Archive for March, 2005

An Ilyushin-76TD belonging to suspected Boutco Jet Line International has crashed into Lake Victoria immediately after take-off from Mwanza. All 8 crew were killed. The aircraft was ER-IBR, serial number 43454623, belonging to Jet Line of Chisinau, but apparently operating as Airline Transport, another suspect outfit from Moldova. Unlike Aerocom and Jet Line, Airline Transport doesn’t share an office, but it has flown to Iraq.

Reports have it that the aircraft carried “fish” on its way to Croatia, but then Viktor Bout has frequently claimed that his aircraft carry only “fish and flowers”, so frequently that it has reached the status of an aviation joke that an aircraft loaded with “fish” probably contains contraband. (Perhaps the smell of fish transported in tropical heat keeps Customs away.)

This continues a bad year for Viktor B. Not only do aircraft keep crashing, one of his closest partners, the Dutch hotelier and intimate of Charles Taylor, Gus van Kouwenhoven, is rumoured to have been arrested on charges of “complicity in crimes against humanity” when he took an ill-advised trip to Holland. Van Kouwenhoven owns or owned the Hotel Africa in Monrovia, where all of the network’s aircrew passing through Monrovia stayed, and was a partner in the main logging companies connected to Taylor and Emmanuel Shaw (Royal Timber and the Orient Timber Company). He is also connected to the Liberian International Ship and Corporate Registry, based in Virginia, which infamously paid large sums of money to Richard Chichakli’s San Air General Trading, presumably for services rendered and goods supplied. I haven’t been able to trace more than one story on the arrest, though.

Interesting Stuff

….from the US Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. Street Gangs: The New Urban Insurgency. Off you go and read.

Well, this is the end of the second week of my career. So far, we’ve had good moments, like interviewing chief executives at Claridges – and less good ones, like proof correcting articles on telephone billing systems. You will no doubt have noticed light blogging, which is hardly surprising given that my previous existence as a student and full-time blogger gave me near-infinite resources of time (and internet access). But on the whole I think I’ve managed to keep the blog together. However, it does tend to take the form of sudden blogdumps rather than a steady stream of updates. Perhaps you could all read one post a day, thus simulating the original Ranter experience?

Or perhaps you could read Soj instead for daily coverage? It’s truly odd how he/she/it/they and I have had so much parallel development – we both independently dug into the Bout thing at the same time and worked for months on it before I became aware of other investigators, Soj has described the aim of the Simian as “a sort of one-person CIA” or daily intelligence briefing, very close to my initial conception of this blog. (I considered the title The Drone, as in reconnaissance drone.) There are a lot of common interests; the former Soviet Union, unconventional warfare, piracy, all kinds of stuff. In fact, a good collaborative-blogging project might be the Blogistan Intelligence Service (perhaps Bloggers’ Legwork Operations Group or BLOG for short).

Another issue is that I’ve recently had a side project on, connected with the Viktor Bout thing – three weeks ago I’d have been delighted and would have had all the time in the world for it, but as it stands I’m having to fit it around work and the continuing blog. By the way, if any readers have more information on Aerocom in particular, please avail yourselves of the comments function.

The Washington Post picks up on gathering doubt about the claims of 80+ guerrillas killed in a fight near Samarra earlier this week. I previously blogged (briefly) on the droll fact that AFP was reporting that some 40 guerrillas were still hanging around the scene of the supposed firefight, and their leader denied any knowledge of a battle. Instead, said the guerrilla, 11 had been killed in an air raid. AFP got this information because they actually sent a reporter to the incident, rather than quoting Green Zone briefers. In the Post‘s report, there is much of interest.

For a start, the US military spokesman they spoke admitted that the figure 11(ha!) had validity, although the figure might be higher. They also got some details of the actual operations and how the figure of 85 was arrived at. It seems that the crews of a helicopter fire team (2 Apaches and a Kiowa Warrior scout chopper) claimed 80 to 100 kills – aircrew claims of anything are always subject to overclaiming, so this needs to be treated with scepticism to start with. But, when “additional US ground forces” arrived at the scene, there were no 85 corpses actually kicked, bagged and counted. The reference to “additional” is strange: surely, if there were US ground forces there to add to, they would have their own estimate? Or were there no actual troops present? Or perhaps just a Forward Air Controller team, who spotted a bunch of rebels and called in the choppers, whilst getting the hell out? In Vietnam, by the way, FACs got a reputation for wildly overestimated reports of casualties from air action, and also for counting civilian dead in with the enemy. (By the way, I keep telling you to go and read Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie. Are you finally going to do it, you buggers?)

