The last broadcast of Mohammed Nabbous on Libya Alhurra TV on 19 March 2011 --- he was killed later that day, recording a firefight in Benghazi
Another entry in our periodic series "The Real Net Effect", getting beyond the superficial skirmishes over social media and politics --- writing in Technology Review, John Pollock documents how activists used the Internet to challenge the Qaddafi regime in Libya:
After weeks of skirmishes in the Nafusa Mountains southwest of Tripoli, Sifaw Twawa and his brigade of freedom fighters are at a standstill. It's a mid-April night in 2011, and Twawa's men are frightened. Lightly armed and hidden only by trees, they are a stone's throw from one of four Grad 122-millimeter multiple-rocket launchers laying down a barrage on Yefren, their besieged hometown. These weapons can fire up to 40 unguided rockets in 20 seconds. Each round carries a high-explosive fragmentation warhead weighing 40 pounds. They urgently need to know how to deal with this, or they will have to pull back. Twawa's cell phone rings.
Two friends are on the line, via a Skype conference call. Nureddin Ashammakhi is in Finland, where he heads a research team developing biomaterials technology, and Khalid Hatashe, a medical doctor, is in the United Kingdom. The Qaddafi regime trained Hatashe on Grads during his compulsory military service. He explains that Twawa's katiba—brigade—is well short of the Grad's minimum range: at this distance, any rockets fired would shoot past them. Hatashe adds that the launcher can be triggered from several hundred feet away using an electric cable, so the enemy may not be in or near the launch vehicle. Twawa's men successfully attack the Grad—all because two civilians briefed their leader, over Skype, in a battlefield a continent away.
Indeed, civilians have "rushed the field," says David Kilcullen, author of The Accidental Guerrilla, a renowned expert on counterinsurgency and a former special advisor to General David Petraeus during the Iraq War. Their communications can now directly affect a military operation's dynamics. "Information networks," he says, "will define the future of conflicts." That future started unfurling when Libyan networks—and a long list of global activists—began an information war against Qaddafi. Thousands of civilians took part, but one of the most important was a man who, to paraphrase Woodrow Wilson, used not only all the brains he had but all the brains he could borrow.
The war against Qaddafi was fought with global brains, NATO brawn, and Libyan blood. But it took brains and blood to get the brawn. On February 18, three days into the protests that would swell into the successful revolt against the regime, Libya went offline. Internet and cell-phone access was cut or unreliable for the duration, and people used whatever limited connections they could. In Benghazi, Mohammed "Mo" Nabbous realized he had the knowledge and the equipment, from an ISP business he had owned, to lash together a satellite Internet uplink. With supporters shielding his body from potential snipers, Nabbous set up dishes, and nine live webcams, for his online TV channel Libya Alhurra ("Libya the Free"), running 24/7 on Livestream.
Nabbous had pitched a brightly lit virtual tent in a darkening Libya. As Benghazi descended into fighting that killed hundreds and left thousands injured, he gave interviews to international media outlets such as CNN and the BBC. He also connected with supporters and activists from dozens of countries, among whom a cadre of information warriors soon emerged.
Stephanie Lamy was one. A self-described strategic communications consultant and single mother living in Paris, she was using the Egyptian and Libyan revolutions to explain her work to her nine-year-old daughter. They searched Google and found Libya Alhurra TV; Lamy was hooked. "When I saw the cries for help on Livestream, I knew my skills were just perfect for this situation, and it was my duty to help," she says. She abandoned her business and started working up to 24 hours a day. It was a situation where "each action counted."
In its first six weeks, the channel served 25 million "viewer minutes" to more than 452,000 unique viewers. Nabbous had only enough bandwidth to broadcast, so volunteers stepped forward to capture and upload video. Livestream took an active role, too: it archived backups several times a day, dedicated a security team to guard against hackers, and waived its fees. Others ran Facebook groups or monitored Twitter, pasting tweets and links into the chat box. They shared first-aid information in Arabic and transcribed or roughly translated interviews in close to real time. "All of us were on a fast learning curve," says Lamy. "Tanks were moving in, people were getting shelled, people were getting massacred."
On March 19, Qaddafi launched an assault on Benghazi. With shells exploding, Nabbous said, "No one is going to believe what they are going to see right now!" before heading out to report live. He was still broadcasting when a sniper shot him. Hours after Nabbous's death, French fighter jets strafed the heavy armor attacking Benghazi. His widow, Samra Naas, pregnant with their first child, broadcast in his place: "What he started has got to go on, no matter what happens." Along with friends and family, three women she had never met spent much of the night comforting her, as best they could, over Skype.