the Satellite phone aid workers, spies—and warlords Using

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The two aid workers pulled up to the dusty border crossing from Jordan into Iraq in their Nissan Patrol and braced themselves for a full search of their belongings by the Iraqi soldiers. It was January 2003, and Saddam Hussein’s regime was under mounting pressure to comply with the US and its allies. The grim prospect of war seemed like a foregone conclusion.

A policeman stands next to a suspected taliban activist and his seized thuraya satellite phone, in 2005. (BANARAS KHAN/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES )

Dane Novarlic and a colleague—both from the World Food Programme’s Fast IT and Telecommunications Emergency Support Team (FITTEST)— had been deployed to Iraq to assess the communications needs of the United Nations community in the event of military action. One of the main routes into the country at the time was by road: a fraught, day-long car-ride from Amman, Jordan, across the desert into Iraq through the Al-Karamah border crossing.

“We got to the border post and we knew they would do a complete search,” Novarlic recalls. “They even took our hard-drives to check and only gave them back three weeks later. They checked everything.”

Except one thing. The Iraqi soldiers didn’t perform a body search, so didn’t discover their satellite phones. People found carrying these devices were often assumed to be spies in those tense days in Iraq.

“We had to hide the sat-phones,” Novarlic says. “In Iraq at the time, if they found them on you, you had a good chance of being shot on the spot.” This was his first major mission for the World Food Programme (WFP) and his first time relying on communications via a Thuraya, a relatively new satellite phone developed by a company based in the United Arab Emirates. For veteran aid workers like Novarlic—who has been a frontline responder during major disasters and conflicts over the last two decades, and now leads the FITTEST team—satellite phones were a game-changer. In the months leading up to the beginning of the 2003 US-led invasion, Novarlic was based in the northern Kurdish part of Iraq; his colleague had traveled onward to Baghdad. They kept their phones a secret even from colleagues on the ground, such was the risk of being caught using the devices in Iraq at the time—a risk that was outweighed by how useful they were. Try to imagine daily life without a cellphone today—and how useful a handheld satellite phone would have been in coordinating things like vital equipment being flown into a war-zone.

A Chadian army soldier holds a Thuraya satellite phone during his assignment to protect village people and their children sheltering. (MARCO DI LAURO/GETTY IMAGES )

A month after the outbreak of the war, Novarlic returned to Iraq, this time crossing back via the Turkish border. “There was no GSM network at all in Iraq [in 2003]. So the only way of working remotely and communicating on the spot was using Thuraya,” he says, referring to coordination between the UN and coalition forces.

“It changed the way we operated. Operations-wise it was a vital tool. You couldn’t rely on a message sent in the evening, when the situation on the ground had changed by the morning. Using Thuraya was a breakthrough.”

Indeed, sat-phones became communication lifelines for many on the frontlines, including humanitarian workers, journalists, hostage negotiators and government agencies. But they also wound up in the hands of less savory actors: warlords and militant groups in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Somalia.

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Back in 1997, much of the Arab world and wider region was not yet covered by GSM, the Global System for Mobile Communications then used by most of the world’s cellphone networks. The ability to just pick up a mobile phone and expect to get through immediately, which many take for granted today, was not yet a reality. Most people relied on terrestrial landlines—not much help if you’re in an emergency situation in a remote and hostile terrain. And the Middle East and the wider region had plenty of those just as Thuraya, which was born out of a project developed by the Emirati telecommunications company Etisalat, was entering the market.

Thuraya—the Arabic name for the Pleiades cluster of stars—was by no means the first handheld satellite phone operator; companies like the US-headquartered Iridium came before it. But the launch of Thuraya happened to coincide with massive upheaval in a region where communications were a major challenge.

Etisalat, along with a consortium of other telecoms operators from the region, came together to launch the Middle East’s first homegrown satellite phones. “The advantage of having all of those shareholders was that most of them were incumbent national telecom operators,” said Shawkat Ahmed, Thuraya’s chief commercial officer. “So in those days you didn’t have three, four, or five operators within a country. You had one national telecom operator; they used to manage the fixed lines and then they started mobile networks as well. So if they were on board, this would then help us with market access and the distribution of service in that country.”

