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Libyan network hijacked for rebel cause

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Internet Security Threat Report 2014

A Libyan mobile network has been hijacked by the rebels, who had been reduced to communicating by semaphore, but can now get interrupted by an incoming call like the rest of us.

The network, dubbed "Free Libyana", consists of infrastructure bussed in from the UAE and jacked into the existing cellular infrastructure. Free Libyana is still pretty basic, but is providing vital communication to key personnel as envisioned by Ousama Abushagur, a telecoms executive living in Abu Dhabi, and reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Abushagur was concerned because he could see that communications were critical to any military operation, and that government forces were switching off parts of the cellular network prior to attacks and jamming the frequencies used by satellite phones. Radios can provide point-to-point communications, but Libya has a national cellular network, so he plotted a way to make use of that.

Not that building a new mobile network comes cheap – despite Abushagur's design being sketched out on a napkin he still had to raise millions of dollars to pay for the kit. It's also hard to buy that kind of thing, so support from Qatar and UAE administrations, as well as Etisalat, was essential as the rebels would have struggled to find a supplier without it.

The supplier remains nameless for political reasons, but we do know it isn't Huawei, as the Chinese company (who supplied the infrastructure for the network being hijacked) refused to get involved.

The kit, along with three Libyan and four western engineers, set up camp in Benghazi and are working with locals they managed to hive off a significant proportion of the Libyana network. The rest of that network is still up, and happens to be managed by Gadhafi's son (radio spectrum is a terrific thing for despots to hand over to relatives, few people notice the nepotism until it's too late).

Mobile networks tend towards a hub-based architecture for simplicity (the hub being in government-held Tripoli in this case), so it's an impressive achievement to acquire control over significant parts of the network and integrate them into a separate hub. Modern networks do try to achieve some level of local autonomy, for resilience and load balancing, but Libyana shows every sign of having been entirely based around a single hub.

Equally impressive is the political achievement. This would have been impossible without the support of the surrounding countries, both in terms of logistics and interconnection, not to mention billing.

Like all cellular networks Free Libyana is still struggling with its billing system: international calls are billed by Etisalat (and pre-paid: one can never tell when a customer is going to disappear) while local calls are free. But at least those wanting to speak to the rebels can give them a call, rather than relying on dropping spies from helicopters only for them to be captured by local farmers. ®

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