Archive for September, 2004

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | SpaceShipOne rolls to first mark

Rutan’s space ship has another successful trip to space.

Not at all surprising

An Iraqi National Guard commander, an ex-general in the ex-evil forces of the ex-regime, has been caught working for the other side.

“Lieutenant General Talib Abd Ghayib al-Lahibi led three Iraqi National Guard battalions in Diyala province, the volatile region north of Baghdad that includes the insurgent strongholds of Baquba and Samarra. The US military detained Lahibi on Thursday “for having associations with known insurgents.”

This is pretty typical of this war. Much of the struggle is a struggle for loyalty, not for territory or force. The Shia uprising showed the benefit of trying to co-opt the bits of the police force that might agree with you and destroying the rest. The mirror image is the gold rush for the brains of the old regime – Ayad “al-Baathi” Allawi being exhibit A. The problem with this superficially attractive strategy is, of course, that betrayers can always re-betray. “You can rat, but you can’t re-rat” never struck me as a very intelligent remark.


….about Iraq. They care about being nasty to asylum seekers, and dog dirt. Everyone knows that, especially Labour’s candidate for the Hartlepool by-election, Iain Wright.

““I’ve met more than 4,000 people by now, and do you know?” Wright said. “Only two have even mentioned it. It’s local issues people care about; that’s why they want a local candidate.” Not five minutes later we met a man who had voted Labour all his life, but wouldn’t this time because of the war. “What an amazing co-incidence,” Wright marvelled afterwards. “He was the third.”

(from Backword)

A parallel experience: the other day I was listening to BBC Radio 5, running an interview with John Rentoul of the Independent on Sunday (and author of a life of Tony Blair) about Blair’s party conference speech. Rentoul, who is a Blair loyalist (if his column in the Sindy is anything to go on), gave the usual spiel. Iraq? Mutter mutter middle-class mutter mutter oppositional mindset mutter lefties mutter mutter doorstep mutter antisocial behaviour mutter ordinary people. They opened the phone lines, and promptly enough some dozen callers popped up to rant and rail against “Taking us to war on a false premise!” and “Never voting Labour again…because of the war!” and “Bliar” – you know the stuff. Ha.

One of British Gulf’s Antonov 12s, registration EX-161, serial number 5343305 was photographed in Kabul on the 16th of July, 2003. Close examination of the photo gives the impression that the registration and titles were newly added. What significance the aircraft’s name, “Fatima” (signwritten on the nose) has is currently unknown.

Click Here
to view the photo

The image itself will be visible once arranged with the photographer.

Back, back, way back when, I did some research following up reports in the Financial Times and Le Monde that the US Government had been putting pressure on the UK to help keep gun-runner Viktor Bout off a UN asset freeze list, apparently because he had done the state some service in Iraq. It only took a little Googling and thought to discover a list of fuel supply contracts issued by the US Department of Defence’s Defence Energy Support Centre that demonstrated conclusively that at least two (Air Bas and British Gulf International Airlines) and possibly a third Bout-related airlines were indeed working for the US Government. Applying the rules contained in the DOD instruction manual for these contracts, I was able to interpret the contract identification numbers (DODAACs), which showed that they were of the type used for supplying contractors on government service (a “T” DoDAAC) with fuel provided on credit at US Air Force bases. The first post, from the 21st of May, is here. Only some two other bloggers – Laura Rozen of War and Piece and Douglas Farah at link have picked up on the story. Farah, in particular, has moved the story on several times.

Today, it seems the print media are finally catching up. (After all, they could have Googled back in May and basked in the glory all summer, but..) US magazine Mother Jones is running a comprehensive story on the involvement of the US with Air Bas, in which they quote Bout’s financial advisor, Texan accountant Richard Chichakli, as confirming the existence of US-Bout contracts. Richard tends to give good quote, as anyone who fossicks through my comments threads on the Bout issue will discover, and he was no different for Mother Jones:

“Victor said if anybody calls you, unless it’s Jesus himself, with an ID, don’t bring him to me”

Hmm…not at all rattled, then. Farah, for his part, has produced a long post giving detail of the TBTC-series fuel contracts (but no new information compared to my original posting, here) and, interestingly, claiming to have other documents placing Bout aircraft at various locations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The rest of the Bout posts are: 1st June, 4th June, 7th June, 8th June, 1st July, 24th July, 6th August, 9th August, 13th August, 21st August, 20th September and 26th September. Don’t I wish this blog had a categorisation function like the Movable Type boys.

Despite further efforts and the valuable aid of several readers, I still have not been able to clarify why the US needed Viktor Bout’s services. Interestingly, though, I have recently found a photo placing one of British Gulf’s Antonov 12s in Kabul in July, 2003. (Edit: links restored)

The Great Mercury Plot!

Four men have been arrested on terrorism charges apparently after they were induced to attempted to buy so-called “red mercury” from a man who turned out to be Mahzer Mahmood, the News of the World‘s “investigations editor”. The NOTW broke this story today under the headline “Dirty Bomb Foiled by News of the World“. BBC radio news reported the arrests and the story without, however, either attributing it or making any enquiry into its credibility.

Red mercury – now, I personally never thought I’d hear that phrase again. If you recall, a spate of rumours ran around the world shortly after the break-up of the Soviet Union that Soviet scientists had invented some sort of material known as red mercury, for which a fantastical variety of claims were made. Some said it might hold the key to anti-gravity, others that it was the most dense material known to mankind, still others that it was used to paint Soviet stealth aircraft. Most agreed that, whatever the exact details, it was some kind of weapon. Various stories suggest either that it is supposedly used to build a pure fusion weapon, which could theoretically be a very small neutron bomb, or that it is a chemical explosive powerful enough to initiate fusion.

