Archive for December, 2009

CCC vs Wanktanks

Other people’s TDLs. I note that this year’s CCC has devoted some time to the wanktank phenomenon in Germany, and also elsewhere. Volker Bilk’s slides are here; it makes a lot of sense, but there’s quite a bit of German philosophical maundering in there, and I’d have liked to see more case studies/howtos. As far as his call to action to map the wanktanks goes, I fully agree.

In other CCC presentations, it looks like there’s going to be a lot of GSM hacking in 2010. See here, here and here.

TDL@TYR

To-do lists are good. Grandad Bill lived by them; we found ones up-to-date for the day before he died. In that spirit, here’s a rough one for this blog in 2010:

1) Finally, end this twin-blog nightmare.

I’ve had requests from multiple readers for this. I think I’ll standardise on WordPress and host it myself somewhere. This may require some cunning SQL manipulation, as there are some differences between the two copies of the blog – some things got duplicated, some dropped, and of course there are comments on both from after the fork.

However, I am not going to bring back the JavaScript mousetrail clock.

2) Make an impact on WhoseKidAreYou

The git on hackernews who said that starting a USENET group for it was the best possible way to prevent the project making progress wasn’t wrong. In my defence, other matters frequently demanded my attention this autumn, and it does involve learning two new programming languages. As usual, the difficult bit turns out not to be the semantic-web query join across tens of thousands of crowdsourced records, but the bloody in-line parsing and tidying up of the bylines.

When the squid take over, they’ll realise that what we were doing all this time was HTML parsing and string processing.

3) Strike hard against press distortions

The news media is pissing me off more and more, and just shouting at them doesn’t seem enough. WKAY will help, especially when it gets to include things like Sourcewatch in its data sources. But what can we do in a positive sense?

4) Rapid reaction to Tories

I think this should be central, shouldn’t it? I’ve drivelled on about “pre-emptive activism” already, but I’d like to put some flesh on the idea and push it before they arrive – that’s the pre-emptive bit…

going quiet

Before the blog goes quiet for the traditional Christmas ceasefire, I’d like to say that my grandfather, Paul William Gibbs, died yesterday. I’ll be posting something about him when I’ve finished writing it.

Now for the quiet.

More mystery jets. In the last couple of weeks there’s also been some progress on the 727 abandoned in North-Eastern Mali. For a start, it’s a 727, which is something. And, finally, there are pictures. The National of Abu Dhabi – a newspaper that is developing into a surprisingly useful source – has a good piece on the case and the growth of the Trans-Saharan drugs route more broadly.

Mr Lyman, a former US ambassador to both South Africa and Nigeria, warned that a heavy-handed approach by African officials would probably exacerbate the problem and threaten the desert region’s delicate security balance.

“Taking on the smuggling problem presents the danger of driving these tribal groups into the arms of AQIM because they resent a government presence that impinges on their smuggling activities, so it’s a delicate area how you increase in security” he said.

“You’ve got to build greater trust between Tuaregs and their home governments, and that requires more development and maybe even closing their eyes to some of the more benign smuggling activity that’s taking place. It’s not an easy task at all.”

Unsurprisingly, AFP wire service reporter Serge Daniel was the first journalist to get to the crash site, or more importantly, the first to file having done so. There are pictures of the wreck, which has been extensively scavenged for scrap metal; of course, the scrapmen will have helped to get rid of the evidence.

Hawa Semaga of Journal du Mali has an excellent piece which makes clear that the Guinea-Bissau authorities were looking for the plane at the time of its last flight, for a variety of reasons involving safety and registration violations. Further, it seems that the crew used false documents claiming that the aircraft was registered in Saudi Arabia. In yet another piece of useful information, the article confirms part of the route, and introduces the news that the plane passed through Cape Verde airspace on its way to the fateful airstrip, and then headed for Guinea-Bissau. They also suggest it stopped in Colombia as well as Venezuela.

My sources add that the current route was thought to be Dakar-Fortaleza-Panama-Maracaibo and then to the crash site, but there would have had to be intermediate stops between FOR and PTY and between MAR and Gao, as the sectors in question are 2,952 and 4,820 miles respectively. Replotting, with the new data:

(The map details are here.) That’s all possible, but the 727 would have needed a further South American stop between Fortaleza and Panama outward bound and between Maracaibo and Sal, Cape Verde inward bound – the simplest option would be to have gone via Maracaibo outward bound and via Fortaleza inward, which is marginal for the 727-200 (2,489 miles), but there might have been a fair wind that day.

Here’s their destination: N18.00031, W0.0031.

