Did Syria's army use sat-phone surveillance to hunt down and kill journalists?

Jillian York and Trevor Timm, writing for the EFF, explore the possibility that the Syrian government used satellite phone surveillance to pinpoint the locations of journalist Marie Colvin of the Sunday Times of London and French photographer Rémi Ochlik, who were murdered in Homs, Syria this week.

On Monday night, Colvin appeared on CNN, telling Anderson Cooper that “the Syrian army is shelling a city of cold, starving civilians.” Responding to Syrian president Bashar Al Assad’s statement that he was not targeting civilians in the barrage of rocketfire raining on Homs, Colvin accused the regime of “murder” and said: “There are no military targets here…It's a complete and utter lie that they are only going after terrorists.”  A few hours later, she was dead.

The Telegraph quoted Jean-Pierre Perrin, a journalist for the Paris-based Liberation newspaper who was with Colvin in Homs last week as saying: “The Syrian army issued orders to 'kill any journalist that set foot on Syrian soil'” and that the Syrian authorities were likely watching the CNN broadcast. The Telegraph then described how “[r]eporters working in Homs, which has been under siege since February 4, had become concerned in recent days that Syrian forces had ‘locked on’ to their satellite phone signals and attacked the buildings from which they were coming.”

How could this happen?

Read more: Satphones, Syria, and Surveillance | Electronic Frontier Foundation.


  1. It happened because our leaders are paying attention to Russia and China instead of paying attention to the goodness in their hearts.

  2. Not to discount the possibility that the Syrian government is using all the resources it can muster to put down the rebellion of a large segment of the population but this reminds me of an interview published a few years ago with an American artillery officer during the first Iraq war.  He described the Iraqi artillery units firing at American positions and missing by several hundred meters.  The Iraqi’s would then correct their fire, as artillery crews have done for more than a century and their shells would land even further from their targets.  Do you suppose the Syrians are so much better at their gunnery that they can hit within a few meters of a cell phone gps location?  Perhaps the Russians have invested heavily in western targeting technology in the last twenty years but have the Syrians been the beneficiaries of that?  Bad luck for the journalists is at least as likely an answer as sat phone targeting I suspect.

    BTW, the end of the American gunners story was that his guns using radar to track the trajectory of the Iraqi shells would return fire and they would hear no more from the enemy guns.  

  3. Its time to kill that fucker Assad. Seriously. Bomb the fuck out of Damascus and give his supporters a taste of what their countrymen are feeling.

    PS: Fuck you China and Russia. YOUR STUBBORNNESS CAUSED THIS.

    Edit: This SBS article contains the suggestion from Remi Ochlik that there was no Satelite phone coverage. This suggests that the Syrian Army was jamming satellite communication (and undoubtedly tracking it too). Russia and China have serious blood on their hands (considering they likely sold the tech to do this). Can we boot those assholes out of the UN already? They seriously just get in the way of everything and consistently defend morally reprehensible acts. We don’t want their influence in determining world events any more and I would fully support a total embargo on Chinese and Russian imports. Pretending that we can get consensus with those self-interested fucks is a waste of time.

    “The situation seems very tense and desperate. The Syrian army is sending in reinforcements now and the situation is going to get worse – from what the rebels tell us.”

    “Tomorrow, I’m going to start doing pictures,” he added. Ochlik had noted there was no telephone or internet satellite phone service and “a little internet in the house of the head of the free army, who are housing journalists,”

    1. Teapot, I’m new to this so I’m not sure if you’re suppose to be a troll, but:

      Damascus is a pleasant city with lots of perfectly nice people in it. Why on earth would you suggest killing them all, legitimising Assad’s current actions in the process?

      1. Because while most of the world has been looking at Superbowl, lol cats or Kim Kardashibitch I have been watching and following this closely. Obviously any attack should target important military and government infrastructure, as well as Assad’s family. That would be much more directed than the current violence being perpetrated by the Assad regime against the civillians of Homs and elsewhere.

        Assad is committing crimes against humanity. If he wasn’t, there would be no soldiers defecting from the army based on the barbaric orders they are being given. Because of the self interest of (primarily) Russia Assad has been given more time to crush dissent. Children are being tortured and murdered, yet we can’t even offer a no-fly zone.

        The huge turning point in Libya was when NATO started bombing Gaddafi’s military sites and infrastructure. If the Gaddafi regime had been given another week or two before NATO moved to defend human life then the people of Benghazi would likely be dead and the rebellion stopped. That is what is happening here and it is only a small window of opportunity to stand on the side of the people before all chances (and many more lives) are lost.