Scary stuff, if it wasn’t for the fact that nobody has ever seen any.

There were numerous cases of people claiming to have the stuff for sale to the highest bidder, but they all without exception turned out to be fraudulent. Tomato ketchup figured prominently in their wares. Most recent comment about it comes from highly dubious websites (one claims that Iraq possessed secret red-mercury fusion bombs capable of taking out the US’s strategic deterrent systems…), and the vast majority of web search results for it relate to a computer game.

“Now you can experience the war against terrorism from the safety of your own living

room in Shadow Ops: Red Mercury!”

I thought the point of terrorism was that your living room wasn’t safe, but let that pass. No doubt this obscurity is partly because it had its 15 minutes just prior to the internet, but most scientists in the field have long since considered it to be a myth. (Although Dr. Frank Barnaby of SIPRI apparently thinks it might be usable as a detonator.) For example, let’s look at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists from 1997, here.

“The asking price for red mercury ranged from $100,000 to $300,000 per kilogram. Sometimes the material would be irradiated or shipped in containers with radioactive symbols, perhaps to convince potential buyers of its strategic value. But samples seized by police contained only mercury oxide, mercuric iodide, or mercury mixed with red dye-hardly materials of interest to weapons-makers.”

A couple of pars further down, another quote of interest to us:

“Indeed, authorities in Russia and Central Europe are hard put to identify any buyers of stolen nuclear substances who were not undercover police, intelligence agents, or journalists searching for a story.

This is the heart of the story, in fact. Mahzer Mahmood, for those of you unfamiliar with British tabloid journalism, has made a career of dressing up as an “Arab sheikh” and persuading celebrities to commit embarrassing acts (taking cocaine, usually) in front of a hidden camera. His triumph/nadir was the report that the NOTW had “foiled” a supposed plot to kidnap David and Victoria Beckham – a stellar scoop which backfired badly when the Crown Prosecution Service dropped the case against the “kidnappers” on the grounds that the £10,000 Mahmood had paid to the key (indeed only) witness might possibly skew his evidence (Link). It didn’t stop there. The witness, a Kosovar parking attendant, turned out to have previous convictions for dishonesty and had been treated for psychiatric problems. And – strangely enough – he was the first of the group to mention kidnapping or the Beckhams on the tapes provided by the paper. (Link) He had also previously taken part in two other NOTW sting stories. The whole thing was frankly sordid.

One feature of Mr. Mahmood’s controversial career has been his impressive rapport with the police. After all, they turned out with a crack firearms unit for the Beckham story. Now, it would appear, they have gone one better with a major anti-terrorist operation. Let us get this completely clear – you cannot make a dirty bomb with red mercury, because a) mercury isn’t radioactive and b) red mercury, in all probability, does not exist. As usual, Mahmood presented himself as the potential seller – posing important questions of incitement. It is outrageous that both the Metropolitan Police and the BBC seem to have gone along with this pathetic pantomime.

….and unsurprisingly, they show it’s not very good.

Allawi told Washington Post reporters and editors on Friday that “for now the only place which is not really that safe is Fallujah, downtown Fallujah. The rest, there are varying degrees. Some — most — of the provinces are really quite safe.”

The Kroll reports are based on nonclassified data provided by U.S.-led military forces, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, private security companies working in Iraq and nongovernmental organizations. The reports, which Kroll has refused to distribute to journalists, were provided to The Post by a person on the list to receive them. They cover the period of Sept. 13 through Sept. 22 — but do not include Sept. 15, 18 or 19, for which reports were not available.

To many natives and foreigners living in Iraq, the portrait of progress that Allawi painted during his trip to Washington does not depict reality.

After his speech to a joint meeting of Congress on Thursday, Allawi described Baghdad as “very good and safe.” In fact, during the period for which security reports were available, the number of attacks in the capital averaged 22 a day.”

Which Spammer are you?

Which Nigerian spammer are You?

Taken it several times, but can’t get Viktor out of it yet…mind you, the code for the result doesn’t work but still pushes my sidebar out. So fuckem.

One little-publicised problem for the investigation of hostage-takings in Iraq may have been created by a lack of Internet security awareness among Western businesses operating in Baghdad. Although videos issued by the al-Zarqawi group tend to be uploaded to the websites they appear on at round about the same time of day – a regularity that on the face of it might offer valuable opportunities to investigators – so far, no-one has been able to trace the computer from which they were sent. Even if the site operator is speedily contacted and cooperative in providing the IP address used, this may only lead to a PC in a nameless cybercafe. If court action is needed to get the contents of the log, there is little hope of finding the culprit. You might have thought, though, given an idea of the time and the geographical area, that it might be possible to watch a fair number of cybercafes.

The new problem, though, wrecks it. I have been informed by a person with relevant skills that many of the Western firms still operating in Baghdad have set up wireless access points – some of them without configuring access control features like WEP keys, or leaving these set to default or easily guessed values. When this occurs in London, little harm is done except that warchalkers might leave a chalk mark on your building. Possibly the competition might interfere. If you have covered a chunk of central Baghdad with lovely free internet access, though, you have created the possibility that somebody might use your IP to post their latest hate-vid on the web. Investigation would lead to a dead end, especially as the killers could keep moving whilst they did the job.