Bugger all is an understatement. This Senegalese Web site has a gripping account of a visit to the crash site, starting off with a roast sheep party, hours of gruelling desert travel, fear of stumbling on another clandestine landing, and proceeding to a chat with security sources. Key facts appear to be that the landing zone was prepared on a dry lakebed, that the aircraft was taxied off the hard surface into the sand, and that some five vehicles with Niger registration plates met it, but that the Niger plates were faked in another neighbouring country. There’s also some detail on the scavenging of the aircraft:

Mais ce 10 décembre 2009, je constate que l’appareil a perdu beaucoup de poids. Je trouve sur place la réponse : je vois des traces de tadjila, nourriture prisée chez les touaregs. Alors que s’est-il passé ? Des dizaines, et des dizaines de personnes dont des touaregs viennent s’installer et couper l’épave, récupérer de l’aluminium, et aller le vendre aux forgerons. 1 500 FCFA le kilo d’aluminium. Triste fin pour l’épave. Triste fin pour l’avion.

Everyone is now working on the assumption that the aircraft was deliberately destroyed. It’s possible that the aircraft was driven into the sand in order to give the impression of a runway excursion accident. The author states that the aircraft’s registration is visible, and that it’s South American, but he or she doesn’t say what it was.

Boeing 727-230F number 21619, currently the top suspect, was placed in storage in Dakar by “Africa Aviation Assistance” in June, with a view to ferrying the aircraft to Rio in July. This company was shut down in July after it turned out that its AOC had never been issued. Around about the same time, another 727-200 freighter, number 22644, operating for DHL under the Saudi registration HZ-SNE, was destroyed in an accident in Lagos. And, after this crash, the first 727 was registered HZ-SNE for a while.

I therefore guess that the fake Saudi documents were used to pretend that the 727 that ended up in the desert was actually HZ-SNE/22644, respectably carrying general cargo for DHL. AAA planned to register it in the Guinea-Bissau (J5-) registry; apparently they involved Guinea in some way, as the Guinea authorities were looking for the plane. But we know that if it used the registration J5-GGU at all, as previously thought, it was yet another fake.

It doesn’t seem obvious, though, that anyone would casually torch an aircraft that had the special feature of having a twin identity.

I should have done this earlier rather than committing fanfic with a sliver of valuable blogging time, but it’s high time to catch up with the 4L-AWA seizure. It’s looking like this is a serious coup – not only is the aircraft one with a long and complex history in the trade, but a lot of data about the consignors has surfaced. Grant Peck of AP has a round-up of the state of play here. And Viktor Bout, from his remand cell, has given ITAR-TASS his opinion (shorter Vik: he knows nuffink and it’s not his plane innit).

However, one of the aircrew (Mikhail Petukhov, who was the flight engineer) turns out to be an old comrade of Viktor’s from his time in the Soviet Air Force’s 339th Air Transport Regiment in Vitebsk during the 1980s, as vitebsk.cc reports. Simon Shuster of Time has a good story about the aircrew and specifically Petukhov:

The chief engineer on the flight was Mikhail Petukhov, 54, an out-of-work Belarusian with nearly two decades of experience in the Soviet air force. His wife Vera told TIME by phone from Belarus that the flight was Petukhov’s first for a company whose name he never told her. Before that, he had waited more than six months for a job. “That’s how it always is,” she says. “Only once in a while by chance they’ll get a call about some one-off job. And they take what they can get. Once he was gone for three months and came back with only $50; other times it’s more. Then he waits around again.” She said he had never the other crew members, all Kazakhs, before he left in early December for Kiev, where the flight is believed to have originated.

Sensibly enough, the Thai police have secured the data from the crew’s mobile phones. Asia Times gives details of the cargo:

The haul included large numbers of rocket propelled grenades (RPGs), man-portable surface-to-air missiles, and two mobile multiple-rocket launchers, either M-1985 or M-1991’s, capable of firing 240mm rockets. The weapons were removed by the Thai military to Takhili Air Force base in central Nakhon Sawan, north of Bangkok. Thai authorities estimated the value of the cargo at around US$18 million. The crew, who are likely to be telling the truth, said they believed they were carrying heavy equipment for oil operations.

The next step is for the weapons to be inventoried and reported to the UN’s North Korea Sanctions Committee, which is mandated to investigate violations of the sanctions. Under UN resolutions, the weapons should then be destroyed, although there is some debate in Thailand about whether the weapons will be kept for its armed forces.

Asia Times also says, quoting Kazakh officials, that some of the crew members were on leave from East Wing at the time.

