Monday, February 18, 2008

It Wasn't Just One Cable

This month brought a bit of drama as damage to undersea cables providing service to the Middle East severely cut Internet access in many countries and weakened telephone capacity as well. Affected countries included the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Iran.

The most popular story appears to be that only one cable was damaged, possibly in two places. This cable is roughly 8km off of the Egyptian coast, near Alexandria. Although true press accounts do exist (see here, here, and here), the majority seem dedicated to preserving this fiction. They mention two cuts, both at that one site, and both taking place on February 1, 2008, but make it sound like they were both near Alexandria. They do mention the other cable cuts, but make it sound as if these were just rumors which "could not be confirmed."

Even those news outlets covering more than the official two cuts seem willing to chalk the entire thing up to an “unfortunate," as were the conspiracy theorists. A poll (translated version) of visitors to the Egyptian site accepted the story of just two cable breaks near each other, and 13.36% saying they believed an accident caused the cuts, 17.26% thought the damage was due to the natural breakage due to aging infrastructure (which shows you Egyptians' expectations from their infrastructure. Of all the possible explanations I considered, it never occurred to me that such vital telecommunications equipment was just falling apart due to age and poor maintenance).

Mini Cable Damage Timeline
23-Jan-08: The Strait of Hormuz - Off Iran, near the UAE
25-Jan-08: Off Malaysia
30-Jan-08: Mediterranean - off Egypt
30-Jan-08: Mediterranean - off France
01-Feb-08:Off Qatar
01-Feb-08: Off Qatar- connecting to the UAE

Neither explanation is plausible when one considers the high number of broken cables in such diverse locations, but they are if you believe the only damage took place off in one area off the coast of Egypt. Another 52% thought it was Israel, a knee-jerk reaction I'm inclined to disregard as one of many uneducated knee-jerk reactions (blaming the Jews for the Asian Tsunami comes to mind). That said, unlike the Jews-caused-the-Tsunami insanity, this particular conspiracy theory is based on a bit of fact, namely that the cable serving Israel and Iraq remained untouched while so many cables targeting the rest of the Middle East were damaged, and much of the diverted Internet traffic was routed overland through the US. This does not a conspiracy make by any means, but in the absence of a more rational explanation, US and/or Israeli involvement sounds just as reasonable as all the other improbably explanations out there.

Of course, given the wide geographic range of the damaged cables and the concurrent timing of several cuts leaves me no choice but to conclude it IS a conspiracy, the question remains what type, and by whom? Was it the Big Bad US and their favorite ally, Israel? Was it terrorists out to cause damage to the hated businesses and governments in their own region? If so, why didn't they claim credit yet? Was it the US, seeking to weaken Iran, or at least test that country's ability to recover ahead of an attack?Was it Alcatel-Lucent, who signed a 125 million dollar deal with the less than wealthy Telecom Egypt two days after the last cuts (Egypt had several cable connecting it to Asia, four of which were cut)?Dragging a few old anchors over some cables is a fairly inexpensive way of gaining multi-million dollar contact from a country with dire infrastructure development needs and several undersea telecommunications cable already connecting it to the outside world. And why is there this fake cover up? Lazy journalism? A true conspiracy? It all sounds so crazy but something is up.

I am usually so disdainful of those that believe in the unseen hands (the conspiracy kind, not the economic one) and one time even subjected a poor Afghan coworker to a four hour history lesson on the origins of the American Civil war beginning in the late 17th century (he thought it was the creation of the Rothschild family so that they could get wealthy on contracts) in my quest to end them, but in this case, I am willing to make an exception. Games are afoot, I just don't know which. Which is rather frustrating. Further inquiry is required…

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