Thursday, November 24, 2016

Operation Vula's Secure Communications

Operation Vula was the creation of an underground ANC leadership with supporting secure communications network in South Africa to fight against the apartheid regime. The operation ran from 1988 to 1991 and is also the fascinating story of Tim Jenkin, who played a key role in providing secure communications.

Going Underground

Tim Jenkin today
Tim Jenkin came into contact with the anti-apartheid movement when he visited the African National Congress (ANC) office in London. He was eager to support the fight against apartheid. Jenkin was trained in covert operations and returned to South Africa where he and his good friend Stephen Lee started underground work for ANC in 1975.

They ran a propaganda shop but got arrested in 1978 and were sentence to respectively 12 and 8 years imprisonment. Amazingly, they escaped 18 months later from a Pretoria high security prison with keys that Jenkin made out of wood. This gives you an idea of how creative he was. Jenkin left South Africa and made his way to the ANC office in London where he became a trainer for underground operatives.

ANC Going Blind in Exile

The ANC leadership had fled to Lusaka in Zambia after many of their leaders and members were jailed or tortured. This left the ANC with no representatives in South Africa. Among the exiled members were ANC president Oliver Tambo, commander of the military wing (MK) Siphiwe Nyanda and ANC strategist Mac Maharaj, whose mission was to revive the freedom movement and ignite revolution in South Africa.

This proved to be a mission impossible because of the problems to communicate and coordinate with the few ANC members that were still in South Africa. In the mid 1980s, communications between London, Lusaka and operatives in South Africa were still protected by manual one-time pad encryption that was too cumbersome for long reports that took many hours up to days to encrypt by hand.

Oliver Tambo tasked Siphiwe Nyanda to join MK's Chief of Staff Joe Slovo in starting up Operation Vula. The goal of this extensive operation was to set up a secure covert communications network and to smuggle ANC leaders and weapons into South Africa to install a leadership that would take over command of the underground work. This is where Tim Jenkin comes into play.

Jenkin met Mac Haharaj while training ANC agents on radio communications in Lusaka. Haharaj asked him to set up secure communications between covert operatives in South Africa and the ANC office in London. At that time, Jenkin was experimenting with computer communications.

Establishing Secure Communications

Personal computers were quite a novelty in the 1980s but handyman Jenkin developed one-time pad encryption software that used floppy disks, filled with random data, to serve as key. During encryption, used key bytes were automatically wiped from the disk, making the system unbreakable. The software also increased encryption speed for Vula messages considerably, compared to the slow pen-and-paper system.

Jenkin's office in London, nicknamed GCHQ (after the British Signals Intelligence organisation) served as the main Vula communications hub for messages between London, Lusaka and South Africa. In his computer shack he developed, tested and ran secure communications to cope with the increasing amount of reports from and to the ANC underground leadership.

Tim Jenkin in his communications hub

Jenkin devised a system to convert encrypted message digits into DTMF (dual-tone multi-frequency) telephone dial tones that were then recorded onto cassette tapes for transmission by pay phone later one. They provided ANC operatives with several DTMF tone generators that were disguised as electronic calculators. Later on, they dropped the method of manually keying in the DTMF tones and drastically increased communication speed by  recording the computer modem sound directly to tape.

Setting Up the Network

Conny Braam, a Dutch anti-apartheid activist, became responsible for the Vula logistics. She ran a network of people that supported the entire operation. First task was to get the network running. She had to find someone to travel several times a month between Amsterdam and Johannesburg. Air hostess Antoinette Vogelsang volunteered as courier. Being an air hostess, she didn't had to go through airport checks and could safely smuggle into South Africa the Toshiba laptops and software that secured the network. She also provided the communication hubs with a regular supply of floppy disks, containing new one-time pad keys.

The Dutch Lucia Raadschelders was sent to Lusaka to run a communications hub from a small house in the slums. She also served as contact between Jenkin and ANC headquarters in Lusaka. Janet Love, the ANC underground operative in Johannesburg switched from the slow manual one-time pad encryption to its fast computerised version. Everything was finally up and running. In 1988, Mac Maharaj and Siphiwe Nyanda  were the first Vula leaders to clandestinely infiltrated into South Africa.

Meanwhile, Janet Love's communications hub in Johannesburg was also operational. Tim Jenkin received the first long reports from Mac Maharaj a few weeks later. ANC's freedom movement finally was able to communicate securely with Jenkin's London office as central hub. From then on, Janet Love encrypted all Johannesburg messages and recorded the computer modem sound on cassette tape.

From South Africa over London to Mandela

The operative in South Africa chose a random pay phone to call an answering machine in London and played back the tape with the message that he had encrypted and recorded earlier. The London office checked the message and called the operative's pager with a specific code to signal that the message had arrived well. London then relayed this message to, for instance, ANC headquarters in Lusaka.

The London office also used a specific pager code to warn operatives in South Africa that there were messages for them to receive. To retrieve a message, the operative again chose a random pay phone and called another answering machine in London on which the London HQ had recorded an encrypted message from Lusaka or from other operatives.

From the manual encryption of long reports, taking many hours to encrypt and days to get across, they now were able to get a message to London in one or two hours. Jenkin relayed the messages almost real-time back and forth between the ANC headquarter in Lusaka and the operatives in South Africa. The South African security services could not track these messages as they were sent anonymously from randomly chosen pay phones. It would require them to monitor each and every pay phone and even if they managed to intercept such a message, it would merely contain what seemed like unintelligible fax or computer tones, giving them no clue about their purpose.

Mac Maharaj succeeded in setting up covert communications with the imprisoned Nelson Mandela through his lawyers. By then, the South African government held secret talks with Mandela, who they believed to be clueless about the situation in the country. Little did they know that Mandela was in direct contact with ANC president Oliver Tambo and a well organised underground leadership. In fact, without realising it, the apartheid regime was negotiating directly with the ANC. When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in February 1990, the Vula operation continued underground to protect the actual leadership and its communications with Mandela.

Caught But Mission Accomplished

The operation was eventually compromised in July 1990 after the police followed Siphiwe Nyanda and discovered encryption disks and plain messages in a Vula hide-out. Mac Maharaj, Siphiwe Nyanda and six other Vula members were arrested and imprisoned. Others fled the country or went into hiding. Despite this setback, Tim Jenkin was able to reboot the Vula network within 24 hours. All Vula members eventually received amnesty as part of the political transition that lead to the end of apartheid.

Tim Jenkin's story is an amazing example of people with no background in intelligence, espionage tradecraft or secure communications who used their creativity to set up an ingenious international secure network that changed South Africa's history. It should be noted that their communications system, which was quite novel and therefore secure in the 1980s, would pose serious risks in today's world with advanced signals intelligence capabilities, ranging from hacking computers to extensive electonic surveillance and geolocation.

Tim Jenkin's story of operation Vula is published at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory. More details about the encryption systems and equipment at the web page How the ANC sent encrypted messages.

Below an excellent eNCA documentary about operation Vula and a NGC documentary of Tim Jenkin's escape from Pretoria prison.


Michael Bell said...

Really interesting article. Thanks for drawing my attention to it. Note that your spelling corrector made the obvious correction to Vula near the end:-)

Dirk Rijmenants said...

Hi Michael! Holy Moses, that "vul*a" was quite a spelling error :-) I corrected it, probably just in time before the censor would wipe my post, haha. Thanks for the heads-up and comment.