As for the plane, 3D-RTA/TL-ACY has been on United Nations lists of aircraft involved in illegal arms transfers since at least 2001 – the 2001 Expert Panel on Sanctions for Liberia report refers. So does the matching report from 2003.

112. The Panel also examined film footage from August 2002 that showed several hundred M70 assault rifles captured in Tubmanburg. Serial numbers from these also matched the six Belgrade shipments of 2002 (see para. 72 above). The Panel has also obtained film footage of LURD members in Liberia handling nine Strela surface-to-air missiles. LURD claim that these were captured from Liberian-backed dissidents who invaded Guinea in 2000 and they appear to match a sanctions- busting shipment of weapons organized by Sanjivan Ruprah and delivered to Liberia in May 2000 by an Ilyushin-76 (registration TL-ACU) of the now defunct
Centrafrican Airlines run by arms dealer Victor Bout (see S/2001/1015). The Panel has obtained a copy of the shipment order obtained by Belgian Police from Mr. Ruprah when they detained him in 2002. LURD in all probability were given these weapons by Guinean forces after they captured the weapons from the Liberian-backed dissidents during fighting in Guinea in 2000.

The Times and AFP both tackle the question of who chartered the plane. The Times piece is perhaps the most detailed, pointing out that the ostensible charter party was a shell-company in New Zealand, set up by a local company agent, for an owner (with a Chinese name) registered in Vanuatu.

The Wall Street Journal reports, using information from TransArms and IPIS, that the aircraft routed from the Ukraine via Azerjaiban and the UAE to North Korea to load, and then planned to return via Bangkok, Sri Lanka, and the UAE to Tehran. The arms were listed on the manifest as various types of oil drilling equipment. However, it’s far from clear how meaningful the flight plan was – as long-term Viktor Bout watcher Peter Danssaert points out, stopping in Bangkok is a strange decision in itself, and they could have refiled en-route at any time. They also shed more light on the consignor – apparently, the Vanuatu company was owned by two companies in Hong Kong eventually controlled by a firm in the British Virgin Islands.

The Jerusalem Post discovers, on the basis of this, that the aircraft was carrying Taepodong-2 ballistic missile parts. Unfortunately, Bloomberg reports that this has been denied by the Thais and the heaviest rocket in the cargo is a tactical multiple-launch rocket system.

AP reports that the crew may well not have been planning to visit Bangkok – they were intercepted by Thai fighters and forced to land there after an intelligence tip-off. Another AFP story confirms the tip off, states that it came from the US, and names “Overseas Cargo FZE”, a company based in the…Sharjah Airport Free Zone! where else? as the aircraft’s real owner.

Also, meet the Mayor of Careysburg, Liberia.

Charlie Stross has done a short story that is set in an NHS facility. This done, I feel he needs to take his unique view of Britain’s national institutions to its logical, strategic target. The whole project of much of his work deals with the civil service; he’s had a go at the military, at industry, and now at the NHS. Clearly, the next step is the Conservative Party.

Sir Peter Viggers…I think I’ve heard the name. Should I look him up in Who’s Who?”

“No. Perhaps you should try Who’s What.”

“Who’s What?”

“It’s a Laundry Intranet project – run out of Section MH. It’s an internal wiki, intended to gather our collective knowledge of the political establishment – something we’ve perhaps neglected since the Healey plan of ’76. Basically we’re trying to collate key facts – who’s associated with who, who voted for what, what kind of pan-dimensional squidthing ate and replaced whose brain.”

“You mean like TheyWorkForYou, but with ineffable alien gods from somewhere we inadequately describe as hell?”

“Actually, the formal name is WhoWorksForThem. And we’re beginning to worry about Tom Steinberg. But that’s the idea. Haven’t you ever wondered what went wrong with Peter Hain? Where they found Tony Blair? How Mandelson got like that? If William Hague is alive? Why did they have to get rid of Charles Kennedy, and why they sent him to the old Benbecula rocket range? What species George Osborne actually is? We have a remarkable amount of implicit expertise here – we’re trying to crowdsource it into structured data.”

“You mentioned the Healey Plan. What..”

“Technically you don’t need to know. But that wasn’t long after the creation of the Police National Computer under Roy Jenkins, who as you know had a Bletchley Park background. There was concern that certain field agents had…overreached. There were violations of the Civil Service Code.”

“Peter Wright and all that?”

“That was one way of looking at it. Sir Peter chose to be helpful, and the Australians backed us all the way.”

