Archive for the ‘Africa’ Category

One thing that is perhaps being overlooked by people discussing whether or not it would be wise to impose a no-fly zone over Libya is exactly what such a zone would set out to prevent. When it was first suggested, it was inspired by the general horror that the Libyan government was having crowds of civilians strafed by its Sukhoi 22 close-support aircraft. However, especially since several Libyan Air Force crews defected to Malta and to the revolution, air activity has turned out to be much less significant in what is beginning to look like a classical West- or Central-African civil war, based around Toyota pickups and 23mm Russian anti-aircraft guns and mercenaries paid with the money from exporting some mineral or other. You know the one.

It’s fairly well known that Libya sponsored several of the key warlords of 90s West Africa – Foday Sankoh, Charles Taylor, and several others originally met up in Libyan-funded training camps. Interestingly, not only did one of the versions of Jetline International base itself in Tripoli and trade aircraft back and forth with two of Viktor Bout’s companies, but Gaddafi’s government maintains an impressive airlift capacity. As well as the two flag-carrier airlines, Libyan Arab and Afriqiyah, whose names track the changing priorities of foreign policy, the Air Force operates a semi-commercial cargo wing, Libyan Arab Air Cargo, with a fleet of Ilyushin 76 and even two enormous Antonov-124s, some of very few such aircraft owned outside the former Soviet Union.

I’ve put together a Google spreadsheet of transport-type aircraft with Libyan operators, sorted so that currently active aircraft are at the top, and generated URIs to look them up on, for subscribers, and on, in the two right hand columns.

There are a total of 180 airframes, of which 118 are active. It’s probably worth noting that there was a report that top managers at Afriqiyah had resigned rather than take part in Gaddafi’s war effort, and constant rumours of mercenaries being lifted into airfields in the southern deserts.

The upshot of this is that logistics, rather than tactical air power, might be the most important factor in Gaddafi’s efforts to defeat the Libyan revolution/win the Libyan civil war. Rather than engaging in combat, the aim might instead be blockade, as a complement to the international financial sanctions already in place. (A ship has recently been stopped in British waters carrying large quantities of freshly printed Libyan currency.)

On the other hand, it also adds complexity and risk to the whole issue. There are still plenty of people who want to leave Libya, and British government-chartered airliners are ferrying some of them from Tunisia to Egypt. It would be a bad business, to say the least, to shoot down an Il-76 full of refugees. It could be better to try to cut off the supply chain at source by grounding Libyan aircraft elsewhere in the world, although this requires the cooperation of those states who are still willing to let them recruit on their territory. Further, imposing a blockade also implies a responsibility for the survival of the civilian population. Sending aid to eastern Libya has already been suggested, of course.

For a little extra, the Russian Demography blog, venturing well out of its usual beat, notes that the Libyan Government’s Dassault Falcon 900EX business jet, 5A-DCN, took a trip to Minsk recently. Its ICAO identifier, useful with virtual-radar sites, is 018019. There are various things the regime might find useful in Belarus – mercenaries, again, small arms (although they don’t appear to be short of them), and perhaps least disturbingly, impunity. (Hat tip.)

Sean McFate has an interesting piece about organising the army of post-Charles Taylor Liberia in Foreign Policy. Here’s a quote:

We formed investigative teams composed of one international and one Liberian investigator. Together they handled individual cases, traveling to a recruit’s home village to verify data and garner character references. We compiled and assessed existing public records for accuracy and volume and ran candidates’ names through the limited records that we found credible. To our surprise, some of the best records came not from the government but from local NGOs such as the West African Examination Council, which had administered and kept records of high school achievement tests for decades.

The Examination Council. There was a functioning exam board in 90s Liberia; that’s absurd and heroic all at once.

a question

Back in September, 2006, we were talking illegal immigrants and artisanal shipbuilding in West Africa, over at the Fistful.

one of the curious economic details you could notice was how the process was in fact exhibiting an increasing returns type feature, in that the increased demand for boats increasingly meant that a number of would-be migrants were actually not sailing but staying since they could make a reasonable living in the newly developing artisanal shipyard industry, with the consequence that more boats were being built as knowledge and experience (human capital) was being accumulated…

One other interesting detail is that the level of workmanship seemed good. They even use, as I say, 1980s style Volvo teams rather than Adam Smith like pin production lines.