A risky calling: Thuraya sat-phones were at one time banned in Iraq. (THURAYA)

In 2000, Thuraya 1—the company’s first Boeing-made telecommunications satellite—was launched into orbit from the Pacific Ocean. A year later, the company launched its first handheld phone, the Thuraya Hughes 7100, with satellite and GSM modes for voice, data, fax, SMS, and GPS navigation. Forget the image of a sat-phone as a briefcase-sized contraption with long, obtrusive antennas: the 7100 was a relatively small handheld device, which could almost pass as a regular cellphone used at the time. Fast forward almost two decades and Thuraya’s latest model—the X5-Touch, released in 2018—is an Android-based satellite and GSM touchscreen smartphone. At 5.7 by 3 inches, it has similar dimensions to the iPhone 11, albeit with a chunky antenna sticking out the top.

Back in the early 2000s, while other satellite phone companies were struggling because of improving cellphone coverage in other parts of the world, Thuraya initially focused on its home-turf—the Middle East and North Africa and surrounding areas. “Our main focus was in countries in Africa, Afghanistan, then you had Iraq, with all of the challenges of those days,” Ahmed recalls.

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Sat-phones were soon seen as necessary pieces of equipment for humanitarian workers, security teams, as well as reporters covering the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Journalists writing at the time would reference Thuraya in dispatches from places like Jalalabad and Najaf.

“In the days before [handheld] satellite phones, Afghanistan would have been a black hole for news,” Reuters journalist Andrew Marshall was quoted as saying in a 2001 Washington Post article.

In another story, a Newsweek correspondent wrote about his search for Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan. “I always travel light, bringing only my Thuraya satellite phone, a change of clothes, and a notebook,” the reporter wrote in 2003. “I don’t carry a bottle of mineral water or packaged biscuits—items that give you away as being ‘Western.’ I also have to keep my Thuraya out of sight. To many, a sat-phone identifies you as a spy, because US forces liberally handed out Thurayas to their allied warlords and agents.”

Indeed, the CIA website even makes reference to how its intelligence officers “relied heavily” on Thuraya phones to communicate during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. In a 2008 report to Congress on Afghan security forces, the US Department of Defense said it had provided “key [Afghan National Army] leadership” with Thuraya phones. News coverage, particularly from the mid-2000s, described instances where satellite phones were used by warlords and militant groups operating in the region. A New York Times report references a Thuraya in an account of the 2006 US air-strike that killed Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The company distances itself from such reports, saying that it did not deal directly with the end-users of the phones. “That responsibility is with the service providers and these service providers are regulated in their respective countries,” Ahmed says. “They have the requirements from the agencies to do the screening and so on before they offer the service. In our agreements with them, this responsibility is clearly mentioned and they have to abide by such requirements. Wherever the service provider would figure out that [a phone] is not with the right people, they have the mandate to disconnect services immediately… and blacklist those customers.”

Despite “very strict policies,” sat-phones did find their way into the hands of bad actors. A veteran hostage negotiator—who did not wish to be named because of the sensitive nature of his cases—said he has come across instances where satellite phones have “fallen into the wrong hands.”

“I’ve dealt with numerous warlords in Somalia, for example, who used sat-phones to communicate their bargaining demands for hostages,” said the individual, who works as a security consultant for Guardian Security Risk Management, a Denmark-based firm. Some were well aware of the possibility of having their location tracked through using the phones, the negotiator said. “You should never broadcast from the location where you’re based, and the bad guys are using the same trick. So you can’t always track them—unless they’re idiots.”

In 2003, Thuraya satellite phones—known by their +882 16 calling code—were used across Afghanistan in a voter registration drive, as well as in the country’s historic elections the following year—the first of several national elections the company has been involved with. As the phones were being more widely used and making their way to users across the region and beyond, Thuraya was becoming a household name among some, and a shorthand for satellite phones.

“[The reaction to the phones was] much better than our expectations. The initial demand that we had from the region was mainly because in these areas… you had some political issues,” Ahmed says. “And secondly there were a lot of NGOs who were operating and they needed to be connected to their head offices in Europe, their regional offices for logistics support, et cetera. So they all depended on the Thuraya phones.”

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As cellphone coverage improved in the region, the intense demand for satellite phones waned. And this meant that the industry was forced to adapt and find more niche markets, according to Rohan Dhamija, head of the Middle East and South Asia for Analysys Mason, a telecoms research firm.

“All of the handheld sat-phone services conceived in the 1990s— Iridium, Globalstar, ICO, ACeS, Thuraya—planned to serve a wide range of customers who wanted mobile connectivity, but lived or worked outside terrestrial mobile coverage,” says Dhamija.

