Fri. Jun 21st, 2024

Deployment to be ended amid deteriorating security situation in West African nation

Disinformation campaigns by Russian private military contractors Wagner Group are endangering Irish troops serving overseas in Mali and elsewhere, researchers have said as a senior Defence Forces official warned of the impact of “non-state actors” attempting to discredit missions.

Ireland contributes about eight troops to EU Training Mission (EUTM) Mali, which is designed to train the country’s military to help stabilise the region and secure areas controlled by Islamic militants.

On Tuesday, however, the Cabinet was informed the deployment was to be brought to an end due to the deteriorating security situation in the country.

Until last year, about 20 Irish troops were deployed but the mission was significantly downsized. This took place amid increasing tensions with the Malian governments and concerns about human rights abuses by Malian troops who were increasingly working alongside the Russia private military group Wagner.

EU and UN military officials are increasingly worried about the impact of Wagner-run disinformation campaigns targeting its troops in Mali, the Central African Republic and elsewhere.

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Brig Gen Seán White is the director of communications and information systems at the EU Military Staff (EUMS) where he is in charge of advising on matters such as cyber defence and disinformation tactics.

This includes advising member states taking part in EU overseas military missions including the EUTM in Mali.

The campaigns use social media and other networks such as WhatsApp and compliant media to spread rumours about EU missions, including that their troops are pillaging the country’s natural resources or arming militant groups, experts say. This has led to increased aggression and distrust towards EU deployments and demands that they leave the country, allowing Wagner to increase its influence.

“There’s always this sort of stuff,” Gen White told The Irish Times. “We can see at the moment there are other non-state actors operating in Mali and in other parts who would spread rumors about different missions and operations.”

“So it’s really incumbent upon military commanders on all these missions to be aware of these things, and to make an assessment as to how it might or might not impact on their troops.”

Social media can present a significant threat to EU missions in places like Mali, the general said. It can be used to “discredit and spread false rumors about the force that could cause citizens in that country to perhaps turn against them”.

Gen White did not specifically name Russia or the Wagner Group. “We keep it generic. It’s out there and we see it in the media all the time. I won’t mention any particular group.”

However, Wagner was named as one of the main threats in this sphere by a group of international disinformation experts who visited the Department of Foreign Affairs last week.

“There’s been an aggressive campaign about the UN peacekeeping missions in Mali and in the Central African Republic from social activists more or less linked to Russian interests,” said Thierry Vircoulon, a Wagner expert with the Global Initiative on Organised Crime.

Often, Wagner’s purpose in spreading disinformation about Western deployments is to distract from their own actions, including the involvement of Wagner troops in the Moura massacre which killed hundreds of Malian civilians in March 2022, said Dr Sam Ramani, an international relations lecturer in Oxford University.

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After the Moura massacre, Wagner-aligned media outlets started spreading false information about a fictitious massacre carried out by French troops in the country, he said.

Disinformation campaigns by Wagner in Africa are likely to be unaffected by the group’s recent failed coup against Russian president Vladimir Putin, at least in the short term, Dr Ramani said.

“It does appear that these operations are going to probably persist with some degree of autonomy, but then gradually get more integrated with the Russian state or rival organizations.”

Disinformation, including from non-Russian aligned groups, also posed a danger to UN troops in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the experts said. Last year, two Defence Forces personnel were withdrawn from the UN mission there amid increasing violence targeting peacekeepers.

As well as advising member states on online disinformation tactics, Gen White’s section has helped implement the EU’s Cyber Defence Policy which was ratified in May.

Since taking up the EU role in 2021, he also helped draft a policy document designating cyber as one of the domains of military operations, alongside land, sea, air, and space.

The nature of the cyber threat facing the EU has changed significantly since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the general said.

“We have seen the ubiquitous nature of cyberattacks. It’s happening literally on a daily basis.”

The actors involved are nation-states, criminal organizations, and individuals, he said.

Irish Times.

By Admin

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