        The civilians who may be killed in Damascus as a result of an attack would be unfortunate collateral damage, but many of them would also be Assad supporters who are showing up at (government-organised) anti-opposition rallies. No city is beautiful if it empowers a genocidal murderer like Assad. These pro-govt rallies are a fucking joke…. what are they rallying for? The killing of more innocent people? Fuck them and fuck Assad.

        1. These pro-govt rallies are a fucking joke…. what are they rallying for?

          You know that if you don’t come to the rallies, the soldiers may come to your house and take you or your family members away to be tortured and murdered? Why do you think that they call it ‘totalitarianism’?

          1. Yeah, I do get that… but at what point is enough enough?

            There are a lot of legitimate supporters of Assad as well as the ones just pretending so that they aren’t next. You know I’m prone to hyperbole and over-reaction but it irks me no end that it takes a bunch of journalists to be killed before the world-at-large even lets out a murmur of disapproval.

            The opposition to Assad’s regime have been asking for a no-fly zone for months. Their signs are written in English and are clearly visible in many opposition rallies. To them it appears the world doesn’t care.

          2. teapot :

            Yeah, I do get that… but at what point is enough enough?

            Well, from your tone and passion, I’d guess that you believe enough is enough when you decide.

        2. ‘yet we can’t even offer a no-fly zone.’
          Because the last time we were authorized by the UN to impose one (Libya), we vastly overstepped that authorization and instead launched a full-fledged air war. China has explicitly said that its security council veto is related to that. You seem to want to have your cake and eat it too. Abide by UN mandates (oh but if we don’t like them we should try to kick out those who disagree… maybe it should be called the US Nations). But not actually have to worry about it if we totally ignore them, either. American Supremacism at its finest!

          1. You’re totally correct.. if I was American.

            By the way the UN resolution passed in regard to Libya
            Authorises UN member states “to take all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory”.

            Considering the opposition was driven by civilians I don’t see how this resolution was overstepped. If China didn’t like it, maybe their UN reps should learn to read. In any case they and Russia abstained from the vote so what difference does it make anyway? They were on the side of suffering then and they are on the side of suffering now.

        3. Your original post has become far longer since I replied to it. Anyway.

          I’m glad you’ve been watching this and following it closely. I have too. I know people in Homs, and their fate keeps me awake at night.

          Removing Assad and his cronies from power would be splendid. Bumping them off would be nice too. I took issue with your rhetoric: “Bomb the Shit out of Damascus” — that would be killing lots of Syrian civilians in retaliation for the deaths of lots of Syrian civilians.

          I’m at a loss to explain why you are on the one hand arguing so adamantly for the civilians (in italics, no less!) of Homs, but dismissing those of Damascus as unfortunate collateral damage.

          Is it because those killed in Damascus are more likely to be Assad “supporters”? Because 99% of those so-called supporters were never given a choice in the matter (or rather, the choice given was: “Support Assad, or disappear”)

          Incidentally, I can assure you “most of the world” has not been “looking at the superbowl”.

        4.  Teapot,

          I oppose Assad as much as you and have been paying attention to Syria for years.  I’ve even spent time there.  But I cannot begin to tell you how wrong, and how callous you sound here.

          I don’t think you quite understand the complexities of the situation on the ground, nor do you seem to understand that, between the Assad supporters (whom I have no sympathy for either) and the opposition is a lot of people who don’t trust the opposition at all, don’t want Western intervention, etc.  Those English signs you see are a minority.

          I want democracy and freedom for the Syrian people, but neither I nor they want what you’re calling for.

          1. This defecting Colonel from the Syrian Army would disagree with you. That was shot in October 2011 and the situation has seriously deteriorated since then.

            Please point to where I was callous. I clearly stated that any strikes should be targeted and tactical and any civilian casualties in Damascus would be unfortunate. I just don’t think we should keep on having a calm discussion about it instead of doing something. That’s what Assad wants and that’s what will allow his calculated genocide to continue.

            I don’t give a f what the fence-sitters who don’t trust the opposition think. Their inaction and distrust leads to boosted confidence for Assad. What’s not to trust anyway? The opposition is merely asking for what are considered universal human rights and anyone who distrusts them needs to ask themselves who is being unreasonable in this situation – the man who is ordering the wholesale killing of anyone who opposes him, or the unarmed people who are being shot at, starved, denied medical care and restricted from seeking refuge in Turkey.

