--- begin forwarded text

 Date: Sat, 22 Oct 2005 01:50:38 -0400
 To: Philodox Clips List <[EMAIL PROTECTED]>
 From: "R.A. Hettinga" <[EMAIL PROTECTED]>
 Subject: Blood, Bullets, Bombs and Bandwidth

 The long version of the Wired Story on Ryan Lackey, including lots more
 about Tyler Wagner, who I've been reading about almost since he got there
 after the liberation :-) in 2003...

 Just bumped into the bit below, having abandoned Tyler and Jayme's LJs
 after they split, and finding the link after they went back recently.

 Meanwhile, the author bought the wrong vowel, apparently. ;-).



 Blood, Bullets, Bombs, and Bandwidth:
 a tale of two California cipherpunks who went to Baghdad to seek their
 fortune, and bring the Internet to Iraq.

 Ryan Lackey wears body armor to business meetings. He flies armed
 helicopters to client sites. He has a cash flow problem: he is paid in
 hundred-dollar bills, sometimes shrink-wrapped bricks of them, and flowing
 this money into a bank is difficult. He even calls some of his company's
 transactions "drug deals" - but what Lackey sells is Internet access. From
 his trailer on Logistics Staging Area Anaconda, a colossal US Army base
 fifty miles north of Baghdad, Lackey runs Blue Iraq, surely the most
 surreal ISP on the planet. He is 26 years old.

 Getting to Anaconda is no joke. Incoming airplanes make a 'tactical
 descent' landing, better known to military cognoscenti as the 'death
 spiral'; a nose-down plummet, followed by a viciously tight 360-degree
 turn, then another stomach-wrenching dive. The plane is dragged back to
 level only just in time to land, and brakes so hard that anything not
 strapped down goes flying forward. Welcome to "Mortaritaville" - the
 airbase's mordant nickname, thanks to the insurgent mortars that hit the
 base daily.

 From above, the base looks like a child's sandbox full of thousands of
 military toys. Dozens of helicopters litter the runways: Apaches,
 Blackhawks, Chinooks. F-16 fighters and C-17 cargo planes perch in huge
 igloo-like hangars built by Saddam. The roads are full of Humvees and
 armored personnel carriers. Rows of gunboats rest inexplicably on arid
 desert. A specific Act of Congress is required to build a permanent
 building on any US military base, so Anaconda is full of tents the size of
 football fields, temporary only in name, that look like giant caterpillars.
 Its 25,000 inhabitants, soldiers and civilian contractors like Ryan, are
 housed in tent cities and huge fields of trailers.

 Ryan came to Iraq in July 2004 to work for ServiceSat International, hired
 sight unseen by their CTO Tyler Wagner. Three months later, Ryan quit and
 founded Blue Iraq. He left few friends behind. "I think if Ryan had
 stayed," Tyler says drily, "the staff would have sold him to the

 - - -

 Iraq is new to the Internet. Thanks to sanctions and Saddam, ordinary
 citizens had no access until 1999. Prewar, there were a mere 1.1 million
 telephone lines in this nation of 26 million people, and fewer than 75 Net
 cafés, connecting via a censored satellite connection. Then the American
 invasion knocked nearly half of Baghdad's landlines out of service, and the
 local exchanges that survived could not connect to one another.

 After the invasion, an army of contractors flooded into Baghdad. Billions
 of reconstruction dollars were being handed out in cash, and everybody -
 local Internet cafés, Halliburton, Ahmed Chalabi, the US military itself -
 wanted Internet access. With the landline service destroyed by war, and
 sabotage a continuing problem, satellite access was the only realistic
 option. Among the companies vying to provide this access in early 2003,
 scant months after the invasion, was ServiceSat International. SSI, a
 startup founded by Kurdish expats, needed an American CTO: partly to import
 America's culture of technical excellence, partly to help deal with Western
 clients and authorities. They called Tyler Wagner. He was 25 years old.

 - - -

 San Francisco, aka Baghdad-by-the-Bay, July 2003. Tyler Wagner is a typical
 counterculture California techie: a Cal Poly CS graduate, part of the
 California punk scene, working for Greenpeace as a network engineer. Then
 an old friend in London recommends him to SSI. They call him. They need a
 capable Westerner willing to move to Iraq. Is he interested?

 When he hangs up the phone, Tyler is shaking with excitement. The risks of
 relocating to a war zone are obvious. But it is a lucrative senior
 management position, offered to a man only two years out of university.
 "Life doesn't often offer you a hand up like that," he reminisces two years
 later, "and when it does, you can't afford to turn it down." One big
 complication: Tyler's girlfriend, Jayme. They have been dating only six
 months. He doesn't want to lose her. He calls and tells her the news - and
 they both ask at the same time if she can come with him.

