Russian Trolls Are Staging a Takeover in Africa—With Help From Mercenaries
What happens when the same techniques used to interfere with U.S. elections are adapted to a war zone in the heart of Africa? The results are brutal.
In January 2019 during an outbreak of violence, a man in the town of Bambari in the Central African Republic lost his little finger. That fact is about the only thing about which everyone can agree.
The United Nations is investigating allegations that the man was abducted, held captive and tortured by Russian forces, who choked him with a chain and cut off his finger.
However, a spider's web of social media accounts, blogs and news media are claiming that the allegations are a plot by the French to undermine the Russians in CAR, as the Central African Republic is known, or that the U.N. is attempting to smear Russia's reputation with local people, or maybe, the trolls suggest, the victim is just a liar.
There is a war for mindshare taking place right now in the Central African Republic, where Russia is locked in an increasingly tense contest with France for political influence and access to resources. In it, a sustained campaign for narrative control is being waged across multiple fronts, both on the ground in CAR and online, reaching out to the country’s diaspora. It takes forms typical of 21st century information warfare sometimes, and other times uses techniques as old as village gossip.
Despite its immense resource wealth, CAR has one of the world's lowest per capita incomes and what money the government does have often is spent on weapons rather than on CAR's people. The former French colony with a current population of roughly 4.8 million people has been riven with violence for well over a decade, and the immense humanitarian crisis has left millions of civilians without access to food, medical care, education or safe water. A devastating civil war in 2013-2014 further destabilized the country, which is now 70 percent under the control of a complex constellation of armed groups.
In February 2019 Russia helped to broker a fragile peace agreement between rebel leaders and the government, but given this is the eighth such agreement since the beginning of the war, hopes are not high that it will lead to a lasting peace.
In this complex, violent political context, rumors can spread like wildfire—and technology is like gasoline on the flames. At one point during the conflict in 2014, the government even briefly tried to ban SMS messages in an attempt to stop the spread of anti-government messaging.
Social media are now adding a 21st-century sting to the centuries-old dynamic of rumor-mongering and gossip. Internet penetration in CAR remains among the lowest in the world, with only five percent of the population estimated to have access.
It is this very narrowness, however, which may make social media a potent asset in information campaigns in CAR. In a society where only the wealthy, the educated and the elite are likely to have access to the internet, social media becomes a tool for strategically targeting those groups, and thereby influencing important decision-makers and the people around them.
Although so far only parts of the campaign can be proved to be linked to Russia directly, one of the key figures involved is Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who helped make him rich with enormous catering contracts. (He is often called Putin’s Chef.) Prigozhin is identified explicitly in an indictment by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller as the man behind the disinformation campaign that targeted the U.S. elections in 2017.
Russia has dramatically ramped up its presence across a number of African countries in recent months, including CAR, but the situation there is particularly striking. A former member of the Russian intelligence services, Valery Zakharov, has been installed as the top security advisor to CAR President Archange Touadera. Since May 2018, Russian private military contractors are also reported to be acting as the president’s personal bodyguards. Despite failing in its lobbying efforts to lift a pesky U.N. arms embargo, Russia has succeeded in sending at least nine arms shipments and hundreds of “military trainers” to CAR.
There are strong suspicions that these officially acknowledged personnel are not the only contingent of heavily armed Russians wandering around the country. Persistent reports point to the presence of the infamous Wagner Group mercenaries, many of them former members of the Russian special forces known as Spetsnaz now allegedly employed by Prigozhin, guarding valuable gold and diamond mining operations.
One of those operations is the enormous Ndassima gold mine near the town of Bambari, where the alleged kidnapping and torture is said to have taken place.
Owned on paper by a Canadian company, in reality the mine has been controlled by Seleka rebels, one of the warring factions, since 2012.
Now, however, various press reports suggest it has been taken over by Russian interests funneled through a locally registered company called Lobaye Invest, which in turn is a subsidiary of the St. Petersburg-registered company M Invest. Tracing a winding path through the layers of companies, the trail appears to end with, yes, Yevgeny Prigozhin.
The current allegations about the abduction and torture of a local man, Mahamat Nour Mamadou, are not the first time links have been drawn between mysterious violence and the presence of Russian mercenaries around Bambari. In August 2018 three Russian journalists were murdered while attempting to travel there to investigate the Wagner Group and the Ndassima gold mine.
Then as now, widespread suspicions that Russia may have had a hand in ordering the journalists’ killing were met with an online wave of alternative theories of varying levels of plausibility. And then as now, the theory which appeared the most—posted on news blogs (warning: graphic images) and posted, re-posted and shared over and over again by the same groups of Facebook accounts and pages—claimed that France, not Russia, was the party to blame for the murders.