          2. I am sure Teapot doesn’t actually want to kill innocent civilians, but is just worked up into polemics by his/her strong emotions about the ongoing human suffering in cities like Homs.

            Listen, Teapot has a point about the place of messy decisions in desperate situations. Ask the guys who defended Sarajevo during its siege–but especially those who were already active before and at the start of the siege–about the ultimate value of “messy action NOW” versus “no action until complexities on the ground are all well-understood and addressed.”

            Syrians are being slaughtered because their government doesn’t care about complexities, manners, diplomacy, morals etc. etc. That doesn’t mean that two wrongs make a right. It means that whoever is going to make the Syrian government stop its campaign of murder, must be nimble/agile enough in its strategy to make effective counter-moves based on the realities of enemy action, rather than on preconceived ideas about how responses should be mustered in hypothetical situations.

    2. And here some folks are gearing up for a fight in Iran. Can’t we have a good war, for once? Something people would thank the West for?

    3. No, it’s actually Assad’s fault. I might add however that if I were in charge of some country, and foreign journalists came in to record some footage that would certainly be used as part of a foreign propaganda effort to overthrow me, I’d either eject them (if in an area I controlled) or do what Assad did here (otherwise). The expectation that a dictator would somehow allow people bent on overthrowing him carte blanche to make videos within reach of his artillery seems out of touch with reality.
      Also, bombing the fuck out of Damascus would kill even more innocents than were murdered in Homs. And practically speaking is dangerous inasfar as Russia has warned us off direct action there.

    4.  Can we boot those assholes out of the UN already? They seriously just get in the way ofeverything and consistently defend morally reprehensible acts. 

      Yes yes, here here!

      Oh wait, you weren’t talking about the U.S. and Israel?

      1. At least the US has been playing ball with the UN since when Bush and Blair rode roughshod over it.

        Israel just doesn’t confirm or deny anything. Thankfully, unlike Russia & China, they are not a permanent member of the UN security council.

    5. What could possibly go wrong with us bombing another country? People are lining up for the privilege. Being bombed by the US is the new black.

        1. OMG. So that’s why the west is building up infrastructure in Iraq.  So we can bomb it all back to the stone age later on. It’s all becoming clear now.

          1. You jest, but both the bombs and the infrastructure have to be bought from someone. There are companies who’d like us to do exactly that.

    6. >Its time to kill that fucker Assad.

      Sure, just after you kill Nobel Peace prize winning drone mass murderer Obama, k?

      1. lol hyperbole alert. Please show me the evidence that Obama’s drone strikes have killed over 5000 people. Apples with apples or GTFO.

          1. Still not buying it.

            Dec 12: UN says civilian death toll in Syria is more than 5000. This is before the major assault in Homs.

            As of Feb 15 Amnesty international was estimating the number of civilians killed in Homs at 377, including 29 children.

            This chart is one of the sources used to create the stats in the Wikipedia article you linked. It clearly shows that during Obama’s time in office the civilian death toll as a result of drone strikes is 282. The number of children killed was 63.

            Those drone figures are over 3 years, while Assad’s orders (which are to directly attack civilians) have taken a comparative number of civilians’ lives in the course of 20 days. I want to stress that I do not endorse Obama’s over-use of drones but the two issues are not comparable. Not even close.

        1. Do tell, what is the threshold for mass murder of civilians and children? Or your precious rhetorical ‘apples’ for that matter?

  4. I’m somewhat skeptical towards that claim. The satellite uplinks I deal with in a TV context are highly directional, and although I know that there are less-directional antennae on satellite phones, it still seems a bit of a stretch – and the technology is not readily existent that I know of. 

    Realistically, it is much easier and cheaper just to put an extravagant bounty out on journalists.

  5. The Syrian government is not as ill-prepared for an assault as the former Libya’s, or Iraq.  I’m not suggesting we bomb them, or invade… but there have to be more options on the table than those two things.  Especially UN-led humanitarian aid, red cross/crescent, that kind of thing.

    1. Russia has stated publicly that they will refuse to approve a UN peacekeeping mission because there is currently no peace to keep (yeah, that’s seriously their reasoning). They are currently stonewalling the whole process because while the Syrian Army is shooting shells and bullets the Ruskis are making money. Once any UN force arrives the sales volume will undoubtedly drop.

      1. Thanks I’ve gone and read some stuff… yep Russia and China have economic interests – they’ll just have to be sidestepped.  That’s what NATO, non-UN coalitions and unilateral action are for.

