The building doesn’t look like much. Wedged between the Gabonese presidential staff car park and the compound wall bordering the boulevard de la République in Libreville, nothing sets it apart from the surrounding buildings other than, perhaps, a tangle of antennas perched atop the roof. No visitor to the oceanside presidential palace, whether a tourist or a regular, particularly notices the three-story building, which appears to be innocuous.
A few hundred yards away, the palace’s esplanade draws the eye. Further out, administrative buildings swallow up the worker bees of the Gabonese Republic, but nothing is remarkable about the antenna-laden building. In this “cloak-and-dagger” palace, it’s all about keeping a low profile.
As it happens, the off-white exterior conceals the president’s interception service, SILAM, run by French national Jean-Charles Solon.
A former military man, Solon previously worked for the General Directorate for External Security (Direction générale de la sécurité extérieure – DGSE), France’s intelligence agency, but today he has a career as a full-fledged Gabonese civil servant and is considered to be Libreville’s master of wiretapping.
Although theoretically he works under the supervision of the General Directorate of Special Services of the President (Direction générale des services spéciaux de la présidence), led by Brice Clotaire Oligui Nguema, in reality he is completely independent.
Each day, memos are sent in sealed envelopes to Gabon’s head of state, Ali Bongo Ondimba, whose office is just around the corner. According to our sources, Solon is well equipped and handles everything from wiretap transcripts, text message and WhatsApp conversation interceptions, and email and social media surveillance.
SILAM has benefitted for a long time from French intelligence expertise, first from the External Documentation and Counter-Espionage Service (Service de documentation extérieure et de contre-espionnage – SDECE) and then the DGSE. Now, private experts associated with the French intelligence service have taken the reins, such as the company Amesys (which has since become AMES and Nexa Technologies) and more top-secret firms like Ercom and Suneris Solutions.
Back in the day, a software program from Amesys known as Cerebro kept SILAM’s spy operations running. Cerebro was a different version of the technology marketed by the French in Libya during Muammar Gaddafi’s rule and in Morocco circa 2010.
Ercom and Suneris Solutions have a leading position in the African market, especially in the sub-Saharan region. Ercom, which has notably equipped Mali and Senegal, specialises in communications and mobile device security, while Suneris Solutions’ expertise lies in – drumroll please – intercepting communications. Both companies are based southwest of Paris in Villacoublay, not far from the French army’s Special Operations Command (Commandement des opérations spéciales – COS). They serve as the (discreet) commercial showcases of French surveillance technology.
In Villacoublay, service is personalised. According to a source from the sector, “We demonstrate certain technologies during salons or visits, and then we adapt the solution on offer according to a given client’s needs.” At Suneris, the Homeland division – named after the eponymous American spy thriller television series – is the company’s nerve centre.
The division’s 40 employees, all of whom have a secret-defense security clearance, are working to develop wiretapping systems for foreign clients, with clients such as Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon and Mali, according to a former employee questioned by investigative journalist Olivier Tesquet, who published a piece on the topic for Télérama magazine.
These masterminds have already produced a few gadgets worthy of a spy thriller, from fake radio repeaters capable of intercepting phones to a car that can “extract data.” From there, it’s up to sales professionals to push these intrusive trinkets in places like Prague, Dubai, Paris and Dakar.
Making deals at Milipol
According to a security salon regular, “Clients want to buy something that has a proven track record. They’re not looking for an experimental gadget.” For Africa, the two must-see events are Milipol Paris, held in November, and ISS World Middle East and Africa, held in March in Dubai.
In France, everything happens in a hushed atmosphere where military personnel, entrepreneurs and middlemen intersect.
Ercom’s stand extols the virtues of its secure phones, used by the likes of French President Emmanuel Macron. Nexa Technologies has a surveillance van on display for a cool €5m. Suneris Solutions keeps a lower profile. However, the French no longer have the market all to themselves.
Back in Libreville, in the hallways of SILAM, the boss may be a Frenchman, but his subordinates are Israeli. For several years now, Israeli companies have dominated the surveillance market in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s difficult to name them all. One of the most well-known and another exhibitor at Milipol Paris, NSO Group, has a prominent position, with significant strongholds in Kenya and Côte d’Ivoire.
Herzliya, a coastal neighbourhood in northern Tel Aviv known as Israel’s “Silicon Valley of espionage,” is home to a dense collection of intertwined companies: Mer Group (Congo, Guinea, Nigeria and DRC, where it outfits the Agence nationale de renseignement), Verint Systems and Elbit Systems (South Africa, Angola, Ethiopia, Nigeria, etc.).
Tsahal and Mossad
Beyond being financially backed by the US, the main asset the Israelis have is their strong ties with the army and intelligence service. Former members of Tsahal’s Unit 8200 (specialising in cyberwar) and ex-spies are well established in Herzliya.
One of them, Shabtai Shavit, the head of Athena GS3 (a subsidiary of Mer Group), served as the director of Israeli intelligence agency Mossad from 1989 to 1996 and knows the African continent particularly well given that he fostered relations between his agency and that of Zaire under Mobutu Sese Seko and later that of Cameroon.
