Category Archives: Espionage

Favorite of the West: Niger as Police State

Niger Soluxe hotel

Niger, a poverty-stricken nation perched on the southern belt of the Sahara, is rapidly being transformed into one of the world’s most strategic security hubs….“This place is a nest of spies,” said one contractor … “Below the radar, it’s become a key country for the West.”  A surge in financial assistance from European nations seeking to stem the flow of African migrants has made Niger the world’s largest per capita recipient of European Union aid…Western military forces operate from at least nine bases in Niger, government officials said…. The U.S. is finishing a large air base in Agadez, while the Central Intelligence Agency has begun flying armed drones from an airstrip outside the northern town of Dirkou, Nigerien officials said.

U.S. and European policy makers praise the government as a good partner that has welcomed foreign military personnel and slashed the migrant flow by almost 90% from 2015 highs. …Locals, nongovernmental organizations and opposition activists say the government is using international backing to neutralize dissent and embezzle millions of dollars in aid, charges the government denies. The opposition—backed by rights group Amnesty International—says President Mahamadou Idriss Issoufou, in power since 2011, is arbitrarily jailing activists and spending Western aid on bolstering his elite Presidential Guard…

Swaths of the nation’s centuries-old transportation economy—the movement of people and goods from West Africa through the Sahara—has essentially been criminalized by the EU crackdown on migration.  Some of the desert-dwelling Tuareg people, who have transported goods for centuries, are now smuggling weapons, men and money for cash-rich jihadist insurgencies. Migrants are dying in the desert in failed attempts to find new routes.

“The West is pleased because Niger’s government is a willing partner,but as Niger’s security chief, Mohammed Bazoum, says “We have become a hinge country, a geostrategic hub, but it is a disaster for us. We are known as a land of terrorism and migrant traffic.”

Across Niger’s western border with Mali, jihadist groups including Islamic State and al Qaeda franchises control stretches of territory around the northern city of Gao. Along the southern frontier with Nigeria, a rejuvenated Boko Haram is mounting intensifying attacks against security forces, including around the city of Diffa, where the U.S. has dozens of troops stationed. To the north lies Libya, which has become a hotbed of instability, weapons and radicalization.

The European Development Fund last year awarded $1 billion to Niger through 2020, and unusually for a country governance watchdogs deem chronically corrupt, 75% is now infused directly into the Nigerien budget instead of through nongovernmental organizations.The money funds hundreds of off-road vehicles, motorcycles and satellite phones for Nigerien security forces as well as new infrastructure and technology along the borders and countrywide development programs.

In Niamey’s central Plateau district, tall black screens block the soaring new U.S. Embassy headquarters, which will be one of the largest in West Africa. Saudi Arabia has broken ground on its own huge mission, while buildings belonging to EU agencies occupy whole city blocks. Hotels and conference centers are rising in tandem, reconfiguring the economic and political landscape of a nation ranked the world’s second-poorest behind the Central African Republic.

The government says the building boom is creating jobs. Locals say it has stoked runaway inflation and priced them out of their neighborhoods. In the past year, the cost of a kilogram of rice has risen 29%, sending shock waves through homes where the average wage is $2.66 a day.

“The cost to live here rises with each new European coming,” lamented Abdulraham Mamoudou, repairing his motor scooter on a dusty corner near the expanding U.S. Embassy compound.

A similar pattern is playing out further north in the smuggling hub of Agadez, where the EU-coordinated migration crackdown has transformed a boomtown into a simmering bust.  The city’s jails are bursting with men who have been convicted of smuggling. Vast depots on the town’s outskirts house hundreds of trucks confiscated by authorities…“This place is now for the Americans and French,” said Sadiq, a former migrant smuggler who evaded arrest and is now unemployed. “They took our livelihood and don’t give us anything in return.”