“You may have wondered what happened to the LEO Computers intellectual property, to the first patents on packet switching and public key encryption. After the discovery of improprieties at MH, Denis Healey launched the first effort to create a distributed database of the service’s political information, based in a cover entity at the National Girobank processing centre in Bootle. The software development team were in the Inland Revenue offices decentralised to Shipley. Data entry was in Longbenton, Newcastle…”

I stared at the government tea in my Vi Reference mug. It looked like childhood – not that it was a reminder of innocence, normality, or love. No, it reminded me of school in the 1980s – it was grey. I expected Angleton to tell me that, unfortunately, there would only be enough textbooks for one between three rather than one between two. Thankfully I realised talking would be better than thinking about that…I always make that mistake.

“Wilson thought there were spies in his office. He thought coup plotters would burst through the garden windows. He was probably in the early stages of Alzheimers, they say..”

“He was more right than you might think. A highly susceptible personality – charming, slightly alienated, ambitious, not deeply principled or introspective. Healey, Callaghan, Sir Frank Cooper – they were very different men. Not enough imagination to end like the PM, but certainly the intelligence to grasp the situation once properly briefed. Weinstock, Scanlon, Barbara Castle…it was her data centre, after all.”

“So Healey wanted some kind of encrypted USENET for spooks in 1976? To trace…”

“A lot of work was done at ICL, Plessey, Ferranti, GEC-Marconi in Edinburgh and Basildon, DERA Malvern, BT Martlesham Heath, Racal, and elsewhere. You’d be surprised at the scale of the project – and some of the people involved. Mr. Ibrahim was a post-doc, newly arrived at BT MHRC. There’s a notable gap in Mr Berners-Lee’s career – make of that what you will. The cabinet was not informed except for the GEN-261 committee. Go-live was set for the 29th July, 1980.

We descoped a number of requirements and committed substantial extra resources in late ’78 in order to bring forward an initial operating capability. As you know, the rest is history – did you know they actually burned magnetic tape drives in the car park at Martlesham? Must have been a heavy night in the Douglas Bader…”

“I read somewhere that the Queen sent her first e-mail in 1976..”

“You’re not wrong – specifically, Her Majesty sent it from the Royal Signals’ HQ in Blandford Forum. Sir Frank had a deep commitment to the constitutional niceties. No doubt you understand the importance of out-of-band connectivity.

Anyway, look at this photo.”

“You mean…he’s one of the undead?”

“Not the rest of them, you idiot!”

Update: Ken MacLeod contributes a much better ending – “Not him – the rest of them, you idiot!”

Viggers as the only human being in the 1922 Committee. I mean, who would believe that thing with the duck house? Clearly a cover story to exfil him before the tentacles closed in…

(Update: Amendment to make clear who’s speaking.)

look what the cat dragged in

So this is the best news story on the Ilyushin 76 seized in Thailand I’ve yet seen. Based on that, we know that the aircraft is ex-Beibars (a company that suddenly appeared on the Viktorfeed at the end of 2007, and which is banned from the EU) and ex-East Wing. But we still didn’t have a registration or a serial number.

But looking up Air West Georgia (ICAO: AWG), I could simply look for an aircraft described as ex-Beibars or ex-East Wing. ATDB.org had a reference to 4L-AWA at AWG as being ex-East Wing; following it back, I found it had been supposedly transferred from East Wing to Beibars but the transaction had been cancelled. That, however, was enough to find the serial number (3426765). And what did we find in the database for that?

4L-AWA is none other than Air Pass/Air Cess’s Swazi registry 3D-RTA, Centrafricain Airlines’ TL-ACY, and GST Aero’s UN-76007 – to put it another way, it’s been with Viktor Bout companies since 1997, when it was taken off the Russian register in order to be exported to Malaysia – entirely fictionally. In fact, it was already a regular visitor to Sharjah in 1996, according to photo evidence, which places it there while Richard Chichakli was setting up the SAIF Free Zone.

Since then, ATDB has updated its files to confirm the aircraft is indeed number 3426765. At Beibars, it was operating along with none other than the former YU-AMJ, an aircraft previously used by Tomislav Damjanovic’s Air Tomisko to run guns and ciggies in and out of the Balkan wars. 3344804, also with Beibars as UP-I7623, is also ex-GST Aero (and a few others – Aerolift of Somalia fame and Air Leone). In fact, every aircraft there had seen service moving arms into war zones.

East Wing, in case you ask, is itself banned from the EU and owned the bulk of the old GST Aero fleet of Ilyushin 76 before they were mostly moved on to Beibars. It also has another ex-GST Il-76 via another company and the former ST-AQA, formerly of both GST and Phoenix Aviation – and this aircraft in northeastern Brazil.

