It was a star-filled night in Chechnya's besieged capital of Grozny. The snow crunched under my feet as I walked with the Chechen rebel commander away from the warmth of our safe house. When we entered a bombed-out neighborhood 15 minutes away, I put the battery in my Iridium satellite phone and waited for the glowing screen to signal that I had locked on to the satellites.
I made my call. It was short. Then the commander made a call; he quickly hung up and handed me back the phone. "Enough," he said, motioning for me to remove the battery.
As we walked briskly back to the safe house, it was exactly 10 minutes before the cascade of double wa-whumps announced the Grad rocket batteries pounding the vacant neighborhood we had just left.
It was December 1999, and the Russian assault on Grozny was unfolding in all its gruesome detail. After the dissolution of so much of the former Soviet empire, Chechnya was one country that the newly minted prime minister, Vladimir Putin, refused to let go of. His boss, Boris Yeltsin, and the Russian army had been defeated and then humiliated in the media by Chechen forces in the first war. Five years later, Russia was back. And Putin's new strategy was unbending: silence, encircle, pulverize, and "cleanse." It was a combination of brutal tactics -- a Stalinist purge of fighting-age males plus Orwellian propaganda that fed Russians a narrative wherein Chechen freedom fighters were transformed into Islamist mercenaries and terrorists. More than 200,000 civilians were to die in this war, the echoes of which continue to this day.
This time, journalists were specifically targeted to prevent sympathetic or embarrassing reports from escaping the killing zone. As such, you can't find a lot of stories about the second Chechen war. One of the few and best accounts was written by Marie Colvin, who described her terrifying escape from Grozny for the Sunday Times. Last month, Colvin thought she could roll the dice and enter the besieged Syrian city of Homs to defy yet another brutal war of oppression. This time she lost.
It's impossible to know whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- a longtime ally of Russia -- studied the success of the last Chechen war before launching his own assault on the restive city of Homs. However, his Russian military advisors surely know the tactics well. The crackdown in Homs carries a grim echo of Grozny, both in its use of signals intelligence to track down and silence the regime's enemies and in its bloody determination to obliterate any opposition, including Western journalists.
Assad's ability to lethally target journalists using satellite-phone uplinks could well have cost Colvin her life. Multiple reports have suggested that Syrian forces used phone signals to pinpoint her location and then launched a rocket barrage that resulted in her death on Feb. 22, along with that of French photographer Remi Ochlik and multiple Syrian civilians.
The use of satellite and cellular transmissions to determine a subject's location was relatively new a decade ago, when I was in Grozny. Tracking phone transmissions to hunt down targets began in earnest with a covert unit of U.S. intelligence officers from the National Security Agency (NSA), CIA, Navy, Air Force, and special operations called "The Activity." This snooping unit was also called the Army of Northern Virginia, Grey Fox, and even Task Force Orange. We see much of this technology used to inform modern drone and U.S. Joint Special Operations Command strikes. My decade covering U.S. spec ops, intelligence gathering, and their contractors highlighted the impressive ability of various countries to monitor, locate, network, and act on what is called SIGINT, or signals intelligence.