 Three weeks later, Tyler and Jayme fly into Amman, Jordan, and take a GMC
 Suburban taxi across the desert to Baghdad. Once they reach the city, their
 driver tells them to get beneath window level, to avoid snipers. They stay
 on the floor of the Suburban until they reach SSI's office in Baghdad's
 affluent al-Mansour neighbourhood.

 - - -

 Baghdad, August 2003. Tyler wakes in his house/office, rolls out of bed,
 walks into his office next door, and begins another fifteen-hour day. The
 house is full of SSI-employed drivers, engineers, tea-boys, housekeepers,
 and Kurdish peshmerga guards armed with AK-47s. Generators and air
 conditioners whir. Outside, the Iraqi summer heat regularly hits 130.

 Other than the bicultural Kurdish/British directors, Tyler is the company's
 only Westerner. He has to build SSI's internal systems, manage the
 satellite installs, deal with Western clients, and train the team of Iraqi
 engineers, most of whom are older than he. All the problems of a
 fast-growing start-up, plus massive culture shock - in a war zone. Bombs
 and gunfire serenade them nightly. Meanwhile, Jayme is going stir-crazy;
 she has nothing to do, but cannot leave the house. The first few weeks are

 Things get better. Tyler and Jayme adapt to their new lives. If they want
 to buy Pop-Tarts or root beer, at the nearby shop that sells American
 delicacies at a 1000% markup, they are driven there in a car full of
 gunmen. This soon seems normal. Jayme gets a job at Erinys, one of
 Baghdad's many thriving private security companies. They go to parties in
 the Green Zone with South African mercenaries, American diplomats, and KBR
 contractors. Tyler learns new skills: how to install a VSAT satellite
 system from scratch; how to open a beer bottle with the Browning pistol he
 carries; how to distinguish between an AK-47 and an M-16 by sound alone;
 how to use tampons as battle dressings; the fine art of bribery.

 Months pass. Business booms. SSI has plenty of competitors, but almost
 uniquely, they combine Western funding and technical expertise with a team
 of local engineers - a team who have become a band of brothers. Tyler
 fosters a community atmosphere, encourages his engineers to stay after
 work, play Half-Life and Settlers of Catan together, or watch South Park en
 masse. He attends their weddings, first as an honoured guest, then as a
 friend. He hires a tutor to teach him Arabic, even though all business is
 done in English. SSI has become half employer, half family. Iraq isn't just
 his workplace; it's his new home.

 Tyler visits monstrous palaces built by Saddam. He meets native speakers of
 Aramaic, the language of Biblical times. He travels to Kirkuk, in the
 north, and installs a satellite dish in an oilfield straight out of Dante's
 Inferno, surrounded by massive pipes vomiting flame and bright green gas.
 And he hacks US military security with a digital camera, a $2,000 card
 printer, and a little social engineering.

 Baghdad is a occupied city of walls and roadblocks. Most of SSI's clients
 are guarded by the US military. Many of them are US military. There are two
 free passes through checkpoints and gates: white skin, or a Department of
 Defense ID card. With neither, you line up for hours to be searched. Tyler
 is tired of his engineers losing days at checkpoints. He constructs SSI's
 secret weapon: an internal corporate ID that happens to look very much like
 a DoD card, right down to an empty smart card, a bar code, and a
 magnetic-strip-like line of black ink across the back. And for months, his
 engineers are regularly waved past inspection points by US soldiers.

 But the insurgency intensifies; security grows tighter, particularly after
 the Sadr City revolt and the assault on Fallujah; and the US military
 starts denying SSI's engineers access to military bases. What's more, most
 Western clients won't take Iraqis seriously, and sales have grown beyond
 Tyler's capacity. They need another Westerner. SSI briefly hires a friend
 of Tyler's, but Baghdad is too much for him. One day, Tyler mentions on his
 blog that he needs a technically skilled Westerner who can handle an
 extreme environment. Among his readers is Ryan Lackey.

 - - -

 San Luis Obispo, July 2004. Late one night, Ryan stops his car here, in
 Tyler's hometown, opens his laptop, connects it to Sprint's network, and
 caps their months-long email and instant-messaging conversation with an
 brief IM: he'll take the job.

