Doubt cast on photos alleged to show Wagner mercenaries training Malian soldiers
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Photos allegedly showing Malian soldiers being trained by a Russian instructor, said to be an employee of the Russian private security firm Wagner, have been circulating on Facebook and Telegram. However, there are key details that cast doubt on claims the pictures were taken in Mali. First, the building in the background resembles the palace built by the former ruler of the Central African Republic, Emperor Bokassa. Moreover, there seems to have been some level of coordination behind the dissemination of these photos in various pro-Russian channels.
France announced this summer that it planned to reduce its military presence in Mali. A few months later, news agency Reuters reported that the Malian government had entered negotiations with the Russian private military company Wagner, quickly sparking outrage in Paris. Malian Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdoulaye Diop and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov both denied that Mali had any kind of agreement with Wagner on November 11, 2021. Both men did, however, maintain that the two countries were coordinating on the security front.
One of the photos that has been circulating online, first posted on Twitter on November 10, 2021, shows two soldiers standing in front of an abandoned building next to an armed man who is directing them where to shoot. One of the soldiers has an insignia from the Malian Armed Forces (FAMa) on his shoulder. Some graffiti on the wall reads, “Welcome to Maliki.”
Spontaneously arisen Russian militias pic.twitter.com/4CQvi1tgSe— REVERSE SIDE OF THE MEDAL (@RS0TM) November 10, 2021
The Twitter account that shared this photo, Reverse Side of the Medal (RSOTM), describes itself as a “mercenary community”. The community is run by Vladen Tatarsky, a pseudonym used by a fighter from the self-proclaimed autonomous Donetsk People's Republic in eastern Ukraine. Tatarsky also runs a Telegram channel and a YouTube channel (with more than 72,000 subscribers) that feature images of soldiers and fighters from Russian private military firms abroad. These fighters are nicknamed “musicians”, a reference to the Russian Wagner Group, whose mercenaries have fought in Ukraine, Syria, Libya and the Central African Republic.
Our team ran a reverse image search (click here to find out how) and it turns out, this isn’t the first time these photos have been shared online. The photo was posted on Facebook several hours earlier by a user named Moussa Dembélé, alongside another photo showing the same three people in military attire.
There are a few things about Moussa Dembelé’s account that raise red flags and make it look like there may have been a coordinated effort to get this image to circulate widely. But we’ll get back to that later.
Similarities to Emperor Bokassa’s palace in the Central African Republic
But as soon as these photos started circulating online, doubts emerged about where they were taken. A number of social media users claimed that they had, in fact, been taken in the Central African Republic. More specifically, that they had been taken in the former palace of Emperor Bokassa in Berengo, where Russian soldiers have been training the Central African armed forces since 2018.
Cette photo suggère que des #Wagner ont commencé à entraîner des soldats maliens. Selon sources, cette photo aurait été prise à Berengo, ex palais de Bokassa et auj. QG des Wagner en #RCA. Il s’agirait de centrafricains déguisés en soldats maliens pour le compte de la comm' russe pic.twitter.com/rLbBnthffQ— Sabr Jendoubi (@Sabr_Jendoubi) November 12, 2021
Several sources also pointed out that the lush greenery shown in the photo looks more like somewhere in central Africa rather than a western African nation like Mali. Moreover, Central African and Malian military uniforms look similar. Some soldiers in both countries wear a camouflage pattern called "m81 woodland", according to the military uniform database Camopedia.
Several sources familiar with Berengo Palace, including the son of Emperor Bokassa, politician Jean-Serge Bokassa, and several journalists who had filmed reports on site, said that the wall in the photo said to be taken in Mali actually looked a lot like the abandoned Central African palace.
Our team studied several hours worth of footage from Berengo palace. The buildings do, indeed, have striking similarities to the building shown in the photo. There are several walls just like it in the beginning of this report from the TV channel Al Jazeera from April 2019 called “Russia in Africa: Inside a Military Training Camp in the CAR,” which was filmed in Berengo.
The video shows white edging around the windows, a brown border on the bottom of the wall and walls built of ochre-coloured bricks covered with concrete. There is no roof and lush greenery is growing inside, just like in the photo.
Our team spoke to the head of communications at the Malian Defense Ministry, Souleymane Dembélé, who said the photos were "fake".
He added that “Russia is Mali’s partner, just like France or Germany".
