Listening to Criminals

Operation Triton
Combating people-smuggling from Libya will be one of the aims of Operation Irini, together with tackling sanctions violations. COMINT gathering will have an important role to play in supporting these efforts.

A new European Union initiative to combat sanctions busting and people smuggling in and around Libya could benefit from robust SIGINT support.

As March was drawing to a close the European Union (EU) finalised Operation Irini which aims to tackle violations of the United Nations (UN) arms embargo on Libya. Operation Irini will take place under the command of the EU’s Naval Force (EU NAVFOR). UN Security Council Resolution 2292 authorises the inspection of vessels on the high seas suspected of carrying arms and materiel to and from Libya.

Specifically, the EU’s efforts will gather information concerning illicit exports of oil, petroleum and refined hydrocarbons from the war-torn country. It will enhance the training of the Libyan Navy and Coast Guard in law enforcement at sea and work to disrupt human trafficking and people smuggling from the country, according to an official announcement by the EU. The mission will be commanded by Rear Admiral Fabio Agostini of the Marina Militare (Italian Navy) and will be commanded from the EU NAVFOR Mediterranean headquarters (HQ) in Rome. The latter will house the operation HQ with the force HQ afloat, EU sources told the author. Operation Irini will run until 31st March 2021 and will comprise space, naval and airborne assets to enforce the embargo and to assist other aspects of the mission’s mandate. An EU spokesperson told Armada Analysis that materiel contributions were currently under discussion, but that they are likely to include warships, aircraft and satellites: “Aerial assets will operate in international airspace off the coast of Libya” with satellites used to collect relevant imagery as and when required.

Although not explicitly revealed by the EU it is clear that signals intelligence gathering, chiefly Communications Intelligence (COMINT), will be key to enhancing situational awareness during Operation Irini. COMINT will probably focus on gathering information on communications traffic from those suspected or involved in sanctions busting and people smuggling. It may be possible to demodulate and decrypt some of the communications to extract valuable intelligence on the activities of these individuals. Imagery intelligence gathered on specific individuals can be matched with COMINT concerning the communications devices they are using. Once these devices are matched to the person then it becomes possible to keep tabs on their movements as every time they use their device they can be detected by COMINT gathering assets. As with any military operation, gathering SIGINT and teaming this with other intelligence sources forms a vital part of the overall intelligence jigsaw supporting situational awareness at the operational and tactical levels.


One potential advantage for the EU in terms of COMINT in the Libyan theatre is that the majority of communications used by individuals and groups involved in sanctions violations and human trafficking will be commercial systems which maybe relatively easy to intercept and decrypt. Libya uses two GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) frequency bands. These include GSM-900 with an uplink of 880 megahertz/MHz to 915MHz and a downlink of 925MHz to 960MHz. The GSM-1800 band is also in use with an uplink of 1.710 gigahertz/GHz to 1.785GHz, and downlink of 1.805GHz to 1.880GHz. In addition to these two bands Libya uses the third-generation Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS) B1 band for cellular communications. This has an uplink of 1.920GHz to 1.980GHz, and downlink of 2.110GHz to 2.170GHz. Sources familiar with COMINT in the Libyan theatre have shared with Armada Analysis that SATCOM is used widely by the gangs involved in these illegal activities, particularly on the high seas where cellular coverage maybe non-existent. To this end, the Thuraya SATCOM network which uses frequencies of 1.525GHz to 1.331GHz has proved particularly popular with people smugglers.


EU members have an array of capabilities that they can bring to bear to support the COMINT element of Operation Irini. The European Union’s only government-owned space-based SIGINT asset is the French ELISA constellation of four spacecraft. These are reportedly capable of collecting raw communications and radar Electronic Intelligence (ELINT). Relevant COMINT gathered by the constellation maybe analysed by French signals intelligence specialists staffing the country’s Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE/General Directorate of External Security) foreign intelligence gathering service and the Direction du Renseignement Militaire (Defence Intelligence Directorate), and shared with the Operation Irini command. SIGINT gathered by the ELISA constellation is believed to be received at the DGSE’s satellite teleport in Domme, western France. This trawl of COMINT may be supplemented by COMINT furnished by private companies, notably Hawkeye360 which owns a constellation of three satellites able to gather communications intelligence across wavebands of 144MHz to 15GHz.

In terms of maritime assets, the Marine Nationale (French Navy) operates the solitary Dupuy de Lôme SIGINT gathering ship with open sources stating that this is capable of gathering ELINT, possibly across wavebands of at least 2GHz to 18GHz plus V/UHF conventional communications and SATCOM traffic. SIGINT gathering capabilities of the Deutsche Marine (German Navy) include its four ‘Oste’ class vessels. These may have similar SIGINT gathering capabilities to their French counterparts. Other dedicated SIGINT-gathering naval vessels potentially available to support Operation Irini include the Svenska Marinen (Royal Swedish Navy) HMSWMS Orion, the Armada Española (Spanish Navy) Alerta and the Italian Navy’s Elettra.

SIGINT ships are an important capability. While large surface combatants such as frigates and destroyers will often house comprehensive Electronic Support Measures (ESMs) to gather SIGINT these are mainly optimised to gather such intelligence in support of ship or fleet operational or situational awareness and protection. As such they are not necessarily configured to collect the strategic level COMINT which might be required to support Operation Irini. German naval EW sources have disclosed that most warship ESMs are not configured to gather COMINT from cellular networks due to the specialist antennas and accompanying equipment that this can demand. Instead, such intelligence collection is the preserve of dedicated SIGINT-gathering vessels.

Finally, the operation will be able to draw upon dedicated SIGINT gathering aircraft used by several EU members. Ten SIGINT aircraft are flown by the air forces of Finland, France, Greece, Italy, Spain and Sweden. In addition, maritime surveillance and patrol aircraft flown by EU air forces, navies and coast guards may also be equipped with ESMs to detect and locate communications transmissions. The ability to intercept SATCOM will be vitally important. Capabilities like Horizon Technologies’ FlyingFish series of SIGINT payloads can detect and monitor SATCOM traffic across not only Thuraya but also the Iridium (1.616GHz to 1.626GHz) and Inmarsat ISatPhone (1.525GHz to 1.646GHz) satellite communications networks. Several coast guards and border control authorities supporting the EU’s Frontex border management agency are already thought to use FlyingFish payloads on aircraft supporting their tasks. Moreover, the system is thought to be deployed on the Armée de l’Air (French Air Force) TransportAllianz C-160G Gabriel SIGINT gathering aircraft.

The exploitation of COMINT to support Operation Irini will present the criminals with a Catch-22: They can try to avoid detection and monitoring by avoiding their use of cell phones and satphones, but try running an organised criminal enterprise without communications. Alternatively, they can continue in the hope that they will not get caught. Nonetheless, as one SIGINT specialist told the author, having assets such as those above supporting the operation will mean “the moment they switch on their phones, we will know about it.”

by Dr. Thomas Withington