 Ryan is viscerally aware of the risks. He went to high school with Nicholas
 Berg, the American network engineer beheaded by insurgents only two months
 earlier. He is led to Iraq by what he calls the "dark calculus" of risk
 arbitrage; in his judgement, while the perceived risk of working in Iraq
 has caused prices to rocket, it is still possible to operate without much
 personal risk. And Ryan is used to intense environments. He dropped out of
 MIT at age 19 to work at a startup in Anguilla. Two years later he moved to
 Sealand, an offshore oil rig that claimed independent sovereignty, and
 cofounded a data haven theoretically beyond the reach of any nation's laws.
 Ryan is a libertarian cipherpunk, gun aficionado, and free-market purist:
 the notion of Iraq as the new Wild West, untrammeled by laws and
 regulations, appeals to him greatly.

 By the time he arrives in Baghdad, SSI has outgrown their first house and
 moved to a walled compound. By now the company numbers about eighty,
 including a dozen engineers. Ryan moves in. He sells to Western clients,
 and increasingly is sent with teams of engineers to American military
 bases; he has no ID whatsoever, but his passport and American accent always
 gets them through the gate. But Ryan isn't adopted into the SSI family. He
 oozes ambition and technical skill, but he isn't a people person. Laconic,
 iconoclastic, brilliant and contemptuous of anyone who is not, he wants to
 make money, build systems, and grow the business, not train Iraqi engineers
 or build a community. He is impressed by what Tyler has done, calling him,
 "probably the best Westerner who's ever managed Iraqis," but he has no
 interest in doing the same. He does not fit in.

 Meanwhile, the insurgency gets steadily worse. Mohammed, one of Tyler's
 engineers, receives a death threat signed in blood for allegedly working
 with the Americans. Two other employees are carjacked by an organized ring
 of car thieves, and SSI has to pay thousands to get their vehicle back.
 Then Mohammed is kidnapped by insurgents while driving back from LSA
 Anaconda. Incredibly, Mohammed manages to beat his guard to death with his
 own AK-47, escape, hitch a ride back to SSI, and stagger shaking and bloody
 back into the office - just in time for the insurgents, who don't know
 their captive has escaped, to call and demand his ransom.

 August 2004. Tyler and Jayme are married in an Iraqi Catholic ceremony
 attended by all of SSI. The subsequent party features copious celebratory
 gunfire. Shortly afterwards, they travel back to the USA for a month-long
 vacation. Ryan is meant to step into Tyler's shoes while he's away.

 One month later, when Tyler and Jayme return, Baghdad is locked down. It
 isn't safe to go to the Green Zone. It isn't safe to go to the shop around
 the corner. They are effectively under house arrest, with direct orders
 from SSI not to leave the compound for any reason short of an emergency.

 - - -

 September 2004. As the sun sets, Ryan drives back to Baghdad from a job on
 LSA Anaconda, with two SSI engineers - and no guards. They have to stop for
 gas on a stretch of road that the US military seems unable to secure,
 famous for mujahedeen attacks. The gas station is a concrete hut next to a
 pump. The power is out. Ryan waits, knowing that if any passerby calls his
 location in to the insurgents, they will be there in minutes. Power
 eventually returns, the car is refuelled, they continue on - and reach a
 roadblock with no American supervision, which Ryan believes is a false
 checkpoint run by insurgents. He huddles in the back of the car, clutching
 his Browning pistol, ready to try to shoot his way out rather than be taken
 hostage. They are waved through without inspection. Then the engineers
 decide to get food, meaning they stop on a busy Baghdad street and wait in
 the open for 15 nervewracking minutes.

 Not long after this experience, Ryan spends a day flying around Iraq in an
 air ambulance helicopter, installing satellite dishes at five different
 locations. When they return to Anaconda, the Marine Corps captain who
 accompanied him offers him a tent to stay in, indefinitely, in exchange for
 technical support. The US military is rife with these unofficial exchanges
 of services, widely known as "drug deals"; agreements which, while
 technically against regulations, bypass the months and reams of paperwork
 that would be necessary to do them officially. Ryan spends two months
 living in this tent. He barely sees the SSI compound again.

 - - -

 October 2004. Tyler and Jayme reluctantly accept that they can no longer
 safely stay in Baghdad. They move north to Arbil, in relatively free and
 safe Kurdistan. The departure is wrenching. They are leaving friendships
 forged by the searing intensity of a year's mutual struggle, and they don't
 know when, if ever, they might return. Weeks later, insurgents bomb the
 al-Jazeera headquarters in Baghdad, and Hassan, one of SSI's engineers, the
 man who chauffered Tyler and Jayme on their wedding day, is killed in the
 blast. Tyler is devastated. His team, his family, has been struck by
 tragedy, and he can't be there for them.

