One of the most bizarre mysteries in international politics has been going on for months in Cuba, where a series of possible sonic attacks on foreign diplomats continues to puzzle investigators and increase tensions between the U.S. and the Havana regime.
At least 21 American foreign staff and family members in Cuba have suffered from a series of strange afflictions that include hearing loss, mild traumatic brain injury and even problems remembering certain words. Canadian diplomats have similarly been stricken, with some reporting they also suffered nosebleeds.
The White House on Tuesday announced the expulsion of 15 Cuban diplomats from the U.S. as part of an effort to put pressure on Havana to install better protections for American embassy workers. But Cuba is cooperating in investigating the incidents, and U.S. officials reportedly don’t believe the country is behind what Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has called the “health attacks.”
But if Cuba isn’t behind the attacks, then who is? What kind of weapon or illness could inflict the unusual symptoms? Why are these attacks being carried out? And how did the Canadians get caught up in all this?
The more information that has emerged over the intricacies of the alleged attacks and damage to the victims has only deepened the mysteries surrounding them. Here’s a rundown of what’s known about this story.
When did this begin?
It’s not clear precisely when the first attack took place, but U.S. diplomats and staff in Cuba began reporting feeling unusual symptoms shortly after Donald Trump’s presidential win in November.
Some of the first people to bring the attacks to the attention of U.S. officials were American spies stationed in Cuba, the Associated Press reported this week. The spies heard disturbing noises around their houses in Havana, before later suffering loss of hearing and brain injury.
The attacks persisted and expanded to other foreign diplomats, including the Canadians, over the next series of months. Some of the incidents took place at homes of foreign workers, while others were targeted in Havana hotels. They appeared to stop in this spring, but flared up again as recently as August.
The state department initially didn’t refer to the incidents as attacks, but last week changed its rhetoric. Tillerson said at that time that the U.S. believes its staff in Cuba is being deliberately targeted.
What happens to victims?
Perhaps the weirdest aspects of this saga concern the victims’ varied symptoms and their surreal accounts of the attacks. Although some only discovered their illnesses after the fact, others knew that something was wrong as the attacks apparently were happening.
One diplomat reported hearing a dissonant noise that was localized entirely to his bed, which then fell silent when he moved away from it. There have been reports of cricket noises and grinding sounds, as well as deafening minute-long auditory sensations.
Whether victims hear the noises or not, they soon begin to notice a variety of symptoms. Hearing loss, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), nausea and dizziness are among them, but even stranger ailments have arisen. Some diplomats allegedly cannot recall certain words and say they have trouble concentrating.
The affliction that most confuses medical professionals and analysts seems to be the mild traumatic brain injury, a term which can include concussions. Although the other symptoms could be the result of some kind of sonic weapon targeting, experts are skeptical that sound could have the effect on brain tissue necessary to do such damage.
Although victims’ symptoms have not gone away in the months since the attacks began, it’s not clear how many people have suffered permanent injuries. In at least some of the cases, the hearing loss does appear to be permanent.
What could cause these injuries?
There’s no official U.S. explanation for what’s been afflicting so many members of the diplomatic community in Cuba, and government officials has yet to accuse any foreign power or non-state actor of carrying out the attacks.
State department officials have said that some kind of sonic device may be involved, in the incidents, however, which would operate at either extremely low or high frequencies outside the normal range of hearing. Scientists interviewed by the Guardian said that a ultrasound device would be more likely, as it would allow a more focused way of targeting individuals.
But the same sound experts noted how complicated and cumbersome it would be to effectively deploy such a device. In order to do serious damage and go through walls, for instance, it would have to be around the size of a car.
Other experts have speculated that poison or radiation could be the culprits, but whether it’s a kind of James Bond villain-esque sound device or something else entirely, no one appears to know for sure.
What has the response been to the attack?
Although the details of the attacks are obscure, the diplomatic fallout from the spate of mysterious illnesses is a lot more evident.
On Friday, the U.S. ordered all its non-emergency personnel and their families to leave its embassy in Havana. The state department also issued a travel warning for all U.S. citizens visiting Cuba, since some of the attacks occurred in hotels.
The U.S. followed up these measures on Tuesday with its expulsion order for what Tillerson said was Cuba’s “failure to take appropriate steps” to protect American diplomats. Cuba called the move “irresponsible.”
Canada, meanwhile, has no plans to change its policy or take punitive action against Cuba.
But while Canada and Cuba continue to enjoy fairly good ties, the attacks have put significant strain on Cuban-American relations after a period when the two nations were easing their longstanding hostilities. Along with Trump walking back aspects of former President Barack Obama’s policy of engagement with Cuba, the attacks and subsequent diplomatic action undermine better diplomatic ties.