Cable News

We’ve been discussing this in comments for several days, but I wanted to pull news together on the now-four breaks of communications fiber optic cables to the Middle East. Much thanks to Hmmm and klynn, who tracked down many of these links.

The first two cables–just off Alexandria, Egypt–went down on Wednesday. Initially, news reports assumed the two cables had been cut by a ship’s anchor, but yesterday Egypt announced that that’s not the case: the cables went down in a restricted area, and no ships were present.

No ships were present when two marine cables carrying much of the Middle East’s internet traffic were severed, Egypt’s Ministry of Communications has said, contrary to earlier speculation about the causes of the cut.


The ministry added that the location, 5 miles from the port of Alexandria, was in a restricted area so ships would not have been allowed there to begin with.

Then, on Friday, a third cable off of Dubai went down. Significantly, this cable doesn’t carry India specific traffic. Then, finally, a fourth cable, between Qatar and UAE, went down yesterday. Five days, four cables, and no ships near the first two in Egypt.

Much of the press on this pertains to India because of the impact the outages had, briefly, on India’s call centers. But India has managed to shift much of its traffic to cables going east, through Singapore and Japan. As a result, much of its big business traffic recuperated quickly. Which means the people suffering diminished or no access (this pertains to India, I’m not sure whether the same is true throughout the Middle East and South Asia) are the individual users.

The real sufferers during cable breaks are the individual internet users. Their connectivity is low priority for many ISPs who derive much of their profits from companies. The benefits of dynamic rerouting don’t come free. Large users pay a premium fee to make sure cable cuts don’t stop their traffic. For the small guy, a cable break could lead to disconnection or sluggish download speeds. Despite ISP claims, the small guy took a big knock during last week’s problems.

As for the traffic that relies on these cables and has no alternative–it will probably take 10 days to two weeks to get them fixed. For an excellent depiction of the cables involved, see this post.

So assuming these four outages in different parts of the Middle East are no coinkydink? What would be the point?

I’m obviously just guessing (and working with the possibility these outages were no accident). But it’s clear that Iran retains most of its telecomm access, so this was not an attempt to darken Iran to set up an attack. Further, I don’t think this was an attempt to insert new splitters into the Toobz so as to better spy on the Middle East or to force a shift of more traffic onto US carriers or through the US. That’s because a number of (presumably NSA-friendly) US carriers have lost a great deal of their traffic, with Verizon losing a big chunk of its Pakistani traffic (and some of its Kuwaiti and Egyptian traffic), and AT&T and Sprint losing a significant chunk of their Saudi traffic. From a wiretapping perspective, it wouldn’t make sense to take out Verizon’s traffic to Pakistan so as to replace it with a potentially non-American service provider.

What I find most interesting, though, are the countries most affected by these outages: Egypt and Pakistan, with both losing around 70% of their telecom traffic on Wednesday. Early on, I had wondered whether the cable outage might an attempt to stop the communication abilities of US opponents that had somehow escaped the notice of Israel or the US. Israel had apparently been ignorant of the Gazan jail break, and Hamas had clearly coordinated the jail break with the Muslim Brotherhood and others around the Middle East. Also, the US is preparing to insert special forces into Pakistan’s tribal areas (more about that in the next post). In other words, I wondered whether this outage was an attempt to cut off Hamas’ ability to communicate with its allies, particularly given the potentially dramatic implications of the jail break. Or whether this was an attempt to cut off Al Qaeda’s ability to communicate within the Middle East. And of course, if the bigger users are able to retain communications access and individual users are not, it might be more likely to affect these groups for some time.

This is, of course, outtamyarse rambling. And there’s always the possibility that these four closely timed breaks were really just an accident.

36 replies
  1. JimWhite says:

    Wow, thanks for the update on this. I hadn’t realized just how many cables were involved.
    I think your zeroing in on Pakistan probably is on the money.
    If no ships were in the area of at least the Egyptian break, doesn’t that imply a submarine was involved? From a quick search, I find submarine capability for Israel, Egypt, Pakistan, India and at least minis for Saudia Arabia. I wonder if Pakistan itself might have cut the cables, with a little benign neglect and technical briefing from the US?

