Never mind the regime change

There's little more to be said about the efforts expended by successive UK governments in recent years to brown-nose Colonel Gaddafi's military and security apparatus, right up until the moment in February when they suddenly decided it had always been a "brutal regime" that "had to go" (with a sort of twisted jingoism, this ground's been particularly well-covered in the Sunday Telegraph).

A couple of extra vignettes from a belated FOI request, though, confirms in particular the primacy of international arms fairs as occasions for a quick spot of security diplomacy. It seems Libyan and British security officials could hardly bring themselves to meet at all without leafing through a weapons catalogue:

  • David Cameron's 'Counter Terrorism Advisor for North Africa', Maj Gen Robin Searby (right) visited Tripoli in November 2010 along with a "senior UK Military officer". November 2010 just happens to have been the occasion of the last 'LibDex' arms fair in Tripoli.

    (Maj Gen Searby, incidentally, has moved smoothly on from brown-nosing Gaddafi in the name of counter-terrorism and arms sales, to brown-nosing that other noted democrat and human rights enthusiast, President Bouteflika of Algeria).

  • Libyan Interior Minister, General Abd Al Fattah Younis Al Obeidi (left), met with Foreign Office Minister Gerald Howarth on 19 July 2010, during the Farnborough International Air Show, vis Farnborough Arms Fair.

    (Abd Al Fattah, you'll recall, was formerly head of Libya's human-rights-friendly special forces, switched to the rebels in February, and was killed in an inter-necine rebel row in July).

This is in addition to the regular visits of Libyan military missions to the UK (which might be expected to take place under the aegis of arms fairs and weapons sales).

  • "A visit took place in late July 2010 when five members of the Libyan Air Defence Technical Committee (ADTC) attended the Farnborough International Air Show (FIAS) between 19-21 July at the invitation of the previous Government. The delegation was led by Brigadier General Suliman Ramadan Ahmedah and was combined with a visit to General Dynamics UK in Wales to assess the company’s capability to act as prime integrator for Libya’s Air Defence modernisation programme. Additionally, the ADTC visited RAF Boulmer to see Air Defence Command, Radar and the Search and Rescue Squadron facility."

  • (Memo to Libyan Air Defence Technical Committee: don't let a foreign country redesign your air defences if there's any chance in the near future they might want to, um, rapidly destroy your air defences).

  • "A further visit took place 19-24 September 2010 of a four-man delegation from the Libyan Military Engineering Academy. The delegation was led by Brigadier General Ali Mohamed Saeed al Fakri. The visit programme included a number of UK military technical training and academic establishments such as; the armoured training school at Bovington, the Royal Signals school at Blandford, the REME Arms school at Arborfield, the Defence Academy, Cranfield University and the marine engineering school at HMS Sultan. A demonstration of a REME Light Aid Detachment (LAD) ‘in action’ was also provided at in the vicinity of Tidworth garrison."

Needless to say, the UK Ministry of Defence declined to release to me any actual documents or records related to these meetings, or the "wide-ranging "Accord on a Defence Co-operation and Defence Industrial Partnership" that the UK signed with Libya on 29th May 2007 (for anyone hunting this Accord in future through FOI, training aspects were apparently the subject of a separate Memorandum of Understanding signed on 17 February 2009). I particularly enjoyed the rationale for their refusal: that disclosure could "damage our [the UK's] ability to co-operate militarily with Libya in the future". And if we were left in any doubt about the government's firm intention to resume yet another round of cosying up to yet another Libyan regime with arms sales and security training, there's this nice aside to the MOD's description of the UK-Libya Defence Accord:

The aim of the Accord (which technically remains extant) is “to build stable and long-term special relations between the countries as equal partners, proceeding from the principle of mutual respect and confidence”. (Emphasis added)



Hedge fund schools

So a new UK school term looms, and I’m wondering how the range-rover’d infants of Hammersmith and Camden are enjoying Michael Gove’s dream of state-funded private schools, in which every child in the land may ultimately aspire to have hazelnut yoghurt for lunch and stockbroking studies after Bible-Time.

And yet when I think with comfortable social-democratic outrage about Toby Young’s round, round face, I can’t help also thinking about this phrase, written on a classroom wall in Sheikh Mader primary school in Hargeisa, Somaliland, which I visited last November:

It reads Al-Shitan Al-Ahmar – the Red Devils. Next to it is a Manchester United fantasy football line-up (I especially like the fact that it respectfully includes “Sir Alex Fergusson”, apparently playing in goal).

This graffiti probably says as much about the reach of Man U’s global marketing as it does about the aspirations of the Sheikh Mader students, who dream of fame and fortune under the bright lights of Old Trafford. But those aspirations are nonetheless tangible, powerful, and largely ignored by ‘development practitioners’. What many schoolchildren in Hargeisa want most isn’t ‘development’ in post-war Somaliland: like kids from other dead-end towns and impoverished families from Middlesborough to Kibera, what they want is to get out. Their reasonable if statistically unlikely dream is this: that their golden ticket out of Somaliland is arbitrary excellence in whatever fields are given value and reward for a tiny chosen few in places nicer than the Horn of Africa. Astonishing ball skills, marketable beauty, (less commonly) prodigious intellectual prowess.

Sheikh Mader, like thousands of other schools throughout the Majority World, provides basic education, stern discipline (the headmaster’s cane propped in the corner of his office), and can do little else. Its 1300 students, including around 370 Oromo refugees from neighbouring Ethiopia, seem happy; their English fairly good; their classrooms well-maintained if basic. UNHCR and Save the Children Fund have financed the construction of some of its buildings, but its running costs are funded from Somaliland’s tiny $61m government budget. If gender and economic opportunity allows them to stay in school, the most socially mobile of Sheikh Mader’s students will be basically equipped for small business and administrative work in Somaliland and perhaps elsewhere in East Africa. Absent an unforeseen deus ex machina, they won’t play for Man U, are unlikely to be whisked from Hargeisa to the catwalks of Milan, will never be nuclear physicists or UBS rogue traders.

