Archive for the ‘smuggling’ 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.)


A good old fashioned gun-running story! With Antonovs, exports from Tuzla, and Bender/Bosasso in Somalia. Fascinating further details.

a technical stop

Something interesting on the Air Cocaine story. A lurker dropped off this:

El avión, Boeing 727, siglas J5-GCU de Guinea Bissau, aterrizó en el aeropuerto internacional La Chinita de Maracaibo a las 11:00 pm del 16 de octubre, procedente de Panamá. Allí permaneció poco más de una hora, mientras llenaba los tanques de combustible.

Antes de despegar, sus tripulantes presentaron un plan de vuelo con destino en Bamako, capital del país de África Occidental. No obstante, el aparato voló al sur del país. Cuando sobrevolaba Barinas, el piloto se reportó a la torre de control de Barquisimeto e indicó que tuvo que desviarse por malas condiciones atmosféricas. El vuelo nunca fue declarado en emergencia.

I think the point is that not long after leaving Maracaibo, the B727 announced a change to the flight plan and then possibly landed on yet another remote airstrip to load the cocaine, and possibly to refuel, and then continued towards Brazil and Africa.

Here’s some more Iran sense. I especially like the bit where the Content is Free comments pit tries to explain to the Iranian all about Mohammed Mossadegh and all. that. jazz. Of course, he’s essentially reiterating the former head of the IRGC’s line.

I’ve said before that the practicalities of this depend largely on what kit is available inside Iran. If there are a lot of Thurayas/other satellite terminals about, it might be possible to buy airtime and send the vouchers, or better, just the numbers off the vouchers. How many minutes could you fit in one encrypted e-mail? Quite a lot. But they are expensive, trying to buy one openly there would be the height of stupidity, and some of the biggest users are the military and the oil’n’gas sector.

He refers to this Japanese comsat project, which is indeed cool (in fact, pretty much everything JAXA does is quite cool) and is designed to use the classic footy’n’porn 45cm satellite dish antenna. The technology – phased-array beamforming antennas and on-satellite packet switching! – is impressive. However, as comments here pointed out way back in June, the problem with this is that dishes are quite visible and ‘totherside has already got used to the idea of harassing and intimidating satellite TV users. You don’t need to do electronic warfare to detect dishes – you just need your thugs to go around looking for dishes and stomping people.

Clearly, a key element in designing something like this will be minimising the antenna requirement. (Actually, the antenna is the key element in designing any radio whatsoever.) Again, the land-mobile satellite systems offer a good model – for things like the Globalstar/Iridium/Thuraya handsets, which do voice and messaging and up to 144Kbps of IP, the form factor is rather like a clunky early 90s GSM device, and the Inmarsat BGAN broadband terminals use a rectangular folding antenna, about the same size and rough design as a netbook. (The smallest available is the Thrane & Thrane Explorer 110, which breaks down in two parts, measures 20 by 10 cm, does burst speeds of 384kbps and Tx power of 10dBw.)

Similarly, I’m dubious of the idea of having a specific satellite – they are predictable, after all. Again, it would probably be better to hide in the “legitimate” traffic and the existing satellite constellation. So, it looks like the solution would be a low cost radio board that drives whatever antenna you feel you can hide, using one of the land mobile satellite services or possibly the radio hams’ AMSAT. It must do at least 10dBw and not require any fixed installation. (The AMSAT people have a linkbudget calculator here; clearly, that Thrane & Thrane device must be doing something clever.)

The Inmarsat stuff works in the L-band, around 1550MHz (check out the coffee mug antenna while you’re there), which is handy as the other band they use is too high for the Universal Software Radio Peripheral, the open-source radio kit. Which currently costs about $700 – and it’s illegal to sell them to Iranians if you’re in the US, which the manufacturer is. Not that buying one would be the smartest move either, but there you go.

So, it needs to be cheaper than the USRP, it needs to be feasible to make it from parts available in – say – Iran. On the up side, it doesn’t need to be as smart as the USRP because it’s specialised to task, rather than a general purpose device that has to be capable of a lot of different radio profiles.

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.

OK, so there’s a recently wrecked aircraft on an airstrip in northeastern Mali and the UN reckons it brought over 10 tons of cocaine into the new West Africa-Southern Europe smuggling route. However, no-one seems to know what type of aircraft it is or what the registration was. All sources I can find – which amount to AFP wire service bulletins in the main – describe it as a Boeing 727. Rumour claims it was J5-CGU, but J5-CGU is a Boeing 707…which might also be registered J5-GGU. And sources of mine are talking about a 707 as well.

