No, the infamous Canadian sniper Wali has not been killed in Ukraine
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A number of viral posts on social media have claimed that a Canadian sniper, dubbed "the world's deadliest sniper", was killed within hours of arriving in Mariupol, Ukraine, where he had gone to fight. However the man, nicknamed Wali, is still alive and well. He told the FRANCE 24 Observers team that he thinks the disinformation around his death serves to dissuade foreign fighters from going to Ukraine.
A former soldier of the 22nd regiment of the Canadian Armed Forces turned computer scientist, nicknamed Wali, went to Ukraine to fight against the Russian invasion by joining the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine in early March.
He's well-known for his previous involvement in conflict zones, such as Afghanistan or Iraqi Kurdistan where he fought against the Islamic State group. He's also an adept sniper.
But according to several posts online published between March 12 and 16, the young man died in Mariupol, Ukraine. Some of these posts claimed he was killed just "20 minutes after arriving at the front lines", and others claimed to have video of the shooter who killed him. One rumour said it was a female Russian sniper who shot him.
These claims were bought to our attention by a Twitter user who asked us to verify the info.
A rumour denied twice
The Canadian fighter himself denied the rumours of his death on his own social media accounts. On March 14 in a Facebook post, he explained, "Don't worry about my safety. I am already far from the base that was bombed yesterday. I was there before, but briefly."
The group of fighters that Wali had joined, the Norman Brigade, also posted a statement on Facebook to explain:
Wali is not in Mariupol. The rumors about his death started to appear around March 13th and the Norman Brigade's commanding officer has allegedly communicated with him on March 15th in the morning. [...] Wali is a free spirit and I had to send him to another unit of his choice because he was bypassing clear instructions and OPSEC guidelines. This is not a game. He was becoming a danger for the mission , for his family and for himself.
After a few days of silence during which the misinformation intensified, Wali posted again on his Facebook page on March 22, this time with a photo of himself in a ball pit. He said:
The rumours that I had died in battle were completely ridiculous. The truth is that we took ground from the enemy as well as causing casualties. Unfortunately, we also lost comrades, dead and wounded.
'There was a torrent of messages asking me if I was dead or not'
The FRANCE 24 Observers team was able to speak with Wali by video call on March 22:
I was the last person to hear of my own death, and the first person to deny it. On the front line, we're not allowed to have our phones. They're turned off and left in a safe place. When I came back from the combat zone for a rest period on March 21, I turned on my phone. There was a torrent of messages asking me if I was dead or not.
I never actually went to Mariupol: I started fighting in an area near the Dnieper River. Then, after a dispute with the brigade commander, I returned to Kyiv. When I learned that I was pronounced dead, I decided to take this picture in an old abandoned day-care centre. It was my way of announcing that these rumours were ridiculous, and that everything was fine with me. The rumours were so strong that as long as I didn't respond to them, they would flourish.
However, to me it's just crude, amateur trolling. I find it hard to understand the strategy behind this misinformation, because for me it was easy enough to deny. Those who spread these fakes lose all credibility once the denial is published. It shows that they have no argument left, and are ready to throw anything on social networks. They may also be losing the disinformation war on the internet.
Misinformation first shared in China
According to Checknews, the fact-checking unit of French newspaper Libération, the reports of Wali's death were first leaked on Chinese websites which cited Russian-speaking sources. The claim was then spread widely, including on several Facebook and Twitter pages in West Africa.
Let's take a look at the propaganda of the Chinese media. The Chinese are spreading a rumor: the Canadian sniper Wali was killed by Russian special forces 20 minutes after he arrived in the battlefield pic.twitter.com/6dSIaNT0a3— Rolf (@Rolf72860956) March 13, 2022
The fighter told us that he didn't look too closely into the origins of these rumours, however he has an idea about why they might have started to spread.
It's a war of symbols for reasons of prestige. I am not essential to the war effort, but I am one of the best known foreign volunteers in Ukraine. So for propaganda purposes, it's good to say I have died, in order to slow down the flow of volunteers who may want to join the fighting in Ukraine. My 'quick' death would send the message that even experienced fighters can be killed easily.