A good test for political principles is to think about them in extremely resource-scarce environments: places where the consequences of policy are dramatically magnified. What would it mean to have 'free schools' in a place like Hargeisa, educationally selective and freed from the budgetary limitations of Sheikh Mader and schools like it? The likely impacts of capital-intensive free schools on educational opportunity and social mobility in the UK - particularly through restricting the availability of capital funding for state schools in impoverished areas - have been well discussed. But it’s easy to be fundamentalist about equality of educational opportunity when what is at stake is essentially a place at a classier university. In the Majority World, though, academy schools offer a route - albeit for a tiny, selected few - to the Minority World. If you were a clever teenager in East Africa, wouldn’t you want a scholarship to Harvard rather than a province-wide classroom-building programme? And wouldn’t you naturally resent the Harvard-educated donors, funders, ‘development professionals’, policy advisers, who said otherwise? Equally, the social and economic ripples generated by academies are likely to be much greater in places where educational opportunities are desperately scarce: reinforcing or disrupting elite power far more powerfully than anything Toby Young could hope to achieve.

In Somaliland this calculus of opportunity and aspiration isn’t just a thought experiment. About 15km up the road we visit a second school. Abaarso Tech, a co-ed boarding school, was established in 2009 by Jonathan Starr, a former hedge fund manager from Cambridge, Massachusetts whose uncle is a prominent member of the Somaliland diaspora.

The school’s been written about quite a lot recently: partly because Starr
has become a high profile critic of international NGOs. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed last year, Starr argued in familiar terms that INGOs are the complacent victims of skewed incentive structures that lead inevitably to inefficiency, waste, corruption, "diseconomies of scale": accountable to donors rather than beneficiaries, and lacking the continual performance assessment of profit-seeking businesses.

Starr’s school is intended as a demonstration project of how to 'do development' differently. As a recent CS Monitor feature headline proclaimed: "Abaarso Tech, run like a business, brings top-notch education to Somalia". Although he wasn’t there when we visited, Starr spends much of his time living and working at his school alongside fourteen American and Canadian staff – recently-graduated Ivy Leaguers, albeit most with no formal teaching qualifications.

When we visit, Abaarso Tech is at about half capacity, with 99 students across two school years. The fiercely dedicated teacher who shows us round explains that they aim initially to stay small. Creaming off the top 50 each year from Somalia’s national Grade 8 examination, the school will have 200-240 students across grades 9 to 12. Students selected for entrance, according to our guide, are accepted irrespective of their ability to pay.

Abaarso Tech’s clearly flourishing students enjoy educational experiences unknown across the rest of Somaliland. We arrive in the late afternoon at the school’s high-walled hilltop compound, its gates flanked by private guards carrying the distinctive pastel-blue Kalashnikovs found throughout Somalia since Siad Barre’s regime. (Abaarso Tech’s teaching staff probably constitutes the highest concentration of Americans in Somalia north of Mogadishu, so this security is unsurprising). Inside, queues of boys and girls (together) are chattering as they line up for science club. Others sit at a bank of a dozen laptops, along with a donated library of second-hand textbooks and novels which the school’s website suggests may be "the largest [library] in Somaliland". The hallways of the school’s frugal main building are plastered with felt-tip posters quoting John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama, ready for the student elections that night.

It’s certainly not luxurious, but it’s a far cry from the Oromo refugees and dusty city-centre playground at Sheikh Mader. What isn’t clear, though, is whether Abaarso Tech’s facilities and ambitious curriculum are really generated by a distinctive business model. Starr insists that non-profits should submit themselves to the “ultimate customer-feedback metric of revenue”, and that his organisation has been designed to be run “like a business with the Somali people as both shareholders and customers” . But his school has so far financed itself more or less like any other donation-based charity. Some students pay the full $900 annual fees (around three times Somalilanders’ average annual income, according to best estimates), and a small number of ‘international’ students from the Somali diaspora pay around $5000 a year. And Abaarso Tech has a range of other revenue-raising programmes: weekly adult English classes, for which around 60 people from Hargeisa and elsewhere pay around $300 a term; and a nascent ‘MBA programme’ for Somaliland’s flourishing business community. Ambitious parents can also sign their primary-school-age children up for tutoring by current students. Nonetheless, we’re told, around 85% of the school’s start-up capital and first-year running costs have come from private grants (in money-where-your-mouth-is style, this has reportedly included perhaps half from Starr’s own wealth), plus in-kind donations of books, cheap computers, and the land on which the school is built. Although Starr may publicly critique government and donor funding, a further 10%, we’re told, comes from a UK FCO grant. According to one teacher the school also accepted an indefinite annual grant of $50,000 promised by the Somaliland government from its own budget - reportedly reduced after the 2010 elections to $8000. (It’s difficult to check these figures, since Starr’s organisation, despite its disdain for INGO unaccountability, has as yet published no accounts or annual report, although they did respond helpfully to emailed questions for this blog).

Abaarso's capacity to self-fund may improve. Starr insists in an email that after this initial start-up phase, “we expect to reach operating breakeven in the next year or 2”, based in part on projecting that around 20% of the student body may eventually be drawn from the wealthy Somali diaspora. But at least in its start-up phase, Abaarso Tech has had a conventional ‘non-profit’ procurement structure, drawing on donations, volunteers and gifts-in-kind. Its library books come from the US charity Books for Africa at under $1 a book. The land for the school itself was donated by Abaarso elders. Like many other educational charities, the school relies primarily on young, Western, part-volunteer staff, earning $3000 a year, most recruited as new graduates from North American universities, including through volunteering websites like idealist.org. Neither the staff nor the school as a whole operate as a market-rate business: as Starr says in an email, “I make a sacrifice and the staff makes one too. We make that donation because we get paid in seeing something beautiful occur.”

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. It’s simply that beneath Starr’s self-proclaimed iconoclasm, the start-up phase of his business model looks just like a conventional charity. Abaarso Tech’s financial accountability and sustainability currently don’t seem clearly better - and probably not much worse - than most INGOs.