 In November, Ryan officially leaves SSI. According to Ryan, "It was clear,
 with the security situation, that there was no way we could continue to
 operate in the way we were operating." He says, since he was living on
 Anaconda rather than at SSI, and doing satellite installs rather than
 sales, while being paid on commission, there was no point in continuing as
 an employee. Tyler says Ryan alienated the staff, treated the Iraqi
 engineers badly, and was about to be fired when he left. One thing everyone
 agrees on is that his exit was for the best.

 With Ryan gone, and Tyler in Arbil, SSI is effectively shut out of the
 military market. Despite a theoretical "buy Iraqi" policy, it is impossible
 to get Iraqi engineers onto bases. Ryan finds himself living on an American
 military base, with a few important contacts, a lot of technical knowhow, a
 large prepaid contract that eliminated any need for startup funding - and a
 technical advantage over every competitor.

 - - -

 If you want to call Ryan Lackey in his trailer in Iraq today, you dial a
 Virginia phone number. The 703 area code just means that it's Virginia
 where the sound of your voice is packetized into VOIP and shipped via fiber
 to London, where Blue Iraq's teleport operator is located. This company
 pops your voice packets off the Internet, encodes them for satellite
 transmission, and beams them as 14 GHz radio waves from a five-metre dish
 to a Greek satellite. The signal bounces down to Ryan's own 1.2-metre
 iDirect dish, on a table weighed down with sandbags just behind his
 trailer. The iDirect system, robust enough to handle Iraq's extreme heat,
 dust, and wind, converts the signal back to IP packets and outputs them via
 Ethernet to Ryan's VOIP phone.

 If you talk to Ryan, the conversation will be scratchy, and you'll be aware
 of a half-second delay, but the amazing thing is that you can talk to him
 at all. iDirect, the latest generation of VSAT technology, can be difficult
 to set up, which is why his competitors use older Hughes or Tachyon
 technology, but it is the first that can manage usable VOIP. When you
 compare the price Ryan charges - circa $1,000 per month for 1 megabit
 download and 384 kilobit upload, plus 1-5 cents per minute for prioritized
 VOIP traffic, for a dish generally shared by 20-30 people - to the
 dollars-per-minute price of an analog satellite telephone, it's easy to see
 where Blue Iraq's customers come from.

 At its peak, SSI had nearly a hundred employees. Blue Iraq has three, and
 almost no overhead. They pay no rent for their trailer on Anaconda. They
 eat for free at military dining facilities, which on Anaconda serve good
 food prepared by a horde of Halliburton-managed "TCNs" - Third Country
 Nationals, mostly Filipino and Sri Lankan.

 That doesn't mean business is easy. The technical problems are trivial; the
 logistical problems are crippling. Ryan has to to buy hardware remotely,
 have it shipped to Anaconda, and then get it to the customer. His clients
 are official military facilities, private DoD contractors, or units of
 troops who have all chipped in to pay for their own Internet access. If, as
 is often the case, they are stationed at one of Iraq's dozens of other
 American military bases, he flies there on a Blackhawk.

 - - -

 To book space on a Blackhawk from LSA Anaconda, you flash your DoD ID card
 and sign up at the space-available tent. There are daily shuttle flights to
 and from most of the scores of US military bases in Iraq. At your appointed
 hour, a minibus takes you out to the flight line, where dozens of aircraft

 Inside the helicopter, there isn't quite enough room to stand. The door
 gunners sit on padded seats behind the cockpit. Machine guns are mounted on
 flexible arms in the open windows before them. Everything is painted black.
 Behind the door gunners are three forward-facing seats; behind them, two
 facing five-seat benches. The seats are canvas and metal pipe. The safety
 buckle is circular, with apertures for the belt and two shoulder straps; to
 release, you twist its propellor-shaped top.

 Earplugs are distributed. The aircrew slide shut the windowed side doors
 and power up the engine. The rotors start to turn. They are like
 fifteen-foot knife blades with the sharp edge away from the rotation
 direction, the last foot or so bent back about thirty degrees, forming a
 vaguely swastika shape. Taxi out onto the runway, and up you go, as if in
 an elevator, in sync with the other Blackhawk next to you - they almost
 always travel in buddy-system pairs. The ground falls away. But not too
 far. Blackhawks fly about 100 feet above the ground, at circa 200 miles per

 The area outside Anaconda is much greener, a patchwork of farming fields
 fissured with canals and pocked with clusters of palm trees. Then villages,
 big L-shaped concrete blocks and crude brick buildings with thatch/mud
 roofs. Roads, smooth and modern, well-trafficked. Herds of goats flee from
 the helicopter noise. Lots of people wave; some keep their arms lowered and
 stare; some just ignore the noise. There are wide muddy rivers, vast barren
 brown patches, more roads, towns, farmland. At night, you can see street
 lights in the larger towns, fluorescent tubes mounted on
 hockey-stick-shaped poles. The door gunners occasionally drop stuffed
 animals from their windows, part of a hearts-and-minds initiative.

