National Security

Inside Yemen's Shadow War Arsenal

The U.S. has spent hundreds of millions fighting Yemen's terrorists. What did it buy, really?

Since November of 2011, the United States has pledged nearly $600 million to Yemen for everything from spy drones to opinion polls to pickup trucks as part of a shadow war to fight terrorism there. But how much Washington is getting for its money is an open question, even within U.S. government circles.

Reports that the Yemenis may have helped to foil a major terrorist plot against Western interests in the region point up the need for an effective security assistance program in a country now re-emerging as a frontline in what used to be called the war on terror. (Even if the Yemeni government itself finds the plot a bit hard to believe.) It's also become equally clear that instability and a lack of oversight has posed real challenges to tracking U.S. counterterrorism aid there. The security threat that forced the State Department to shutter more than 20 embassies and diplomatic posts this week reflects the increasingly "diffuse" threat from al Qaeda. But the plot that Yemeni officials claim they thwarted Wednesday now raises questions about how effective American counterterrorism assistance is and whether more, or less aid, is needed in the future.

Only a portion of the $600 million committed since late 2011 goes directly to fight terrorism -- about $250 million, according to State Department officials. The rest goes towards "helping to strengthen governance and institutions on which Yemen's long-term progress depends," as then-White House counterterrorism czar (and unofficial envoy to Yemen) John Brennan explained last year. That includes cash to "empower women," "combat corruption," and provide "food vouchers, safe drinking water, and basic health services," Brennan added.

But even that non-military aid can sometimes come with a hard edge. Last year, the State Department paid out $2.2 million to Griffin Security, a Yemeni contractor specializing in "close protection," "surveillance systems," and "maritime security services," according to the company's website. On June 26, Foggy Bottom sent another $3.1 million to Advanced C4 Solutions, a Tampa-based business with strong military and intelligence community ties, for an unspecified "administrative management" contract. Six days later, the State Department executed a second, $1.3 million deal with the same firm -- which publicly declares itself a specialist in computer network attacks -- for "translation and interpretation services."

Overt security assistance was put on hold for about a year when former President Ali Abdullah Saleh brutally cracked down on his people. But that ban has been lifted, and the spigot is once again open. The Pentagon is outfitting the Yemenis with weapons, short takeoff and landing spy planes, night vision goggles, and even Raven drones to help Yemeni security forces to strengthen their effectiveness against internal threats and extremist activity, according to defense officials.

Those assistance programs come with criticisms, however, even from within the U.S. government. The primary concern: that the U.S. lacks the capacity to oversee objectives in Yemen. The Government Accountability Office recently faulted American assistance to Yemen, saying that "Yemen's unstable security situation constrains U.S. training of Yemeni security forces, restricts oversight of civilian assistance projects, and endangers Yemeni nationals who work for the United States."  

GAO investigators cited the threats to Yemenis working for the Americans, including a Yemeni employee of the American embassy in Sanaa who was murdered in 2012. "Because of leadership and coordination challenges within the Yemeni government, key recipients of U.S. security assistance made limited use of this assistance until recently to combat [al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] in support of the U.S. strategic goal of improving Yemen's security," the March 2013 report found.

In that way, Yemen isn't unlike other countries -- Iraq and Afghanistan to name but two -- in which the United States has struggled to keep pace with the influx of billions of dollars of assistance over the years only to come up short in terms of accounting for it all. And in both cases, the United States had thousands of military and civilian personnel working in the country. Not so in Yemen.

"We need to remember that we have done at least as badly in planning and managing aid as the worst recipient country has done in using it," said Tony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Nonetheless, a variety of programs aim to directly achieve American security objectives in Yemen. During 2012, for instance, the Pentagon spent about $14 million on a single U.S. Special Operations Forces counterterrorism enhancement program in which a limited number of American military personnel provided training and equipment -- from small arms and ammo to radios to rigid hull inflatable boats to night vision goggles to navigational systems -- to Yemen's counterterrorists.  Another program, referred to in Pentagon briefing papers as the "Fixed-Wing Capability Program," spends about $23 million "by providing equipment and training to improve the operational reach and reaction time of Yemen's CT forces," including two short take-off and landing aircraft. The United States spends another $75 million on building the counterterrorism unit of Yemen's Central Security Forces.