But the ‘NGO vs. business’ debate is neither the germane nor the interesting question here. What seems genuinely distinctive about Abaarso Tech is not its business model, but its educational philosophy. Its stated goal is straightforward: to skim elite educational achievers from the country’s school system and to prepare them to leave Somaliland for Ivy League universities abroad. If Absaarso Tech seems like an incongruous bubble compared to dusty downtown Hargeisa, it’s supposed to. All classes and activities are conducted in English. All fourteen teachers when we visited were young Western ‘internationals’; we met a young Somaliland woman introduced to us as the sole Somali translator for the entire school – a school whose students’ first language is almost exclusively Somali. Indeed, within the school’s buildings the (residential) pupils are forbidden on pain of punishment (non-corporal, unlike the uncompromising regime at Sheikh Mader) from speaking anything but English.

Abaarso Tech’s assumption is that after attending elite universities abroad, Abaarso’s students will return home, Western-educated and internationally-oriented, to become Somaliland’s future business and political leaders. Like a good hedge fund manager, Starr is spotting a small number of good educational investments early on, and betting on their ability to deliver later in their lives. This is the polar opposite of most educational charities’ aim to provide education to the broadest possible swathe of society: not only to spread economic opportunity but to fulfil a human right to basic education.

Rights aside, the utilitarian question remains: is a wealthy, foreign-educated elite combined with an immensely impoverished, poorly educated population really the ticket to Somaliland’s economic development or political prosperity?

To some degree there is already an answer to this question. Somalia in general - Somaliland included - already has a well-educated, wealthy and internationalised diaspora, spread across Europe and North America, now entering its second generation since the start of civil war in 1991, and frequently drawn upon to parachute senior leadership into the region's shattered governments. The new TFG prime minister, Abdiweli Mohammed Ali, returned to Somalia in 2010 after 24 years studying and teaching economics at US universities. Many of his new cabinet appointees are businessmen and academics from Canada, the UK and the United States. Even the new Mayor of Mogadishu, Mohamed Nur, spent the previous 19 years working for London’s Islington Council. In the strategic port city of Berbera, the capital of the Sahil province 90 miles east of Hargeisa, we meet a twenty-something Somalilander who welcomes us into the office of the provincial governor with a broad Wisconsin drawl. Born in the American mid-west, he arrived weeks earlier as the governor’s senior adviser.

In other words, the migratory fall-out of Somalia’s two decades of civil war has already to some extent built the elite international cadre that Abaarso Tech aims to establish. But even in the few instances when they have been persuaded back ‘home’, it’s not at all clear whether these well-off and well-educated Somalis have indeed been able to deliver peace or economic development in the face of the country’s chronic political and social fractures. By contrast, the miracle that Somaliland’s government wrought out of the chaos of the 1990s – peace in its territory, despite northern Somalia having been the crucible of the early civil war; and sufficient political stability to have seen, in 2010, the only peaceful, democratic change of government in East Africa in over a decade – appears to have been homegrown: achieved through an extraordinary, painstaking sequence of domestic clan-based negotiations during the 1990s.

And indeed some argue that the roots of civil war in northern Somalia lay precisely in the inequalities of educational and professional opportunity that already existed in Somaliland under British rule: an Anglophone elite - mainly from the Isaak clan and educated in British schools - dominated administrative positions in British-occupied Somaliland; were, in retaliation, then excluded by Siad Barre’s discriminatory policies in independent Somalia; and as the progenitors of the SNM rebellion in the early 1980s, have returned to dominance in independent Somaliland’s present-day government, military and economy.

But let’s say we set aside the politics too. To take it back to market fundamentals: what is the opportunity cost of the $1.5 million so far spent on Abaarso Tech’s set-up and initial running costs? $1.5 million is over 50% of the Somaliland government’s entire 2010 education budget (14,633,732,140 shillings). Would this money have been better spent fed through the government budget, spread across Somaliland’s creaking schools and perhaps 5 million school-age children? I don’t have any straightforward answers to that question. (And of course, it’s not a straightforward comparison, since it doesn’t account for foreign donor funding for education in Somaliland that never passes through the Somaliland government’s books). But it highlights the kind of stark choices involved in academy education. Do we funnel scarce resources into creating an educational elite, however meritocratic? And does that elite grow a nation’s wealth and power, or foster tensions in fractured societies?

These are questions that matter as much in Western Europe as in the Horn of Africa. Ask a bright schoolchild at Sheikh Mader primary school, though, and I suspect you’d get an answer that didn’t deal either with politics or utility. They’d say that they deserved the opportunity to escape Somaliland altogether. And I suspect they’d welcome Abaarso Tech’s laptops and science club, or any other route that allowed them to do so.

Opportunity knocks? The view from Abaarso Tech's school gates


Tahrir ammo

Apologies, this post is really just a place to dump a load of stuff - following a couple of requests, I thought it might be useful to post somewhere a round-up of arms and ammunition being used against protestors in Tahrir right now.

There seem to be a growing number people in and around the Square angry at being fired on by weapons supplied from countries making nice noises about democracy and restraint in Egypt, and are starting to document markings and specifications of what's being used. It won't help stop any violence, but I'm generally in favour of causing a modicum of embarrassment to those governments and companies which continue to supply tools of repression, usually for profit, to those who they well know will use them to violate human rights and repress their own citizens.

There are lots of good ID resources around - for the real afficionado of "less-lethal technologies", you can't beat Mispo (subscription only), which also has a live update stream of identified military/security equipment being used images from around the world.

All the usual caveats, of course, apply below: the provenance of most of these photos can't be definitively verified; and a given country of manufacture doesn't indicate that that country's government supplied the weapons to Egypt. I'll try to update this as more info becomes available.

9x19mm ammunition

9mm Parabellum/Luger ammunition is designed for use by 9mm pistols (either single-shot or semi-automatic), or semi-automatic/automatic sub-machine guns like the MP5-series submachine guns with which some Egyptian security forces were photographed back in February.

These 9mm cartridge cases, from @RiverDryFilm on 19th November:

  • Right-hand cartridge case is a fired 9x19 round manufactured by Sellier & Bellot (Czech Republic). Not sure if '10' indicates a 2010 manufacture date, or a batch number (some S&B ammo doesn't carry a manufacture date marking).

  • Left-hand cartridge case is an unfired round, difficult to see the headstamp markings to determine their manufacture or age. I *think* it has a NATO (cross-in-circle) marking, indicating a NATO country of manufacture, but difficult to tell for sure.

