the all purpose al-Qa’ida argument applied to aviation

There’s quite a lot of buzz about this story, in which a DHS report into criminal use of aircraft over the South Atlantic gets rehashed. The “Air Cocaine” case in Mali has given the whole thing another layer of sexy, of course, and it’s good to know that the problem is recognised – even better that it’s no longer considered to be a potential ally.

However, it’s still a subject on which governments project their existing prejudices. For example, it’s not apparently enough for there to be 10 tons of cocaine in the 727 – to get anyone’s attention, you need to get a terrorist in there too. Similarly, you rarely get away without a ritual attack on Venezuela, which is getting to be a sort of happy hunting ground for fans of state sponsorship theories like the Bek’aa Valley used to be for Dick Cheney. And, of course, there’s the temptation to look for anything that connects the story with Viktor Bout.

Of course, the main reason why such aircraft might pass through Venezuelan airfields is that it’s on the way; 727 serial 21619 stopped in Fortaleza, which is even closer to West Africa, on the way out and probably on the way back, but I suppose Brazil is too big to pick on. The report linked does at least note that the geography is important.

For people like Paul Wolfowitz and his “network of friendly militias”, I suppose they saw a provider of useful services. The drugs people see it as part of the Drug War. The arms trade people see it as a small arms transfer issue, and the terrorism people see it as something to do with terrorism. I’m trying to see it as something to do with the ambiguities of globalisation; in a sense, it doesn’t really matter which terrorists or whose arms are travelling in whose aircraft.

There is, however, a fringe economy that empowers and profits from all these things, and there’s the rub. It does so in ways that confound the aims of the powerful (like the drugs and the terrorists) and it does so in ways that further them (like the Iraq logistics and arms to Angola). Finding convenient terrorists shouldn’t be necessary.

One thing that interests me about the South Atlantic element of this is that, if the Viktor Bout experience is anything to go by, a critical element is hybridisation with the legitimate economy, and especially major nodes of trade.

Both the Sharjah Airport free zone, for example, and the UAE airports themselves essentially permitted Viktor Bout, and many others, to operate outside the law while also enjoying the facilities of civilisation. They could get major aircraft maintenance done, compete for legitimate cargo, and also stash planeloads of arms in bonded warehouses. A long runway is a necessary but not a sufficient feature; there was a reason why they didn’t set up camp in Riyan or Machiranish.

So where’s HQ for the West Africa/Latin American community? I still like Ajay’s suggestion of Conakry, especially in the light of its increasingly dysfunctional junta (although, the trick is to put your base well away from the customers…). But I would expect to see more traffic there on the Vfeed. However, it’s quite probable that it will be located somewhere where there is an active interface between extreme free markets and an authoritarian state, and where there is substantial infrastructure. In fact, you could almost identify free zone authoritarians as a subtype of the modern thinkers.

Note that the typical aircraft types in the Atlantic are Western – Gulfstreams and Boeing 727s. This has consequences for their maintenance and support.


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