  6. Why does the US have to take the lead in this? (Remember how long it took for the so-called international community to take action in the former Yugoslavia?) Why does anyone need a UN resolution?

    After the news came out of the deaths of the deaths of the two journalists, and to this day, multiple French leaders have explicitly called what’s going on in Syria a “massacre.” Leaders in the UK have also condemned Syria. Last time I checked, both the UK and France had armies and air forces. What, exactly, is preventing those two countries from unilaterally taking action?

    I don’t remember the UK asking anyone’s permission before “liberating” those poor beleaguered Falkland Islanders from Argentina in 1982.

    1. Unlike the Falklands, Syria hasn’t been a British or French territory since around the end of WWII. There is a difference between defending your own territory and invading someone else’s.

      1. (Let’s leave the “defending your own territory” part aside.)

        That wasn’t the question. Yeah, so Syria isn’t French or British territory. The question was, since both the French and the UK both strongly condemn Syria’s mass killing of its own civilians, what’s keeping them from taking military action? For example, doing what they did in Libya?

        1. I note the loss of the qualifier ‘unilateral’. Just sayin’ …

          (Not to mention your understandable desire to leave aside the part that totally demolishes your argument.)

          1.  I was leaving the “defending your own territory” part out because the idea that the Falkland Islands are actually British territory (instead of, say, Argentinian territory) is a pretty lame argument. They’re 8,000 miles away from the UK. But, that’s a completely different issue than the one involving Syria.

            I really would like a serious answer to my question. Why is everybody, including France and the UK, waiting on a UN resolution before taking any military action, all the while wringing their hands? Who cares if Syria is French or British territory? Is someone going to declare war on France for declaring and enforcing a “no fly zone” over Syria? Do you think Israel’s going to ask for a UN resolution before bombing Iran?

          2. Seems to me you’ve had a serious answer (you wanted a non-serious one before?) from GyroMagician but you don’t like it. It hardly matters how lame you (or even I, or GyroMagician) believe the territoriality argument is, since you aren’t the one who’d use it to justify a lack of unilateral action. The trouble is, from your point of view, that the ones who do actually decide these things could reasonably use it.

          3. GyroMagician said, “There’s a difference between defending your own territory and invading someone else’s.”

            A better argument for not taking action against Syria might be, “We’re not getting involved because we have absolutely no national interest in Syria.” Or, in the case of the United States, “We’re not getting involved because we just got out of one war and are still heavily involved in another.”

            It’s not that I don’t like GyroMagician’s argument, but I don’t think it’s serious, because it’s just wordplay. Exactly like your statements, as clever as they may be.

            While there is some value in international condemnation, in “calling out” Syria for its actions, ultimately what France and the UK are doing is playing with words and producing a lot of hot air.

            To use a (bad) example, in 2003 the US essentially said, “We don’t care what you think, we’re going to war against Iraq.” Why won’t the UK or France do that, if they’re so damned concerned?

          4. OK. You win. I suggest you take your question to those who actually do the realpolitik. If they give you the same response, which – to precis – is we won’t interfere in x on our own because x isn’t our territory then you can accuse them of playing with words instead. At least you’ll be directing your accusations of ‘not giving you a serious answer’ to the right people.

            If they give you another one, do get back to us and let us know.

          5. I apologize. I’m not trying to win an argument here.

            My question, as I’ve thought about it over the last few days, should probably be, Why does everyone (the leaders who do the “realpolitik,” as you say) require a UN resolution in order to take action, rather than just taking unilateral action?

            “Because it’s not our territory” doesn’t really make sense to me as an answer, because, even if the UN Security Council passed a resolution, it still wouldn’t be their territory.

            (I’d love to ask those who actually make the decisions.)

  7. Hardly. Sat phone tracking is probably the least likely cause. Much more likely are physical informants, I mean they are foreign reporters literally surrounded by Syrian people, not all of which are against the current regime, or at the very least might be hedging their bets for the sakes of their lives and family’s. Even more likely than that is indiscriminate shelling by Syrian military, I don’t think they are trying to kill everyone, but to scare the bejesus out of everyone who might think to oppose them. It is also likely the the reporters were helped into the country, and are staying at a “safehouse” that is owned by known dissidents of the regime, or the entire neighborhood might be one that has been causing problems. In any event, plenty of possibilities in a urban warzone, I just don’t see the tracking of sat phones by the Syrian army as one of them.