During 2013, the Pentagon spent nearly $50 million on what's called an "integrated border and maritime security" program to help the Yemenis be more effective with aerial surveillance and ground mobility, according to a defense official. That helped the Yemenis build up the capacity to monitor threats along the country's nearly 1,200 mile coastline. The program includes 12 short take-off and landing aircraft, each with intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, as well as flight and maintenance crews.

The United States has spent other money on Yemen, including $24 million the Coast Guard spent to build two 87-foot coastal patrol boats, and another $11 million for about 340 F-350 Ford pickup trucks, according to publicly-available contracting data. Another $27 million was spent for a contract with Bell Helicopter for four Huey II helicopters within the last three years.

Two years ago, the polling firm Gallup, Inc. was paid more than $280,000 for a "Yemen Assessment Survey." Around the same time, Yemen was part of a major contract to provide crew-served weapons, gun mounts, and stands for .50 caliber weapons. Last year, the Army paid $3 million to Harris Corporation for radios for the Yemenis, and the Navy paid $5.4 million for aircraft engines and spare parts for CASA 235 transport planes. Also last year, the Army paid $1.9 million for tactical UAVs in both Kenya and in Yemen.

Meanwhile, there are few American boots on the ground -- few that the U.S. publicly acknowledges, at least. America admits to placing about three dozen or so U.S. Special Forces trainers in Yemen. And there is currently a Marine security force detachment at the U.S. embassy in Sanaa, as well as the Marine embassy security guard contingent typically assigned to U.S. embassies around the world. (Additional forces, from America's elite Joint Special Operations Command, are scattered in small units throughout the country.)

But the troops and gear inside Yemen are, in some ways, the least significant component of the campaign against al Qaeda there. From the north, American drones take off from a secret airfield deep in the Saudi desert -- and strike at targets inside Yemen. From the south, eight more Predators and eight F-15E fighters fly missions from a rapidly-expanding base in Djibouti; more than 3,200 U.S. troops and civilians are stationed there, along with the warplanes. A $1.4 billion construction project could add space for hundreds more. Additional bases have been spotted in Ethiopia and the Seychelles.

Last week, Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi met with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon, where Hagel praised Hadi for being one of America's  "key partners" and thanked him for "the continued cooperation on mutual security assistance issues," according to a Pentagon readout of the meeting.

Also this week, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf characterized the U.S.-Yemeni relationship, particularly with regard to counterterrorism efforts, as "very close."

MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images

Investigation

Africa's Big Brother Lives in Beijing

Is Huawei wiring Africa for surveillance? Or just for money?

Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei may have been all-but-barred from doing business in the U.S. over allegations that it's basically an intelligence agency masquerading as a tech business. In Africa, however, Huawei is thriving.

From Cairo to Johannesburg, the Chinese telecom has offices in 18 countries and has invested billions of dollars in building African communications networks since the late 1990s. The company's cheap cellular phones today dominate many of Africa's most important markets -- and that was before Huawei teamed up with Microsoft earlier this year to launch a low-cost smartphone on the continent. Just in the past few months, the firm closed a pair of telecommunications deals in Africa each worth more than $700 million, part of an African business that brings in more than $3.5 billion annually for the Chinese firm. According to Huawei's marketing materials, the projects are all part of a mission of "Enriching [African] Lives through Communication." But current and former U.S. officials -- as well as outside security analysts -- worry there could be another agenda behind Huawei's penetration into Africa. They suspect that the Chinese telecom could be wiring the continent for surveillance.

"There's a great deal of concern about Huawei acting to advance the interests of the Chinese government in a strategic sense, which includes not only traditional espionage but as a vehicle for economic espionage," former Department of Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff told FP. "If you build the network on which all the data flows, you're in a perfect position to populate it with backdoors or vulnerabilities that only you know about, you're upgrading it, each time you upgrade the network or service it, that's an opportunity" to install spyware.

