The link might be to terrorism, but there are a lot more illegal
immigrants than terrorists in Texas and California.
Surge in Sale of Disposable Cell Phones May Have Terror Link
Phones Can Be Difficult or Impossible to Track; Large Quantities Purchased
in California, Texas
By BRIAN ROSS and RICHARD ESPOSITO
Jan. 12, 2006 Federal agents have launched an investigation into a surge
in the purchase of large quantities of disposable cell phones by
individuals from the Middle East and Pakistan, ABC News has learned.
The phones which do not require purchasers to sign a contract or have
a credit card have many legitimate uses, and are popular with
people who have bad credit or for use as emergency phones tucked away
in glove compartments or tackle boxes. But since they can be difficult
or impossible to track, law enforcement officials say the phones are
widely used by criminal gangs and terrorists.
"There's very little audit trail assigned to this phone. One can walk
in, purchase it in cash, you don't have to put down a credit card, buy
any amount of minutes to it, and you don't, frankly, know who bought
this," said Jack Cloonan, a former FBI official who is now an ABC News
Law enforcement officials say the phones were used to detonate the
bombs terrorists used in the Madrid train attacks in March 2004.
"The application of prepaid phones for nefarious reasons, is really
widespread. For example, the terrorists in Madrid used prepaid phones
to detonate the bombs in the subway trains that killed more than 200
people," said Roger Entner, a communications consultant.
150 Phones in One Sale, 60 Phones in Another
The FBI is closely monitoring the potentially dangerous development,
which came to light following recent large-quantity purchases in
California and Texas, officials confirmed.
In one New Year's Eve transaction at a Target store in Hemet, Calif.,
150 disposable tracfones were purchased. Suspicious store employees
notified police, who called in the FBI, law enforcement sources said.
In an earlier incident, at a Wal-mart store in Midland, Texas, on
December 18, six individuals attempted to buy about 60 of the phones
until store clerks became suspicious and notified the police. A
Wal-mart spokesperson confirmed the incident.
The Midland, Texas, police report dated December 18 and obtained by
ABC News states: "Information obtained by MPD [Midland Police
Department] dispatch personnel indicated that approximately six
individuals of Middle-Eastern origin were attempting to purchase an
unusually large quantity of tracfones (disposable cell phones with
prepaid minutes attached)." At least one of the suspects was
identified as being from Iraq and another from Pakistan, officials
"Upon the arrival of officers, suspects were observed moving away from
the registers appearing to evade detection while ridding themselves of
Other reports have come in from other cities, including Dallas, and
from authorities in other states. Authorities in Pennsylvania, New
York and other parts of Texas confirmed that they were alerted to the
cases, and sources say other jurisdictions were also notified.
The growing use of the throwaway cell phones has been cited by
President Bush as an important justification for expanding the wiretap
laws under the Patriot Act.
"Law enforcement officials can now use what's now called roving
wiretaps, which will prevent a terrorist from switching cell phones to
get a message out to one of his buddies," Bush said on April 20, 2004.
Legitimate Uses May Have Spurred Sales, Too
Law enforcement sources say it is possible some large purchases that
have been identified as being sent to the Middle East could have been
sent for resale in a sellers' market for handsets, or simply given to
friends and relatives. Officials are also investigating these
Managing the complex balancing of these two issues significant and
legitimate uses and their potential for misuse has been an ongoing
dilemma for law enforcement.
For now, both intelligence officers and bomb technicians have been
monitoring reports of large-quantity purchases.
Some such purchases may have innocent explanations, but even law
enforcement officials themselves say disposable phones are sometimes
their own phones of choice when operating in hostile environments. The
CIA recently used them in a kidnapping in Milan, Italy. Italian
authorities were able to track the telephones. But they mostly tracked
them to a dead end the false identities in which they were purchased.
Possible purchasers of disposable cellular phones could also include
political extremists, terrorist supporters, sympathizers or others
simply shaken by the recent revelations of the spy agency's widespread
monitoring of calls, including calls to and from the United States to
Police Report Identifies Terror Links
The Midland, Texas, arrest report police also identified the individuals as
linked to a terror cell:
"Evasive responses provided by the subjects, coupled with actions observed
by officers at the onset of the contact prompted the notification of local
FBI officials to assist in the investigation," the report said. "Upon
the arrival of special agents, and as a result of subsequent
interviews, it was discovered that members of the group were linked to
suspected terrorist cells stationed within the Metroplex.
Law enforcement officials have not elaborated on the information in
the report or specified which terrorist group the individuals were
allegedly linked to.
In addition, special agents reported that similar incidents centering
on the large-scale purchases of tracfones had been reported throughout
the nation identifying individuals of Middle-Eastern descent as the
ABC News is working to confirm the details in the police report.
"Upon conclusion of the initial investigation, three of the suspects
were taken into custody on immigration violations, with one individual
arrested for possession of marijuana the drug having been discovered
during the search of the group's vehicle. Also found within the green
2002 Kia van were additional cell phones, the total believed to be
FBI officials told ABC News that while the cases may wind up in the
hands of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, the FBI would benefit
from any intelligence gleaned and would take the lead if a solid
terrorist connection emerged.
ABC News' Jill Rackmill contributed to this report.
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