Home » Fake Air Traffic Controllers Are Making Somali Airspace More Dangerous

Fake Air Traffic Controllers Are Making Somali Airspace More Dangerous

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Air Traffic Control (ATC) is a task that has to be taken very seriously to avoid disaster. Small mistakes can claim hundreds of lives in an instant, so to say it’s a stressful job is an understatement. Somalia’s air traffic controllers have been operating under even higher stress of late, thanks to fake air traffic controllers trying to sow discord in the troubled nation.

Somalia is in the midst of a civil war that has been raging for decades. It has also had to deal with the break out of the self-declared state of Somaliland, which declared its independence in 1991. Internationally, the territory of Somaliland is largely recognized as still belonging to Somalia. However, the area has been independently governed for some time and is currently the largest unrecognized state by the amount of land area it functionally controls.

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As far as international authorities are concerned, responsibility for airspace over the whole country still lies with Somalian authorities. The country re-established properly controlled Class A airspace in 2023, with authorities in the capital of Mogadishu taking charge of the area. However, early 2024 saw the country’s air traffic control operations disrupted. Unknown individuals were able to issue fake commands to aircraft, putting lives at risk.

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A map of Somalia, with the land claimed by Somaliland highlighted in yellow. Credit: Garowe2, CC BY-SA 4.0

Don’t Listen

In February, aviation insider site OpsGroup published an advisory regarding fake controllers transmitting ‘conflicting instructions’ on the frequencies used by Somalian Air Traffic Control.

Crews have been issued climb and descent clearances that are not from the sector controller. Incidents have been reported mostly in the northern part of Mogadishu airspace.

It would also appear from the reports that we have received, that the control instructions are not being issued to de-conflict traffic, but rather to create confusion. This may be an effort to draw attention to the airspace issue, but could have tragic consequences. For flight crews, we follow with some guidance to mitigate the situation.

False transmissions were reported on both VHF and HF frequencies used by ATC in Mogadishu to contact aircraft. Reports placed the origin of those transmissions as coming from the vicinity of the Hargesia Airport in Somaliland.

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Anecdotally, the problem is still being reported by active pilots. A conversation on Reddit this week featured two posters claiming to be pilots, noting that the Somalian ATC region has been a hotspot for bogus transmissions from a fake controller or controllers.

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Ongoing Dispute

The matter has actually made the press multiple times this year, though you may not have seen it. Concerns around Somalian ATC activity have been ongoing for some time, though primarily published in outlets catering to aviation professionals.

It’s believed the issue stemmed from the long-standing dispute between Somalia and Somaliland. The latter state recently received recognition of its independence from Ethiopia in January, in exchange for coastal lease rights. Shortly after, Somalian ATC forced an Ethiopian Airlines plane to turn around on its way to Somaliland, stating the plane was not authorized to access the country’s airspace.

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Since then, reports have flowed in of fake ATC transmissions disrupting traffic in the region. Flying over Somalia provides a direct route from the Middle East to many African destinations, and is an important corridor for many operators.

Somalia has been attempting to work around the problem. A Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) first published in February sought to make crews aware of the problem. Pilots were advised that level changes (altitude changes) should not be expected while flying through the Mogadishu region of control. This NOTAM has been updated and reissued and is currently active through June 2024.

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As the usual VHF and HF radio transmissions have been subject to interference, ATC has stated that level changes are only to be obeyed if issued by satellite telephone from secure numbers, or the Controller Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC). CPDLC is a secure system for communicating data between ATC and aircraft, which the fake controllers appear unable to spoof. Flights are also advised to follow strict IATA In-flight Broadcast Procedures while transiting the region to advise other flights of their intentions.

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TCAS equipment and proper separation protocols kept both aircraft safe during an incident on February 24, as reported by FlightRadar.

Efforts to sow confusion may have netted some results. On February 24, a Qatar Airways flight and Ethiopian Airlines drew close enough that their Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems (TCAS) had to issue commands to maintain a safe separation distance. As reported by FlightRadar24, The Qatar Airways Boeing 787 had been incorrectly advised to climb by a legitimate CPDLC message from Mogadishu ATC, and returned to a safe lower altitude when the TCAS warning kicked in.

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A Twitter account claiming to represent the breakaway Somaliland Civil Aviation and Airports Authority (SCAAA) has been actively posting on the situation in recent months, too. The account claimed a further near miss happened on March 24 between Emirates Airways flight UAE722 and Ethiopian Airlines flight ETH690. However, as reported by Gulf News, Emirates Airways denied any such event occurred. It appears the post may have been another part of a dispersed effort to discredit Somalia’s established ATC operation.

Meanwhile, another Twitter user claims Somalian air traffic controllers have been taunting Somaliland in turn. Surprisingly, the social media site is a rather active hub for those wishing to pitch in an opinion on the Somalia/Somaliland airspace dispute.

Further darkening the situation, an air traffic controller in Somalia was slain in February, as reported by Horn Observer. Abdinasir Muse Abdi Dahable, a 32-year-old air controller, was born in Somaliland, and later began working in Somalian ATC after seeking education in the UK. He was found murdered by police on February 18, with his body showing signs of strangulation. The murder is believed to be linked to the current situation. Some reports tie the head of the Somali spy agency NISA to the matter.

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It seems unlikely the dispute will die down any time soon. Somaliland isn’t going anywhere, and neither is Somalia. For now, the workarounds developed by Somalian ATC are holding up, but it’s nevertheless a frustration for those flying in the area.

Image credits: FlightRadar via screenshot, Saif Zaman via Unsplash License, Garowe2 via CC BY-SA 4.0

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John Patson
John Patson
30 days ago

You have to laugh, probably a freelancer hoping to net a plane load of hostages.
Not sure if it is better or worse than the “dark towers” meant to control Zimbabwe’s airspace which get shut at 5.00pm till the next day, if you are lucky.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
30 days ago

Just make them use MFA security codes given to them upon take off. It’s not that hard people.

HowintheNameofZeus
HowintheNameofZeus
1 month ago

He was found murdered by police on February 18, with his body showing signs of strangulation.

Nice of the police to admit they were the ones who did it.

CUlater
CUlater
30 days ago

Engrish hard.

Col Lingus
Col Lingus
1 month ago

No worries here. I have a neighbor with this under control, (pardon the pun).

Using his short wave set up to do ATC from home in Alabama. And You Tube for a visual glimpse at things.

The only close calls have occurred when he needs to pinch a loaf, or go to his real job…or when his Star Link internet is down.

Last edited 1 month ago by Col Lingus
SNL-LOL Jr
SNL-LOL Jr
1 month ago

If I were flying over Somalia and come across the fake ATC, I’d totally respond with “Roger that, FU6969 Heavy.”

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
1 month ago

I don’t think I’ll have any problem avoiding the possibility of an air disaster over Somalia.

Last edited 1 month ago by Canopysaurus
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