 It's a remarkably smooth ride. The whole aircraft vibrates, but it's a
 soothing white-noise vibration rather than anything jarring. The journey is
 exhilirating, landscape zooming past and disappearing under you, like a
 dream of flying. As commutes go, it can't be beat.

 But Blackhawk flights are risky. Passengers are required to wear helmets
 and body armor. There are a few Forward Operating Bases that space-a
 flights do not go to; Ryan has to ride to them on convoys, which is even
 riskier. Then, when the dish is installed and functional, after the
 paperwork is finally processed and Blue Iraq is paid, Ryan has to hitch a
 ride to Dubai on cargo planes with unpredictable schedules, and physically
 carry a large wad of cash into his bank.

 Business as usual, it's not. But it suits Ryan. He doesn't plan to ever
 move back to the USA, except possibly to finish his MIT degree. He is full
 of ambitions. He wants to build a mobile phone network for Anaconda. If
 Iraq stabilizes, he would like to build its first ATM network. If not, Blue
 Iraq has plenty of room for expansion, into Afghanistan and, as he says
 with a bleak grin, "other markets that the US military opens up for us." He
 doubts those markets will be saturated any time soon.

 - - -

 Tyler and Jayme left Iraq in May 2005. The Arbil office failed; there
 wasn't enough business in Kurdistan. They moved to London, where Tyler
 still works for SSI. His time in Iraq has transformed him to the extent
 that, like Ryan, he doesn't think he can ever move back to the USA. His
 years of living hyperintensely, carrying a gun, building an organization
 from scratch in a war zone, have distanced him from his home. His friends
 seem to him to have stagnated. Their concerns seem trivial. And living with
 real, known, tangible danger has bred contempt for what he calls America's
 "culture of fear."

 - - -

 One of the few things Ryan and Tyler agree on is their scorn for America's
 attempt to secure and rebuild Iraq. Tyler rages that the US military
 "couldn't bother to protect" the road between Baghdad and Anaconda, or even
 the four-kilometre stretch between Baghdad International and the Green
 Zone. And he found that when most other Americans dealt with Iraqis, "they
 were very insulting, they were often very condescending, and in many cases
 I felt that they treated them like subhumans."

 Both of them lament the sorry state of the electrical system. "Not having
 power was probably the single biggest problem that created animosity among
 Iraqis," Ryan says. "The US tried to rebuild it in the Western
 industrialized-country model. The way Iraqis install a power system is,
 they put a bunch of small generators on neighbourhood blocks, with power
 cables running to everyone's house, and just sell them access directly. And
 it's easy to have a market-driven pricing mechanism. But the US solution
 was to give large US companies business here Š If they'd had electricity
 working within a month or two of the invasion, there probably wouldn't have
 been near as much violence."

 Iraqis desperately want to work. "You don't see people begging for money.
 You see people selling gas for money, selling cigarettes by the side of the
 road," Ryan says. Tyler agrees: "I interviewed a lot of people, and I never
 met one that wasn't so painfully eager it almost hurt to turn them away."
 But their economy remains paralyzed.

 "The best way to deal with terrorism in the long run is to fix the
 underlying conditions that create terrorism," Ryan says. "It's difficult to
 fix their ideology, but it's easy to fix their infrastructure. But the US
 has done a bad job Š It's like a feedback loop. They got on the wrong side
 of the feedback loop." Iraqi frustration breeds insurgents; insurgent
 violence cripples reconstruction efforts; and the resulting lack of power,
 communications, finances, and jobs breeds more frustration.

 In the face of this feedback loop, American forces have withdrawn into
 heavily guarded enclaves. SSI's modern, globalized, best-of-both-worlds
 strategy, bringing Americans and Iraqis together to help rebuild the
 shattered country, has faltered. Blue Iraq's neo-colonial approach, living
 and working exclusively on military bases, continues to thrive. The seeds
 Tyler has helped to plant - a team of crack engineers still erecting dishes
 around the country - may someday help drag Iraq into the 21st century, one
 satellite link at a time. But not until the rain of insurgent bombs and
 bullets has ended. And neither Ryan nor Tyler expects that to happen for
  Jon Evans, rezendi.com
 R. A. Hettinga <mailto: [EMAIL PROTECTED]>
 The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
 44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
 "... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
 [predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
 experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

--- end forwarded text

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: [EMAIL PROTECTED]>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

Reply via email to