  2. klynn says:

    EW,Yep. Here are some more references…

    This has me asking how much $$ did it cost Egypt and how did the dollar fair during all of this? (I have to check the $$). That aside, the Pakistan unrest was my guess as well. And the following would agree with you:

    (Too many great bits to pull and reference…worth reading the hawk perspective.)

    But back to the cable issue, this reference mentions the $$ impact on Egypt.…..&cg=4

    “The digital blackout disrupted Egyptian financial market operations on Wednesday. Gulf Arab countries and India are also reporting significant disruptions to Internet connectivity, bringing problems for the media, Internet and telecom companies.”

    Anyway, much can be gained by all of this “cable messing”…

    -Egypt gets a money message from the US in terms of OPEC & the dollar (and the Suisse banks are recommending that OPEC not switch to Euro because the US $ is believed to level out in about 4-5 months as compared to the Euro but the Suisse franc is gaining quite a bit against Euro and US $).
    -Pakistan individual users are lost, a strategy help during military ops
    -France and Iran even get a message sent too regarding their military base in the Gulf…
    -and lets not forget the splitter benefits too

    Again, outa my arse too…seems like an information interupt-us party…

    (Sorry I cannot get the icons to work right now…So this post is not so clean. If I use them, I get a “server not responding” message and my screen freezes.)

  3. Muzzy says:

    Assuming these occurrences weren’t accidental, a few thoughts come to mind some of which were mentioned in the OP. My first thought is that the incidents don’t have to share the same goal. As a general principle, one downed cable could carry some urgent strategic purpose with the three others being a diversion. Second, this could be an action intended to generate a heretofore unknown reaction which will be closely observed for future use. Third, the nature of these events, if intentional, suggest an immediate or very short term useful effect – kind of like a smoke bomb. Disrupting a method of organization for execution of ongoing plans such as that behind the Palestinian jailbreak into Egypt would be an example, but we’re talking service being out for less than two weeks with resumption of ongoing plans being likely unless the short interval is adequate to set up preventative measures.

    A last thought relates to wondering if there are any entirely new toobz wiretapping ‘upgrades’ that cannot occur without service disruption. It might be better to have an ‘accident’ written about in the news than speculation about real reasons behind a major scheduled interruption. Moreover, perhaps it would be better to have all of them happen at once rather than in a drawn out series that might generate incremental curiosity and suspicion.

  4. Jonathryn says:

    Not a single one of the intel blogs I like to read are commenting about this in any way. What does that tell you?

  5. Alison says:

    There’s a really interesting post up at the Galloping Beaver, “Where is the USS Jimmy Carter?”.

    So, at the risk of perpetrating a conspiracy theory, I will state that I am highly suspicious and until someone can point at USS Jimmy Carter snuggly alongside at its berth in Bangor, Washington, the Bush administration becomes as strong a suspect as any other possible perpetrator. There is also the fact that USS Jimmy Carter was due to become operational this year.

    The Jimmy Carter, interestingly, is purpose built where its predecessors were regular attack subs modified for specific jobs. USS Parche was equipped with a set of pick-up arms designed to rip an armoured fiber-optic cable from its meter deep trench and tap into it. As a matter of certain knowledge, the USN did exactly that with submarines on Soviet undersea copper cables during the cold-war. They conducted a successful tap on the Soviet navy’s Pacific Fleet headquarters when they tapped an undersea cable in the Sea of Okhotsk, which was discovered by the Soviets and another of the Kola Peninsula tapping into the Soviet Northern Fleet headquarters which remained undiscovered.

    If I were conducting an intercept operation requiring an undersea fiber-optic cable splice which I knew the cable operator would detect, I need a way to prevent that operator from detecting it. Create a diversion.

    By disabling the cable, either by severing it underwater or creating a problem ashore, it gives me time to do my splice undetected in a location far away from the diversionary problem. When the cable operator says it will be days before a repair ship can get to it, that gives me plenty of time to get the job done and get out of the area.

    So, if I’m right then all we have to do is find USS Jimmy Carter. If I’m wrong, I’ve just given the NSA a strategy for making undetected taps. On the other hand, it might just be the most concerted attack on the global fiber-optic network by merchant ship anchors in history.

