By: Saada Abdel Qader
Egypt,17 Nov 2015, (Aswat Masrya) – In November 2014, dozens of people gathered around a small Nissan car that was targeted in a mysterious armed attack by heavy gunfire near a parking lot in the North Sinai city of Arish.
The attack left three passengers dead. Though not in uniform, the passengers were later identified as police officers.Witnesses told the police that the drive-by shooting was carried out by a gunman and another perpetrator carrying handheld transceiver in addition to the driver, who was following the police car.
The locals, who gathered at the scene, were bustling with questions on how the attack was coordinated after authorities cut off all communication networks in the area as a precautionary measure to hinder communication amongst armed groups.
“On the last day of his leave, he had lunch with me, and as he said goodbye to his mother, he told her he would return as a martyr,” said Ashraf Yousef Nofal, the uncle of Jamal Youssef Nofal, one of the three policemen who were killed in the attack.“Three days later, he became a martyr.”
Nofal noted how his nephew – sometimes referred to as Hamada – and his colleagues were attacked despite wearing plainclothes and using a civilian car, adding that the bullets went through the contents of Hamada’s wallet, including his national ID card, driver’s license, and a 200 LE bill.
Since the crackdown on Sinai’s “militant” groups began in September 2013, these groups have managed to bypass the authorities’ measures to hinder communications by resorting to smuggled 2-way radio devices, which can interfere with police frequencies and tap into them.
Ahmed Nassar’s family home in the North Sinai village of Shibana was destroyed by a missile during clashes between security forces and armed groups on 19 November 2014.“We need an ambulance quickly, two of them are still alive!” yelled one of dozens of people gathered around the rubble.
However, attempts to call the ambulance failed due to frequent communications cut, lasting up to 12 hours at times.
The missile attack left 14 people dead.
Security authorities often cut off communications prior to their raids to prevent the armed groups from using cell phones for remote detonation.
This investigative report, which lasted nearly four months, reveals how dealers sell radio devices illegally in the heart of Cairo, in the absence of any monitoring or control by the Interior Ministry, the National Telecommunication Regulatory Authority (NTRA), or the Customs Department.
It also shows how armed groups use such devices in their terror attacks, tracking and tracing security forces, while the disabling of cellular networks “during raids” puts civilians at risk.
Moreover, the Customs Department’s weak measures further worsen the situation, as they fail to prevent the smuggling of the devices in containers, the contents of which are stealthily replaced during the transit period in Egyptian ports. The devices are also smuggled across the Egyptian borders.
On 01 September 2015, Wilayat Sinai (the Islamic State’s Egypt affiliate) released a 37-minute video entitled Hasad al-Ajnad, showing the use of radio devices in wiretapping, remote detonation, and the killing of innocent people.
Last March, Brigadier Mohamed Samir, spokesman for the Egyptian armed forces, said that some of the devices were smuggled into Sinai through tunnels from Gaza, while others came straight from Cairo.
In an official statement, Samir said that North Sinai’s border guards had arrested two Egyptians, Fares Gomaa Salman Moslem and Abdel Rahman Ayed Ayyad, as they infiltrated the borders through a tunnel from Gaza, carrying 17 wireless transmitters, with a range of up to 200 kilometers, five small live broadcast units, 14 network enhancers and 11 boxes of supporting equipment.
The transmitter broadcasts waves and frequencies to cover the largest area possible. It includes antennas to be placed on cars or other places, as well as devices to decode wireless communications.
Brig. Samir also announced that the border guards had seized 198 Motorola MT777 radio devices that were smuggled in a pick-up truck from Cairo to Sinai.
On Jan.8, 2014, the armed forces arrested Ayoub Moussa Ayyad, 12, in the city of Sheikh Zuwayed as he attempted to detonate an explosive device using a radio.This case reveals how armed groups are now recruiting children to monitor security checkpoints using radio devices.
Finding radio devices in the heart of Cairo is not difficult. Abdallah Mahmoud (alias name) uses an MT999 radio as he guards a building in the Cairo neighbourhood of Mohandessin. Along with two others, Mahmoud was assigned by a private security company to secure the building.