“At the time this market appeared to be large. However, in many developed markets terrestrial mobile phone penetration rose from around 10 percent in 1995 to around 75 percent in 2000. To support this growing demand, terrestrial mobile coverage was rolled out much further and faster than forecast, and the market for sat-phone service in uncovered areas shrunk correspondingly. As a result, the remaining operators were forced to target niche markets such as offshore oil and gas, disaster recovery and mountaineering.”

Thuraya branched out into regions including Asia and Africa, where their products were largely used by commercial enterprises, such as mining and construction firms, as well as smaller clients. Shawkat Ahmed recalls that small businesses in remote parts of Africa, including in Libya, would purchase a couple of Thuraya phones and make them available to people from the local community for a fee, setting up ad hoc pay-as-you-go systems. This led to the company establishing its own public calling offices, connecting remote locations with limited telecoms coverage where people could not afford their own personal satellite phones.

An Iraqi woman speaks with family after the US lifted a ban on the Thuraya sat-phones in 2003. (AWAD AWAD/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES )

A bump for the industry came in 2011 with the Arab Spring uprisings, when physical damage to communications networks, as well as government shutdowns of services, meant that once-coveted satellite phones again became indispensable. However, concerns were raised at the time, including by the Committee to Protect Journalists, that government security services were tracking journalists and opposition activists through their satellite phones. This is something Thuraya has disputed, maintaining that the location of its phones can only be detected if the user sends the coordinates themselves.

The Danish hostage negotiator says that, while it is technically possible to track satellite phones, it does require detailed information about the device being tracked, as well as “SIGINT capability,” referring to intelligence where data is gathered by intercepting signals.
“Naturally, if you are putting in enough effort and the target is a [high value target] it can be done, but not in a sense where I would say this poses a bigger risk than GSM phones,” he says. “From an [operations security] point of view, the killing of Dudayev [the Chechen rebel leader killed in a Russian missile attack] in Chechnya back in 1996 made it clear to all that satellite communications could pose a security liability if the opponents had the ability to track and locate sat devices. [Journalist] Marie Colvin’s killing in Syria [in Homs by the Syrian regime] in 2012 also resonated as the word was that the regime tracked and targeted her sat-phone.”

However, he contends it is still far easier to “track and bug” a regular cellphone and advises his clients to always carry both devices when working in remote or hostile environments. “On one occasion in Iraq, there was a news team covering an election and a suicide bomb went off,” the hostage negotiator recalls. “The journalist went one way and the photographer ran in the other, but their sat-phones gave them and us the ability to communicate.”

In a 2012 kidnapping case the negotiator worked on in northern Syria, his team managed to secure the release of the hostages because the individuals had managed to transmit their location as soon as they realized something was not right. “We knew exactly where they were because when they were being taken they pressed the alarm buttons and we managed to get them out in a week,” he recalls.

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In 2018, Thuraya was acquired by Yahsat, a global satellite operator owned by the Abu Dhabi government. Together, Thuraya and Yahsat now operate five satellites covering more than 160 countries. (There are currently about 5,000 satellites orbiting our planet, only 1,950 of which are operational.)

“So far we’ve been mostly seen as a land voice and land data operator,” says Shawkat Ahmed of Thuraya. “But since Yahsat acquired Thuraya, we are investing more into maritime services and applications which cater to government requirements.”

The company—which has sold more than a million handsets since 2001—is now “looking beyond” the satellite phones and IP devices on which they built their reputation. But for many, the name Thuraya remains associated with those original handheld sat-phones that have proved so vital during conflicts, emergencies and disasters, as Dane Novarlic from the WFP can attest.

“I was in Somalia after Iraq, on a mission to a very remote area to do some upgrades because the communications between the offices were poor,” he says. “We landed in the middle of nowhere expecting to be picked up by our colleagues, but then the plane just took off. And no one was there.”

The team waited 10 minutes before spotting a pick-up truck approaching in the distance, assuming it was their colleagues. It was not. The vehicle was carrying a group of local militia. “We ended up being taken to a tukel [mud hut], where they left us and took all our gear,” he says. Once again, there was no body search, so the militiamen did not notice the satellite phones tucked into the pockets of their WFP vests. The team managed to call their colleagues for help and transmit their GPS location. They were rescued four hours later.

“Even today, we still use [Thuraya] sat-phones,” says Novarlic. “With the expansion of GSM, it became less of a priority tool, but we use it as a backup—and it’s still vital.”

This story originally appeared in the Winter 2019-2020 edition of WIRED Middle East.

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