Excerpts from ‘A Nest of Spies’: Niger’s Deserts Become Front Line of Fight Against Jihadis, Wall Street Journal, Sept. 12, 2018

Slyly Conquering East Africa

The rulers of United Arab Emirates (UAE), one of whose components, Dubai, own a majority stake in DP World, one of the world’s largest maritime firms with perations in 40 countries.It is one of several Gulf states trying to gain a strategic foothold in east Africa through ports. Controlling these offers commercial and military advantages but risks exacerbating tensions in the region…

DP World thinks the region from Sudan to Somalia needs 10-12 ports. It has just half that. The firm’s first foray was on Djibouti’s coast. When DP World won its first concessions there in the 1990s, the Emiratis were among the few investors interested in the small and poor former French colony. DP World built and operated a new container terminal, Doraleh,and helped finance roads and other infrastructure. Doraleh is now the country’s largest employer and the government’s biggest source of revenue. It runs at nearly full capacity, handling 800,000 containers a year. Much of its cargo travels along a Chinese-built railway from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital.

Djibouti’s profile rose further after the terrorist attacks on America of September 11th, 2001, when America opened a military base there. France and China also have bases; other navies patrol off its coast to deter Somali pirates. But when the Emiratis wanted to open their own naval base they were rebuffed, partly because of their close ties to Djibouti’s rival, Eritrea (the two states had a bloody border dispute in 2008). In 2015 the UAE started building a naval base in Assab, in southern Eritrea. The base has been used in the Saudi-led war against Houthi rebels in Yemen….In 2016 DP World won a 30-year concession to operate the port of Berbera in Somaliland, which declared independence in 1991 (though no foreign government recognises it). Critics said the deal would hasten the break-up of Somalia.

The Horn ports all sit near the Bab al-Mandab strait, a vital choke-point at the mouth of the Red Sea: 4.8m barrels of oil passed through it every day in 2016. Competition is getting fierce, though. Qatar and its ally, Turkey, are building ports in Sudan. Saudi Arabia is in talks to set up a naval base in Djibouti. All three Gulf states are trying to snap up farmland in east Africa, part of a broader effort to secure food supplies for their arid countries. Emirati-built ports could one day export crops from Emirati-owned farms…

Gulf states could also find themselves in competition with China…In February 2018 Djibouti seized the Doraleh port, a concession to the UAE… Shippers believe it took Doraleh as a sop to China, to which it is heavily indebted. In July 2018, Djibouti opened the first phase of a new $3.5bn free-trade zone, set to be the largest in Africa when it is finished. Built mostly by state-owned Chinese firms, it sits next to Doraleh. DP World says the project violates the terms of its concession and is threatening to sue.

Excerpts from Red Sea Scamble: Ports on the Horn, Economist, July 21, 2018, at 33

How to Navigate the Rubble: DARPA

Rescue robot

Imagine a natural disaster scenario, such as an earthquake, that inflicts widespread damage to buildings and structures, critical utilities and infrastructure, and threatens human safety. Having the ability to navigate the rubble and enter highly unstable areas could prove invaluable to saving lives or detecting additional hazards among the wreckage.

Dr. Ronald Polcawich, a DARPA program manager in the Microsystems Technology Office (MTO):”There are a number of environments that are inaccessible for larger robotic platforms. Smaller robotics systems could provide significant aide, but shrinking down these platforms requires significant advancement of the underlying technology.”

Technological advances in microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), additive manufacturing, piezoelectric actuators, and low-power sensors have allowed researchers to expand into the realm of micro-to-milli robotics. However, due to the technical obstacles experienced as the technology shrinks, these platforms lack the power, navigation, and control to accomplish complex tasks proficiently

To help overcome the challenges of creating extremely [Size, Weight and Power] SWaP-constrained microrobotics, DARPA is launching a new program called SHort-Range Independent Microrobotic Platforms (SHRIMP). The goal of SHRIMP is to develop and demonstrate multi-functional micro-to-milli robotic platforms for use in natural and critical disaster scenarios. To achieve this mission, SHRIMP will explore fundamental research in actuator materials and mechanisms as well as power storage components, both of which are necessary to create the strength, dexterity, and independence of functional microrobotics platforms.

