ISS TODAY ANALYSIS
Africa risks becoming a Wild West of hybrid warfare — through Russian and Western interference
The recent Mali case shows that countries undergoing transition or conflict mediation are susceptible to sophisticated threats.
Africa is rapidly becoming a theatre for hybrid threats. Allegations of state-backed information campaigns designed to ramp up divisions in Mali and cyber attacks on humanitarian relief organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are examples. The use of drones as weapons in the Horn of Africa, Sahel and Mozambique by violent armed groups, state actors or their proxies also signals this emerging trend.
The Ukraine-Russia war has thrown the issue into sharp focus, gaining prominence since the imposition of United States sanctions on Moscow and conflicting social media narratives about alleged war crimes in Ukraine. And this is happening at a time when Africa’s position on the war remains deeply divided.
Hybrid warfare combines conventional forms of armed conflict (kinetic attacks) with other strategic tools. These include information operations to influence and subvert or reframe events. They also involve cyber attacks targeting computers directly or using the internet to carry out traditional crimes such as extortion and fraud.
Across Africa, hybrid weapons are being deployed in times of conflict and peace, undermining democracy and the rule of law. They’re also being used to raise finance for terrorist or criminal enterprises. An emerging threat on the continent is the use of information operations by state entities, their proxies and adversaries to secure a geostrategic advantage.
In February, the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab revealed a carefully coordinated online campaign targeting Mali. Backed by Russia, the campaign’s aim, according to the researchers, was to foment anti-Western sentiment and undermine democracy building by “mobilising public support for the government of interim President Assimi Goïta and the Malian military,” following the May 2021 coup.
It began when a barrage of Facebook posts appeared just as France prepared to announce its withdrawal of troops from Mali, where it has been engaged in counter-terrorism operations for the past nine years.
The posts promoted Mali’s military junta, which seized power in a series of recent coups. They also endorsed the arrival of the private Kremlin-backed Wagner Group before their deployment to Mali. The shadowy paramilitary outfit, described as ‘Russian instructors’ by Mali’s authorities, enjoys links to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s closest allies. Wagner has attracted controversy for its lack of transparency, paramilitary tactics and so-called false flag events.
In many of Africa’s fledgling democracies, where checks and balances on power may be weak, such tactics can be particularly damaging. Critics claim that securing Russian access to some mineral resources in the Sahel is Wagner’s principal objective rather than achieving peace for Mali. The company has done little to challenge this narrative.
While Russia’s Internet Research Agency is often cited as a primary actor in such information operations targeting African states, Western powers have also used hybrid tactics to influence the region. In 2020, Facebook removed posts from a network of “inauthentic” accounts originating in France that distributed anti-Russian rhetoric online. Increasingly, social media platforms face pressure to remove posts deemed inflammatory or that break their community rules.
In the wake of the Mali example, Atlantic Council researchers point to other countries in the region, including the Central African Republic and Mali’s neighbour Burkina Faso. Both have found themselves engulfed in a world of deniable hybrid threats as they are swept up in a digital proxy war between East and West.
While Africa’s new digital landscape brings the possibility for economic growth, the continent also presents a new ‘attack surface’ for those intent on sowing discord. States undergoing democratic transition or conflict mediation are particularly susceptible to hybrid threats.
Another tool of hybrid warfare is the conventional cyber attack. While some breaches target computer systems and are designed to extort cash, such as ransomware attacks, others aim to erode trust in governments. Examples include efforts to undermine a country’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic using conspiracy theories — often initiated by players in the global north. Researchers have described this trend in various settings, including Nigeria.
A recent Interpol report notes a sharp rise in critical infrastructure attacks — including banks, ports, hospitals and government ministries. Interpol cites Uganda, Nigeria, South Africa and Mozambique as states that have been targeted.
Possibly the most prominent example occurred in 2021 when South Africa’s main port operator Transnet was hit by a cyber attack. The consequences were felt across the region as supply chains were disrupted for weeks. The timing of the attack raised questions among commentators and political opposition figures, given its proximity to an attempted ‘insurrection’ in July that year. If a link is confirmed, it will show that hybrid threats often combine virtual and real-world tools.
Africa’s humanitarian sector has also been singled out by so-called cyber warriors. Hackers targeted the ICRC in January, exposing the personal data of tens of thousands of vulnerable people worldwide — many of them fleeing conflict in Africa.
The proliferation of drone technology across Africa is another manifestation of a hybrid threat. In addition to challenging the Geneva Conventions, remotely controlled engagements in settings such as Ethiopia risk being used to settle domestic disputes without rigorous oversight measures.
All this should be a wake-up call for Africa’s leaders and civil society to rein in tech abuse. The United Nations working group on the issue provides an important forum to discuss the rules of the digital road. Other public-private platforms, such as the Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace, can also warn about Africa’s potential to become a Wild West of hybrid warfare. Private sector expertise should be harnessed to help develop Africa’s resilience.
Hybrid threats may seem remote given the continent’s pressing humanitarian needs, but the consequences for vulnerable populations are real, and policymakers ignore them at their peril. DM
Karen Allen, Consultant, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Pretoria.
First published by ISS Today.