Most significantly, this *appears* to be 'live' ammunition (although we'd need to see the bullet - other end - of the unfired round to check 100% that it wasn't a blank; and to see what kind of live ammo it was).

(Added 23 Nov 2011) Other *possible* live cartridges (not 100% certain)

I've so far seen one picture (undated, from - er - Russia Today) of a larger cartridge case with a 'shoulder' narrowing towards the end (unlike 9x19mm cartridge cases, which are straight in profile). These appear to be around the right size for assault rifles (they *look* a bit like 7.39 short for AKs, but it's basically impossible to tell at this distance). Again, these *don't look like blanks* (which generally have characteristic 'crimped' necks), but it's not possible to tell definitively whether these are 'live' rounds or not without examining the bullets or the cartridges. (There *is* ammunition of this kind produced with plastic or rubber bullets plus metal rifle cartridge cases, but it really isn't at all common; and the rounds of this kind that do exist are more commonly 9mm rather than larger). Even if they *are* some kind of weird rifle-fired 'rubber' bullet (which personally I don't think is likely): at this small calibre, with the inability to 'skip fire' them along the ground rather than direct-fire them, and with the energy that a rifle-sized round can produce, they are arguably likely to be dangerous.

12 gauge shotgun ammunition

These can come in all sorts of varieties, lethal and 'less-than-lethal'. Lead buckshot, rubber buckshot, other impact munitions, irritants, and all sorts of other weird things.

I've seen at least 5 types so far:

  • quite a lot of pictures of 12 gauge rounds from Fiocchi Munizioni S.P.A. I *think* these ones are actually manufactured in Italy (there is also manufacturing capability at Fiocchi USA, but these tend to be marked 'FIOCCHI 12 USA 12'). Once again, Italy-made doesn't necessarily mean Italy-supplied.

  • a 12 gauge round with either Arabic or Farsi markings - difficult to make out which. Marked '12' (presumably for 12-gauge calibre) in Eastern Arabic numerals, plus a symbol which *could* be that of Egypt's domestic military production unit, the AOI. But that's just a complete guess.

  • (added 23 Nov 2011)">Others have western numeral headstamps ('12 12' denoting a 12 gauge round) but Arabic script on the cartridge body, including 'عيار' (shells).

  • Another variety with a mix of Arabic and Roman script on the cartridge body e.g. pic below from @msheshtawy on 22 Nov) marked 'CRIME' (Roman letters) and what I *think* reads 'خرطوشة' ('cartoosh'/ cartridge),'عيار' (shells), and the numerals for '12' [gauge]. Also reportedly carries the word 'مطاطية ' (made of rubber), so presumably containing rubber buckshot or other rubber impact munitions. Anyone with proper Arabic skills - help greatly appreciated!

  • US-manufactured Federal Premium shells (below from @RiverDryFilm). Difficult to make out the 'load' markings which would indicate what kind of round it was. Likewise no date marking.

CS gas canisters/grenades

I haven't seen anything yet that isn't standard 'CS' (2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile) - probably the most common form of 'tear gas' used around the world. There are obviously two main risks from tear gas: in an enclosed space concentrations can cause severe respiratory problems and even death; and the impact from tear gas canisters themselves (which are generally not safe to fire directly at people, rather than 'skip-fired' across the ground) can injure and kill.

(added 23 November 2011)There was a lot of Twitter chatter yesterday (22nd Nov) about palbably stronger tear gas being used in Tahrir Square, and more medical admissions of those affected by it. I still *haven't* seen any evidence that anything other than standard CS (nasty stuff in itself) is being used. Nonetheless people's experience of stronger tear gas seems to have coincided with the appearance of three new types of tear gas canister:

  1. Silver-bodied, entirely unmarked cartridges - appear to be either 37/38/40mm weapon-fired - some short with flat end, some long with metal fins for stabilisation in flight (suggesting design for longer-range use). (Below image from The Egypt Report, 22 Nov.) These were also apparently photographed back in June; and similar ones in Tunisia in February, but with markings '530 CS' (speculating, could be the US '530 CS' Flite-Rite rounds?)
  2. Also sighted are Federal Laboratories' manufactured 560 CS and 570 CS rounds (different models for different ranges).

  3. Longer silver-bodied, entirely unmarked cartridges - appear around 200mm long. Difficult to identify at this stage (there are various manufacturers of very long anti-riot rounds, mainly US and Chinese). Further pics of the example below (taken by @mikaminio 23 November), showing the primer, are here and here.

  4. Red/silver 38mm CS cartridges reportedly marked "CART 38MM IRRITANT MK2 LONG RANGE CS". (Below image from @msheshtawy, 22 Nov 2011). Still unidentified definitively - although the markings precisely match those of 38mm CS cartridges advertised by the United Kingdom's Chemring Defence group, which incorporates former UK tear gas manufacturer PW Defence, the colouring is slightly different. Not clear how old (no lot number or manufacturer markings). Again, images of the headstamp/primer (on the base of the cartridge) could help positive identifications; and again, UK manufactured doesn't mean UK supplied.

Also seen:

  • 3430 CS Muzzle Blast 37mm/40mm cartridges - manufactured in the USA, according to clear markings, some in 2001 and some in 2003 (meaning these are well past their 5 year shelflife). these ones reportedly photographed by two different photographers on 20 November. Amnesty also found some in Cairo back in January. The 3430's US manufacturer is Combined Tactical Systems Inc, but another manufacturer cannot be ruled out from the pictures from Tahrir. The 3430 is a comparatively short-range launcher-fired munition intended for either indoor or outdoor use (specs here)

  • Federal Laboratories CS rounds (this pic from @mmbilal, 22 Nov). Think this might be a weapon-fired Mk II 560 CS round, but can't be sure from the picture. Definitely US-made, but could be comparatively old: Federal Laboratories are now part of US firm Defense Technology).

Other kinetic impact munitions
There are also a few photos floating around of what appear to be rifle-fired fin-stabilised rounds - too big to be the rubber fin-stabilised rounds from 12 gauge specialty ammo. I've no idea where these are from, or what their properties are - would be good to know more.

