Nigerien soldiers stand guard as supporters of Niger's National Council of Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP) protest outside the Niger and French airbase in Niamey on September 2, 2023 to demand the departure of the French army from Niger.

Nigerien soldiers stand guard as supporters of Niger's National Council of Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP) protest outside the Niger and French airbase in Niamey on September 2, 2023 to demand the departure of the French army from Niger. AFP via Getty Images

Russian military actors went to Niger, Mali close to coup dates, data shows

A few Russians seem to have picked an odd time for sightseeing in Africa.

Just days after a July coup d'état in the African nation of Niger, a person linked to the Russian military made his way through the country’s closed borders to its capital of Niamey, then visited several military sites, according to metadata analysis conducted by Florida-based behavior analytics company Torchlight AI

A week earlier, two Russians associated with the Wagner mercenary group had trekked from Russia and Russian-occupied territory in Ukraine to Mali, which was controlled by a junta government aligned with the one that took over Niger, according to Torchlight AI.

And in the weeks leading up to the Aug. 30 coup in Gabon, the company traced the movements of a locally based person between the Russian embassy and various Gabonese government and military installations.

The analysis, shared exclusively with Defense One, raises questions about Russian agents’ movements in unstable African countries. But it also shows the promise of using AI to glean patterns from commercial data sets. 

Torchlight AI uses behavior-based intelligence, a variety of commercial data sets related to internet-of-things devices to look for unusual patterns around specific sites. The company has more than 16,000 behavior models, which they can apply to places rather than people. It’s different from trying to track an individual person moving across the globe. Rather, the company can look at signals, signatures, or other digital indicators in a place like Niger, Mali, or Gabon and then work backward to see how they relate to individuals moving out of Russia or other places. The company emphasized that the data that they use is all commercially available, does not violate U.S. privacy laws, and they don’t look at the United States. Rather, the intelligence is intended to help military and civilian leaders make sense of what’s going on in places that the United States wants to better understand. 

“We know what the digital signatures of Wagner look like. We know ISIS. We know the Russian military, Chinese, you name it,” Torchlight AI CEO James Bourie said.We built these behavioral models so we can query our data and see it on the ground. And the way we do that is by measuring this demographic data on every spot on the ground against every one of our behaviors over key dates.”

These tracking tools picked up on an actor who frequently visits military installations in eastern Russia. He flew to Togo, then used ground transportation to enter Niger on July 29, three days after a coup deposed President Mohamed Bazoum. The new government has since revoked an agreement with France to let more than 1,000 French troops stay in the country. So far, the United States has no plans to change its force posture in the country, where U.S. troops operate drone bases for counter-terrorism missions, though the State Department has evacuated its embassy.

In Mali, Torchlight detected two people linked to the Wagner mercenary group close to the time of the Niger coup. One left Moscow’s main airport on July 16 and flew to the Al Jufra Airbase in Libya, which has reportedly served as a Wagner staging base. They then hit the Bamako International Airport, another Wagner-linked airport, on Aug. 5, and traveled through Mopti International Airport in Mali that same day, and again on Aug. 15. Mali, which itself is ruled by a military junta following a coup in 2020, has lent support to the new overthrow in Niger. 

Following the coup in Gabon, Torchlight AI began tracking a person who was based at a police/military installation in Libreville, Gabon. On July 11, the person went to the Russian embassy in Libreville, then visited the upper house of parliament and the Treasury. On July 25, the person went to the Presidential Palace, home to the Republic Guard, whose leader led the coup, Torchlight AI notes in their analysis. 

The Niger coup in particular has huge ramifications for U.S. counter-terrorism operations in Africa, and Kremlin-backed actors used social media channels like Telegram to spread disinformation about the coup shortly after it took place. But the U.S. government has yet to say publicly that Russia was involved in the recent coup activity in Africa. 

While Torchlight’s analysis does not conclusively show the Russian military was directly involved, it does highlight key interactions between Russians and key African government officials close to the time of each coup.