“The strength-to-weight ratio of an actuator influences both the load-bearing capability and endurance of a micro-robotic platform, while the maximum work density characterizes the capability of an actuator mechanism to perform high intensity tasks or operate over a desired duration,” said Polcawich. “

Excerpts from Developing Microrobotics for Disaster Recovery and High-Risk Environments: SHRIMP program seeks to advance the state-of-the art in micro-to-milli robotics platforms and underlying technology, OUTREACH@DARPA.MIL, July 17, 2018

The Right Way to Steal

USS Badger Launching Harpoon missile

Chinese government hackers have compromised the computers of a Navy contractor, stealing massive amounts of highly sensitive data related to undersea warfare — including secret plans to develop a supersonic anti-ship missile for use on U.S. submarines by 2020, according to American officials.   The breaches occurred in January and February  2018, the officials said… The hackers targeted a contractor who works for the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, a military organization headquartered in Newport, R.I., that conducts research and development for submarines and underwater weaponry.

Taken were 614 gigabytes of material relating to a closely held project known as Sea Dragon, as well as signals and sensor data, submarine radio room information relating to cryptographic systems, and the Navy submarine development unit’s electronic warfare library…This fact raises concerns about the Navy’s ability to oversee contractors tasked with developing ­cutting-edge weapons.

For years, Chinese government hackers have siphoned information on the U.S. military, underscoring the challenge the Pentagon faces in safeguarding details of its technological advances. Over the years, the Chinese have snatched designs for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter; the advanced Patriot PAC-3 missile system; the Army system for shooting down ballistic missiles known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense; and the Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ship, a small surface vessel designed for near-shore operations, according to previous reports prepared for the Pentagon.  In some cases, suspected Chinese breaches appear to have resulted in copycat technologies…

Investigators say the hack was carried out by the Chinese Ministry of State Security, a civilian spy agency responsible for counterintelligence, foreign intelligence and domestic political security. The hackers operated out of an MSS division in the province of Guangdong, which houses a major foreign hacking department….

In September 2015, in a bid to avert economic sanctions, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to President Barack Obama that China would refrain from conducting commercial cyberespionage against the United States. …Both China and the United States consider spying on military technology to fall outside the pact.

Excerpts from Ellen Nakashima and Paul Sonne, China hacked a Navy contractor and secured a trove of highly sensitive data on submarine warfare, Washington Post, June 8, 2018

Onerous Debt and its Consequences

A Beijing-funded wharf in Vanuatu  is big enough to allow powerful warships to dock alongside it, heightening fears the port could be converted into a Chinese naval installation.  Fairfax Media inspected the $114 million Luganville wharf and was told US coastguard officials and Marines recently visited the sprawling facility and took a keen interest in its specifications.  The Chinese and Vanuatu governments have strenuously denied they have discussed a military base…

The Vanuatu government has taken on significant debt to China, though it appears to have stopped taking large loans since getting a stern warning from the International Monetary Fund in 2016.  The wharf expected to be used to accept container and cruise ships was constructed by the Shanghai Construction Company and opened with fanfare in the middle of 2017.   It is unclear whether the wharf loan contract with the Vanuatu government includes a so-called debt-equity swap clause, which would mean China could take over the facility if Vanuatu defaults on its payments. It has recently taken over the major port of Hambantota from Sri Lanka in these circumstances.

Malcolm Davis, a defence expert at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said it was “not by accident” that wharf had been built for large vessels.
“My guess is there’s a Trojan horse operation here that eventually will set up a large facility that is very modern and very well-equipped. They’ve done this before in other parts of the world. “Their hope is that the debt of the Vanuatu government will be so onerous that they can’t pay it back. The Chinese will say, ‘the facility is ours for 99 years’ and the next thing you’ve got a PLA Navy Luang III class [destroyer] docking there.

Excerpts from China and the Pacific: The Great Wharf, Economist, Apr. 21, 2018, at 33.

Flying off the Shelves: the entrenching of drone warfare

Wing Loong II, 2017. Image from wikipedia

A 2018 report published by Drone Wars UK reveals that over the last five years the number of countries actively using armed drones has quadrupled. Drone Wars: The Next Generation demonstrates that from just three states (US, UK and Israel) in 2013, there are now a further nine who have deployed armed drones in a variety of roles including for armed conflict and counter-terror operations. The report also shows that a further nine states are very close to having armed drone capabilities, almost doubling the number of existing users. To this number, we have added five non-state actors who have used armed drones, which will take the number of active operators of armed drones to over 25 in the next few years.

