The safety and security of British interests and assets abroad have always been key to the UK maintaining its strong position in global geopolitics. While the might of the British Empire has long faded, the UK made sure to leave its mark in all its former colonies after withdrawing its imperial troops and governors.
The island of Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean has played a vital role in the UK’s manoeuvres overseas ever since it came under British control in 1878. The Brits took over after securing an agreement with the Ottomans to temporarily lease the island to Britain as part of their joint efforts to protect the region from any Russian military advances.
Britain needed the island as a base to help guard its land corridor through the Middle East to India, which served as the backbone of the UK’s power and dominance over world affairs. Even after the Russian threat subsided following the Russian Revolution in 1917, Cyprus served as an important bargaining chip in restructuring the regional power balance in light of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1924.
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Likewise, when Britain pulled out of Egypt in 1956, the British presence in Cyprus ensured close proximity to the Suez Canal. It provides fundamental access to the Indian Ocean for Western countries whose cargo ships would otherwise have to sail the long way around Africa, thus jeopardising their oil imports from the Arabian peninsula and much more.
Despite withdrawing from Cyprus in 1960, Britain still controls around three percent of the island’s territory in the form of two UK Sovereign Base Areas in Dhekelia and Akrotiri. As well as hosting British troops and fighter jets that recently saw action in the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, Cyprus is also home to a British listening post used to spy on the Middle East and wider region.
The Ayios Nikolaos Station can be found in the base in Dhekelia, on the eastern side of the island. Dishes and antennas installed at the site are used to gather electronic intelligence for the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), which serves the UK government and armed forces. It is said to be the largest GCHQ site outside of the UK.
A second station at RAF Troodos in the mountainous southern part of Cyprus also intercepts signals for the GCHQ. Documents leaked by former US National Security Agency (NSA) agent Edward Snowden have revealed that this site is used to snoop on communications in the Middle East and North Africa.
According to the 2008documents, a joint team of American and British agents had used the base to carry out surveillance of drones in the region, especially around Israel. The team were also able to hack the video feed of an F-16 fighter jet being flown by the Israeli Air Force, and in 2012, they tapped into a video from an Iranian-made drone flying out of a Syrian Air Force base.
How far-reaching the listening posts in Cyprus are remains unknown, but a torus antenna that was installed on the Dhekelia site at some point between 2008 and 2011 is believed to be able to intercept up to 35 satellite signals simultaneously.
Even as far back as in 1961, when technology was a lot more primitive compared to what is is capable of today, it was claimed that the facilities in Cyprus were powerful enough to intercept communications as far as Zambia, over 8,500 miles away.
On September 18, 1961, Swedish diplomat and the then-serving UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld died when his plane crashed in Zambia while he was en route to negotiate a cease-fire between UN forces in Congo and Katangese troops under Moise Tshombe.
Hammarskjöld was a keen supporter of Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s first democratically elected prime minister, who himself was captured, tortured and assassinated in January 1961 after a coup led by Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, the head of the Congolese army, who was backed by the West.
In a 2019 documentary called Cold Case Hammarskjöld, former US naval pilot Commander Charles Southall, who was part of the NSA’s listening operation in Cyprus at the time, recalled intercepting a transmission from a fighter jet pilot, believed to be a Belgian mercenary, as he shot the plane down.
The commander said: “You could hear the gun cannon firing—rat tat tat. And he said, ‘I’ve hit it. There are flames coming out of it,’ and quite quickly he said, ‘It’s crashed.’”
One can therefore only imagine what these British listening posts in Cyprus can do with modern technology, and how they may be used today.
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