Anyway, that particular airframe (serial number 19372/655) is the sort of aeroplane you’d expect to be mixed up in this; it was one of Peak Aviation’s aircraft at the time when this name was used for shipments of arms to the northern side in the Yemeni civil war, apparently on behalf of Saudi Arabia. One of the 707 captains involved was none other than coke smuggler Chris Barrett-Jolley, who recalled in a TV interview seeing Saudi AWACS operating on his route into Riyan Mukalla.

There’s only one problem; this photo, which both identifies J5-CGU and J5-GGU as being one and the same, and also attracted a comment which places the plane in Mombasa on the 25th of November, 2009. AFP reports that the wreck was discovered on the 2nd of November, and UNODC official Alexandre Schmidt made public the details, such as they are, on the 16th.

This is interesting; supposedly, J5-CGU/GGU travelled from Panama to Maracaibo, Venezuela, arriving there on the 16th October, and there refuelled and filed a flight plan for Bamako, Mali, where (in this account) she never arrived. But, it seems, the plane reached Mombasa on or before the 25th of November. Even if the commenter was wrong, and meant the 25th October, this version still won’t hold together.

According to a source who follows the official view, the aircraft routed outbound from Sharjah via Mombasa and Conakry to Panama. It seems unlikely that the aircraft would have gone to Panama to load, and backtracked to Venezuela, rather than loading in one of the producer countries further south. But in fact, it’s impossible for a standard 727 to have routed as described at all.

With a range in still air of 2,700 nautical miles, it could certainly have got to Mombasa, but Conakry is roughly a thousand miles out of range from there. And Conakry to Panama City is two thousand miles further than the range of a 727-200. Maracaibo to Bamako is similarly impossible. And the crash-site is even further.

Now, the 707-320 might have made it; 10 tons is one sixth of the possible total load, leaving the rest for fuel. Doing a rough calculation, that would leave enough fuel for well over 4,500 miles. But we know it wasn’t the 707, or at least not that one. It shouldn’t be difficult to clear this up, because all you need to know to distinguish a 727 from a 707 is that one has three engines and one has four.

Of course, the Venezuelan government reckons the Americans are making it up. Well. Another aircraft had a bad landing in Mali recently – AFP again.

A US aircraft that was in trouble had made a “difficult landing” in Mali, causing slight injuries among some people aboard, the US embassy in the west African country said on Friday. “An aircraft made a difficult landing yesterday (Thursday) at around 100 kilometres from Bamako. The plane was carrying six passengers and three crew members. Cases of slight injury were reported,” the embassy said in a statement.

“The Malian air force immediately sent its aircraft to help find the plane in difficulty and to co-ordinate the ground movements of rescue teams and ambulances with medical personnel.”

According to a source close to the Malian army, the US plane “came from a neighbouring country”. “It had serious problems near a place called Kolokani,” the source added. “It was in Mali for reasons related to security and it made more than one forced landing.” Neither the kind of plane nor its mission in Mali were disclosed.

I bet they weren’t. It’s probably worth pointing out that this place is nowhere near the other crash site, which is located near Gao. To my surprise, this place turns out to be a substantial city (58,000 people); there is an airport with an 8,200 foot runway, which would be too short for a laden 707 of any type and especially a -320 but adequate for a 727 unless operating at absolute maximum take-off weight.

making an arrest

Remember those Tuareg uranium guerrillas? Back in the summer of 2007, just before the crash, they were busy raiding Chinese prospectors and intriguing with both the French and the Nigerien government. And blogging, ISTR, on their Thuraya satphones.

Now look what’s happened: they’ve been recruited by the Algerians to fight Al-Qa’ida, or more specificially the GSPC, the local affiliate. Few things can be as valuable these days as a good Al-Qa’ida affiliate; I can almost imagine a Mouse that Roared scenario, where some bunch of accidental guerrillas decide to set up as Al-Q so they can make the government an offer to crush them. Almost as good as having communists used to be.

Meanwhile, has anyone else noticed that the West Yorkshire Police has become an actor in Somali politics?

A judge allowed publication for the first time of a deal which saw the Foreign and Home Offices pay the African state, which has no diplomatic ties with London, to seize 29-year-old Mustaf Jama in the desert two years ago, close to his warlord father’s headquarters.

The ambush of Jama’s Land Rover by 15 militiamen nearly failed when a pilot, hired to fly the captured gangster to Dubai, tried to back out, thinking that he was caught up in an anti al-Qaida operation which could bring reprisals.

You could say that again. And Dubai, of course, always Dubai; it’s the opposite of the Somali badlands, a chaotic warzone with too much marble flooring.

In other news, has anyone else noticed that the word “Hezbollah” in Iran essentially translates as “wingnuts”?