"That's a strategic issue for the countries in Africa and a strategic issue for us," added Chertoff.

Huawei spokesman William Plummer called such concerns "silliness," noting that the company "did $35 billion in business last year, 70 percent outside of China. We will not compromise our commercial success for any government." 

China has made no secret of its interest in Africa, investing more than $67 billion into large-scale projects on the continent from 2006 to 2012. Hundreds of Chinese troops are helping keep the peace in Mali, while Beijing's warships have contributed to the fight against pirates off the coast of Somalia for years. And no wonder: China is becoming increasingly dependent on Africa's farms to feed its people, on Africa's minerals to run its industries, and on Africa's oil to fuel its cars. China needs Africa as a partner -- the closer, the better.

Enter Huawei.

"Across Africa -- but especially in demographically large or resource-rich nations -- Huawei is offering exceptionally competitive prices, generous financing, and fully managed systems to governments that otherwise have grave difficulty expanding into broadband (and the internet in general)," Chris Demchak, co-director of the Center for Cyber Conflict Studies at the U.S. Naval War College, told Foreign Policy in an email.

Huawei isn't just providing cell phones, towers and fiber-optic cable and then turning them over to local businesses. The telecom giant -- and sometimes its Chinese rival ZTE -- is often running these networks for the local communications providers and the government.

"Generally, most of the employees operating these systems are Chinese and the arrangements usually include delegating maintenance and decisions about future updates to Huawei as well, thus ensuring the Chinese firm's control of the basic technological architecture's foundation, evolution, and operations," Demchak noted.

In June 2013, the firm signed a $700 million deal to build cellular networks in Ethiopia. At the same time, the company inked a deal to run communications networks in Nigeria -- networks that it's had a role in building -- for the next five years.  Huawei also helps run the communications networks in Zambia.

In oil-rich Angola, Huawei was awarded a contract to built LTE 4G cell networks for the state run mobile phone firm, Movicel. Interestingly, in 2008, Huawei's Chinese rival ZTE was given a contract from the Angolan government to manage the mobile business.

"Managing a nation's backbone telecommunications system, especially if it is seen to be the basis for future economic development, is an exceptionally powerful position economically, politically, and technologically for any firm in a country, let alone a foreign firm," Demchak said. "With that kind of monopoly (or near enough to same), it is much easier to quietly move massive streams of data, malware, and sophisticated penetration campaigns around through complex cyber systems without oversight."

Several of these African governments -- including the Zambian, Ethiopian and Zimbabwean regimes -- have all sought Chinese assistance in monitoring their country's digital communications networks, according to Mai Truong, an Africa analyst at Freedom House.

In February 2013, for example, "Zambian government sought Chinese expertise and assistance in installing internet surveillance and censorship equipment, which occurred after President Sata had signed an order earlier in the month authorizing the Office of the President to intercept both telephone and internet communications," Truong told Foreign Policy in an email. "In Ethiopia, Chinese technical assistance to monitor Ethiopian citizens online was confirmed in June 2012 when the government openly held an 'Internet Management' media workshop with support from the Chinese Communist Party."

While the Zimbabwean government's ability to monitor citizens' online behaviors isn't fully known, "the technology they do have is likely to have been provided by the Chinese, beginning in 2007 after the passage of the Interception of Communications Act," writes Truong. "The Chinese have also been blamed for hacking attacks against independent Zimbabwean news websites."

It's also worth noting that many African nations have publicly stated the Internet empowers too much free speech, so it's no secret many of them want to monitor their citizens' online activities. Just last fall, the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram attacked cellphone towers across Nigeria, citing concerns that the Nigerian government was tracking the group via its members' cellphones. Meanwhile, the mysterious Zimbabwean digital whistleblower Baba Jukwa is being hunted by the government of President Robert Mugabe -- even as Jukwa claims Zimbabwean spooks trained in Internet surveillance are looking for dissenters.

Still, it's not really news that local governments work with telecommunications firms to monitor networks. 'Lawful intercept' is the intelligence world's term for this practice.