Major Goldenberg suggested that the lack of bodies was because the enemy had carried off their dead, in Vietcong fashion. But if you assume it takes at least one man to carry one, that must mean a force of 160+ guerrillas even assuming 50% fatal casualties, of whom at least 80 are still wandering around the countryside, giving interviews to French reporters as they go. This would seem to me a worrying prospect. Goldenberg, perhaps wisely, put them onto the Interior Ministry for an answer before saying anything stupid.

The rebels, moving on from their PR campaign, have now proceeded to blow up 11 Iraqi Ministry of the Interior Commandos (aren’t they getting a lot of ink lately?) just outside Ramadi. Not just that, but they also murdered five women in Baghdad, translators for the coalition, who were machine-gunned on the streets as they returned from work. The FAZ has a good roundup of yesterday and today’s mayhem, including as well as the above a serious blue-on-blue incident in Mosul, where the Iraqi police shot it out for 10 minutes with the Iraqi army, who had turned up in civvies and were hence taken for rebels. Presumably this was an undercover operation that went pear-shaped.

There was a mass demonstration by electricity workers in Baghdad, demanding an end to attacks on the infrastructure. Does this represent a real appeal to the insurgents to lay off, chaps, or was it more in the nature of the demonstrations of shipwrecked seamen Winston Churchill organised in 1917-8 to shame striking munitions workers? Or were they marching to demand protection? The Wichita Lineman may still be on the line, but even he would be put off by security conditions for people doing his job in Iraq. Hard to say, because no-one else seems to have reported it at all. On the topic of mass demonstrations, one occurred in Basra demanding that the minister of oil be a Basraite. This is another case of something I occasionally cover – growing southern independence. I hope UK Political Advisers (POLADS) there are not encouraging it, it would not be a good thing although perhaps attractive from a cynical British standpoint.

So said Homer Simpson. The Home Office sometimes seems to me like some crippled retainer or mangy hound, that the king whistles for and sees it keel over embarrassingly before reaching the throne. “Homeoffice!” “Here, sire..” “Urgh..not again!” This impression is in no way dispelled by reports of a succession of ridiculous acts displaying egregious stupidity that have reached the Ranter recently.

For a start, Spyblog reports that, up in Nottingham, the courts have been releasing persons sentenced to be electronically tagged to addresses where there is no land-line phone. This is crucial, because it seem that the tag is dependent on a landline to function – no GSM/GPRS technology, still less GPS, just a gadget that rings up the Control Room if the tag goes out of range. So, now you know how to circumvent electronic tagging – just ask someone at home to pull the phone out of the BT socket before the hearing. You’ll be free, and can use a mobile anyway to organise your continued criminal career.

Don’t say you don’t learn anything from blogs.

Apparently, a “touring detector van” is meant to pass by the houses involved. But there is an answer, still; in this case, the tagee took the thing off (which should trigger an alarm, but of course didn’t because he had the sense not to do it while any white vans were outside). So, the tamper alarm doesn’t stay on; it is transient, so having removed the tag he just needed to leave it there in case the van passed by. The lad in question used his regained freedom to participate in a jewel heist which ended in two people being shot dead, but I’m sure none of my readers would be so foolish.

Now, these tags are also used to monitor those alleged International Terrorists subject to Charlie the Safety Elephant’s Control Orders. Feel safer? Do you feel that warm sense of security flooding across your neurons? Then try this. The Guardian headlined yesterday with an exclusive interview with one of these men, Mahmoud Abu Rideh gained (wait for it) by the simple means of him walking into 119 Farringdon Road. For our terrorist, it appears, is free to walk the streets; as long as he’s back at home by 7pm. (Or until he disconnects the phone.)

Can we stop here to savour the full absurdity of this, please?

This man is such an imminent danger to national security that he was locked up in Belmarsh Prison’s maximum security wing for three years without trial, without even being told the charges against him, without even charges being laid, in fact, because he is so dangerous that the information of what he is supposed to have done cannot be given to him for fear he will somehow contrive to commit terrorist acts with it. But – apparently – only at night! By night he schemes to crash jets flaming into the silvery towers of Canary Wharf, to scatter a silent dust of anthrax spores in the corridors of Parliament itself, to riddle the glowing high-end retail spaces of Heathrow Airport with machine gun strikemarks and spilt blood, yes, even to consume all London in the momentary sun of a nuclear explosion. But by day, he is an absolute pussycat, as dangerous as a potato and as remarkable as a commuter, free and weird on the streets!