Update 22/11/2011 PM: Brazilian and US owners of arms firms

In case anyone fancies any shareholder activism (not that I'm, er, inciting any):

(unfortunately, with the exception of Federal Premium, most of these are owned by private individuals or high-end investment funds, so unless you have a stake in one of these, shareholder activism isn't going to get us very far. We could still have demos though!)

  • Federal Premium (shotgun shells) is wholly owned by Arlington VA-based US arms giant ATK. ATK is majority-owned by large institutional investors. A top-10 list is here. (Hat-tip @mina_el_Naguib)

  • Sellier & Bellot (9mm ammunition) is a Czech firm, with two branches - Sellier & Bellot a.s. - the main company - and Sellier & Bellot Trade a.s. for trading operations. The latter has a lot of private investors, but the former was acquired in 2009 by the established Brazilian ammunition manufacturer Companhia Brazileira de Cartuchos (CBC). According to the Czech company registry, CBC owns Sellier & Bellot via a US company, CBC Ammo LLC, registered in the notorious tax haven of Delaware. CBC is itself apparently privately owned.

  • Combined Systems Inc (tear gas) is majority-owned by New York private equity firm Point Lookout Capital Partners. At least some of its equity is held by the defence investment giant The Carlyle Group (via its Carlyle Mezzanine Partners fund), which debt-financed Point Lookout's acquisition in 2005.


Pedants against guns

Short Circuit is finally going to get some R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

(Many apologies for 'all arms, all the time' at the moment on this blog. What can I say - it's a good time for guns, apparently).

Don't get me wrong - I don't think arms fairs should be banned. I don't oppose the arms trade per se, and the little buggers have got to do it somewhere. I don't mind them doing it, as long as they don't hurt anyone, and they don't do it in public. Some of my best friends are arms dealers. Etc.

But I do prefer the organisers of arms fairs to understand export control law. If you're going to help people sell guns, read the manual.

The organisers of the gunfest currently occupying a swathe of London's Docklands, the DSEi arms fair, are the perma-cheerful Clarion Events (they also do the Baby Show at Earls' Court. Bless.)

They've produced a lovely passive-aggressive little FAQ for lazy journos headed "DSEI: The Facts". Because Clarion are apparently concerned that
There is a lot of incorrect information, and deliberate misinformation, about DSEi available online.

Absolutely. Unfortunately, quite a lot of it is on the same Clarion webpage. Here's a selection from Clarion's wide-eyed journey into the evidently puzzling world of UK firearms and export control law:

"Promotion or display of the following items is banned at DSEi:...Portable devices designed for riot protection or self defence using an electric shock (e.g. tasers, electric shock batons and shields, stun guns) – even though these have been deployed by UK police forces"

Um, no. UK police do have Tasers, but the Home Office has absolutely not authorised 'electric shock batons' or 'electric shock shields' to be deployed with the UK police.

"Any contracts signed on UK soil by foreign companies require UK export licenses and are therefore subject to the UK’s strict export regime."

Nope. First of all, they wouldn't need an export licence unless the goods or services were physically leaving the country. Second, they *might* need a trade control licence (different to an export licence, but Clarion Events don't seem to have heard of them), depending on exactly what commercial/contracting activity and goods were involved. A large amount of 'trade arrangement' activity is actually provided with an effective exemption from case-by-case licensing by the Open General Trade in Goods Control Orders. For most kinds of weapons, these exempt from individual licensing the act of arranging deals for arms to be moved from anywhere in the world except Iran, North Korea or Zimbabwe (or from the Taliban, let's not forget) to a list of 32 'friendly' countries; or from these 32 friendlies to anywhere except 45 hyper-dodgy places. That's one of the reasons why London is probably quite a convenient place for arms dealers to come to sign contracts - the UK has lots of open licensing (read: licensing exemption) for arms brokering that many other European countries don't have.

"Q. Which countries have Clarion Events invited to DSEi? A. Clarion Events is not responsible for inviting overseas delegations. They are all invited by the UK Government."

Well yeah. Except that just a little further down the page they also say "Out of courtesy, Clarion invites defence attaches from London based embassies". So Clarion Events *does*, er, invite foreign governments themselves. And unlike the UK Government, Clarion doesn't provide a list of the foreign defence attaches it's invited.

"Q. Didn’t Mark Thomas find illegal equipment on display at DSEi in 2005? A. No. Mark Thomas was invited to attend DSEi 2005 by its owners at the time. What he found was literature about equipment. Nonetheless, this was a breach of DSEi policy, so when the leaflet was discovered the stand in question was closed and the companies involved were reported to HM Revenue and Customs."

Wrong. The equipment in the sales material that Mark Thomas found was classified as 'Restricted' (now 'category A') in UK export control law. Under the Trade in Goods (Control) Order 2003, which had entered into force by 2005, any person in the UK who does "any act calculated to promote the supply or delivery of" such goods is breaking the law. The UK government's own helpful guidance on this law makes it explicitly clear that all advertising or promotion of such equipment, including at trade fairs and even when the equipment is not pysically present, is banned. Although HMRC chose not to press for prosucution, the activity described by Mark Thomas was still unlawful.

"Since then [the Mark Thomas caper] there have been two other DSEi Exhibitions (in 2007 and 2009) and the exhibition is now owned by Clarion Events"

Absolutely. What Clarion neglect to mention is that the 2007 event didn't really do any better than in 2005. As Amnesty International UK notes: "At DSEi in 2007, researchers discovered two companies, BCB International (Cardiff) and Famous Glory Holding (China) promoting banned leg restraints."

And now that the event's happily in Clarion's hands, any progress? Umm:

14 September 2011: Amnesty International has obtained brochures from the Defense and Security International fair (DSEi) currently taking place in London’s Docklands, which appear to clearly show illegal torture equipment advertised. Despite explicit acknowledgments on the DSEi website that the sale of “leg irons, gang chains, shackles and shackle bracelets” are prohibited, the brochures Amnesty has obtained, advertise the products for sale from a company called CTS-Thompson on display at the Beechwood Equipment stall. A double-page spread in the brochure clearly offers oversized leg cuffs, waist chains, lead chains and “the enhanced transport restraint system”, which combines waist chains and cuffs with leg cuffs.

Note to Clarion Events: Try harder. Or at all.