As it happened, the crisis passed, and the big attractor – the Spanish housing bubble – collapsed not long afterwards. So, I was wondering what had become of that sudden industry churning out huge versions of traditional boat designs. After all, there is more than one use for a boat in the black economy.

And you know what? I’ve no idea. As far as I can make out, that particular route lost salience during 2007, almost certainly because of the macroeconomic crisis rather than the arrival of EU FRONTEX assistance. With that, it’s passed completely out of the news environment. I couldn’t find anything useful in the way of statistics either; Eurostat is just what you’d expect from someone’s dentist,

So, are there thousands of wooden vessels abandoned on the beaches? Does anyone know? (I’d like this post to grow if possible.)

Kano seizure update

A quick UR-CAK update. The owners are vigorously protesting, but it still isn’t clear who they are. The crew apparently claimed that the arms belonged to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence, and the handling agent and the Equatorial Guinea government say they are for Equatorial Guinea. But it seems that the plane came from Zagreb, typically via Malta or Benghazi in Libya, and the arms were probably loaded there. The Ukrainian arms export agency – not strange to a dodgy deal in Africa – denies the weapons came from them. Exports from the Balkans are common; see the 99 tonnes of guns and Sloman Traveller posts.

Meanwhile, Viktor Bout has got a Web site. It bears more than a family resemblance to Richard Chichakli’s, and in fact the domain name was registered by the same person.

I’m getting reports that the UAE authorities have revoked permission to fly for all Antonov-12s, and the substantial fleet based on Dubai and Sharjah has been given notice to quit last night. Apparently the proximate cause was a spate of embarrassing and perilous runway excursions, as well as the recent loss of an Antonov-12 with BGIA in Iraq, working for DHL.

Of course I’m monitoring all movements through the Viktorfeed. So far, I’ve noticed a spike of activity overnight followed by a very quiet day; which is roughly what you’d expect if all the Antonovs just left, like the dolphins in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Last night saw over 150 movements, and tellingly they were almost all outward bound. But so far I’ve not detected any pattern in their destinations; they seem to have flown their usual routes and not returned, so the total fleet has scattered across South-Western Asia.

If this is so, a lot will be in Afghanistan (Kabul, Bagram, Herat and Kandahar) and Djibouti tonight, with a few in Kurdistan. This is going to be a serious problem for quite a few people, notably the coalition and NATO forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. Much passenger activity is now carried in old 737s by AVE/Phoenix Aviation and KAMAir, but with the exception of the Ilyushin 76s, every significant airfield in Afghanistan gets several An-12 runs a day.

It’s going to be interesting to see where they end up, especially the BGIA Boyz, what with being an all-Antonov 12 operation and all. Back to Ostend? Surely not. West Africa gets kinda slow these days, and it’s a long slow haul to Colombia for an An-12. Moldova cleaned up its act. Perhaps Beirut, or somewhere in the Caucasus – which would be off the trade routes a bit. Or maybe they’ll set up a completely new operation somewhere with a long runway and no government, a pirate state?

Remind me to have a look at the airfields of Somalia. However, a search of the logs shows something I hadn’t spotted; “Star Air Aviation” has sent off a whole string of flights from Dubai since Thursday, some eleven, all of them to Karachi. And none have come back. Needless to say, the nearest operator in the UAE to that name doesn’t officially have any Antonovs and has a radically different ICAO call sign…

But if anyone’s wondering where all the old Russian crates came from, get in touch. You can consider this an Operation Firedump alert.