Under the terms of his Banning Order under the Suppression of Communism…sorry..Control Order under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, he is forbidden from meeting anyone not approved by Charles Clarke in advance. Indeed. No meetings! You can see why – blazing kerosene, gas, germs, broken glass, thousands fleeing in terror, all that stuff. But between the hours of 7am and 7pm, he may drop in on anyone in the United Kingdom, you for example or even me (he’d be welcome, I’d like to apologise to him, after all I voted for Tony Blair), and discuss anything he likes.

In order to help him make sense of his situation, it appears that the Home Office has a “helpline” for those subject to Control Orders.After all, we are not beasts. But, wonderfully enough, it is an answerphone. There is also apparently a “voice recognition” device involved: it beggars belief that the government is labouring under the illusion that these are of any worth, but thar ye go. (I think I’ve mentioned before that my father once encountered a senior Home Office bureaucrat responsible for computerisation, sometime in the early 90s, who told him that Microsoft Windows was a “passing phase” and that the MS-DOS Shell was the thing. I’m convinced that man is now In Charge.) Naturally, someone is making a profit from this, too, as the tagging is carried out by a thing called “Premier Monitoring Services”.

And for this gain in security, we had to tear up the principles we cherished since 1215, indeed earlier, all the way back to the first justices of the peace and the principle of being judged by your peers, habeas corpus, things like that. We absolutely had to get this on the statute book – no time to waste, election coming! So yer man can be subject to all the restrictions suitable for International Terrorists (but only out of office hours).

Or perhaps Clarkey is right: maybe he’s a part-time terrorist, a weekend warrior, a Territorial Terrorist! It was said by someone, possibly Karl Kraus, that Austria-Hungary was saved from tyranny by incompetence, and looking at this utter absurdity perhaps we can indeed feel a little safer.

The mighty Martin van Creveld has a sizeable essay in the Boston Review on Iraq by way of Moshe Dayan’s stint as a war correspondent in South Vietnam. (I personally didn’t know he’d been one, so there you go.) Dayan prepared meticulously for his assignment – being a world-famous hero tends to get you good contacts, and he travelled to Saigon the wrong way round, via France, the UK and the US, in order to call on old friends.

He kicked off in France, visiting a couple of generals he knew (one of whom had just got out of jail for his part in the OAS putsch attempt). One of them, an air force officer, predictably thought the answer was to bomb ‘em to their senses. The other (the ex-rebel) argued that the Americans’ problem was one of intelligence and reconnaissance – his answer, involving small parties (five to seven men) probing the jungle edge, bears a close similarity to SAS concepts and indeed to their operations in Malaya and Borneo. He warned that otherwise much of the US force deployed would go to waste, blasting jungle futilely as the Viet Cong laughed (quietly…).

From there, our man kicked on to Britain to see another pal. Field Marshal Montgomery, in fact. Now, his strategic judgement was usually excellent – it was just applying it to himself that he found difficult. Monty’s critique of the US strategy in Vietnam, as told to Dayan, can hardly be bettered. Firstly, the Americans had no clear objective. Following Clausewitz’s logic, not having a clear top-level aim means you cannot have a coherent plan to achieve it, all the way down the levels of analysis to the soldier in the mud. Secondly, in this vacuum of purpose, the field commanders would naturally attempt to control their environment – that is, they would seek battle as they saw fit and demand all the resources they wanted. Without a defining strategy, the war machine would run faster and faster, throwing out more and more conflicting projects and doing more and more damage. Alternatively, if the commanders were refused more resources it would chug on ineffectually.

Monty himself was nothing if not prone to both flaws, of course. Few generals have ever had such an addiction to firepower, or such a conviction that their front was the vital theatre of war. Sometimes Monty was right on these (El Alamein, Normandy in general). Sometimes he was wrong (Operation Charnwood at Caen in particular, Arnhem). He does not seem to have recognised that these flaws applied to him too, but he was still damn right. Another Monty feature was linguistic extremism, and this too was present: he wanted Dayan to tell US leaders, in his name (that his name would carry extra conviction was also characteristic), that they were insane.

Dayan’s further experiences were also telling; he went on to meet the Best and the Brightest, hearing Walt Rostow, Maxwell Taylor (yet another second war hero) and Robert S. McNamara. Only Taylor offered anything that could be described as a plan, but could not say how close it was to being fulfilled. He then proceeded to Vietnam, and the war. There he went on to get himself shot at by crashing around the underbrush with the Marines in a company led by the Fleet Marine Force Pacific chief “Brute” Krulak’s son and leaping off helicopters with the Air Cav – but still no-one could tell him why.

