Cross-posted from the Arabist.
Reporting from Tripoli, The Wall Street Journal’s Paul Sonne and Margaret Coker reveal the depths of collusion between Colonel Qaddafi’s spooks and their foreign tech support:
The recently abandoned room is lined with posters and English-language training manuals stamped with the name Amesys, a unit of French technology firm Bull SA, which installed the monitoring center. A warning by the door bears the Amesys logo. The sign reads: “Help keep our classified business secret. Don’t discuss classified information out of the HQ.”
Amesys of Bull SA was just one of those whose wares were on display. Narus, a subsidiary of Boeing, the ZTE Corporation of China and a small (but apparently important) South African firm called VASTech SA (Pty) were all represented. Other names will likely follow. But so far, they all are following the warning on the Amesys sign, offering limp responses to the WSJ’s inquiries, or just declining to comment.
But the HQ records speak for themselves: the government recorded thousands of online conversations, phone calls and web histories, from regular citizens to human rights activists (those who had overseas contacts were priority targets, of course).
In the end, Colonel Qaddafi’s tech support was a waste of money, even after his government killed the internet in March to try and cut off Libyans from each other and the outside world. Libya’s uprising has apparently succeeded in toppling Qaddafi’s government, and his IT department is nowhere to be found.
Even the building’s architecture speaks for itself, according to the WSJ. The reporters who entered the place say that in addition to the communications section, the place also has “a windowless detention center.”
As the WSJ points out, none of this is especially shocking. Foreign companies and their products have been involved in suppressing the Arab Spring, and from the Middle East to East Asia, multinationals have made hefty profits from providing surveillance capacity, security contracting and arms sales to repressive regimes. ThisSIGINT Road, if you will, is the e-version of the old Silk Road running from Beijing to Tunis with many stops along the way.
Libya is a good example of the political dealings that are so common when multinational corporate interests stand to gain. When Qaddafi extended an olive branch as the Second Gulf War began, Western (and non-Western) governments and firms leaped at the chance to do business with a seemingly older and wiser dictator.
International trade and arms sanctions were imposed on Libya between 1988 and 1992 due to the country’s support for terrorist organizations. These sanctions were lifted from Libya starting in 2003 because Qaddafi agreed to disclose and dismantle its nuclear program, help track down Libya’s international nuclear black market contacts and started “cooperating” with the UK’s Lockerbie bombing investigation.
Qaddafi made a shrewd choice when he decided to cooperate with the U.S., the UK and the IAEA. Having seen where the WMD “smoking gun” justification had led the U.S. in Iraq, he had no desire to give the Marine Corps cause to pay a visit to “the shores of Tripoli” once again. A grateful West began restoring diplomatic niceties.
But there were tangible benefits as well: diplomatic niceties paved that way for what the Libyan government really wanted: new technology and new money. Qaddafi looked at Western arms manufacturers, investors, security-surveillance providers and oil majors in the same way that a tech junkie would salivate over an Apple Store’s fancy gadgets and efficient tech support.
Big EU arms manufacturers like BAE Systems and the Finmeccania Group basically just picked up where they left off in 1992, selling everything from surveillance networks, firearms, and aircraft. Oil majors, discouraged from going into Libya during the Cold War due to nationalization efforts and Libya’s late pariah status started negotiating contracts.
If there was one sector of Libya’s economy that Qaddafi believed benefited from free enterprise and globalization, it was the surveillance market. The aforementioned Finmeccania Group, (although not mentioned in the article) also helped the Libyans with surveillance work, according to a report put out a few years ago by the partly-government owned Italian multinational.
One hopes the new government will make a conference center available ASAP to host an open house for Qaddafi’s old business partners. Some are already dipping their toes into post-Qaddafi waters to keep or expand these contracts – joined by security contractors who hope to do a brisk business protecting VIPs and pricey machines.
Paul Mutter is a graduate student at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.