Meanwhile, this is good news. As more and more ships from various parts of the world – like China and Iran – arrive in pirate country, somebody’s made vaguely sensible arrangements to put them on trial in Kenya, which is what has been done with the ones captured by Northumberland. This is a much better idea than returning them to the tender mercies of Somali rivals, or alternatively to their home base, or any evil nonsense promoted by tiresome Internet hard men. (You know who you are.)

I’m not sure whether to be pleased, or worried that China and Iran are apparently cooperating in an exercise designed to be more law-abiding than some British courts, and far more so than whole swaths of the US defence establishment. This is incredibly important; I keep saying that a primary reason for the success of some Islamist movements is that they offer some form of legal order, rather than Franz Neumann’s Behemoth.

After all, dogs have an innate appreciation of justice, so we should surely accept that it matters for human beings too. As a modest proposal, now the EU has taken over the lead in combating piracy in the Gulf of Aden, could we perhaps give the naval task force a further mission – to compel EU-flag fishing vessels to respect the Somali EEZ? (We wouldn’t have legal authority to stop anyone else without a UN resolution, but it’s a start.) I agree they have plenty on their plate, which is why I’m going to make a second modest proposal.

Rather than frigates, EU states participating in this could instead deploy some of their sizeable fleet of amphibious assault ships, with a deckload of helicopters, a dock of small craft, and a tankdeck containing a mix of marines for boarding parties, and medics, engineers etc to support the UN’s aid activities.

While I’m on the topic of Giustozzi, here’s something else which is important. One of the biggest motivators for a village to support a Taliban presence is a dispute that the official authorities, in so far as they exist, or the tribal authorities have failed to solve, or have solved in a manner that seems unjust. Another is a desire for security. But this is qualitatively less important; there is a huge difference between “security” and justice.

After all, any half-arsed authoritarian regime can at least claim to be providing security – patrolling, locking people up, shooting other people, maintaining a network of informers, battering suspects – all these can be described as “security”. But it’s almost characteristic of authoritarian and failed states that the state itself is a major insecurity producer.

Which brings me to my point. The reason why so many Islamist movements that succeed lay a lot of emphasis on the judiciary – the Islamic Courts in Somalia didn’t bother to give themselves any other name until after they’d set up shop in the presidential palace – is also the reason for their success. Giustozzi argues that a lot of Afghans don’t actually support the content of the Taliban’s lawbook very much. What he doesn’t go on to say, but perhaps should, is that this implies they choose law in general over lawlessness.

Given the choice of what is marketed as order without law, but which as always turns out to be chaos, and some sort of legal order, the people pick the latter. And they are far from being too stupid to recognise the difference between a government which practices legality, and one that merely has a lot of statutes containing agreeable features requested by foreigners, like Ishmaelia in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. Let’s be clear – practice beats constitution-writing. Legality is not something decreed in the capital.

Franz Neumann’s Behemoth is one of the guidebooks to the last eight years. Neumann wrote in 1942 that the defining feature of the Nazi state was that it claimed to be Hobbes’ Leviathan – the all-powerful creator of minimal order – but was in fact more like the Behemoth, the Leviathan’s mythological partner, an equally mighty creator of chaos. He argued that this is true of authoritarianism everywhere; it’s worth remembering that when he wrote this, he was thinking of the pre-war Nazi state founded on the idea of the Ausnahmezustand, the state of emergency in which (the legal) order is itself suspended.

Eventually, the difference between law and order is how the police behave, on a mountain road at night.

He imagined that satellite broadcasting might help a hundred Indian villages save two cows a year and understood what an impact that might have. Says a commenter at PZ Myers’ place, on the occasion of Arthur C. Clarke’s death. Two cows a year; now that’s genius. I can’t presume to say whether this came true; I don’t have any data on satellites and Bos indicus. But I do have some numbers on fish.

Brough Turner likes to keep track of this stuff, and here’s an actual peer-reviewed study. You can get a presentation version here (pdf). On the coast of Kerala, not all that far from Clarke’s home, mobile phone networks deployed in stages down the coast between 1997 and 2000; this graph shows what happened next.