Sousveillance redux

Image: Burkina Estudio design

How do we – citizens, journalists, researchers - winkle secrets from the state (corporation / criminal network / NGO / armed group)?

In at least two ways, ordinarily:

  • Make friends: find informants who, by design or chance, have access or experience of your object of desire, be it a business deal, an aircraft landing strip or a committee meeting

  • Hack the gaze of the state: piggy-back on governments’ own information-gathering systems through official records, registries, freedom of information laws and court cases

Over the past couple of years, though, I’ve found myself excited and impressed by the increasing possibilities of a third way: more democratic, more collegiate, and less indebted to the agendas of individuals or to the power of the state.

  • Organise your own surveillance programme: networks of private citizens getting together and organizing observation and data-collection to gaze back at the state, the corporation, the organisation.

A pioneering example of this has been watching nuclear weapons. Verifying the condition and location of strategic weapons is a critical component of counter-proliferation regimes, helping to prevent the degeneration of trust that can fuel arms races and worse. Despite nuclear powers’ big words about the value of verification, nuclear weapons treaties (unlike those covering chemical weapons) tend to have comparatively weak verification regimes. And so since the late 1970s, frustrated by the opacity of their governments’ nuclear arsenals, networks of activists and enthusiasts – these days often little old ladies (and gentlemen) living in anodyne places like Colchester and Wichita - have got together on both sides of the Atlantic to undertake continuous “citizen verification” of the UK and US’ nuclear weapons - simply by observing, photographing and recording the movement of trucks and trains carrying nuclear warheads and their accessories around national road and rail networks. Sharing information about a nuclear convoy in real-time through phone trees and email lists, different observers in the network can alert each other, tracking nuke movements right across the country.

The nukewatchers’ efforts are part protest, part verification. But they’re more than symbolic. While they can’t come up with definitive weapons inventories - it's not wonk-grade intelligence - the nukewatchers have been able to provide approximations of deployed warhead numbers; logs of warhead servicing; when and where they’re redeployed; and spikes in transport activity that often indicate the timings of upgrades or decommissioning.

And they were doing it in the 1970s: contrary to a lot of interwebguff, Web 2.0 didn’t invent this kind of socially-networked observation. But declining technology costs and online organising have, I think, made life far easier for these kinds of initiatives. Hobbyist plane spotters, famously, provided the data that exposed the unlawful rendition programme. They had two things in their favour: internet fora to share flight logs and photos, piecing together transnational flight plans that aren’t publicly available at all, or even available in one piece to a single national authority. And rapidly declining technology costs: the plane nerds are no longer just stood at airport fences with pencils and binoculars, but with digital SLR cameras making high-quality photos uploaded instantly onto photo-share sites; cheap UHF radio scanners to listen to the chatter between pilots and control towers; and, since 2004/5, laptop-ready aircraft transponder receivers (I bought one myself down the Edgware Road - for 350 quid I can receive the transponder codes, call signs, altitudes and flight bearings of aircraft 100 miles away. And if there are hundreds of us across the world with transponder receivers, we can get together online, feed in our data, and track aircraft globally, in real time, for free).

We can do the same
with ships, using their AIS transponder system, although the networks are less well-developed than those of the plane spotters. I’ve used these data feeds to help identify mid-conflict weapons deliveries to Sudan and the Middle East; and to track the movements of ICC indictees and under-fire newspaper executives.

And similar stories can be told about the amateur astronomers who map the proliferation of secret spy satellites.** Or the amateur ‘bucket brigades’ compiling simple air and water pollution data, from Thailand to Poland, to challenge industrial polluters. In a looser, more unstructured way, the collation and circulation of cameraphone pictures and videoclips taken by demonstrators in news-neglected places like Guinea during the ‘28 septembre’ massacre, and more recently in Yemen and Syria, have in the absence of TV cameras served as insurance against regimes’ attempts to lie about oppression and killings.

The nukewatchers are salutary pioneers precisely because one might imagine that nuclear weapons were one of the hardest targets for radical curtain-twitchers. You’d think that citizen surveillance would have to go after softer targets: council service provision, for instance. But what the nukewatchers realised, early on, is that even the most sensitive of state and corporate arcana are often conducted in full view - often, in fact, right outside their wisteria-covered front doors on the A357 to Basingstoke - if you just know where to look. As the NYT pointed out about the satellite watchers, they realised that just by looking in the right place, carefully compiling data, and sharing it in networks, they could “uncover some of the deepest of the government’s expensive secrets and share them on the Internet”. How glorious is that?

Steve Mann and other privacy activist-artists coined the term ‘sousveillance’ in the early 2000s to describe citizen efforts to gaze back, from below, at the gaze of the state. Mann and his collaborators use devices and routines – body-worn cameras, computer programmes that automatically activate recorders and sensors when citizens interact with bureaucrats and officials – to subvert surveillance, to turn the power of information collection back at the watchers. I think citizen information-collection networks are doing something similar. But Mann’s model of sousveillance is individual, not collective: designed to alter the dynamic of individual encounters with official surveillance, and to protect the user (the state is always penetrating and male etc. - there’s a great picture of a highly conspicuous bra-cam in one of Mann's fake souveillance company brochures). Successful architects of official surveillance recognise that if you’re interested in gathering information, rather than just intimidating or altering the behaviour of the surveilled, only networked surveillance, producing pooled and organised data, is really effective. For every decent lawful intercept system, you need an Echelon database. The same goes for the networked, organised sousveillance I’m talking about here.

Meanwhile the intent to ‘sousvey’ is rather less important than in Mann’s techniques, which are specifically designed to gaze back, to be deployed in ‘surveillance environments’ themselves. The enthusiasts and obsessives involved in networked citizen information-gathering, by contrast, are not always doing it to poke their finger in the state’s all-seeing eye, or even to uncover wrongdoing. Plane spotters and satellite watchers are mostly just interested in planes and satellites, and in mapping and understanding the systems that organise them.

