorist violence on the day of cellphone shutdown appears to partially confirm the argument made by Pakistan’s Interior Minister (as well as some academics) that cellphone shutdowns should reduce terrorist violence, because terrorist groups rely extensively on cellphone networks to coordinate with each other and organise terrorist violence. However, the results also show a surprising increase in violence on the day after cellphone shutdown.

While my research established that there is a displacement of violence from the day of cellphone shutdown to the next day, it is harder to ascertain what might be driving this. There is significant evidence in the existing literature of terrorist groups adapting their attack tactics and strategies in response to external threats. It is likely that terrorist groups respond to network shutdowns by delaying their attacks to days when cellphone networks are available and organising violence is easier. This analysis suggests that while network shutdowns might actually reduce terrorist violence in the very short term, shutdowns do not lead to an overall decline in violence and terrorist groups simply find ways to adapt to the network disruption.

A number of human rights activists argue that cellphone shutdowns are a violation of human rights – network shutdowns violate freedom of expression, restrict access to healthcare, and disrupt work and education. In addition, network shutdowns are incredibly costly to governments. Network shutdowns in Pakistan over just one year, between July 2015 and June 2016, cost the government almost 70 million dollars, according to Dawn News. Shutting down access to telecommunications, with its attendant costs and human rights violations, has been justified in the name of protecting human life; however, fresh evidence, including my research on the link between cellphone shutdowns and terrorist violence, suggests that network shutdowns are ineffective at tackling organised violence in the long-term. There is a strong and pressing need for governments across the world to rethink the use of network shutdowns as a strategy for reducing terrorist violence.

Fatima Mustafa is an Assistant Professor of political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) in Pakistan. Her mixed-methods work focuses on evaluating counterterrorism policies across countries, examining the attitudes that are tied to political violence, and looking at security issues more broadly.