As is well known, China has sold armed drones to a number of countries around the world. Since 2013, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, UAE and Egypt have begun operating armed Chinese drones whilst another four countries (Jordan, Myanmar, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan) are thought to have recently taken possession of, or be in discussion about the sale of, Chinese drones. These Wing Loong and CH series drones are cheaper and less powerful than US Predators and Reapers.  As, according to their specifications, they are not capable of delivering a payload of at least 500 kg to a range of at least 300 km they do not fall into the category of systems that would be refused under Category 1 of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) as the US systems do.

Turkey, Pakistan and Iran are actively using their own manufactured drones. Iran has, it seems, supplied Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis with armed drones while ISIS and the PKK  (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) have attached small explosives to off-the-shelf drones. Turkey are thought to be concluding deal with Qatar and the Ukrain eand South Korea are very close to beginning production of their own armed drones.

As for the larger countries that one might expect to have already deployed armed drones, such as Russia and India, they still appear to be some distance from producing workable models…Several cross-European projects are underway to develop indigenous armed drones within the EU.

Excerpts from New research shows rise in number of states deploying armed drones, Press Release from Drone Wars UK, May 17, 2018

Who Controls Peoples’ Data?

The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that cross-border flows of goods, services and data added 10 per cent to global gross domestic product in the decade to 2015, with data providing a third of that increase. That share of the contribution seems likely to rise: conventional trade has slowed sharply, while digital flows have surged. Yet as the whole economy becomes more information-intensive — even heavy industries such as oil and gas are becoming data-driven — the cost of blocking those flows increases…

Yet that is precisely what is happening. Governments have sharply increased “data localisation” measures requiring information to be held in servers inside individual countries. The European Centre for International Political Economy, a think-tank, calculates that in the decade to 2016, the number of significant data localisation measures in the world’s large economies nearly tripled from 31 to 84.

Even in advanced economies, exporting data on individuals is heavily restricted because of privacy concerns, which have been highlighted by the Facebook/ Cambridge Analytica scandal. Many EU countries have curbs on moving personal data even to other member states. Studies for the Global Commission on Internet Governance, an independent research project, estimates that current constraints — such as restrictions on moving data on banking, gambling and tax records — reduces EU GDP by half a per cent.

In China, the champion data localiser, restrictions are even more severe. As well as long-established controls over technology transfer and state surveillance of the population, such measures form part of its interventionist “ Made in China 2025 ” industrial strategy, designed to make it a world leader in tech-heavy sectors such as artificial intelligence and robotics.

China’s Great Firewall has long blocked most foreign web applications, and a cyber security law passed in 2016 also imposed rules against exporting personal information, forcing companies including Apple and LinkedIn to hold information on Chinese users on local servers. Beijing has also given itself a variety of powers to block the export of “important data” on grounds of reducing vaguely defined economic, scientific or technological risks to national security or the public interest.   “The likelihood that any company operating in China will find itself in a legal blind spot where it can freely transfer commercial or business data outside the country is less than 1 per cent,” says ECIPE director Hosuk Lee-Makiyama….

Other emerging markets, such as Russia, India, Indonesia and Vietnam, are also leading data localisers. Russia has blocked LinkedIn from operating there after it refused to transfer data on Russian users to local servers.

Business organisations including the US Chamber of Commerce want rules to restrain what they call “digital protectionism”. But data trade experts point to a serious hole in global governance, with a coherent approach prevented by different philosophies between the big trading powers. Susan Aaronson, a trade academic at George Washington University in Washington, DC, says: “There are currently three powers — the EU, the US and China — in the process of creating separate data realms.”

The most obvious way to protect international flows of data is in trade deals — whether multilateral, regional or bilateral. Yet only the World Trade Organization laws governing data flows predate the internet and have not been thoroughly tested through litigation. It recently recruited Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma to front an ecommerce initiative, but officials involved admit it is unlikely to produce anything concrete for a long time. In any case, Prof Aaronson says: “While data has traditionally been addressed in trade deals as an ecommerce issue, it goes far wider than that.”