Supposedly it was carrying a sizable cargo of arms from North Korea declared as “oil drilling equipment”. (wot no fish?) I don’t know where to, or whether there is truth to the North Korean bit, but it was an aircraft well worth stopping on suspicion based on an asset operating history analysis. It is fair to say that the UAE would have been a likely call before going somewhere else, perhaps in Africa or southwest Asia.

Wild speculation would be that this can’t help Viktor Bout’s case very much and that therefore this is quite a coup.

I’m going to America. Specifically, I’ll be organising Telco 2.0 Americas in Orlando on the 9th and 10th of December. Then, I’ve got a two-and-a-half day layover in a hotel with marching ducks. The prose is worth quoting:

In a special elevator, the five North American mallard ducks, four hens and one drake, comprising The Peabody Ducks, descend from their $100,000 penthouse Royal Duck Palace.

When the elevator doors open, The Peabody Ducks, accompanied by their crimson-and-gold- braid-jacketed Duck Master™, take up their positions on a plush red carpet and begin The March of The Peabody Orlando Ducks to the strident tones of John Philip Sousa’s King Cotton March.

They waddle their way in formation through the hotel’s marble halls, and when they reach the magnificent, orchid-crowned fountain, which takes center stage in the Atrium Lobby, the ducks mount three red-carpeted steps and splash into the fountain’s waters. Tumultuous applause reverberates through the lofty, foliage-draped lobby…

I bet it does.

Here’s something interesting, from Kings of War; statistical analysis shows that there is no correlation between arrests on terrorism charges and the concentration of Muslims in the population. It’s almost as if…a gratifyingly small percentage of people are completely fucking stupid and pig-ignorant, that this is normally distributed in the population, and it’s essentially a matter of chance what pig-ignorant fucking stupidity they get up to You know – like the BNP.

Actually, I can think of one less snarky explanation that fits the facts. This would be that converts are disproportionately likely to either a) become jihadis or b) fall under police suspicion. Assuming that the relative salience of Muslim converts in the general population is likely to be higher where there aren’t many real Muslims, that would explain this effect. Like the guy in Exeter. It would also fit my original Bloody Idiot hypothesis; angry, not too bright and not too stable, and pretty ignorant, suddenly finding a kit of new obsessions to channel their unfocused rage.

Just like…the BNP.

Meanwhile, Johann Hari has a good piece in the Indy in which he interviews a lot of ex-jihadis. He clearly got a serve from the Quilliam Foundation, the Institute for Studies, and probably the Cats’ Protection League in doing this one, but it’s well worth reading – especially the bits about Amnesty International.

We had a post about the MQM in Karachi and the Taliban. Strangely enough, Reuters got a fascinating interview with the MQM mayor of Karachi a couple of days later. It’s a must-read – one of the main points that comes through is the way in which the struggle up on the frontier and in Afghanistan is indivisible from the trading world of the Gulf and the Arabian Sea.

The city of 18 million people generates 68 percent of the government revenue and 25 percent of Pakistan’s gross domestic product but it is vulnerable to both militant attacks and political violence, said mayor Syed Mustafa Kamal.

“As Karachi is the revenue engine for Pakistan, it’s the same revenue engine for the Taliban,” Kamal told Reuters in an interview in his office….”People are being kidnapped here in Karachi and the ransom is taken in Waziristan,” he said, referring to a northwestern ethnic Pashtun region where the army has been battling militants since October.

Four hundred million rupees ($4.8 million) had recently been sent from one Karachi bank branch to various parts of the northwest in one month, he said. “That’s abnormal,” he said. “For sure, the biggest chunk of Taliban war … resources are going from Karachi.”

He also has some interesting things to say about NATO logistics in Afghanistan:

Kamal said a large proportion of supplies bound for U.S.-led forces in landlocked Afghanistan arrive at Karachi’s port, which he said was still vulnerable to an attack that could cripple the U.S. war effort.

“If they don’t get their water supply through this route the next day they’ll be drinking Afghan water and the next day half the army will have stomach problems,” he said.

I don’t know if we really are shipping water in through Karachi, but it’s certainly an answer to the trick question about the MQM’s current tactical alignment. I’m not sure what to make of Jeremy Scahill’s piece on ex-Blackwater (a “media scouring” outpost in Karachi that’s also a “lilypad to jump off to Uzbekistan” – jumping past other major US bases like Bagram and Kandahar, presumably?), but it’s worth noting that, for what it’s worth, Kestral Trading, the local firm that actually seems to handle the cargo and guard the convoys is usually accused of being part of the Musharraf family (low-grade sources, but then….)





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