This kind of networked sousveillance is also, I think, fundamentally different to crowd-sourcing, or citizen journalism. They don’t aim to tap into participants’ wisdom or knowledge; nor to turn them into amateur investigators. There are few heroic Erin Brockoviches here. Instead the network as a whole harnesses hundreds of small, repetitive acts of observation, and the empowerment of its participants comes from their collective efforts being so much greater than the sum of its parts. This means that we still need investigators, researchers and journalists to make sense of the fruits of networked sousveillance. The best sousveillance participants are focussed obsessives; investigators have instead to be magpies, picking and assembling from sousveillance networks, informants, and information leaked or prised from the state’s own information gathering. The plane spotters alone, for instance, couldn’t have exposed the infrastructure of unlawful rendition without testimonies from individual detainees to corroborate suspicious flight plans; civil aviation and company records to trace the ownership and provenance of suspicious planes; litigation and freedom of information requests to prove their suppositions about government complicity. But without them really intending it, their humble network of eyes (electronic and real) has furnished a gaze as unblinking and powerful as the most powerful governments. And as collective action, it seems to me that this quiet OCD is often easily as effective as any strike or demonstration.


**Incidentally (although it’s different to the kind of networked souveillance discussed above): if there’s something pleasingly symmetrical about literally gazing back at governments’ eyes in the sky, it’s also becoming economically feasible for non-governmental researchers to acquire 20cm-resolution satellite imagery from commercial satellites - around 200 quid for a 5km-square image, or a bit more if it’s newly commissioned imagery. 20cm isn’t spy-satellite-grade, but it is good enough to allow amateurs, essentially, to spot smuggled tanks, map bombing raids and village burnings, identify new oil exploration, or spot nuclear submarines.

It’s a chocolate mousse with cream on the top

So: the Viktor Bout trial chunters on, as does the tirelessly priapic news coverage.

I’m studiously avoiding the debates about whether the DEA sting operation created a legitimate basis for Bout’s extradition or trial in the US; whether his own testimony was coerced by DEA agents threatening him with Midnight-Express-style abandonment in a Bangkok jail; whether he really is the ‘Merchant of Death’ or just Death’s DHL Courier.*** These arguments are legally important, but they tend to distract from the genuinely interesting stuff: what the trial is telling us about the business of the network of people around Bout and his collaborators, and thus about the wider business or arms trading and its logistics.

One fortunate consequence of the pre-trial jurisdiction/admissibility row, though, has been that a number of interesting transcripts and evidential annexes have already been filed with the court since May, even before the hearings proper have started. Quite a lot of this hasn’t really been reported at all, even though it’s technically in the public domain. The new docs suggest several new connections in the Bout universe.

In no particular order, six things I thought were interesting:

[Caution: this is probably only of interest to the two arms trade geeks who occasionally read this blog.]

  1. Friendship never ends: there’s a surprise guest appearance from Peter Mirchev of the Bulgarian-based arms brokering firm Kas Engineering. When I first got into small arms trading (research, not practice), Kas were already part of arms trading history: named as having provided (perhaps unwittingly) the Kalashnikovs airdropped over Purulia in the 1995 Peter Bleach case; and as having shipped arms on Togolese end-user certificates between 1996 and 1998, some of which the UN’s Angola Sanctions monitoring mechanism claimed ended up with UNITA in Angola in the late 1990s. Back to Bout: the prosecution claims that a series of emails from 2007, found on Bout’s laptop, detail a prospective $38m arms deal (end-user not mentioned) with Kas Engineering via a Hungarian bank; and a second RFQ for BMP-3 fighting vehicle gun barrels. The DEA goes on to claim that Bout told his testifying co-conspirators that he intended to get Igla MANPAD anti-aircraft missiles for the (fake) FARC buyers from Mirchev in Bulgaria. In the transcript from Bout’s final meeting with the fake-FARC reps in Bangkok, at the point where they’re discussing anti-aircraft missiles, Bout says [in English] “Because I spoke with, er, Peter and I will also go for to see him”.

    Of course, even assuming that the prosecution’s evidence is correct, Bout could nonetheless have been blagging about MANPAD availability from Bulgaria. But even the proposition: MANPADs for terrorists? From (EU member state) Bulgaria?? From Kas Engineering??? Really???? The whole thing just feels so…late 1990s. When they were done arms dealing for the day, did Viktor and his Colombians celebrate by going out dancing to Steps and then sitting down to watch the latest Ally McBeal?

    That said, I’ve always been struck by the longevity of arms dealers’ careers. Some of the most active UK arms dealers today were flogging guns to the Stasi in the 1970s. (There’s a lovely vignette in the summary testimony of Bout’s alleged co-conspirator, Andrew Smulian, where he describes going with Bout to the UAE arms fair in 1997 to meet both Mirchev and Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of the Kalashnikov assault rifle, who’s been Izhmash’s cheery Ronald MacDonald figure for years. Getting to shake the ageing General Kalashnikov’s hand at arms fairs used to be as predictable as meeting Sylvester McCoy at a Dr Who convention – a guaranteed part of the ticket price, but not as exciting as getting chatted up by Tom Baker). What’s more interesting is that these guys seem to continue to do business perfectly happily from jurisdictions that have ostensibly cleaned up their export control acts since the wild west days of the 1990s – like the UK or Bulgaria. Perhaps the dealers have cleaned up too. Or maybe they’re just better at getting round the rules.

  2. Our friends still want to do business with dodgy people: The rest of Bout’s alleged recent arms dealing career is also a blast from the past. The prosecution’s Memorandum of Law describes 2007 emails between Smulian and Bout about arms deals allegedly proposed by contacts of Smulian, on behalf of those notorious members of the axis of evil
    • Tanzania (“a multifaceted [investment] project…among other things, the provision of military hardware to the Government of Tanzania, construction and development, telecommunications equipment, and minerals and gas exploration….satellite and surveillance equipment, air equipment, helicopter gunships, patrol boats, tanks, and other military-related hardware”)

    • and Kenya (“the provision of military-related equipment to a contact in Kenya for the benefit of the Kenyan government”).

    Hmm. After millions of dollars in US export control outreach programmes, surely US-friendly East African governments are really supposed to have cleaned up their arms procurement acts by now and not be tendering from people on UN sanctions lists? Of course, there’s no clear evidence they knew that Bout was to be involved. But Smulian’s pedigree (Air Pass etc.) should have been enough to ring alarm bells. Equally, Smulian’s mates might have been bullshitting about their prospects of getting the deals – but they were reportedly good enough for a Tanzanian People’s Defence Force (TPDF) official to travel to visit Smulian to discuss.