The internet has always been regarded by pioneers and campaigners as a decentralised, self-regulating community. Activists have tended to regard government intervention with suspicion, except for its role in protecting personal data, and many are wary of legislation to enable data flows.  “While we support the approach of preventing data localisation, we need to balance that against other rights such as data protection, cyber security and consumer rights,” says Jeremy Malcolm, senior global policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a campaign for internet freedom…

Europe has traditionally had a very different philosophy towards data and privacy than the US. In Germany, for instance, public opinion tends to support strict privacy laws — usually attributed to lingering memories of surveillance by the Stasi secret police in East Germany. The EU’s new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which comes into force on May 25, 2018 imposes a long list of requirements on companies processing personal data on pain of fines that could total as much as 4 per cent of annual turnover….But trade experts warn that the GDPR is very cautiously written, with a blanket exemption for measures claiming to protect privacy. Mr Lee-Makiyama says: “The EU text will essentially provide no meaningful restriction on countries wanting to practice data localisation.”

Against this political backdrop, the prospects for broad and binding international rules on data flow are dim. …In the battle for dominance over setting rules for commerce, the EU and US often adopt contrasting approaches.  While the US often tries to export its product standards in trade diplomacy, the EU tends to write rules for itself and let the gravity of its huge market pull other economies into its regulatory orbit. Businesses faced with multiple regulatory regimes will tend to work to the highest standard, known widely as the “Brussels effect”.  Companies such as Facebook have promised to follow GDPR throughout their global operations as the price of operating in Europe.

Excerpts from   Data protectionism: the growing menace to global business, Financial Times, May 13, 2018

Who’s Fighting over Djibouti?

The top US general for Africa told lawmakers the American military could face “significant” consequences should China take a key port in Djibouti….  In Febuary 2018, Djibouti ended its contract with Dubai’s DP World, one of the world’s biggest port operators, to run the Doraleh Container Terminal, citing failure to resolve a dispute that began in 2012.  DP World called the move an illegal seizure of the terminal and said it had begun new arbitration proceedings before the London Court of International Arbitration.

During a congressional hearing on March 7, 2018, dominated by concerns about China’s role in Africa, lawmakers said they had seen reports that Djibouti seized control of the port to give it to China as a gift. China has already built a military base in Djibouti, just miles from a critical US military base.

Djibouti is strategically located at the southern entrance to the Red Sea on the route to the Suez Canal.  Marine General Thomas Waldhauser, the top US military commander overseeing troops in Africa, said if China placed restrictions on the port’s use, it could affect resupplying the US base in Djibouti and the ability of Navy ships to refuel there.  Djibouti hosts a vital US military base home to about 4,000 personnel,[Camp Lemonnier] including special operations forces, and is a launchpad for operations in Yemen and Somalia.

China has sought to be visible in Africa, including through high-profile investment in public infrastructure projects, as it deepens trade ties.  Waldhauser said the United States would be unable to match the scale of Chinese investment throughout Africa, noting Beijing’s construction of shopping malls, government buildings and even soccer stadiums.  “We’ll never outspend the Chinese in Africa,” Waldhauser said, noting some Chinese investments in Djibouti.

In 2018, the US military put countering China, along with Russia, at the centre of a new national defence strategy.  The Pentagon said China was a part of “revisionist powers” that “seek to create a world consistent with authoritarian models.”

Excerpts from  Significant consequences if China takes port in Djibouti, Reuters, Mar. 7, 2018

Up, Close and Personal: How to Destroy the Enemy

Caracal battalion. Image from wikipedia

Deep southern Negev desert, Israel, there is a small town called Baladia, with a main square, five mosques, cafés, a hospital, multi-storey blocks of flats, a kasbah and a cemetery. Oddly, it also has a number of well-constructed tunnels. The only people milling around in its streets are Israeli Defence Force (IDF) soldiers. Baladia, the Arab word for city, is part of the Tze’elim army base**. It has been built to provide a realistic training ground for the next time the IDF is required to go into Gaza to destroy Hamas missile launchers…Acceptance among Western armies that future fights are most likely to take place in cities. Megacities with populations of more than 10m are springing up across Africa and Asia. They are often ringed by closely packed slums controlled by neighbourhood gangs. Poor governance, high unemployment and criminality make them fertile territory for violent extremism.