"With regard to lawful intercept capabilities  . . . everyone does that," former Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency director Michael Hayden told Foreign Policy.

What's potentially more disturbing about Huawei's involvement in African telecommunications is that it could provide the Chinese government with direct access to those networks.

"Would Huawei, in constructing a lawful intercept capability for a sub-Saharan nation, build into the system, their own access to the lawful intercept capability thereby giving them tremendous insight into what that state thinks or does about its security?" asked Hayden rhetorically. "Those are dangers."

"Even if there aren't any backdoors, which is a large hypothesis, just the Chinese state having access to the architecture of your system is a tremendous advantage for the Chinese should they want to engage in any electronic surveillance, any electronic eavesdropping," Hayden added.

"The Chinese see themselves in a global economic competition with the United States, and they see real advantages of at least having the possibility of exploiting [African] networks in the future," he added.

Last fall, the U.S. House intelligence committee urged American businesses not to work with Huawei, alleging that communications gear installed by the firm in the U.S was passing sensitive data about American companies back to China. But lawmakers didn't provide concrete examples of U.S. firms losing data because of their use of Huawei products. The congressmen instead repeatedly noted the strong connections between the Chinese company and the Chinese government, which is believed to be behind a massive global campaign of electronic espionage.

Plummer, the Huawei spokesman, indirectly acknowledged the fears about China's cyberspying. But he said those worries had only made Huawei's privacy and security protections stronger.

"In part due to the spotlight we are under based on our country of heritage, we have put in place sophisticated security assurance disciplines -- from ideation to after-market service -- to ensure the integrity of our gear and code," Plummer added.

He then suggested that westerners accusing Huawei of rampant spying "are looking into the 'mirror' of the U.S. PRISM and related programs and assuming like activity by other states.  "Whatever, whichever [spying] other states may be engaged in, Huawei is not involved and will not engage in any such activity."

And if there are concerns in Africa about Huawei as a potential Big Brother, they haven't hurt the company's revenues on the continent. In late 2012, Huawei predicted revenue from African business would increase 30 percent by 2015. The company's African revenue in 2011 was listed by Bloomberg as $3.42 billion -- a rise of 15 percent from the year before, meaning that African sales now make up 13 percent of the firm's global revenue.

The company has recently signed a $750 million deal to improve networks in Nigeria, built training centers in seven African countries, a research and development center in South Africa and opened its network operations center in Cairo where it monitors its African infrastructure from, in late 2012. It's sold millions of telephones and hundreds of thousands of smartphones across the continent, including its 4Afrika smartphone that it developed jointly with Microsoft. Huawei's IDEOS smartphone reportedly has 45 percent of the market share in Kenya.

While Chinese businesses are "omnipresent" in Africa, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, a recently retired senior U.S. military official with experience on the continent told FP. "A lot of that is resource driven, extracting resources to fuel the Chinese economy and they get access to those resources through infrastructure [building projects], low-rate loans, those kind of things. The Chinese are building roads, bridges, government buildings all over Africa. That's a very good thing, it's needed."

Huawei's deep involvement in African networks could only further China's economic expansion on the continent. It could give the Chinese an edge in almost any business deal or security matter on the continent. U.S. cybersecurity experts have repeatedly cited cases of Chinese hackers stealing American corporations' negotiating strategies and business plans in order to give rival Chinese companies a leg up on their American counterparts.

In addition to giving Huawei -- and potentially the Chinese government -- vital intelligence on African nations, Demchak worries that access to Africa's telecommunications infrastructure could make it even easier for Chinese hackers to disguise their attacks by rerouting them through the continent. Basically, the continent could serve as a giant laundromat for Chinese cyber-aggression.

"One could imagine a situation where the Chinese management of Africa's backbone in effect turns much of the continent into a 'bullet-proof host'," said Demchak describing a term for Web hosting services that permit illegal activities.

"In that case, laundering of bad cyber behaviors through these backbones could easily be largely untouchable and uncontrollable externally by other nations," added Demchak. If she's right, Huawei's investments in Africa might not just be problematic for the people who live on the continent. They could be an issue for all of us.

STR/AFP/GettyImages