A Ghost Ship’s Doomed Journey Through the Gate of Tears

The Seacom cable went down at 9:46 am on February 24, according to new analysis shared exclusively with WIRED by Doug Madory, director of internet analysis at the web monitoring firm Kentik. Five minutes later, at around 9:51 am, the AAE-1 cable dropped offline. Madory says the third damaged cable, EIG, was already mostly offline following a separate fault elsewhere. A telecom industry notice seen by WIRED confirms the three faults and says this was the EIG’s second. The notice says the damage is located around 30 kilometers away from where the cables land in Djibouti and are at depths of around 150 meters.

To determine when the cables lost connectivity, Madory examined internet traffic and routing data from multiple networks. For instance, a network linked to Equity Bank Tanzania, the analysis shows, lost connectivity from the Seacom cable; moments later, it was impacted by the AAE-1 damage. The two clusters of outages impacted countries in East Africa, including Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and Mozambique, Madory says. But they also had an impact thousands of miles away in Vietnam, Thailand, and Singapore. “The loss of these submarine cables disrupted internet service for millions of people,” he says. “While service providers in the affected countries have shifted to using the remaining cables, there exists a loss of overall capacity.” The analysis matches when the Seacom cable went offline, says Prenesh Padayachee, the company’s chief digital officer. Both AAE and EIG cables are owned by consortiums of companies, which did not respond to requests for comment.

The telecom industry builds backups into its systems to account for disruptions—and the approach mostly works. When one cable goes offline, traffic is sent via other routes. “Connectivity just went away,” says Thomas King, the chief technology officer of German-based internet exchange DE-CIX, which used the AAE-1 cables. “The issue was detected automatically. Rerouting happens also automatically,” King says. Other firms sent data on different paths around the world.

In the days after damage to the cables first emerged, one unconfirmed press report claimed Houthi rebels could have sabotaged the cables. There has been no public evidence to support this. Farzin Nadimi, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute think tank who has been monitoring the region, says it is most likely that the Rubymar damaged the cables, but Houthi sabotage should not be entirely ruled out, as “highly trained” divers could reach the cables’ depths. Telecom firms have reported fears about Houthi damage to cables, while Houthi spokespeople have repeatedly denied responsibility for the disruptions.

“We don’t even know if the cable is fully broken yet,” Padayachee says. “All we know is that the cable is damaged to a level where we’ve lost comms.” It could have been cut, or even dragged along the seabed and bent so light signals cannot pass through the cable, he says.

Many in the marine and cable industry have turned toward the Rubymar’s drift as the likely cause for the outage. Padayachee says it is the most “plausible” scenario given the ship’s predicted drifting speed. “If you work out the distance between the two cables that roughly relates to the same sort of timeframe as to when one cable will be affected to when the other cable will be affected,” the timing makes sense, he says, adding that the cables are 700 to 1,000 meters apart.

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