Doubts cast on photos that would show Wagner’s mercenaries training Malian soldiers

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Photos showing Malian soldiers being trained by a Russian instructor, believed to be an employee of Russian private security firm Wagner, are circulating on Facebook and Telegram. However, some key details cast doubt on claims the photos were taken in Mali. First of all, the building in the background looks like the palace built by the former Emperor of the Central African Republic, Emperor Bokassa. Additionally, there appears to have been some level of coordination behind the broadcast of these photos on various pro-Russian channels.

France announced this summer its intention to reduce its military presence in Mali. A few months later, the Reuters news agency reported that the Malian government had entered into negotiations with the Russian private military company Wagner, quickly sparking outrage in Paris. Malian Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov both denied that Mali had reached any agreement with Wagner on November 11, 2021. The two men, however, claimed that the two countries were coordinating on the security front.

One of the photos that circulated online, first posted to Twitter on November 10, 2021, shows two soldiers standing in front of an abandoned building next to a gunman directing them where to shoot. One of the soldiers wears a badge of the Malian Armed Forces (FAMa) on the shoulder. Some graffiti on the wall says: “Welcome to Maliki”.

The Twitter account that shared this photo, Reverse Side of the Medal (RSOTM), describes itself as a “community of mercenaries.” The community is led by Vladen Tatarsky, a pseudonym used by a fighter from the self-proclaimed Autonomous People’s Republic of Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine. Tatarsky also operates a Telegram channel and a YouTube channel (with over 72,000 subscribers) that feature images of soldiers and fighters from private Russian military companies abroad. These fighters are nicknamed “musicians”, in reference to the Russian group Wagner, whose mercenaries fought in Ukraine, Syria, Libya and the Central African Republic.

Our team performed a reverse image search (click here for how) and it turns out that this isn’t the first time these photos have been shared online. The photo was posted on Facebook a few hours earlier by a user named MoussaDembélé, alongside another photo showing the same three people in military gear.

There are a few elements in Moussa Dembelé’s account that raise red flags and give the impression that there may have been a coordinated effort to circulate this image widely. But we’ll get 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 as to where they were taken. A number of social media users have claimed that they were in fact captured in the Central African Republic. More specifically, that they had been taken to the former palace of Emperor Bokassa in Berengo, where Russian soldiers have been training the Central African armed forces since 2018.

This photo suggests that #Wagners started training Malian soldiers. According to sources, this photo would have been taken in Berengo, former palace of Bokassa and now. Wagner HQ in #RCA. They would be Central Africans disguised as Malian soldiers on behalf of the Russian comm ‘pic.twitter.com/rLbBnthffQ

– Sabr Jendoubi (@Sabr_Jendoubi) November 12, 2021 This post (in French) from Sabr Jendoubi roughly translates to: “This photo suggests that [employees of] #Wagner started training Malian soldiers. However, according to sources, this photo was taken in Berengo, in the former palace of Bokassa, which is today the seat of Wagner in the CAR. In fact, they are Central Africans disguised as Malian soldiers for Russian advertising. Several sources also pointed out that the lush greenery shown in the photo looks more like somewhere in Central Africa than a West African country like Mali. In addition, the Central African and Malian military uniforms look alike. Some soldiers from both countries wear a camouflage pattern called “m81 woodland”, according to the Camopedia military uniform database.

Several sources close to Berengo Palace, including Emperor Bokassa’s son, politician Jean-Serge Bokassa, and several journalists who had filmed reports on the spot, said the wall of the photo allegedly taken at the Mali actually looked a lot like the abandoned Central African Palace.

Our team studied several hours of images of the Berengo Palace. The buildings have, indeed, striking similarities to the building shown in the photo. There are several walls like this at the start of this Al Jazeera TV report from April 2019 titled “Russia in Africa: Inside a Military Training Camp in CAR”, which has been filmed in Berengo.

The video shows white edging around the windows, brown edging at the bottom of the wall, and walls constructed of ocher-colored bricks topped with concrete. There is no roof and lush vegetation grows inside, as in the photo.

