We are following the extremely disturbing accounts of large numbers of people killed earlier this week in the village of Mourah in the Mopti region of central Mali … We are concerned that many reports suggest that the perpetrators were unaccountable forces from the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group.Ned PriceDepartment Spokesperson - April 3, 2022
Russia deploys disinformation across different continents for varied objectives, often working through tested proxies to support Kremlin foreign policy objectives indirectly, which provides a level of deniability. In some parts of Africa – including, most recently, Mali – Kremlin-linked proxies exploit instability to gain influence, particularly through disinformation and the deployment of the Wagner Group forces.
The Wagner Group and Yevgeniy Prigozhin
The Kremlin-backed Wagner Group exploits insecurity to expand its presence in Africa, threatening stability, good governance, and respect for human rights. Yevgeniy Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s chef” due to his catering contracts with the Kremlin, is a Russian oligarch and Wagner’s manager and financier. Although Russian officials refuse to accept links to the Wagner Group, the Russian government is at least aware of or has used the Wagner Group and other Prigozhin-owned entities as proxies to disperse disinformation and carry out covert, armed operations abroad, including in Mali, the Central African Republic, Libya, Syria, and Ukraine. The United States, EU, and UK have sanctioned Prigozhin, including by imposing sanctions targeting his network of malign influence in Africa.
Wagner Arrives in Mali Amid Disinformation
In late-2021, reports emerged of Wagner Group forces’ likely deployment to Mali, a country that had experienced two military seizures of power in less than one year and continued to fight a growing terrorist threat that exploited marginalized populations and a history of poor governance. Pitching themselves as able to counter the terrorist threat, Wagner Group forces deployed to Mali in December 2021 amid a barrage of targeted disinformation to hide its arrival and activities.
Digital Forensic Research Lab’s February 2022 report found that in the months leading up to Wagner’s deployment, a coordinated network of Facebook pages in Mali promoted Russia as a “viable partner” and “alternative to the West,” encouraged postponement of democratic elections, and attempted to create local support for Wagner. Local news outlets often mirrored these narratives by publishing interviews with Russian officials, who extolled Wagner “advisors,” while claiming the group was the “unfair victim” of an “information war” because of its role in “destroying the neo-colonial system.” Maxim Shugaley, president of the Prigozhin-linked, U.S.-sanctioned Russian think-tank Foundation for National Values Protection (FZNC), criticized the United Nations peacekeeping mission (MINUSMA) in Mali (deployed since 2013 to support implementation of a peace agreement, protect civilians, and facilitate humanitarian aid) falsely claiming the UN “creates terrorist organizations.”
President Putin has admitted private Russian military organizations operate in Mali, but denied his government has any role in their activities. In May 2022, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also admitted that Wagner was in Mali but on a purely “commercial basis.” Despite these admissions, the ruling Malian transition government, headed by the August 2020 coup leaders, continues to deny the presence of Wagner forces.
Wagner Implicated in Mali Atrocities
Amid mounting reporting that the Wagner Group has committed atrocities in Mali since its arrival in 2021, Russia’s disinformation and propaganda ecosystem continues to deploy false narratives to deflect attention and avoid responsibility.
- Mourah: Reports emerged in late-March 2022 of a massacre of at least 300 civilians in the central Mali village of Mourah. Witnesses reported that Malian forces and approximately 100 Russian-speaking men lined up victims in rows of 15-20, told them to kneel, and executed them. The NGO Human Rights Watch has called the Mourah killings Mali’s worst atrocity in over a decade. The Malian transition government denied its army’s involvement and claimed the troops were participating in counterterror operations in the area. Russian state media’s foreign facing disinformation outlet RT repeated this false narrative.
- Gossi: Just outside the Malian village of Gossi, French forces withdrew April 19 from a military base from which they had conducted joint operations with Malian counterparts for several years. Days after French forces’ withdrawal a Twitter account named “Dia Diarra” posted pixelated images of corpses allegedly unearthed near the base and asserted French troops were to blame. French military officials responded that the Dia Diarra Twitter account was “a fake … created by Wagner” and part of a “disinformation stunt.” France then introduced videos showing a dozen individuals, most likely Wagner members, and Malian troops near the Gossi base as the white soldiers covered bodies with sand. FZNC President Shugaley attempted to deflect with an accusation France had “concocted video evidence” to frame Wagner so French forces could “get away with massacres.” One regional security analyst said France’s video had “stymied this Russian disinformation effort.”
Prigozhin-linked Disinformation Across Africa
Prigozhin-led disinformation efforts extend beyond Mali and across parts of Africa in support of the Kremlin’s objectives or Prigozhin’s own interests. Through companies that exploit Africa’s natural resources, political operatives who undermine democratic actors, front companies posing as NGOs, and social media manipulation, Prigozhin spreads disinformation to influence African politics in Russia’s favor.
Prigozhin is best known for financing the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a troll farm most often recognized for repeatedly attempting to interfere in U.S. elections, but also involved in and spreading disinformation worldwide, including in Africa. Social media companies’ responses to Prighozin’s disinformation activities in Africa show the extent of his efforts:
- A Facebook/Meta takedown in January 2022 exposed IRA-linked entities targeting African journalists primarily in Nigeria, Cameroon, The Gambia, Zimbabwe, and Congo to trick journalists to publish articles on the IRA’s behalf.
- A Twitter takedown in Central African Republic (CAR) in December 2021 exposed a mix of inauthentic and real accounts linked to the IRA that aimed to introduce a pro-Russian viewpoint in CAR political discourse.
- A Russian operation targeting CAR and, to a lesser extent, Madagascar, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Mozambique, South Africa, and CAR’s diaspora community in France was part of a Facebook/Meta takedown in December 2020 which exposed IRA-linked fake and compromised accounts that worked to solicit stories by local journalists, influence the upcoming CAR elections, positively discuss Russia’s presence in Sub-Saharan Africa, and criticize French foreign policy. A key goal in this operation was to undermine democratic elections.
Russia’s intensified application of disinformation and the use of the Wagner Group across Africa has spread a trail of lies and human rights abuses. Despite U.S., EU, and UK sanctions and exposure of Prigozhin-linked entities that spread disinformation, these actors continue operating in Africa, exploiting turbulent situations through disinformation to sway public support for the Russian government to expand its influence.