Price is on the Y axis, time on the X. Not just that, but the improvement in allocative efficiency led to an 8% increase in the fishermen’s profits and a 4% drop in the price to the customer; at the same time, the quantity of fish going to waste went down from 6% of the catch to near zero.




Ericsson RBS2111.

I was given Of Time and Stars as a very little boy; I am frankly terrified by the number of people posting all over the Web to say how much it inspired them with the sense of wonder and joy of science…what future was it preparing us for?

When Pakistan Telecom tried to kill the Internet in an effort to stop the public seeing evil things on YouTube the other week, there was instant media-reaction and a fairly swift fix by the organisations involved. Things are different when you’re a small Kenyan ISP, though; for about a day now, Africa Online (AS36915) has been off the Net after a major backbone operator, Abovenet (AS6461), erroneously announced their IP block to the rest of the world and caused a routing loop (i.e. router A sent their traffic to router B, which routed it to A…).

The good people of NANOG were on the case directly, but there’s still no solution. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that fixing a small African ISP’s upstream connectivity just isn’t a priority; it’s the weekend in fabulous Amsterdam, after all. PCCW, and everyone upstream of them, had every incentive to fix the YouTube route hijack; not only would they have been facing a barrage of complaints from their residential customers (what? no lolcats? no funneh 70s TV ads? no home-made smut?), but they would have been in hot water with, ah, Google had it kept up. And there was the self-righteousness factor; everybody wants to be standing up for freedom of expression.

Sadly, however, the prospect of falling out with Africa Online in Kenya scares nobody, except any of their customers who were counting on Internet service. Further, they aren’t going to be the biggest account at Abovenet; nor will they have much choice of transit provider. It’s been said many times before that the topological centre of the African Internet is Tookey St, SE1, so the possible diversity is limited. This hits them in more ways than one; this particular problem is harder to fix than ISI vs YouTube for a very good reason.

Internet routing always prefers the most specific route offered to a given destination; PakTel leaked a more-specific route for YouTube. But Abovenet hasn’t, so this can’t be fixed just by splitting Africa Online’s block into two equally sized more specifics. Instead, the misroute spread precisely because it came from a big and core-centric operator; Internet routing always prefers the most direct route (defined as the one that transits the fewest networks), and unless you’re Kenyan Abovenet will always be more direct than Africa Online, as they are concentrated on the North Atlantic. There’s much more detail at Danny McPherson’s; including some cracking visualisations using RIPE’s BGPlay tools.

Which I can’t see because Firefox 2, OpenSUSE, and the Java Runtime won’t play nicely. I’ve done the arse-paralysingly user-hating install – download the RPM, which isn’t actually an RPM but a shell script and an RPM, be root, do a chmod to make it executable, cd to the directory you want to put it in, mv the file over, run the shell script, ok the EULA in the command line, then do a command line rpm install of the file name without the .bin extension, cd into your /usr/lib/mozilla/plugins/ directory, and ln -s /usr/java/jre1.6.0_05/plugin/i386/ns7/ ./ assuming you chose /usr/java/, then close and reopen your browser. Seriously. But it still doesn’t fucking work. about:plugins doesn’t show it, and it still wants to download the JRE. And yes, I tried the option of ns7/gcc29/ as well.

Apart from the urgent necessity of me either getting a clue or murdering Scott McNealy with a rusty coathanger, what does this tell us? Well, Africa Online’s fate is an example that rules and freedom are indivisible, John Locke’s old insight; without implementation of routing security, anybody can bugger up anybody else’s network and the bigger, stronger, and not to say whiter you are, the worse trouble you can cause and the longer it takes to fix it. Which is why I love the EU.

Much more is filtering out about the Bangkok Bout Bust; it seems fairly certain that his arrest was the result of a sting operation in which the DEA posed as buyers from the FARC. Bout booked a meeting room in the Bangkok Sofitel; he, and several others, were waiting for their guests to arrive when the Thai police arrived instead. Initial reports said that he had only arrived in Thailand four hours earlier, on an Aeroflot flight (presumably from Russia); this has now given place to the suggestion that he had been staying in the hotel since January. It’s most likely that both are in fact true, and that Bout has been in Thailand for some time but had recently travelled to Russia.