    • Gerald says:

      I’m retired from the Navy, surface ships, so I make no claim to know all there is to know about subs.

      However I can’t believe that one of the only 3 Seawolf subs that are the most potent underwater dreadnoughts in the world would be modified as it would have to be in order to do cable work at depth. Yes I know about the wasp waist and other things, but to tap a cable requires a lot more. These modifications would interfere with a Seawolf’s primary mission.

      The Seawolfs were reserved for Russia in

  6. merkwurdiglieber says:

    First principle of operations is to disrupt or destroy Command and
    Control functions of an opponent. You have identified the most likely
    area and active group affected by the cuts, so the conclusions seem
    self evident… classic moves preceeding military activity, cut cables,
    burn code books, pull embassy personnel in the pre-internet pre-digital
    world… this is a modern equivalent, a prelude to something. What was
    that remark Rove made the other day, there’s some surprises coming he
    said… wiseass just has to brag.

    • mainsailset says:

      tin foil hat: “prelude” such as we did with Afghanistan when we bought up all the satellite time so they were working in the dark??

      • merkwurdiglieber says:

        Your guess is as good as mine, anything to control and/or monitor
        communications in an operations area… the electronic aspect of
        this is more complex than previous, but essential operational
        principles never change, so yeah, probably like your Afghanistan
        example only different type interruption tactic.

  7. merkwurdiglieber says:

    Huffpo links to Newsweek article by Rove, seems a general politics
    article, but anytime he ends with something about surprises my memory
    pulls up some examples I don’t want to relive… snarky SOB, just his
    style to hint at something much darker than politics as usual.

    • sailmaker says:

      When Rove freaks me out with one of his “________ sh** is going to happen and doom the Dems.” statements, I take comfort in the fact that he a) does NOT have ‘the math’ and b) there will not be a permanent Republican majority. I hope that soon we can look at him as being in the same boat as Ann Coulter, an agent provocateur of decreasing credibilty.

  8. Muzzy says:

    A US military action certainly fits, especially given what is posted above about the USS Jimmy Carter. Going with that premise, is it still reasonable to ask if the telcos would be aware of and consent to the actions at some covert level? If not, it sure seems like there is a risk of them discovering what happened by an examination of the cuts (an anchor strain rupture would be different than a clean sever. Also, if some kind of a military tap is put into the cable, it stands to reason the meddling would occur in two separate places – the cut itself and at another site where the material intended to stay put is placed. Presumably the cut would be identified and repaired but the other site would go unnoticed. The cut is needed to cause the necessary disruption in order to plant the hypothetical military tap without telco detection. If the telco response is to plant new cable (which I’m guessing is unlikely given time and costy considerations) it would kind of kill the whole purpose of a ‘tapping’ operation.


  9. orionATL says:

    so how much longer before the national security state becomes

    the world security state –

    worldwide surveillance, 24-7, before dick and david leave public service for a think tank.

  10. behindthefall says:

    re the Jimmy Carter (what were they trying to do to the poor man when they ‘honored’ him by giving a black-ops sub his name?): the first two breaks were separated by not much in time but a lot in space. So, two groups were involved. Supposing that any modifications on the cables would be done at some distance from the evident breaks, then there might be _three_ groups at work, two for the breaks and one to do the tricky, deep-water splicing on first one cable and then the other. Free divers or minisubs might be adequate for the first two; the third group would seem to require big hardware.

    How would a splitter work? Would the new branch go into a newly laid cable? How far would it run and where would it run to?

    • randiego says:

      you’re right in way in that it’s no big bad aircraft carrier, ala Reagan. Republicans need such symbols to compensate for shortcomings in other areas. However, Carter was commissioned and trained with the Navy’s Nuke Sub Force, so it’s fitting that way. One wonders if he supports the mission of the sub, however.

      Carter Bio:…..val_career

      The USS Jimmy Carter, Seawolf-class nuclear attack submarine:…..y_id=17111

  11. randiego says:

    I hadn’t heard of the other cuts/failures. The whole thing stinks and the chances are astronomical that this is a coincidence. This kind of stuff just doesn’t break that often, it has to be broken – like when some guy with a backhoe puts the whole neighborhood out of commission.

