The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Will cell phones help insurgents? Or the regimes they oppose?

Men walk through a damaged area after what activists said were at least 20 air strikes by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in the Douma neighborhood of Damascus February 5, 2015.  REUTERS/ Bassam Khabieh (

Editor’s Note: This is the final post in a series drawn from a new Journal of Peace Research special issue on “Communication, Technology, and Political Conflict.” The entire special issue has been made available by Sage Publications here. For the series introduction, see here

Insurgents cannot decide what to make of cellphones. While some insurgent groups target cellphone towers and demand companies turn towers off at night, others complain when providers are slow to fix network problems and threaten them for poor coverage. This variation reflects the fact that cellphones can hurt insurgents by allowing civilians to more safely share information on rebel activity with the government, but they also help insurgents by facilitating violent collective action, just as they help us all manage our daily lives.

Which effect will dominate is often unclear a priori. We provide an analysis in our forthcoming paper, which is part of a new special issue of the Journal of Peace Research. In some cases it is beneficial for governments engaging in counterinsurgency or counterterrorism to facilitate the spread of cellular communications. In others, the government should focus on limiting access to cell phones. To know when governments should do each, we need to know why insurgent groups vary in how they view cell phones.

Cellphones affect insurgents’ ability to launch attacks in three major ways. First, cell phones make it easier for insurgents to commit violence. There are lots of reasons for this. Cellphones create new fusing options for setting off improvised explosive devices (IEDs), for example, and allow for better coordination among insurgents. They could also make it easier for insurgent leaders to keep tabs on the rank and file in order to ensure that no one deviates from the plan or defects to the government. This role of cellphones usually leads to more violence.

But cellphones also help the government in two ways. Because insurgents tend to communicate by cellphones when they are available, for the reasons above, their presence can make signals intelligence (SIGINT) easier for the government. Cellphone intercepts played a key role in leading U.S. forces to al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, for example. With more communication, there is simply more opportunity for the government to intercept signals by monitoring cellphones. And more intercepts mean more successful targeting of insurgents. This role of cellphones tends to lead to less violence.

What’s more, the presence of cellular coverage can also make human intelligence (HUMINT) easier for the government to obtain. Without cellphones, providing information to the opposing government is extremely risky. If the insurgent group discovers an informer, that person is likely to meet a bad end. This constant threat diminishes government intelligence. With cellphones, however, it is much more difficult for most insurgent groups to identify informers. With the risk of informing lessened, the government receives more useful intelligence. This too leads to less violence.

When the benefits to government of improved intelligence channels outweighs the cost of more effective insurgent groups, the government should encourage the spread of cellphones. In this case, we would expect insurgent groups to strike at cell towers. When the costs outweigh the benefits, though, government should inhibit cell communications whenever possible. In this case, we would expect insurgent groups to encourage more towers and protect existing ones.

The key policy question, then, is when will the benefits outweigh the costs? Our theory provides some guidance as to how to tell. First, is the goal of the insurgent group is to spur a mass movement, perhaps by provoking the government into repressive action? If so, the costs of improved communications arising from increased cell phone use are more likely to outweigh the benefits of improved intelligence for the government.

Second, are insurgents able to punish those who share information with the government, but lack the ability to monitor cellphone usage? If so, the benefit from the improvement in HUMINT is more likely to outweigh the costs.

Third, does the government have significant SIGINT capacity and the force projection tools (precision-guided munitions, drones, airmobile special operations forces, etc.) to take advantage of it? If so, the benefit from the improvement in SIGINT is more likely to outweigh the costs.

Fourth, are the insurgents heavy users of tactics like IEDs that are facilitated by cellular communications? If so, the costs of more efficient and deadly attacks are more likely to outweigh the benefits.

These simple heuristics can provide an initial guide to government policy making. They can also help provide nuance to academic analysis. One reason that studies of the impact of information and communications technology (ICT) on conflict have found such varied results is likely exactly what these arguments highlight: how technology affects political contestation is highly dependent on initial conditions. This should not be surprising, but it bears repeating as it reminds us that technology policy in conflict zones should be made through careful consideration of local conditions, not by reference to grand theories based on averages across many diverse places. In this way, ICT policy in conflict zones looks like all other policies in conflict zones.

Jacob N. Shapiro is an Associate Professor in the Woodrow Wilson School and the Department of Politics, Princeton University.  

David A. Siegel is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, Duke University.