It is not surprising that rumors would spring up around the killing of three foreign journalists in CAR. But there is good reason to believe that this was—and still is—more than just the natural degree of scuttlebutt surrounding mysterious deaths.
Three years after the Prigozhin’s campaign to twist the 2016 U.S. elections in favor of Donald J. Trump, as revealed in the Mueller indictments and other investigations, we we see that wherever Prigozhin and Russia’s interests go in CAR, a coordinated wave of Facebook accounts, “news” sites, radio stations and free print newspapers appear, all of them primed to push a supportive narrative or smear Russia’s opponents.
Parts of this war for hearts and minds are connected openly to Russian interests. In late 2018 Lobaye Invest and the Russian embassy created and began funding a local radio station, Radio Lengo Songo.
The embassy and Prigozhin’s mining company have also co-sponsored community events including the Miss Central African Republic beauty pageant, public screenings of Russian movies and local football and tae kwon do tournaments.
In an evident attempt to soften his image, presidential security advisor Valery Zakharov popped up in an unexpected role to open a center for mothers and children and donate a trampoline. An article was written on Corbeau News about the donation by local journalist Fred Krock, who also happens to have been appointed as the manager for the new Russian Embassy sponsored radio station.
Other parts of the information network are not openly connected to Prigozhin’s enterprises or the Russian embassy. What is clear, however, is that this web of Facebook accounts, groups, websites, blogs and print newspapers show a consistent and coordinated effort to push identical or near-identical content which supports pro-Russian and anti-French narratives, including spreading rumors that France is planning a genocide and supporting terrorism in CAR.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves le Drian, spoke out publicly in early 2019 about the “anti-French” rhetoric being promoted by Russia in CAR. He also openly acknowledged the presence of Wagner contractors, undermining repeated Russian denials that the mercenary group is operating in the country.
France has not been the information network’s only target. Russia opposes the U.N. arms embargo on CAR, and the role which the U.N. peacekeeping mission MINUSCA should play in the country has been a source of contention between Russia and France.
In November 2018 and then again in January 2019 MINUSCA was forced to issue public statements denying stories that the U.N. is plotting against the Central African government and its people; funding armed groups; supporting terrorism or deliberately allowing violent attacks to occur. MINUSCA says that these rumors are being spread both on social media and via free print newspapers, and has called for the parties responsible to stop—without directly naming who they believe to be behind the disinformation campaign.
The information techniques and tactics on display—building coordinated networks to push content across multiple platforms, inflecting narratives and messages for specific audiences, exploiting pre-existing social divisions and amplifying conspiracy theories—are remarkably similar to those uncovered by investigators studying Prigozhin’s Internet Research Agency disinformation campaign targeting the U.S. presidential elections.
In a report for the U.S. Senate, researchers from the private information integrity company New Knowledge describe how Prigozhin's IRA created entire "interlinked information ecosystems designed to immerse and surround target audiences." These “media mirages” help to give narratives the appearance of legitimacy by making it seem as though they are being reported by multiple sources.
Similar structures are visible in the information network currently promoting Prigozhin's and Russia's interests in CAR. A number of the “news” websites are registered to the same IP addresses, for example, while at least eight Facebook pages that consistently push identical or similar content were all created on the same day in June 2018. All together, dozens of pages and groups likely to be part of the network were created in 2018, with several new ones also cropping up in the first two months of 2019. These pages are clearly targeted at different audiences, and often reflect the same narrative but with differences in tone and style.
The New Knowledge researchers note that while a lot of Western media coverage focused on the use of automation and bots in the U.S. operation, the IRA also relied heavily on human-run operations. This involved IRA employees creating fake Facebook personas, but it also involved co-opting real Americans to support their message, often unwittingly.
Human-run operations appear to play a major role in the information operation taking place in CAR, perhaps more so than in the 2016 campaign. This difference may be at least partially because it appears some individuals don’t need to be tricked into taking part—they just need to be paid.
According to some reports, local journalists are getting commissions to write and share pro-Russian, anti-French stories (one report puts the going rate at around 20,000 CFA, or about $34.50 per article). This estimate seems high, however, in a country as poor as CAR. Such sums would make disinformation a very lucrative career indeed. Local people also are paid to manage “news” websites and NGO Facebook groups which push content out to followers both in CAR and in the diaspora.
Based on observation it seems that a relatively small number of “core” individuals and/or personas are responsible for posting and sharing the majority of original content, while other accounts play a secondary role in liking, sharing and disseminating content.
