Alex de Waal has an interesting post on the role of satellite phones, and specifically the Arabic and more importantly cheap Thurayas, in the wars of the Sahara today. He argues, in essence, that the capital requirements of being a warlord are coming down; if you don’t have a Toyota, you’re cannon fodder, if you do, you’re a gang leader, and if you have a satellite phone and a Toyota, you’re a significant political force. The consequences in tactics and operational art are also important.
In comments, it turns out that Jean-Pierre Bemba of the RCD was an early adopter of the satellite phone too; you may remember him as the Congolese warlord who married off his daughter to Sanjivan Ruprah and who shared a BAC-111 private jet with Richard Chichakli’s company. Of course, a number of journalists had Osama bin Laden’s phone number before he chose radio silence as a policy.
You can imagine the importance of mobile telephony to these folk; but as the Giuliano Andreotti character in Il Divo says, an archive is better than an imagination. During the period in 1997-98 when Viktor Bout’s businesses briefly set up camp in the wilds of northern South Africa, before the South African anti-mercenary legislation caused them to head for the friendly skies of the UAE, they left behind an audit trail in the books of the company they used, having promised huge investments. They also left a gigantic unpaid credit card bill.
Here’s the point. In a typical month in 1998, the phone bills ran to some ZAR62,000 for mobile, ZAR49,000 for landlines and fax, and a further ZAR32,000 for telecoms services at their fixed base in Pietersburg. That’s a total of ZAR143,000 in phone bills; at the prevailing rate, that’s £17,763 a month. More to the point, that’s 48% the size of the wages bill and four times the size of the bill for lodging “VB’s staff”. Even split over the 16 phone numbers broken out in the books, it’s a lot of phoning.
Of the names given, it may be worth noting that the biggest talker in “Commodities” is Kumar, with a phone bill over £300 a month, followed by Khalid and Bakri, and in Flight Operations it’s “Paul Popov”, who almost broke the grand. Smulian is doing about £125-150. Valery Naydo is doing £150 a month; “Dr Oleg” makes it to £350 in October 1997 as the circus wheels into town. “Ange Karam’jabo” spent £665 in January that year.
This last character, whose full name is probably Karamakalinijabo, was also charging a lot in travelling expenses; he’d spent £3,000 on airline tickets the month before, plus maybe another £2,500 if the second appearance of the surname is the same man. According to the AMEX bills, he travelled on South African Airways Flight 055 to Rome and on to Vancouver, SAA 014 again to Lusaka, and finally on Austrian Airlines Flight 066 for Chicago.
Unsurprisingly, Bout was a big chatterbox himself – he got through £845 of fixed-line calls from two numbers in January ’98 alone. (The numbers are no doubt assigned to other innocent South Africans by now, or I’d quote them.)
It’s old news, really; I’ve had the documents for some time and I’ve occasionally used bits, too. But oddly enough, I hadn’t thought of looking at the phone costs. I hadn’t marinated in telecoms culture then; as always, if you’re worried that they’re listening to your calls, you don’t want to think about what they’re doing with the traffic data. Told you billing was exciting.
If there’s a nut here, apart from me, it’s that I reckon the signature of being operationally important in the system is likely that you were a big source of phone traffic and a big air ticket bill. Who is Ange Karamakalinijabo? Who is Valery Naydo? Who is Paul Popov? One thing about them, they’ve had the sense to keep their names off the Internet. Naydo only appears in the UN asset blacklist. Popov is a cipher, probably not the long-dead Orthodox bishop in Alaska.