A Libyan-American telecom executive in Abu Dhabi has launched an independent phone network in Libya, connecting users in rebel-held parts of east Libya whose network had been shut down by Libyan leader Moammar Ghadafi.
The new network, first plotted on an airplane napkin and assembled with the help of oil-rich Arab nations, is giving more than two million Libyans their first connections to each other and the outside world after Col. Gadhafi cut off their telephone and Internet service about a month ago.
That March cutoff had rebels waving flags to communicate on the battlefield. The new cellphone network, opened on April 2, has become the opposition’s main tool for communicating from the front lines in the east and up the chain of command to rebel brass hundreds of miles away.
While cellphones haven’t given rebel fighters the military strength to decisively drive Col. Gadhafi from power, the network has enabled rebel leaders to more easily make the calls needed to rally international backing, source weapons and strategize with their envoys abroad.
To make that possible, engineeers hived off part of the Libyana cellphone network—owned and operated by the Tripoli-based Libyan General Telecommunications Authority, which is run by Col. Gadhafi’s eldest son—and rewired it to run independently of the regime’s control. Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim, asked about the rebel cellphone network, said he hadn’t heard of it.
Ousama Abushagur, a 31-year-old Libyan telecom executive raised in Huntsville, Ala., masterminded the operation from his home in Abu Dhabi. Mr. Abushagur and two childhood friends working as corporate managers in Dubai and Doha started fund-raising on Feb. 17 to support the political protests that were emerging in Libya. By Feb. 23, when fighting had erupted, his team delivered the first of multiple humanitarian aid convoys to eastern Libya.
But while in Libya, they found their cellphones and Thuraya satellite phones jammed or out of commission, making planning and logistics challenging.
Security was also an issue. Col. Gadhafi had built his telecommunications infrastructure to fan out from Tripoli—routing all calls through the capital and giving him and his intelligence agents full control over phones and Internet.
On March 6, during a flight back to the United Arab Emirates after organizing a naval convoy to the embattled city of Misrata, Mr. Abushagur says he drew up a diagram on the back of a napkin for a plan to infiltrate Libyana, pirate the signal and carve out a network free of Tripoli’s control.
What followed was a race against time to solve the technical, engineering and legal challenges before the nascent rebel-led governing authority was crushed under the weight of Col. Gadhafi’s better-equipped forces. After a week of victories in which the rebels swept westward from Benghazi toward Col. Gadhafi’s hometown of Sirte, the rebel advance stalled and reversed on March 17, when the United Nations approved a no-fly zone and government forces kicked off a fierce counterattack.
In a sign of deepening ties between Arab governments and the Benghazi-based administration, the U.A.E. and Qatar provided diplomatic support and helped buy the several million dollars of telecommunications equipment needed in Benghazi, according to members of the Libyan transitional authority and people familiar with the situation.
Meanwhile, rebel military commanders were using flags to signal with their troops, a throw-back that proved disastrous to their attempts at holding their front lines.
“We went to fight with flags: Yellow meant retreat, green meant advance,” said Gen. Ahmed al-Ghatrani, a rebel commander in Benghazi. “Gadhafi forced us back to the stone age
Renewed signal jamming also meant that rebel leaders and residents in Benghazi had little warning of the government forces’ offensive across east Libya and the March 19 attempted invasion of Benghazi, which sparked panicked civilian evacuations of the city.
Mr. Abushagur watched the government advances with alarm. His secret cellphone operation had also run into steep problems.
The Chinese company Huawei Technologies Ltd., one of the original contractors for Libyana’s cellular network backbone, refused to sell equipment for the rebel project, causing Mr. Abushagur and his engineer buddies to scramble to find a hybrid technical solution to match other companies’ hardware with the existing Libyan network. Huawei declined to comment on its customers or work in Libya. The Libyan expats in the project asked that their corporate affiliations be kept confidential so that their political activities don’t interfere with their work responsibilities.
Without Huawei, the backing from the Persian Gulf nations became essential—otherwise it is unlikely that international telecom vendors would have sold the sophisticated machinery to an unrecognized rebel government or individual businessmen, according to people familiar with the situation.
“The Emirates government and [its telecommunications company] Etisalat helped us by providing the equipment we needed to operate Libyana at full capacity,” said Faisal al-Safi, a Benghazi official who oversees transportation and communications issues.
U.A.E. and Qatari officials didn’t respond to requests for comment. Emirates Telecommunications Corp., known as Etisalat, declined to comment.
After 42 years under Moammar Gadhafi’s rule, it’s hard to imagine what Libya could look like without the dictator in power. WSJ’s Neil Hickey reports from Washington on the cloudy outlook for the north African nation.
By March 21, most of the main pieces of equipment had arrived in the U.A.E. and Mr. Abushagur was ready to ship them to Benghazi with three Libyan telecom engineers, four Western engineers and a team of bodyguards.
But Col. Gadhafi’s forces were still threatening to overrun the rebel capital and trying to bomb its airport. Mr. Abushagur diverted the team and their equipment to an Egyptian air base on the Libyan border. Customs bureaucracy cost them a week, though Egypt’s eventual approval was another show of Arab support for rebels. Egypt’s governing military council couldn’t be reached for comment.
Once in Libya, the team paired with Libyana engineers and executives based in Benghazi. Together, they fused the new equipment into the existing cellphone network, creating an independent data and routing system free from Tripoli’s command.
The team also captured the Tripoli-based database of phone numbers, giving them information necessary to patch existing Libyana customers and phone numbers into their new system—which they dubbed “Free Libyana.” The last piece of the puzzle was securing a satellite feed through which the Free Libyana calls could be routed—a solution provided by Etisalat, according to Benghazi officials.
On April 2, Mr. Abushagur placed a test call on the system to his wife back in Abu Dhabi. “She’s the one who told me to go for it in the first place,” he said.
International calling from Libya is still limited to the few individuals and officials in eastern Libya who most need it. Incoming calls have to be paid for by prepaid calling cards, except for Jordan, Egypt and Qatar.
Domestic calling works throughout eastern Libya up until the Ajdabiya, the last rebel-held town in the east. An added bonus of the new network: It is free for domestic calls, at least until Free Libyana gets a billing system up and running.
I love the hacking aspect of this especially given the cause.