He then said that he recognised a building in the photo from a training site used by the European Union Training Mission in Mali (EUTM) in Koulikoro, Mali. But according to sources who spoke to our team and who have actually visited the site in Koulikoro, the wall in the photo doesn’t look like the buildings there. Koulikoro does have destroyed buildings, but our team wasn’t able to identify a single one that looks like the one shown in the photo.
A coordinated effort to share this post?
Our team also examined the Facebook account that posted the first two photos. In one of the captions, the user, Moussa Dembélé, says that he was sent these images on WhatsApp by friends in the Malian Armed Forces. Our team tried to contact the person behind this account but, so far, got no responses to our requests.
Moussa Dembélé’s Facebook profile has only been active since September 24, 2021, the date when his first profile photo was first posted. This user only has ten friends and his cover photo shows a desert in Namibia and is also available for download on a free desktop wallpapers website. Most of his posts denounce French and Western influence in Mali and support an alliance between Mali and Russia.
Moussa Dembélé’s account posted the photos of the alleged Russian instructor on several Facebook groups that share Malian news along with the caption, “The Russians are already training our guys! Bravo! Long live Mali!” These photos were then picked up by other Facebook accounts and on Reddit, along with the same caption.
Two months ago, the same Reddit user also shared another post from Moussa Dembélé’s account. This one also featured photos alleged to show Russian instructors in Mali.
Even though the photos posted by Moussa Dembélé only garnered a few dozen likes, they were picked up the same day, just a few minutes apart, by several pro-Kremlin Russian media outlets. The posts by these outlets featured links leading directly to the Facebook group.
Our team spoke to two researchers who specialise in Russian influence on social media. They told us that the way these photos were shared online is characteristic of a "strategy of totally artificial dissemination".
IA Rex is one of the dozens of media outlets that picked up the post. The outlet is an official partner of Patriot Media Group, run by Yevgeny Prigozhin. Prigozhin, nicknamed “Putin’s chef,” is accused of carrying out a vast disinformation campaign on social media during the 2016 US presidential election. According to media reports, Prigozhin also runs the Wagner group.
The Wagner group often runs publicity stunts alongside its activities. In the Central African Republic, for example, Russian instructors handed out t-shirts featuring Russian mercenaries to Central African soldiers. A film glorifying the work of Russian instructors in the Central African Republic was even broadcast on Russian television in May 2021. According to Meduza, a Russian media outlet aligned with the opposition, the film was financed by Yevgeny Prigozhin.
An altered photo
The photo posted by the Twitter account Reverse Side of the Medal is not the same as the photo posted by Moussa Dembélé's account. The colours are less vibrant, the faces have not been blurred and, most notably, there is no sign of the Malinki graffiti. Our team used Forensically, a tool that helps to analyse images, which showed that the photo posted by Reverse Side of The Medal has indeed been altered. However, there are certain elements of the photo, like the FAMa emblem on the soldier’s sleeves that doesn’t appear to have been edited.
Jack Margolin, a researcher at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS), says that this modification could simply be a joke. In a Tweet, Margolin said that Telegram channels like Reverse Side of the Medal often craft word games by altering the names of the locations where Russian mercenaries are operating – making them sound more Russian. For example, instead of writing SAR, the Russian acronym for Syria, they might write “SARatov,” which is the name of a town located in southwestern Russia. Malinki is similar to a common Russian name.
Moreover, the Reverse Side of the Medal has a history of staging images of Russian mercenaries abroad. Its Telegram channel often features music videos using amateur images of fighters.
Reverse Side of the Medal has also shared disinformation in the past. In October 2020, the channel posted images out of context, leading followers to believe that Russian mercenaries were participating in the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh.
There are a number of details that make us doubt that these images do actually show a Russian instructor from the Wagner Group in Mali. The way that the images were shared online and picked up by certain Russian media outlets suggest that there was an element of coordination. Moreover, the lush greenery in the photo looks more like central Africa, rather than western Africa. Finally, the wall in the footage looks very similar to the former palace of Emperor Bokassa in Berengo in the Central African Republic, where Russian instructors are currently training the Central African Army.
At this point in time, we can’t say for certain where these photos were taken. We can’t exclude the hypothesis that Malian soldiers might have travelled to the Central African Republic to be trained or that the instructor doesn’t have any connection to the Wagner Group.
If you think you know the spot where this photo was taken, write to us on Facebook or on Whatsapp: +33 6 30 93 41 36.