300 Active Phones at Balakot JeM Camp: How Credible is NTRO Claim?

Balakot air strikes: How credible is NTRO’s claim on intercepting 300 active mobile phones at JeM camp?

Updated
India
5 min read
Photograph of Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) camp in Balakot in Pakistan as claimed by the Indian Intelligence.
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On 4 March, the Asian News International (ANI) published an article which was based on an NTRO (National Technical Research Organisation) source saying:

“Just before the Indian Air Force (IAF) struck the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terror camp in Balakot on 26 February, technical surveillance had found 300 mobile phones active at the facility, giving clear indication of the total number of inmates housed there.”

The report was immediately picked by every media. We too reported the news. We believe that NTRO could’ve intercepted 300 active mobile phones. But the information that has come out in the public domain is insufficient.

Is this technologically possible? Is it possible to collect such specific information from a distance of at least 80 kms?   

To get answers to some of these pertinent questions, The Quint spoke to a couple of former NTRO officers. They agreed to speak to us on the condition of anonymity.

Is It Technologically Possible To Intercept 300 Mobile Phones?

A former NTRO officer who had spent his entire life intercepting calls in different parts of the country said:

“Technically, it is just not possible. It defies the law of physics.”   

He further added:

“India has the most advanced technology when it comes to intercepting calls, but the question here is – how did the NTRO know that 300 mobile phones which were active at the particular hour were located inside or in the vicinity of the JeM camp? I don’t believe this and I can explain it too.”

What Are the Advanced Equipment Required to Intercept?

1. Passive GSM Monitoring System

Passive GSM Monitoring System
Passive GSM Monitoring System

“The most common and successful technology which is used to intercept mobile phones around the world is passive GSM (Global System for Mobile Communication) monitoring system,” said the former NTRO officer.

“The range of this system is a few kilometres if at the ground level. Hence, to increase the range, one has to place it on higher ground but on a static and steady platform,” he further added.

“Since the target, Balakot is at least 80 kms away from the LoC. The passive GSM monitoring system must have been placed at a height of 5,000-6,000 feet to get the range, which can be achieved by placing it at a mountain near the border.”   

Former NTRO officer

2. Directional Antenna

A directional antenna 
A directional antenna 

The second most important equipment, the former NTRO officer added, required is a directional antenna. This antenna is used to intercept mobile connections in a particular direction. It can be placed at the top of the building or hill to get a good range.

“With the help of a map, the antenna can be placed in a particular direction. It will receive the signal in the form of an oblong or oval shape. It will receive signals from every tower that will fall within that shape. The range of the tower depends on the radiation coming out from the source or the mobile tower.”
The area marked in blue shows the area of the signal that a directional antenna will receive. 
The area marked in blue shows the area of the signal that a directional antenna will receive. 

We have the latest technology but technology too has its limitations, added the officer.

Is It Possible to Filter 300 Mobile Connections From a Distance of 80 Kms?

Line of sight distance or crow’s flight distance between Uri (India) and Balakot (Pakistan).
Line of sight distance or crow’s flight distance between Uri (India) and Balakot (Pakistan).
(Photo: Shruti Mathur/The Quint)

Indian Intelligence has confirmed that the JeM camp is spread over an area of 6 acres (0.024 sq kms), much less than a kilometre, in the forest area of Balakot.

Let us assume that we had intercepted active mobile connections up to the range of 80 kms across the border, through the passive GSM monitoring system from a hilltop. We also assume that NTRO experts managed to trace the signals which were placed close to the JeM camps.

But, the question is how did the NTRO manage to filter mobile connections which were present within the JeM camps from those outside it?

“The antenna will catch the signal of each and every tower which will fall within its range, which is the oval shape. And there could be several towers within that range, starting from Balakot till the place where the antenna is installed. The GSM system will randomly record the temporary number of each and every active mobile connection, which could run in hundreds and thousands. How did the NTRO segregate 300 mobile connections from the pool of thousands? It is just not possible.”

Former NTRO officer

The officer further added that since Balakot is a hilly area, getting strong signals from the tower could also be a problem.

Under What Circumstance Is Targeted Interception Successful?

The former NTRO officer further added that firstly, intercepting mobile phones is more successful when done from close proximity.

Secondly, interception is possible if the Indian Intelligence or NTRO is in possession of the mobile numbers that they want to intercept.

“The government might say that we were in possession of 300 phone numbers owned by the JeM operators based in that camp. But, if that it is true, then I can only say that there was massive Intelligence failure. How is it possible that they were hearing phone calls of 300 JeM operators, and still didn’t have any clue about the Pulwama attack?”   

Former NTRO officer

Some may also argue and say why can’t we intercept calls from close proximity through human Intelligence plus technology?   

On this the officer said:

“I could’ve believed it if some other Intelligence agency apart from NTRO had claimed it. It is not in NTRO’s charter to enter the enemy camp to carry out any operation. So the question of intercepting mobile phones from close proximity doesn’t arise.”   

What if NTRO engaged Intelligence agency of some other country to carry out the operation?

“NTRO doesn’t have agreements with the Intelligence agency of other countries. Yes, R&AW and Defence Intelligence do have such arrangements with other countries. And, if at all we have taken assistance from other countries in the Intelligence gathering, then the claim should’ve come from Defence Intelligence and not from NTRO.”
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