Students are also being instrumentalized. Russia offers a number of scholarship programs in CAR, and some of the most active nodes in the information network appear to be CAR students currently studying in Russia. Young people are a particular focus of the network, which routinely posts content across a multitude of Facebook groups and pages specifically for young people in CAR.
One of the key findings of the New Knowledge research was the tactic of amplifying and exploiting conspiratorial narratives in the 2016 campaign. This same tactic is on full display in CAR.
After the horrific massacre of more than 60 people at a displaced persons camp near the town of Alindao in November, for example, within hours the network was pushing hard on a conspiracy theory that a French mercenary was involved in the atrocity, using as "proof" a picture of rebel leader Ali Darassa in which a white man's hair and arm are visible in the background.
It goes without saying that this is not proof of anything—just because a white man once walked across a field with Darassa doesn't mean he committed a massacre with him, and as the Russians are very well aware, the French are hardly the only white people in CAR.
Beyond taking advantage of any opportunity, even tragedy, to smear the French and to support Russia's strategic interests in CAR, a primary aim of the network appears to be to deflect, dismiss and redirect the not-infrequent allegations of violence or wrongdoing committed by Russian forces.
All of which brings us back to Bambari, and what exactly happened there over five days in January 2019.
In early January 2019, violence erupted in Bambari between government forces and fighters from Darassa’s group, the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (UPC), an ex-Seleka militia group. The government and its Russian allies took several weeks to regain full control of the region, even with the help of Portuguese paratroopers deployed by MINUSCA to support CAR’s troops.
Such outbreaks of violence are not uncommon in Bambari since MINUSCA first helped to drive the UPC out of the town in 2017.
According to a U.N. report seen by Agence France Presse, it was during this time that the Bambari market trader named Mahamat Nour Mamadou says he was abducted by Russians and held captive for five days while they tortured him on suspicion of being a member of the rebel group.
"They took me to the town hall where the [CAR armed forces] and the Russians are based. The Russians questioned me, they asked me if I was a Seleka, if I had weapons," Mamadou told the AFP.
"They tortured me from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. They hit me with chains, iron batons, they cut me in the foot with a knife, and also on the arms and the shoulder. They broke a tooth with a brick," Mamadou said.
The AFP reports that Mamadou had deep scars and bruises across his body, marks around his wrists and ankles from being bound, slashes across his back believed to be from a knife, and that his little finger had been cut off.
While Mamadou’s allegation is still under investigation by the U.N., it is backed up by local reporting that describes attempts by the Russians to enter the hospital at Bambari to interrogate patients about their ties to the rebels. The same local article refers to a local man, presumably Mamadou, who was tortured and had his finger cut off.
Disturbingly, the article also says that Mamadou was the lucky one because he came out alive. According to the story (which should of course be taken with some skepticism) there was another man who was not so lucky, and his body was “packaged up” and put into a car by hooded men.
The response from the information network has been textbook: deny, deflect and redirect.
The immediate response was to dismiss the entire story as a fabrication by the French media to undermine the Russian military instructors. Some parts of the network even took the opportunity to demand that the Ministry of Defense kick the “imperialist French media” out of the country.
In the weeks since, the narrative has evolved (perhaps because it is rather difficult to deny that someone cut off Mamadou’s finger and caused his other injuries).
The basic outline of the story is the same—it’s a perfidious French plot against the innocent Russians—but the network seems to be floating different versions to see which sticks. Some variants claim that Mamadou is a rebel who lost his finger during the fighting, and that French special services found his finger and somehow used it to force him to tell a false story about being tortured by Russians.
Others are saying that Mamadou was briefly detained by CAR government forces and their Russian allies but was swiftly released, after which he was captured again and tortured by persons unknown, who promised not to kill him if he told the U.N. that the Russians did it.
Perhaps the most prominent version of the story is that Mamadou is being paid by the French or has been offered a French residency visa in the future for claiming that the Russians had tortured him.
Outside of the network’s whispering campaign, there appears to be no reason to think there was any French involvement in whatever did or did not happen to Mamadou.
Sharing multiple versions of the story, rather than coordinating around a single version as the network as in other cases, could be in order to figure out which version is the most effective—essentially, throwing everything at the wall and waiting to see what sticks. It could also be a tactic in itself, in order to muddy the waters and spread confusion.
As earlier mentioned, many elements of this information campaign cannot be connected directly to Yevgeny Prigozhin or to the Russian embassy. The facts around the torture allegations, the murders of the Russian journalists and the presence of Wagner Group mercenaries in CAR remain largely unconfirmed.
Whatever the truth about what is happening with the Russians in Bambari, however, one thing is clear: in the fight for influence in Africa, narrative control is a powerful weapon. And someone is wielding it in Russia’s interests.