It is hardly surprising that non-state adversaries of the West and its allies should seek asymmetric advantage by taking the fight into cities. Air power and precision-guided munitions lose some of their effectiveness in urban warfare because their targets can hide easily and have no scruples about using a densely packed civilian population as a shield.

Valuable lessons have been learned from the battle for Sadr City, a large suburb of Baghdad, in 2008, Israel going into Gaza in 2014 and the defeat of Islamic State (IS) in Mosul 2017….As General Mark Milley, the head of the US Army, puts it, “it took the infantry and the armour and the special operations commandos to go into that city, house by house, block by block, room by room…and it’s taken quite a while to do it, and at high cost.” He thinks that his force should now focus less on fighting in traditional environments such as woodland and desert and more on urban warfare.

To that end, he advocates smaller but well-armoured tanks that can negotiate city streets, and helicopters with a narrower rotor span that can fly between buildings. At the organisational level, that means operating with smaller, more compartmentalised fighting units with far more devolved decision-making powers…

Western military forces should still enjoy a significant technological edge. They will have a huge range of kit, including tiny bird- or insect-like unmanned aerial vehicles that can hover outside buildings or find their way in. Unmanned ground vehicles can reduce the risk of resupplying troops in contested areas and provide medical evacuation for injured soldiers, and some of them will carry weapons….

For all the advances that new technologies can offer, General Milley says it is a fantasy to think that wars can now be won without blood and sacrifice: “After the shock and awe comes the march and fight…to impose your political will on the enemy requires you…to destroy that enemy up close with ground forces.”

Excerpt from House to House in the The New Battlegrounds, Economist Special Report, the Future of War, Jan. 27, 2018

***In 2005, the Israeli Defense Forces, with assistance from the United States, built the Urban Warfare Training Center at the Tze’elim Army Base, at a cost of $45 million. Nicknamed “Baladia” it is a 7.4 square mile training center used to instruct soldiers in urban warfare techniques, and consists of an imitation Middle Eastern style city with multiple multistory buildings. It has been used to train various military organizations, including the US Army and UN peacekeepers.  Wikipedia

The Perfect Spies: Animals as Mobile Sensors of US Enemies

From the DARPA website:

The world’s vast oceans and seas offer seemingly endless spaces in which adversaries of the United States can maneuver undetected. The U.S. military deploys networks of manned and unmanned platforms and sensors to monitor adversary activity, but the scale of the task is daunting and hardware alone cannot meet every need in the dynamic marine environment. Sea life, however, offers a potential new advantage. Marine organisms are highly attuned to their surroundings—their survival depends on it—and a new program out of DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office aims to tap into [marine animals] natural sensing capabilities to detect and signal when activities of interest occur in strategic waters such as straits and littoral regions.

The Persistent Aquatic Living Sensors (PALS) program, led by program manager Lori Adornato, will study natural and modified organisms to determine which ones could best support sensor systems that detect the movement of manned and unmanned underwater vehicles. PALS will investigate marine organisms’ responses to the presence of such vehicles, and characterize the resulting signals or behaviors so they can be captured, interpreted, and relayed by a network of hardware devices.

Beyond sheer ubiquity, sensor systems built around living organisms would offer a number of advantages over hardware alone. Sea life adapts and responds to its environment, and it self-replicates and self-sustains. Evolution has given marine organisms the ability to sense stimuli across domains—tactile, electrical, acoustic, magnetic, chemical, and optical. Even extreme low light is not an obstacle to organisms that have evolved to hunt and evade in the dark.

However, evaluating the sensing capabilities of sea life is only one of the challenges for PALS researchers. Performer teams supporting DARPA will also have to develop hardware, software, and algorithms to translate organism behavior into actionable information and then communicate it to end users…. The complete sensing systems must also discriminate between target vehicles and other sources of stimuli, such as debris and other marine organisms, to limit the number of false positives.

Adornato is aiming to demonstrate the approach and its advantages in realistic environments to convey military utility. “Our ideal scenario for PALS is to leverage a wide range of native marine organisms, with no need to train, house, or modify them in any way, which would open up this type of sensing to many locations,” Adornato said.

Excerpt from PALS Turns to Marine Organisms to Help Monitor Strategic Waters: Highly adapted sea life could help U.S. military detect adversary activity over large areas, Feb. 2, 2018