    I think the Israel/Hamas lack-of-intel thing is a good suspect, but another possibility – how about no target at all for this one, a dry run by our intel agencies? Cause the disruption and see how the traffic behaves and how everyone reacts? Can this sort of thing be predicted?

    • bmaz says:

      Yes, it can be predicted; unfortunately, only with the same accuracy we all made with the 30-27 Pats over Giants predictions….

      • randiego says:

        heh heh. In the end, cheering on Eli turned out to not be so bad. Gotta hand it to him. Man, that Giants D-Line was something else!

  12. JohnLopresti says:

    Test and measurement in fiber cable is very pinpointing compared to tools available in the old analog technology. The cable owners will know pretty much from the chronology and waveform of light signals at the times of the breaks what genre of incident occurred, provided their adminstrative console recorded the signals when the outage occurred. So far I have yet to hear of any natural disaster as having been the cause of the synched outages; by comparison, in December 2006 there was an under-ocean landslide which disrupted all internet and telephone cables from Taiwan to PRC, which had the effect of blacking out email to southeast Asia countries for more than a week until ATT mustered one of its repair vessels to restore one of the many conduits to provide an interim shared pipe. Flag and seaweeme, if I recall, both are wide area cables with landfalls in many countries across the globe, and with numerous owners and sponsors. There are satellite communications in the area, as well. Though bandwidth becomes an issue on civilian space platforms compared to undersea fiber. So I have yet to find out enough to speculate much, but I like the ancient tale of the copper cable splicing exercise told by one writer, above; plausible enough.

    • mainsailset says:

      And if memory serves we have a spy satellite not only out of commission but aiming toward a crash this month.

  13. JohnLopresti says:

    Like many industrial sectors in France the government owns a goodly slice of Arianespace. For the venturesome, reading about a regional communications vehicle provider such as that entity might be an interesting place to begin sensing the texture of the events unfolding. Last I checked, they were serving north Africa Mediterranean rim countries with satellite launches; not sure if they do undersea, ATT being the global leader in the latter genre of outside plant deployment and repair.

  14. Gerald says:

    (lost part of my post)

    The Seawolfs were reserved for Russia in the old days (my time) but now that threat has expanded to include a Russian serviced Iranian Sub Fleet, and of course the new big bad boy, China.

  15. Sedgequill says:

    Let’s borrow the watercraft, gear, and crews that do that wonderful underwater filming for TV nature programs and have them approach the vicinity of each cable break. Whatever entity, if any, blocks their approach could be placed at the top of the suspect list. Let’s see whether there are actually choke point cutthroats about.

    Seriously, I wonder whether the public or private personnel who learn or know the facts will be fully able to disclose those facts.

  16. klynn says:


    Here’s the latest confirming the fourth cable:…..cables.php

    Many national news agents (in other countries) are now reporting that the US has a sub that specializes in executing cable cutting/cable splitter work.

    Hmmmmm… Great…

    • Hmmm says:

      It will be interesting to see whether we get any sort of detailed damage reports from the several repair ships once they start arriving at the cut sites and pulling the cable ends up.

      • klynn says:

        Agreed. They are suppose to reach the first cable repair location today. As you have read, the repair ships have been delayed due to the past five days of bad weather. One news wire out of the ME pointed out not only were there no ships in the area (confirmed by satellite photos before and after the cuts) of the two cables affecting Egypt the most, the weather was so bad that only an “underwater approach” could have accessed the cables at the time…

        The International Herald Tribune had a very good article which noted that the US was actually quite affected by this in terms of cost because of all the outsourced customer service etc… to India. The article said many East coast firms were badly hit and that this will cost them millions…

  17. Gerald says:

    I will go out on a limb and say I am positive that the US Navy is not cutting deep sea cables today. There is no reason to.

    As to whether the Navy has the equipment on a utility sub to splice a cable on the bottom I will answer yes, and then of course if it could do that, then if it desired it could cut some enemy’s cable.

    But it would not have to have splicing equipment to cut cables.
    It would only have to drag a edged hook or something like that over the cable. That is why they are checking to see if some large boat was dragging an anchor.

    We could guess more if we knew the depths of the cables where they were cut. If some new cable is having a problem, then it could be a problem with the cable design and manufacture itself.

Comments are closed.