We keep hearing that the Iranian government, or at least one of the competing centres of power within it, is trying to jam satellite TV downlinks and harassing the owners of satellite dishes. The BBC World Service and Al-Jazeera have reportedly both been targeted, specifically as they both use one of the HotBird satellites over the Middle East; the BBC has reportedly been urgently buying capacity on other satellites in order to maintain the service.

But I’m interested to know if anyone has heard of similar interference directed at any of the voice/data land mobile satellite services, such as INMARSAT, Thuraya, Iridium, and Globalstar. These provide a GSM/GPRS or DSL-like link, with several voice channels and – depending on the precise product – between one or more 56Kbits data channels and up to 492Kbits IP-on-demand on the INMARSAT BGAN service. It comes at a price, but there are about one million public subscribers, heavily concentrated in the Middle East/North Africa/South-West Asian area. (Hell, even the Taliban have them.)

So far, I’ve been unable to substantiate any report of jamming of these services.

In Iran, the monopoly wholesale telco is also the local Thuraya reseller, which even in normal times can make buying prepaid airtime a troublesome process.

At that moment we found ourselves in Iran. The only official Thuraya dealer is located in Tehran – which is Asia Telecom. Not really a fun drive when it’s winter and we had no reason to go there anyway. But the Thuraya website lists a 24 hr service number in Iran for Thuraya subscribers so we took a chance.

Expecting a ‘Farsi only’ operator we got connected with an English speaking support desk. The result of this call amazed us. A Thuraya scratch card number is sent to us by a SMS text message after a bank deposit at the account of Asia Telecom. The deposit slip has to be faxed to Asia Telecom including the Thuraya phone number. To re-confirm the Iranian top-up procedure we received a SMS from Asia Telecom with the account number, fax number and the conversion rate of US$ to Iranian Rials. Thank you Asia Telecom!

In Shiraz we made a 20 unit test deposit (199.000 Rials) and faxed the deposit slip as explained to Asia Telecom. 2 hours later we received the prepaid scratch card number by SMS. It worked seamless with a minimum of hassle. Naturally making the deposit required extensive help of the Melli bank because the deposit itself is a Farsi only matter. After this test deposit we made the required deposits to save our Thuraya number for the coming year.

Telcos. Don’t you love ’em? At the moment, you’d have to be certifiably insane to even begin the steps described in that link, which seem designed to either put you off the idea or collect as much information on you as possible. Probably they are. And, of course, the SMS service has been shut down.

But why would the authorities not have jammed a service that alone provides access to the Internet and the global PSTN/PLMN from anywhere, with a form factor that is very much not a broadcast satellite dish? I suspect this is because various bits of the Iranian government are probably significant users of these systems, and other typical use cases include oil’n’gas and also banking. Not having any of their own satellite capacity (yet…), I would expect the government and the military (broadly defined) to make use of these systems quite a lot.

There was also the 2006 Thuraya incident, in which the service, which is provided by an international consortium of Arab telcos, was mysteriously jammed for some time. Engineering investigation showed that the source of the interference was somewhere in Libya, which had rather worrying consequences for some engineers who attempted to trace it. The kicker in the story was that Libya is a shareholder in the system it was interfering with, a considerable diplomatic embarrassment.

Perhaps they are trusting to the fact that the service is far from cheap. BGAN IP traffic runs at £9.50/MByte and the terminals are ridiculously expensive (oddly, they also seem to cost the same price in USD or sterling – funny how that happens); Thuraya and Iridium rates are much better, but you get what you pay for in terms of data rates, the service being usually analogous to GSM/GPRS. (But if the aim is to keep twittering, broadband is hardly an issue.) There is, however, 144Kbits service available from Thuraya as well, at a more reasonable $6.00/MByte.

Oddly, the US Department of the Treasury would want words with you if you provide ISP services to Iranians, so presumably Iridium would be ruled right out. If you’re an American, that is. But I can’t see that this would apply to anyone who decided to, say, start collecting pre-paid vouchers that then found their way to Iran. Unless Daniel Pipes is making the decisions.

Update: Evgeny Morozov win.

Information is filtering through that an Antonov-12 has been lost on take-off from Al-Asad airbase in Iraq on Thursday. So far there is very little available, but we do have a few facts. The ASN is currently describing it as operated by “Falcon Aviation” and states that the entire crew of 7 died. We’re getting a lot of Google traffic searching for the registration S9-SAO, which is with British Gulf International Airlines (BGI rather than BGK), an An-12BP with the serial number 346908. The aircraft seems to have been sold by the Russian air force directly to BGIA during its Kyrgyz phase.

Falcon probably refers to Falcon Express, the local affiliate of FedEx that has repeatedly showed up chartering dodgy An-12 and Il-76 operators into Iraq. (This is why the Viktorfeed shows their movements.) There’s an interesting thread on PPRuNe in which it’s said that new hires on their own fleet of Beech 1900s and Fokker 27s were told to watch Air America. (This one’s pretty good too.) Interestingly, searchers are coming from both * and hostnames.

