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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 insurgents."
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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.
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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.
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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 rough.
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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 await.
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 hour.
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.
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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."
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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 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 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 years.
Update, July 2007:
I went to Iraq in May 2005 and wrote the above article a month later. A spin-off piece, Wiring the War Zone, was published in Wired magazine in September 2005.
Since then, not much has changed, except that the last couple of sentences have been proved prophetic. ServiceSat International has been renamed Iraqsat, and remains a major player in the Iraqi VSAT market. Tyler now works in London for Talia, running the network that supplies the connectivity that Iraqsat resells. Ryan's company Blue Iraq is now based in Dubai, but still does work in Iraq, and last I heard was also expanding to Afghanistan.
Jon Evans, rezendi.com