The fake buyers ordered surface-to-air missiles and anti-armour weapons, precisely what you’d expect a modern guerrilla army to import. A figure of 100 missiles was given. According to the complaint against him, he went as far as offering them helicopters for sale, and suggested that the missiles could be delivered by airdrop into Colombia. Given the length of the route from the ex-USSR or Middle East pickup point to the destination, this argues that an Ilyushin 76 would have been the means of delivery.

According to the FT, the DEA narcs had been on the case for some time, and there had been past meetings in the Netherlands Antilles and Denmark. Further, the FT claims they got access to e-mail from Viktor’s Gmail account.

Viktor Bout has a Gmail account?!!!

In a further report, the FT mentions some of the people who were arrested with Bout. Chief among them is one “Andrew” Smulian, who has apparently already been ghosted from Thailand to the US. This name is interesting; someone of that surname has been associated with Bout since at least 1998, and he appears in the accounts of Air Pass for that year as a major recipient of cash from the company. This would appear to be corroboration of those documents.

It was inevitable that something weird would happen, though:

Mr Surapol said Mr Bout was arrested with five other people – four Russians and one British citizen – all of whom had been released due to lack of evidence of against them, and lack of local arrest warrants for them.

OK, so Bout is in Thai custody awaiting an extradition hearing. Bout and Smulian are the men named in the DEA’s writ. Smulian’s already been handed over – what’s that about? – but some five others have been released including one Briton.

I’m aware of at least two British associates, but one of them is in jail and the other hasn’t been reported as being involved in anything evil for years, and was anyway a marginal figure. The FT reckons the released men were the sting merchants.

Further, Doug Farah reports that the Russians have been making noises about issuing an extradition request; I remember overhearing a group of teenagers on a bus in Feltham, passing an ANPR mobile camera installation on the A30. One of them mentioned that it was a police camera that read number plates; the rest exclaimed “Sneaky Russians!” Indeed.

Meanwhile, the affair set the TYR infrastructure sweating, roaring and creaking like an old Antonov 12; just listen to those Kuznetsov turboprops. It was the biggest day in the history of the old blog with 1,576 uniques, plus a hundred or so more on the new blog; anything with a plane photo has been in heavy demand. My favourite google search ever: is max boot related to viktor bout? (the top result is this.)

But more interestingly, look at this: someone queried Russian Google for “Tenir Bout”, from theUAE. We also had someone in Moscow googling british gulf, as in British Gulf International Airlines/British Gulf International Company.

Here’s what our highly sophisticated surveillance network reported:
[u'06-Mar 23:45', u'Al-Fujairah', 'Sharjah', u'Tenir Airlines', u'TEB 4361', u'Estimated : 23:45 ']
[u'07-Mar 00:02', u'Al-Fujairah', 'Sharjah', u'Tenir Airlines', u'TEB 4361', u'Arrived at 00:02 ']
[u'07-Mar 03:00', None, 'Sharjah', u'Tenir Airlines', u'TEB 4361', u' ']
We’ve also seen them in the past doing routes like Sharjah-Baghdad-Kabul; a true war-on-terror trifecta, and in the last few weeks running into northern Somalia. Just look where the planes came from.

Wired Danger Room, meanwhile, theorises that the Bout network has been involved with the emerging Andes-West Africa-Europe cocaine route, and was trading weapons for drugs with the FARC. It’s plausible; even as early as the British intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000, some of the militias were noted to have transatlantic trading connections.

Just for laughs, meanwhile, someone on an Armenian IP is googling for Viktor Bout and Pierre Falcone.

Update: More detail from the horse’s mouth. Looks like the DEA agents got Smulian to call Bout on a mobile phone they handed him so they knew which line to listen on. Huge security fart on Smulian’s part.