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Egypt and Syria propose using satellites to counter terrorism at UN space meeting

The charred remains of a bus destroyed by a suicide bomber in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt, August 2011. Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia.
The charred remains of a bus destroyed by a suicide bomber in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt, August 2011. Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia.

Egypt, backed by Syria, has proposed an in-depth discussion on using satellites to counter terrorism at the United Nation’s space body, the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS).

The proposal came in the form of a short paper titled “Combating Terrorism using Space Technology,” drafted by Egyptian delegates to COPUOS, and backed by Syria. The paper calls for the topic to be discussed by COPUOS at its annual meeting in Vienna, Austria, in 2017, although the committee rejected it for addition to next year’s agenda, despite the Egyptian admonition that, “Delays in adding this item may affect the lives of a number of new innocents.” It is likely, however, that it could become a topic for addressing the future role of COPUOS.

For the Egyptians, the proposal is justified by the existence of the UN’s Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC). The CTC’s mandate is implemented by the UN’s Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (UNCTED) and works to take down terrorist financing, recruitment, and propaganda, among other things, as well as building UN member-state expert capacity in countering terrorism and sharing intelligence. For Cairo and Damascus, the addition of utilising satellite technologies is a logical extension of the CTC’s work.

The “Combating Terrorism using Space Technology,” paper provides an agenda for discussion at next year’s COPUOS meeting and includes the following topics:

  1. “Identifying the hot spots of terrorist areas using the highly spatial resolution images (less than 50 cm pixel size).
  2. Recognizing the hot spots locations through defining exact coordinates using GPS satellites and satellites imagery as well.
  3. Following terrorist’s activities and movements and their behaviours through analysis of satellite imagery and communication satellites products.
  4. Encourage Exchange of different satellite images among the countries of concerns to cover their affected areas for 24 hours.
  5. Building Geodatabases related to those spots and storing them in an international information bank to be requested by the legal governments that suffer from terrorism.
  6. Enhancing the capabilities of Counter Terrorism Committee.
  7. To bolster with CTC the ability of United Nations Member States to prevent terrorist acts both within their borders and across regions.
  8. Tasks of COPOUS and CTC will be integrated in wonderful system to protect the lives of innocent people under the umbrella of the United Nations.”

According to a number of participants in the COPUOS meeting, the Egyptian paper was the cause of considerable debate among delegates. The conclusion among most of the delegates, however, was that other parts of the United Nations system, such as UNCTED and the United Nations platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response (UN-SPIDER), are better equipped to handle the issue.

While COPUOS members rejected the Egyptian proposal, its call for the sharing of very high-resolution satellite imagery was welcomed by a number of countries, albeit for different reasons espoused by the Egyptians.

“The most controversial part of the proposal seemed to be the call for high resolution satellite imagery to be made broadly available,” said Dr. Michael Simpson, Executive Director of the Secure World Foundation, and who participated in the COPUOS meeting.

“Discussions at COPUOS are often quite civil, reserved, and diplomatic, but even through that lens it was possible to discern anxiety about some of the uses to which such imagery might be put.  Ironically some of the support generated by the paper seemed to be driven by the desire of many countries to improve the quality of imagery to which they have access in pursuit of perfectly reasonable and peaceful ends. “Data democracy,” is a compelling objective for many states,” added Simpson.

Data democracy refers to the concept that high-resolution satellite imagery should be shared among nations as a matter of course for a variety of purposes, rather than tightly controlled by a handful of states.

The Egyptian proposal might have also masked the ulterior motives of the Syrian government, whereby Damascus could have secured access to sophisticated satellite technologies in order to further its own aims against its political opponents in the Syrian Civil War.

Space expert Brian Weeden, the Technical Adviser at the Secure World Foundation, said, “I can’t confirm it, but I think it’s possible that the real reason for this proposal is to get access to space capabilities to help the Assad regime fight Syrian rebels, or otherwise clamp down on dissidents. But I think there’s also an element here of wanting to try and get better controls on population movements and migration, and possibly even the movements of organizations like ISIS.”

Certainly satellites play a significant role in terrorist and counter-terrorist operations. It is well-known that a number of terrorist organizations use mobile satellite communications for command and control, and the positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) services of global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) can aid terrorists in hiding arms caches in complex geographies. Satellite imagery from services such as Google Earth can also be used for reconnaissance of fixed targets, as British forces based in Basra, Iraq, found out when Iranian-backed Shiite forces used the service to attack British Army installations.

For counter-terrorist operations, satellite systems are used for similar purposes, ranging from satellite communications for the command and control of friendly forces; PNT for tracking terrorist movements; and satellite imagery for reconnaissance and surveillance of terrorist activities in places such as the open desert.

“Space technologies have proven to be a hugely valuable, but limited, tool in counterterrorism,” said Weeden of the Secure World Foundation.

“The US and its allies have used space capabilities (particularly Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance, PNT, and satellite communications) quite extensively in Afghanistan and elsewhere. For example, space provides much of the connectivity that enables UAVs to provide persistent surveillance, and also the ability to conduct precision air strikes. However, space is not a silver bullet. It can’t directly address many of the underlying political issues that drive terrorism,” said Weeden.

The Egyptian proposal also raises questions about the current space-enabled intelligence support it receives from countries such as France and Israel. Cairo is contending with terrorist threats in the Sinai Peninsula and along its border with Libya, and it is believed that France and Israel are providing it with satellite imagery and intelligence derived from intercepted satellite communications.

Egypt’s COPUOS proposal, however, might indicate that it is seeking wider access to satellite technologies independent of France and Israel, perhaps in order to reduce its intelligence dependency on these two countries.

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