The Aborted Origins Of The First Hunt For Osama Bin Laden

The author of a new book on the U.S. drone program reveals an early attempt to pilot drones out of Germany, without the German government's knowledge.

Ramstein Air Base in Germany
Ramstein Air Base in Germany
Richard Whittle*

Some of the drones the United States used to hunt for Osama bin Laden were once piloted out of Ramstein Air Base in Germany, apparently without the knowledge of officials in Berlin.

It was known that the data for all drone attacks flowed through Ramstein, but according to both internal documents and U.S. officers, the drone pilots themselves were located there for at least part of the time.

In the summer of 2000, (more than a year before the Sep. 11 attacks) a team from the U.S. Air Force 32nd Expeditionary Air Intelligence Squadron in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate began a remote-controlled drone hunt for Osama bin Laden. At the time, the CIA and the National Security Council were developing various plans to capture or kill bin Laden. The idea of armed drones was discussed, although at the time this was thoroughly new ground and the military was skeptical of their use.

Supporters pointed out the advantages: Predator drones — still used by the U.S. military today — can stay airborne for over 24 hours and can send videos from several kilometers in real time. These drones are piloted from a ground control station (GCS) that looks like a shipping container and is full of technology inside. The pilot sits in the GCS and flies the drone with a joystick. Next to him is the "sensor operator," a kind of co-pilot, who runs the cameras.

In 2000, American intelligence thought bin Laden was in Afghanistan at an al-Qaeda camp called Tarnak Farm south of Kandahar. At the time, the applicable rule for the U.S. military's most recent combat apparatus, the Predator drone, was that it couldn't be launched or piloted from more than 800 kilometers (497 miles) from target. A circle around Tarnak Farm with a radius of 800 kilometers went through Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Even if one of these countries had given the U.S. permission to use their territory for a secret mission against bin Laden, there would have been nowhere to place the GCS, the necessary satellite terminals, and a mobile command center without drawing attention. And the hunt for bin Laden was meant to continue to be top secret.

This is where, according to American government sources and American military sources in Germany, Germany came into the picture. A researcher for the "Big Safari," an Air Force technology department, developed the technology to pilot a drone even from a great distance. Whether the ground station is nearby or thousands of kilometers away plays no role as long as there is a direct satellite connection.

Targeted located

With permission from Uzbekistan’s government, the U.S. military launched its Predators from a remote airfield along the Uzbek-Afghan border while the pilots were at Ramstein. The German government at the time apparently knew nothing about it, and when asked the Pentagon had no comment.

Only a few days after the first drone went into action, the Ramstein drone pilots located Osama bin Laden. The U.S. Air Force was already working on equipping drones with Hellfire missiles. But then, lawyers at the Defense Department found that should the pilot of a Predator in Ramstein fire the missile without prior permission of the German government, the United States would be in violation of the status of forces agreement as laid out by the host country, in this case, Germany.

Supporters of the project, however, apparently feared that the German government would not keep what was going on at Ramstein a secret if they knew about it. Americans who were part of the decision-making process at the time say that the German government was therefore not informed.

Instead of asking the German federal government for permission, the drone pilots preferred moving to another country. But where? There was no direct satellite connection between the United States and Afghanistan. To get all the data, several satellites would have had to be used, which would have slowed the connection considerably.

For various technological and political reasons, attempts to find a replacement for Ramstein proved to be unsuccessful. The architects of the U.S. drone program were about to stop the program before it had even really begun. But then the same researcher who had developed the technology to pilot drones from Ramstein had a idea: Theoretically, he explained, the GCS ground station could be located in the United States if the connection to the drones didn't have to go via several satellites.

The system exists to this day. The signal sent to drones over the Hindu Kush, Africa or the Middle East is sent by satellite to Ramstein, then via fiber optic cable running beneath the Atlantic to the United States, where the pilots are. The data for all drone use continues to flow through Germany, but attacks are not launched from here. The problem was thus solved for the U.S. military.

And for the German federal government? When asked, officials said that Washington had confirmed that no armed drones "were either being piloted or given commands" from German bases. The answer concerned the present. About the past there was no comment.

* Richard Whittle is the author of Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution.

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money but the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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