Undersea Network Cables Mysteriously Cut

Map of worldwide submarine communication cable routesNearly 100% of the global Internet traffic is dependent upon deep-sea networks of fiber-optic cables that cover the ocean floor. As much as ¾ of the international communications between the Middle East and Europe are carried by two undersea cables: SeaMeWe-4 (which stands for South East Asia Middle East West Europe) and FLAG Telecom’s FLAG Europe-Asia cable. On January 30, 2008, both of these cables were cut, severely disrupting Internet and telephone traffic from India to Egypt.  A few days later, on February 1, 2008, another undersea cable was cut in the Persian Gulf and two days after that, on February 3, 2008, another Middle East cable was cut. On February 4, 2008, a report was issued indicating two more cables had been cut. Five high-speed submarine communication cables had been cut which caused disruptions and slowdowns for users in the Middle East and India.  And nobody was sure how or why the cables were cut.

The Fiber-Optic Network

The network of intercontinental cables has grown and improved during the last century.  Present day trans-continental cables use “fiber optic” cabling to provide optimal clarity in the signal.  Repeaters (laser amplifiers), powered by a constant direct current passed down the conductor near the center of the cable, serve to strengthen, recondition, and dispatch the signal into the next length of cable.  There are many such “repeaters” located in each cable circuit and they are protected by nothing more than the millions of tons of water they lie beneath.

How were the Cables Cut?

Diagram of Fiber Optic CableSpeculations began circulating that ship anchors may have cut the cables.  It was later learned that no ships had been in the areas of the damaged cables.  Experts noted that cable cuts are not uncommon and that as many as a few dozen per year result from shifting cables on the ocean floor.  But for so many to break in just one week, in the same geographic area, cables that provided critical communication facilities for much of the Middle East, seemed suspect.  The cable cuts lead to widespread Internet outages in Middle Eastern Muslim nations, areas that proved troublesome for the United States during their “war on terror”.

Some speculated that the United States military had purposely cut the cables in an “ears and mouth” operation intended to install cutoff switches and network monitoring devices. Installation of such devices, or purposeful destruction and disruption of their service, has been conducted in the past, especially during wartime efforts.  In Operation Ivy Bells (1971), the United States and National Security Agency (NSA) succeeded in placing wire taps on Soviet underwater communication lines.  Using a specially built submarine, the U.S. raised the cable and wrapped monitoring devices around the cable.   The devices were designed to easily break off if the cable was raised for repair.  They were eventually discovered and removed (after a U.S. citizen defected and provided the devices whereabouts to the KGB).

But modern day cable is fiber optic.  To install such devices would potentially require splicing in (or attaching) a device into the fiber-optic cable network, and using the cable’s direct current to power the device (potentially a repeater could be replaced but would be more easily discovered).  Fiber optic cable is much more difficult to work with than traditional cable and would require noticeable downtime on the network while the modifications (and repairs) were made.  Cutting the cables in one location, and installing the devices in another location on the route while the network is down, would certainly suffice to meet the needs of the United States expanded intelligence gathering efforts during the post 9/11 hysteria.

To date, no official explanation has been released for the cause of the cable cuts.

Chronology of the Cable Cuts

The chronology of the events is sketchy with differing reports on exactly which cables were cut, where they were cut, when they were cut, and how many cuts each cable was damaged by.

SeaMeWe 4 cable route that was cut on January 30, 20081/23/2008 – FALCON cable near Iran – connects several countries on Persian Gulf (including Iran and Iraq) and India

1/30/2008 – SEA-ME-WE 4 and FLAG Telecom cables in the Mediterranean Sea – connects several countries in Middle East ( Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Egypt, Italy, Tunisia, Algeria and France), the United States, and India.

2/1/2008 – FALCON cable cut again near Dubai.  Possibly FEA and two other cables cut this day.

2/3/2008 – DOHA-HALOUL cable cut near UAE – connects Qatar to the United Arab Emirates

2/4/2008 – SEA-ME-WE 4 cable cut again.

12/19/2008 – , FLAG FEA, GO-1, SEA-ME-WE 3, and SEA-ME-WE 4 cables reported as cut.


2008 submarine cable disruption map