Our team spoke with the communications manager of the Malian Ministry of Defense, Souleymane Dembélé, who said the photos were “fake”.

He added that “Russia is Mali’s partner, just like France or Germany”.

He then said he recognized a building in the photo of 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 did visit the Koulikoro site, the wall in the photo does not look like the buildings there. Koulikoro has buildings destroyed, but our team couldn’t identify a single one that looks like the one shown in the photo.

A coordinated effort to share this post? Our team also took a look at the Facebook account that posted the first two photos. In one of the captions, the user, Moussa Dembélé, claims to have received these images on WhatsApp by friends of the Malian Armed Forces. Our team tried to contact the person behind this account but so far have not received any response to our requests.

Moussa Dembélé’s Facebook profile has only been active since September 24, 2021, when his first profile picture was first posted. This user has only ten friends and his cover photo shows a desert in Namibia and is also available for download from a free wallpapers website. Most of his publications 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 with the caption: “The Russians are already training our guys! Well done! Long live Mali! These photos were later retrieved by other Facebook accounts and on Reddit, with the same caption.

Two months ago, the same Reddit user also shared another post from Moussa Dembélé’s account. It also featured photos believed to show Russian instructors in Mali.

Even if the photos posted by Moussa Dembélé only collected a few dozen likes, they were taken up the same day, a few minutes apart, by several pro-Kremlin Russian media. The posts from these outlets had links leading directly to the Facebook group.

Our team spoke with two researchers specializing in Russian influence on social networks. They told us that the way these photos were shared online is characteristic of a “totally artificial dissemination strategy”.

IA Rex is one of dozens of media outlets who have taken over the post. The outlet is an official partner of Patriot Media Group, headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin. Prigozhin, nicknamed “the leader of Putin”, is accused of having carried out a vast campaign of disinformation on the social networks during the American presidential election of 2016. According to the media, Prigozhin also heads the Wagner group.

The Wagner Group often organizes publicity stunts alongside its activities. In the Central African Republic, for example, Russian instructors distributed T-shirts bearing the effigy of Russian mercenaries to Central African soldiers. A film glorifying the work of Russian instructors in the Central African Republic even aired on Russian television in May 2021. According to Meduza, an opposition-aligned Russian outlet, the film was funded by Yevgeny Prigozhin.

The photo published by the Reverse of the Medal Twitter account is not the same as the photo published by Moussa Dembélé’s account. The colors are less vivid, the faces have not been blurred and, above all, there is no trace of Malinki graffiti. Our team used Forensically, an image analysis tool, which showed that the photo posted by Reverse Side of The Medal was indeed altered. However, some elements in the photo, such as the FAMa emblem on the soldier’s sleeves, do not appear to have been retouched.

Jack Margolin, a researcher at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS), says this change could just be a joke. In a Tweet, Margolin said Telegram channels like Reverse Side of the Medal often make puns by changing the names of places where Russian mercenaries operate, making them more Russian. For example, instead of writing SAR, the Russian acronym for Syria, they could write “SARatov,” which is the name of a city in southwestern Russia. Malinki is similar to a common Russian name.

In addition, the flip side has a habit of featuring images of Russian mercenaries abroad. His Telegram channel often features music videos using amateur footage of fighters.

The reverse side of the medal has also shared misinformation in the past. In October 2020, the channel released images out of context, suggesting to its subscribers that Russian mercenaries were participating in the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Conclusion

There are a number of details that cast doubt on whether these images actually show a Russian instructor from the Wagner group in Mali. The way the footage was shared online and picked up by some Russian media suggests there was an element of coordination. Additionally, the lush greenery in the photo looks more like Central Africa than West Africa. Finally, the wall in the pictures looks a lot like Emperor Bokassa’s former palace in Berengo, Central African Republic, where Russian instructors are currently training the Central African army.

At this point, we cannot say for sure where these photos were taken. We cannot exclude the hypothesis that Malian soldiers went to the Central African Republic for training or that the instructor has no connection with the Wagner group.

If you think you know where this photo was taken, write to us on Facebook or Whatsapp: +33 6 30 93 41 36.

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