  8. Surely if you’re a state security service and you know you can do the phone tracking stuff on ‘persons of interest’ then there’s nothing to stop you doing it. Why wouldn’t you use all means at your disposal to do your job?

    Acting on the intelligence so received is another matter entirely, and may (don’t laugh) even be the exclusive (please, I asked you not to laugh) provenance of another state department with more public oversight.

  9. Incomplete quote. Here is what she really said in her last report:

    “There are no military targets here. There is the Free Syrian Army. Heavily outnumbered and out-gunned.”

    Not to take sides, but that makes a HUGE difference, in that she has just stated there were armed opposition forces there in the form of the Free Syrian Army. What she meant by ‘no military targets’ make no sense in that context.

    Source: http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/cutline/marie-colvin-war-reporter-killed-syria-guest-anderson-161524606.html

    We are being encouraged to intervene, part of the grand strategy with the final target Iran. It’s not our fight, for once can we (the US) stay out and just stop killing people? If you feel really strongly about it you can catch the next flight and joint the opposition forces, but please don’t use our dollars and blood to get involved in another quagmire.

  10. what about EEUU ? part of the grand strategy with the final, but please don’t use our dollars and blood to get involved in another quagmire.WHAT HAPPEN EEUU IS ANGEL OR PART THIS HELL!

  11. Without getting into the horribleness of the situation, I do have to question the Syrian ability to track sat phones.

    When journalists said that they saw “radar lock” on their phones, exactly how were they seeing this?

    I think that as a foreign reporter in Syria you are likely being watched as best the security services are able. But I have to admit some skepticism towards the kind of technological sophistication being claimed. I’d bet it was either 1) indiscriminate shelling of the area, or 2) shelling of an area where informants indicated foreigners had been seen, or 3) shelling of an area  recognizable from foreign news reporting.

    Of course, unsophisticated attacks are no more and no less horrible than sophisticated ones.

  12. I would put my money on this alternative chain of events:

    Assad loyalists walk around Homs plainclothed, point guns at people and say “Where are the fucking journalists at?” They then look at a map, and use a $5 cell/radio to relay coordinates to the artillery.

  13. Hey remember when BoingBoing was antiwar? Hahahaha I guess it’s not a Republican in office this time. Has anyone looked at Libya lately? Not exactly a democratic paradise, what with Doctors w/o Borders quitting the country because they were being used to keep torturees alive. And they are flying the same guys into Syria now to make all this trouble. Why do you think that Obama is lying any less than Bush was? Remember how infected the news cycle was with pure lies from Administration officials? Why do you think it’s any different now?!
    Those rebels are just thugs like Assad, not liberators. All you get with this cycle is a new guy whose willing to be as thuggish or more as the last in order to keep the American gov’t happy. And by the way, those death numbers are massively inflated.

    I moved to San Francisco because I thought there were serious antiwar people here. Now I see it’s mostly just a bunch of posers who are happy to bomb people for their own good.  Shame on you.

    Alexander Cockburn demolishes the media’s lies for war with Syria:

    The real story on Syria:

    Documentation of explicit intent by the US prior to media blitz to go to war with Syria, and demolition of the exaggerated death numbers, same as in Libya.

    Doctors without borders quit Libya over torture: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-202_162-57366772/aid-group-quits-libyan-prisons-over-torture/

    Proof of Libyan “freedom fighters” (mercenaries used by the US and NATO) going to sow discord in Syria:

    Proof that the Libyan freedom fighters are al-Qaeda linked:

    Proof that the Arab countries are more scared of the US than their own crappy leaders: http://mondoweiss.net/2011/07/arab-countries-see-israeli-occupation-and-us-interference-as-greatest-threats-to-peace-in-middle-east-not-iran.html

    1. When I subtract the videos from Truthers, opinion pieces and Putin media, your references become rather thin.

      1. Alexander Cockburn is a truther? Zogby polls are opinion pieces? Shallow and ridiculous response, Antinous. Impugning the source without evidence is the sort of thing a propagandist does. I would have thought you were more intelligent than that.

        Here is Cockburn on the truthers. You can decide for yourself what he thinks of them (Hint: he thinks they are idiots, as I do): http://www.counterpunch.org/2006/09/09/the-9-11-conspiracy-nuts/

        Regarding the RT article, which was a minor support of my argument anyway, here are about a gajillion other articles stating the exact same thing:

        Anything else? All of the current arguments for the Democrats’ bloodlust have been demolished by those who are paying attention. Those of you who ask for more war have no merit in the eyes of us who are sick of war neverending. Give it up.

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