We have developed some kind of friendship as I greet him every morning on my way to work. On July 27, 2015, I came to speak to Mahmoud at the building he guards. I told him I wanted to buy a radio similar to the one he used, even though I did not have a permit.
“Who gives permits anyway?” he replied with a wide smile. “We buy each pair for 1,600 LE ($200) from this company (name available with this reporter).”Mahmoud warned me that using the device in the street would lead to receiving frequencies of other companies and bodies, including security authorities.
He gave me a phone number to call someone who sells unlicensed devices, which the company acquires through smuggling.At 6 pm on Saturday August 1, 2015, I called M.Z, the man who sells the radio devices, and we agreed to meet. The four-minute call has been recorded.
We agreed to meet on Sunday. I arrived 30 minutes early, and I agreed with a colleague of mine, a photojournalist, to use his cell phone to take pictures of the meeting.
I called M.Z and told him I arrived early and I did not want to wait out in the heat. He said he would send someone to accompany us to his office.
The company’s office is on the third floor of a five-storey building. It looked like a regular apartment, with no signs for the company at the entrance.
We were escorted inside and told to wait for M.Z as he was still on his way to the office.After being offered some refreshments, I asked the escort to take me to the room where they kept the devices so we could get a head start and take a look at them.
The man agreed, and as we checked the devices, my colleague took pictures and videos of the room and its contents.At noon, another man called A.B came and told us that he would finish the deal with us because M.Z was stuck in traffic.
After taking us to another room in the same apartment, A.B began telling us about all the advantages of the device, including a range of two blocks in residential areas and up to five kilometers in open areas, such as the desert.
According to A.B, the device does not need a permit because it automatically operates on Ultra High Frequency (UHF).
He also confirmed he would provide all parts, including batteries and chargers.A.B then made us an offer: a discount on the original price of $200 if we buy large quantities.
To avoid the legal consequences of buying the devices without permits, the man told us we needed Motorola 999 devices with a wider range.
However, according to him, this model was out of stock due to high demand, and we agreed to return later when it became available.
Ahmed Abdelal (alias name), CEO of an import-export company, said there were several ways the radio devices could be smuggled into Egypt, including containers full of children’s toys that resemble the device.
They can also be smuggled through import-export companies, which replace the contents of the containers at Egypt’s transit ports.
Another way to smuggle the devices is to bribe customs officers to ignore the contents of the containers.
Tawfik Ismail, professor at the communications department in Cairo University’s faculty of engineering, says that smuggled radio devices pose the greatest risks on the country’s national security, regardless of their types or models, because they operate on UHF, which is used by state bodies, and only with a permit.
Prof. Ismail added that the devices can be used in many sabotage operations, including interference with a licensed frequency, which can be tapped or jammed. It can also operate other devices remotely, which is the case when detonating bombs.
The Cairo University expert offered solutions to counter the unlicensed use of radio devices, including tightened customs measures and using modern technology to monitor them and cut off their communications.
Talaat Mohamed al-Sayed, head of the communications engineers society, says the whole radio communications system is based on frequency exchange in the air and thus any radio device can receive the frequencies and tap other devices as long as it has the strongest signal.
Dr. Sayed Azouz, head of NTRA’s Radio Frequency Spectrum Management, confirmed that unlicensed radio devices cause damaging interferences with licensed systems.
However, according to Azouz, radio frequency spectrum monitoring stations can detect, identify, and stop such transmissions.
The official also added that NTRA issues permits for the import and use of radio devices following the approval of the management committee, according to article 18 of the Communications Regulatory Law of 2003.
Import companies receive permits determining the quantities and types of devices allowed by the committee. As for the use of the devices, permits are issued to determine their types, locations, transmission capacity, and frequencies, which are all previously approved.
“NTRA carries out regular inspections on radio devices importers to review their stock and compare it with official documents, as well as to count the devices that we imported and sold,” said Azouz. He added that the NTRA performs unscheduled inspections to ensure that there are no unauthorized radio devices present. All the companies, who have a permission to import and sell these devices, are listed in a NTRA database. However, he did not mention any specific cases of capturing parties engaged in illegal import and sell of radio devices.