His conclusion was that the Americans were “not fighting against infiltration to South [Vietnam], or against guerrillas, or against North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, but against the entire world. Their real aim was to show everybody—including Britain, France, and the USSR—their power and determination so as to pass this message: wherever Americans go, they are irresistible.” An interesting judgement, surely, and one I’m not sure I agree with.

Now, what exactly is the strategic aim in Iraq? We all know the platitudes: democracy in the Middle East and such. But that isn’t a strategic goal in Iraq. That would be one that said what kind of government Iraq will have, what our relations with it will be, and how the war there will terminate. At the moment, the scheme appears to be to build up Iraqi forces, hope the government gains authority, and perhaps one day begin withdrawing troops. But that is not an aim. That is a method, and its illogic becomes clear under close scrutiny. So, Iraqi government forces (and/or loyalist paramilitaries) will gradually relieve US and allied forces of responsibility. But that suggests the war will remain, to be fought by another army. Leaving a war in progress in a highly unstable, perhaps indeed a failed state, in the heart of the Middle East – is this a strategic aim?

And further, is the strategic aim to establish a democratic Iraq and then to leave, or to establish a pro-Western democratic Iraq and stay – and what if the two last adjectives conflict? If the second option is chosen, unless the war is somehow ended, remaining US troops in their “enduring bases” will remain both targets, and actors in the war. That is to say, the aim will remain unachieved.

This week has been one of carnage in Iraq (again). It has been characterised by large (by local standards) infantry engagements, for example the major convoy ambush south of Baghdad and the reported “80 guerrillas killed” action outside Samarra. This has been presented as success, but it also means that the enemy are moving about in large groups. This is not good. Two arguments can be made; either they are easier to catch that way, or they are more formidable that way. Time will tell. Concerning the reports of 80+ guerrillas killed when a “training camp” was raided near Samarra, AFP reports that the figure may be as low as 11; by the radical means of sending a reporter to the scene of the action, AFP was able to ask questions of members of a group of around 40 guerrillas, who claimed the casualties were the victims of air attack.

Official reports attributed the success to the Iraqi “Ministry of the Interior Commandos” (that Soviet phrase again), but even the official line seems confused – initial reports spoke of several guerrillas being killed when a “camp” was discovered by “US forces” and a major fight elsewhere involving the MOICs. This then morphed into one single action with a camp and the MOICs – or are they meant to be in two places at once?

In the continuing story of the vanishing AS-15/Kh55 cruise missiles, it emerges thanks to the Ukrainian investigation and a commenter to this site that one Oleg Orlov is implicated in the affair of the missing missiles. Orlov is mentioned in a seminal UNSC report by the team around Johan Perelmans on arms trafficking into West Africa as an associate of Viktor Bout. Some reports suggest he is currently in Czech custody. Note, though, that an unrelated man of the same name is the well-known Russian human rights group Memorial’s Chechnya spokesman (perhaps an instance of the Bout network’s tendency to include supposed “Russian celebrities”?).

The Ukrainian government is now auditing the transfer of nuclear weapons to Russia amid fears that more stuff might be missing. Orlov’s role in earlier years seems to have included buying arms in Bulgaria for African delivery – it would not be too wild to suggest that he acts as the upstream contact for the organisation.

In a document in the Ranter’s files, taken from the accounts of Air Pass for 1998, there is a small mystery. Among the (gigantic) expense accounts run up by members of “VB’s staff” against company funds, there is one for a man named only as “Dr. Oleg”, who spent fearsome sums on mobile phone calls (suggesting an important person), and also drew sizeable amounts of money for the needs of several women whose relationship with him was not made clear. Could he be Orlov?

Note that the FT report also contains a brief mention of a statement that the missiles were handed over to the state arms export agency (Ukrspetsexport). This would not be at all surprising, as this organisation was implicated by practically all the UN Expert Panel reports in supplying arms via the Bout airlines. It’s been suggested to me by a source that some of their products were used to arm Iraqi “loyalist paramilitaries”.

Macs!

Via IT Week’s in-house blogger, I learn that Apple are going to introduce a mouse with two buttons. This is good news, I suppose, but I’m not going to jump for joy, because I’m currently experiencing my first extended use of the computer designed for graphic designers by graphic designers.

And it’s like rolling in broken glass. I have never encountered a computer as insanely irritating. And that entirely circular mouse deserves to meet the cat. Another thing – Safari. This is a browser that makes IE look impressive – everything is maddeningly slow, and tends to choke on far too many sites. Obviously Firefox will help, but this is not good enough. Frankly, fancy icons that get bigger when you point at them aren’t enough to put up with stuff that doesn’t work.