In other news, something weird in the feed got my attention. What on earth was “Deutsches Rettungsflugwacht” doing around the region? It seems that someone has been using their IATA two-letter code as if it was a three-letter ICAO code, or rather that Dubai Airport doesn’t know the difference. IATA DV is SCAT, a Kazakh-based operator started in 1997. What did we find there, then? Well, Yak-42 serial 4520422306016, which is an old friend. As 3C-LLL at Air Bas, then UN-42428 at Irbis, this aircraft is a Bout veteran; operating for Sudan Airways and Air West, it made regular trips to Iraq and Somalia in 2004-2005. At the time, the DXB Web site gave aircraft types as well as times, destinations, flight numbers etc, so it was the first individual plane I was able to identify – they only had the one Yak-42. Like the rest of the Irbis fleet, it’s been keeping a low profile since the company shut down in a hurry in June 2006.

The registration is now UP-Y4210. SCAT also used to have Tu-134B serial 63285, then UN-65695, which belonged to long-blacklisted and shutdown Boutco GST Aero, and interestingly, also to UTAGE in Equatorial Guinea, a company involved in the Christmas Day 2003 3X-GDM crash.

Update: JACDEC confirms it as S9-SAO.

So, if World President Brown was to ask me what to do about the headless Viktor Bout empire, and the operators like it, what would I say?

Here’s what I’d do: Let’s draw up a big list of dodgy airlines. Better, let’s use rules; ex-Soviet aircraft, or old 737s, based in the UAE, registration in certain West African, Balkan, or Central Asian states, routes mostly to Middle Eastern and African destinations, and (especially) aircraft bought from or sold to other airlines in the list. We could implement it in software quite easily, at least to provide a filtered list for humans to review.

And then, whenever they land anywhere with trustworthy civil authorities, let’s invoke the long-standing right of any landside state under the Chicago Convention to do an immediate safety inspection, a ramp check as they say in the trade. Naturally, quite apart from crawling over the plane with feeler gauges, that will involve checking all the documents; the manifest, the tech log, the ops manual, the QRH, the pilots’ licences and log books, the air waybills for everything on the manifest, the aircraft registration documents… And, of course, whilst we’re at it there’s no reason why Customs and Immigration shouldn’t search the hold.

If anything is out of order, we’ll ground the plane; if anything is really bad, we’ll seize it; if anything is outright criminal…yes. It may sound a bit hopeful, but consider some of the blog’s back pages. We’ve seen UN-11007 hurtle off the runway in Riyan, officially full of fish but they burned all too well; the An-12 was registered in Kazakhstan to Air Bas, operating from Sharjah, but was working under yet a third and unknown AOC, that of “RPK” – a company which doesn’t seem to exist. In Sudan, an Ilyushin-76 crashed working for Jet Line International, registered to Aerocom, on lease to East-West Cargo. One of the old Irbis Il-18s was grounded in Pakistan after a terrifying flight, several times overloaded with passengers, during which one of the pilots passed out with hypoxia.

It seems to be a defining condition of arms traffickers in the air that the aircraft make sense from one angle, usually that of the UAE authorities; as soon as you look at the details the whole picture dissolves. Here’s another example:

During a ramp check in Beirut, it was discovered that the aircraft’s operating documentation was split among all these firms; the insurance policy applied to a different plane, the tech log was from Ariana, the MEL (the list of the minimum equipment required for safe operation) was the American Airlines one, later replaced by a Swazi one that hadn’t been approved by the Swazi authorities. These institutional flaws complemented a long list of physical ones. None of this should be surprising; UTA’s chief pilot wasn’t qualified on the B727 and neither was anyone else there. The tech manager was trained on the Lockheed Tristar and DC8, and the strong impression is given that literally no management structure for 727 operations existed…

So, I’m delighted to see this report from SIPRI, always sound on the issue right back to the 90s, which suggests exactly that. You can get it here. Of course, being a bunch of Swedes or at least in Sweden, they’re a lot more serious than me – they’ve got studies an stuff and tables and data. But don’t take my word for it. Read the whole thing

Now, the same people are trying to get a change in European Union regs through the European Parliament to make this job easier. You might want to tell your MEP about it, especially if they’re a member of ALDE – the European Liberals.

Update: Here’s a specific talking point.

Lobby for, and support amendments and mechanisms by the relevant EU actors: European Commission DGs, the European Council, the European Parliament and concerned member states “to formulate and implement effective measures using existing EU instruments and regulations that will further reduce the number of air cargo and maritime companies involved in destabilising or illicit small arms shipments to Africa”.