Azouz asserts that the NTRA has specialized inspection team, which has been granted the right of juridical arrest. The latter is used to detect breaches of the law, and to undertake the necessary legal action to combat them. In the case of receiving complaints, the NTRA liaises with the Ministry of Interior. A joined committee performs an inspection to look into the complaint.
The manager of the Operations and Maintenance unit in the NTRA, engineer Hisham Abd al-Rahman, explained that the permits for radio device are issued over two stages. The first for importers and the second for users.
The importer is granted a permit based on stipulated conditions. For example the make of the radio device has to be one permissible in Egypt as the country has a list of devices admissible to country and those that are not allowed. Moreover, the relationship between the importer and the manufacturing company has to be clarified.After-sales services need to be available. In addition, the company’s security stance needs to be ascertained.
As for the permits for users, they are granted based on the delimiting the frequencies, the types of devices uses, and their compatibility with the demarcated frequencies. These stipulations aim at ensuring that the frequencies do not interfere with the radio devices.
Abd al-Rahman also pointed out that there are electronic appliances, which monitor the radio devices to ensure no interference occurrence. It facilitates detecting cases of interference in addition to the reports filed to the NTRA by individuals. Furthermore, the NTRA organizes regular inspection campaigns on both companies and users, in collaboration with the Ministry of Interior.
The journalist acquired, through the customs’ officer, a communication report, bearing the date Feb. 16, 2015. It is sent from the customs’ Eastern Region to the central agency for countering customs smuggling.
The communication report states that the company (whose name the writer will not disclose) with customs statement number 2323, and shipping policy no. 149403950361, container no. TCKU9415694, contained items that were not disclosed. Upon searching the container, 568 Motorola and Kenwood radio devices—with their accessories—were discovered. These use of these particular models is exclusive to the security apparatus.
When confronted with the investigation’s outcomes, the President of the Customs Agency, Dr. Magdy Abd al-Aziz, stated that the central agency for countering customs smuggling is constantly combatting smuggling. He continued “whoever wants to smuggle things will figure out a way to do from whatever port”. He asserted that the attempts to smuggle radio devices are undertaken through numerous port, this includes the Cargo Village in Cairo International Airport, the latter is the biggest outlet. Nonetheless, the smuggling of these devices is underway in other ports such as: Borg al-Arab, Alexandria, and Port-Said.
Most companies that engage in smuggling radio devices are ones specialized in children’s toys, according to Abd al-Aziz. He pointed out that the matter had been controlled through relying on human labour until the contracted modern detection devices arrive. However, he did not say when these devices would arrive.
He added that the customs laws for 1963, amended by the following laws: no. 75 for 1980, 175 for 1998, 160 for 2000, and 13 for 2011, is a good law as it managed to adapt throughout the past 50 years to new customs systems.
He added that the legal measure taken against the customs inspector, who is proven to be implicated in facilitating smuggling, entails referring him to General Prosecution without consulting the customs agency.
However, if he is still under suspicion, he is interrogated firstly by the customs agency.Abd al-Aziz perceives a shortage in the number of customs inspectors. They are estimated at around 15,000 inspector. They lack financial incentive as their salaries have not increased despite the inflation. He called for hiring an additional 6000 customs inspectors to carry out checks and inspections.
Dr. Hossam Moustafa, the professor in Law school at Cairo University and lawyer in the appeal court, does not think the penalty for breaching the law for organizing telecoms no. 10 for 2003, is deterring. The law stipulates penalties for smugglers and users, who do not have permits. Nonetheless, he also add that the law is not put into effect. Moreover the judicial arrests contain legal loopholes, which enable the smuggler to reduce the penalty or even get acquitted. He added that regular inspection needs to occur more often, documenting the breaches while avoiding the loopholes.
Regardless of the triviality or gravity of the errors in the confiscation reports, customs procedures, or monitoring system, they seem to be enough for the smugglers to rustle the devices needed by armed groups to commit murders through ethereal waves, continuing the bloodshed.
This investigation was completed with support of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) www.arij.net.