Why is it that only Soj and me seem that worried about the events in Pakistan, where it is reported that serious fighting is going on between the Pakistani army and Baluch rebels. Al-Jazeera is reporting that at least eight soldiers were killed (it isn’t clear whether that includes casualties suffered by the Frontier Corps too), and that a sizeable force from the Corps was cut off at a place called Sangseela. Apparently, the military had called on attack helicopters in the operation to relieve them.

A tribal leader (a Nawab, dear God – is it possible to write about this without sounding like Rudyard Kipling?), Akwar Bughti, is quoted as saying that “The Pakistan government has started operations against us. They’ve started and we will see who will finish this game”, which is hardly encouraging. Baluchistan, as previously blogged, contains Pakistan’s reserves of natural gas and hence has an important role in the economic balance between the various provinces – this is what started the trouble. It’s not very good news, and you wonder if anyone else is worrying. They don’t seem to be yet.

In other Pakistan news, Le Monde reports that a Shaheen-2 ballistic missile with a range of 2000km was test-fired yesterday. About the only good thing that can be said about that is that the confidence-building arrangements with India, which require prior notification of any missile launch, are functioning.

Yesterday, the Unidentified Gunmen attempted to kill Anatoly Chubais, former Russian cabinet minister and head of UES, the Russian electricity monopoly. Apparently there was an explosion by the roadside – funny how these things get around – followed by small arms. Chubais’s bodyguards shot it out with the attackers and he survived.

It should never be any surprise that a Russian tycoon has plenty of people who want him dead, but Chubais is worth discussing in some detail. He was responsible, back at the end of the Soviet Union, for preparing a shock-therapy economic plan that foresaw the rapid privatisation of everything, preceded by the overnight termination of price controls. This procedure certainly achieved one of its goals – converting Russia out of communism – at the cost of truly massive social horrors. Over great tracts of Russia, the social and economic structure just vanished – the kolkhoz buses stopped calling, wages were no longer paid. The traffic lights weren’t switched off, but it wasn’t that far off.

Chubais’s answer to who should own Russia’s industry became a classic. “Speed is more important than accuracy” was the motto – what mattered was getting something that looked like capitalism at least installed. This meant that some truly evil things could happen without anyone noticing very much who wasn’t directly affected. In many firms, the plan was that everyone would get vouchers. They would entitle you to either convert your voucher into shares in your firm, or swap it for shares in another. But if you are an oilfield fitter in some godforsaken Siberian driller camp and your wages aren’t being paid, owning a few hundred shares in the refinery is a bit of an abstract concept. The reason why your wages weren’t being paid, by the way, is in part because Chubais couldn’t at this stage persuade the other CIS states not to let their new central banks issue rouble credits. As they proceeded to inflate like hell, Chubais then had the Russian central bank crank down the money supply to mop up the inflation – which put a liquidity squeeze on industry, but didn’t stop the inflation because, after all, you could borrow from the other CIS states.

Now, Chelsea fans may wish to skip this paragraph, cowards that they are. Roman Abramovich got his start in business due to these linked phenomena. Basically, he borrowed a shedload of roubles. He got them because Russian banking was a tad wilder than your local HSBC manager at the time. He then went off to Siberia with his rouble s and travelled around the oil towns offering cash for the vouchers. Needless to say, anyone who had hung on and converted their voucher would have bee far better off – but they were hungry, so they accepted, and very quickly yer man had a controlling stake in what became Sibneft. Now, he of course had to do something about the debts he’d contracted. This is where the inflation played a role: by the time he got back from Siberia, his debts were worth peanuts, as was the cash he’d paid out to the oil drillers. He was now in the perfect position to be in a big inflation – sitting on a real asset, and one whose income stream is paid in hard currency too. So he became insanely rich.

Now, by the mid-90s, everyone was tiring of this kind of scam. It became painfully clear that Chubais was never going to be president, because around 70% of the public hated him in the blood. He settled for the directorship of United Energy Systems, the old Soviet national grid, and being joint kingmaker in the Kremlin. UES, you see, was more than just a really big public utility. Like the other kingmaker – Gazprom – it was also an arm of government power. One way of getting Russia’s way in the “near abroad” and also internally was to give the people you like cheap gas and electricity; and if they pissed you off, to turn off the lights. This wasn’t new: a crucial factor in holding the Soviet bloc together had always been the subsidised gas and oil the USSR pumped to its allies. (A question for future blogging – what role did the counter-oil shock of 1985 play in the break-up? Suddenly, central Europeans could get cheap fuel elsewhere.)

So – in conclusion, there is an endless queue of folk who have a motive to shoot the bugger and no shortage of means either. There is absolutely no reason to think of him as a “Western-leaning liberal reformer”.





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