Counter Terrorism Center fails to detect purchase of 200,000 SIM cards

October 8, 2016

TEK-Logo_Kerek

Some 200,000 SIM cards were purchased from mobile service provider Magyar Telekom, some of which may have been used by perpetrators of the Paris and Brussels terrorist attacks, reports right-wing Magyar Idők.

The cards were bought under the name of a Budapest-area homeless man. The man only bought one SIM card personally, with the rest being purchased over months by multiple foreign buyers in his name, the paper reported. Print daily Népszabadság later learned that the cards may have been purchased by Salah Abdeslam, one of the organizers of last year’s Paris attacks, and his associates during time they spent in Budapest.

“They usually use a card once and throw it out,” so they can’t be tracked, the paper wrote of terrorist groups. “Sending an SMS or a single call to a given mobile number is often enough for the execution of an ISIS-coordinated attack.”

Magyar Idők asked Magyar Telekom why it hadn’t appeared suspicious to them that so many SIM cards had been purchased by a single person. The mobile provider responded that it is not their responsibility to keep track of how many cards are purchased by their clients, and there is no legal limit for how many cards a person can buy. SIM cards cost around HUF 1500-2000, meaning Telekom would have made around HUF 300 million (USD 1.1 million) on the sales.

Fidesz vice-president of the Parliamentary National Security Committee Szilárd Németh criticized the mobile company’s response, saying “I can’t accept Magyar Telekom’s attitude toward this question. It would have been worth at least one notification.” Magyar Idők also blamed the company’s “profit orientation” for letting the suspicious purchases slip under their radar, thus taking the focus away from the responsibility of Hungarian security services for the intelligence failure.

The purchase of so many SIM cards by a single person should have been detected by the country’s security services, including the Constitutional Protection Office (AH), the National Security Services, and the Center for Counter Terrorism (TEK), according to national security experts interviewed by Index.hu. These services are all reportedly in daily internet communication with the country’s mobile- and other communications services.

The question of which security service is responsible for such a mistake is still unanswered, since jurisdiction over different national security matters has been largely unclear since the formation of TEK and its absorption of many responsibilities formerly overseen by other services. According to sources within TEK, the counter-terrorism force is not particularly strong at reconnaissance, many of its agents being strongmen recruited from the police force. In fact, TEK had no knowledge of the SIM card purchases or their use in coordinating terror attacks until Belgian and French authorities informed the organisation during their own investigations.

If the claims by pro-government Magyar Idők are true, and the SIM cards really did end up in the hands of terrorists, the responsibility for failing to recognize the mass-purchase can only fall onto TEK, which is responsible for all terror-related cases. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, TEK and several members of the government are already discussing how to proceed in the case, and are reportedly planning a tightening of rules pertaining to purchases of large quantities of SIM cards. How they plan to improve the intelligence capacities of Hungary’s “elite counter-terrorism force” is as yet unknown.