    (There are more traditional customers here as well: a Skype-chat between Bout and an unnamed individual discussing a prospective deal for AT-14 Kornet anti-tank missiles to Libya.)

  3. Remember who your friends are: There are further inklings about how the DEA’s undercover agents made themselves convincing to Smulian and, ultimately, Bout. From the memoranda from Bout’s lawyer, it appears that the approach to Smulian was made by an ‘undercover operative’ named Michael Snow, playing the role of an aircraft broker who flogs some mysterious South Americans a Moldovan Antonov-12 and then contacts Smulian and Bout when the South Americans want some more serious hardware. The transcripts featuring Snow during a restaurant meeting in Curacao with the fake FARC contacts are awesome: he seems to be straight out of central casting for a Frederick Forsythe film adaptation, playing a grizzled ‘this is Africa’ aviation veteran who says things like “if it wasn’t for me, he’d be left in fucking Africa to fucking rot…what you say? I’m fucking deaf…oh, merci beaucoup madame…I must show them how to make a proper crème brulee.” (I’m not making this up. In fact, the whole dessert schtick is brilliant: in the middle of talking about arms smuggling to Angola, Snow gets the fake FARC rebel commander “Carlos” to discuss his pudding:
    CARLOS: It’s a chocolate mousse with cream on the top.

    SNOW: But they never burnt it properly.

    CARLOS: No, because they got the ice-cream on the top.

    Serious pros. I’m wondering whether Snow was so ludicrously convincing because he actually *was* a grizzled ‘this is Africa’ aviation veteran. I’m not sure who he is, but there was a Captain Mike Snow who flew for the ill-fated Africargo in eastern DRC during the war in the early 2000s. No idea if it’s the same guy. It’s presumably not impossible that someone flying there around that time might have bumped into Bout at that time when Bout was reportedly hanging around in the eastern DRC.

  4. New friends…from Iceland? The prosecution also names a new co-conspirator in the FARC deal: one Jon Gylfason, based in Tanzania, who - according to the prosecution – pitches up to Smulian with the Tanzania proposal and a TPDF contact, travels to Moscow to meet Bout, and continues to act as a messenger between Smulian and Bout during the fake-FARC negotiations. I’ve never heard of Gylfason, although I now have some ideas about who he might be. Sounds lcelandic, which is also tangentially suggested by the fact that Smulian communicates with Bout using an Icelandic root-domain email address (development@xnet.is) which he says was “set up for Jon by his buddy who owns the server”, and which he says deletes the emails after they’re sent.

  5. Good old friends: There’s been much supposition and speculation about Bout’s ability to sit in Moscow all the way through the 2000s and not be bothered – an ostensible immunity often attributed to alleged high-level friends in the Russian government. That government’s subsequent efforts to argue against Bout’s extradition from Thailand have fuelled this geopolitical speculation further. From affidavits filed with the Thai court, reproduced in the US case filings, some of this speculation, at least, seems to be true: there’s one from a Russian Duma member, Serge Ivanov, who says that he met Bout for coffee in Moscow before he went to Thailand; and that after his arrest the Duma issued letters to Thailand and President Medvedev in March and September 2008 requesting Bout’s assistance and release.

  6. Other old friends (or maybe new ones): Finally, two new bit-players not yet identified. When discussing an aircraft from Moldova, Smulian refers to the country as ‘Paul’s place’. And when emailing Bout about a prospective trip to discuss the fake-FARC deal, Smulian proposes that Bout sends ‘A from your side’.

    Who’s Paul, and who’s ‘A’? Any thoughts?

    (Picture from the dependable Brick Arms. Lego weapons for all occasions)


    *** I’ve never been convinced that Bout, as some of his mythmakers would have it, was really the biggest arms dealer going in Afghanistan and West Africa, single-handedly keeping the Taliban in business and Charles Taylor up to his Rolex in child soldiers’ blood. Nor am I at all convinced by the arguments from the other side, that Bout just did logistics (including arms) and never dealt arms himself: documentation already presented in the current pre-trial proceedings and by Richard Chichakli in his 2006 civil suit against OFAC, if genuine, strongly suggest that Bout has long been involved in setting up real arms deals.


Good graphs

UK national debt has been discussed and written about everywhere, but the message still isn't really getting through. Even in capital letters.


Which means that the current level of spending cuts are nowhere near "inevitable".

I'm not going to bore the three people who read this blog with a discussion of the merits and demerits of UK spending cuts and tax rises. We know all this. And I'm basically economically illiterate anyway. This is a call-out for a communications strategy.

This much we all know already:

(1) the Coalition government has, somehow, successfully sold the public the idea that the cuts are a natural fact like gravity, rather than a political fact like Margaret Thatcher's hairdo.

(2) They've done this by saying, endlessly, that the national debt is the biggest it's ever been.

(3) Which is technically true: except that any chancellor, at almost any time since 1900, can say that national debt is the largest it's ever been.


(4) This is OK because the size of our economy is, er, almost always the largest ever, and growing continually. So the observation is basically meaningless.

(5) In fact, net national debt AS A PROPORTION OF GDP is lower than at any time between 1920 and 1970; and interest payments on that debt are lower than at any time between 1920 and 2000. This doesn't mean it's not rising worryingly, and needs ultimately to be reduced. And in the boom periods after the 2nd world war when we were building the welfare state and public debt was still massive we had, er, quite a lot of American aid. But it does show graphically that the cuts don't need to be anywhere near as deep or fast as they are: and that this speed and depth isn't sound fiscal policy, but a purely ideological effort to decimate the state etc. etc.

So: how can the British left get the British public past the GCSE-business-studies-level mistake that was the basis for the Chancellor's last budget speech?

I reckon one good start is these *brilliant* graphs courtesy of the *brilliant* (and politically conservative) UK public spending website.

Between now and Mayday I'm going to wear these on my FOREHEAD if necessary.

ps. I know, I know - the bond markets (thanks Jon). Markets schmarkets, that's what I say.