And the Israelis have plenty of other representatives. Businessman Gaby Peretz, who was born in Morocco and now runs AD Consultants, is very present in the country. “Ad Con” is one of the main ambassadors of Israeli technology in Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Gabon, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda and Senegal.
Didier Sabag, a Franco-Israeli national originally from Casablanca, heads up Sapna Ltd, which operates in the Central African Republic, Benin, Guinea-Bissau and Morocco on behalf of Herzliya’s suppliers.
In Côte d’Ivoire, Stéphane Konan, a former cybercrime expert at the ministry of the interior there, helped bring behemoth NSO Group and other Israeli companies into the ministry of the interior and ministry of defence under Hamed Bakayoko, as well as the president’s office, with prefect Vassiriki Traoré directly putting President Alassane Ouattara and his brother Birahima Ouattara into touch with these players.
Recently, NSO Group secured the services of a French diplomat, Gérard Araud. The former French ambassador to Israel (from 2003 to 2006) explained that he “advises the company on protecting human rights and privacy.”
However, the company doesn’t exactly have a good reputation. Since 2016, it has been criticised for developing a spyware called Pegasus which allows users to spy on phones. It can trace a phone’s GPS location, read messages and track calls (text messages, emails, WhatsApp, Telegram, Skype, etc.), retrieve contact list information and activate microphones and cameras on devices.
According to Amnesty International, this technology has helped surveillance missions against human rights advocates and opposition members in Rwanda, Morocco and Uganda.
These three companies deny the allegations, although Paul Kagame admitted the fact that Kigali has “always conducted intelligence gathering operations.” In November 2019, the Rwandan president said, “That’s how all countries operate. It’s a way to keep tabs on our enemies and those who support them.”
According to a cybersecurity expert, “Everyone wants to be equipped to carry out surveillance on criminals and terrorists. The problem is that not everyone agrees on the definition of ‘terrorist’.”
NSO Group contented itself to announce that its spyware is subject to the granting of a licence from the Israeli authorities. The business is legal since it complies with export law. Its French competitors have advanced the same narrative: in France, each contract is subject to the approval of the interministerial commission on dual-use goods.
The only problem is that the deliberations of this body, which brings together the office of the prime minister and the ministries of foreign affairs, the interior and defence, as well as the intelligence service, are classified. “If we don’t sell our technology, the Israelis or others will,” said a source knowledgeable about the sector.
“The Israelis are everywhere. They even managed to equip Saudi Arabia! It’s pretty much impossible to bypass them,” said a source familiar with the market in Dubai. Nevertheless, some players are able to defend their position. The British and Danish nationals behind BAE Systems succeeded in gaining a foothold in South Africa, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.
In addition, the English and Germans at Gamma Group landed contracts in Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Angola, Egypt and Morocco, while Trovicor, acquired by French player Nexa Technologies, is well established in Egypt, Ethiopia and Tunisia.
Lastly, the Italians at Hacking Team have set up shop in Egypt, Ethiopia, Morocco, Nigeria, Uganda and Sudan, while South Africa’s VasTech has operations or had them in the past in Libya and Algeria.
According to a French player in the sector, “France has been sitting on its laurels. For a long time we controlled the main communication entry points in Africa, but we were intercepting data en masse without really analysing them. The Israelis have gotten ahead of us.”
This is especially true in Côte d’Ivoire, a country that Tel Aviv’s expertise quickly won over and in which Israel has found its groove, both financially and politically. “That gave them the possibility of installing wiretapping systems that could reach Lebanese communities so they could find out whether or not they were financing Hezbollah,” said an expert.
The Thales behemoth
According to the same expert, “The Israelis are developing solutions at a much faster pace than us. They have dozens of players whereas, in France, we prefer to put everyone under the same behemoth. That slows us down.” The “behemoth” our source is referring to is none other than Thales, which recently acquired Ercom and Suneris Solutions.
Bumped out of its top spot in Côte d’Ivoire by the Israelis, Thales is trying to defend its leading position in Senegal, where the United States has established facilities.
On 6 November 2018, French Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian celebrated the opening of a school in Dakar specialised in training African officials in cybersecurity. France’s largest wiretapping centre in West Africa is located in Rufisque, a city in the Dakar region, and it was equipped by. . . Thales.
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Thales and the technology used by the DGSE have a lot going for them, as echoed by intermediaries such as the former Minister of Defence Charles Millon, Suneris’ envoy. The presence at the highest level of Franco-African diplomacy of former DGSE employees Franck Paris, now Macron’s “Mr Africa,” and Rémi Maréchaux, the Quai d’Orsay’s Director for Africa, is also an undeniable asset.
But it isn’t enough. “Today, the French aren’t always able to work on their own,” our source said. “In the Sahel, the Americans and the Chinese call the shots.”
A telling example: in May 2019, it was the eyes and ears of the United States, via one of its satellites, that enabled the commander of the French special forces to initiate a hostage recovery operation in Pendjari National Park.
Another worrying sign is that Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta recently decided to collaborate with Chinese partners, who he said are less stingy about sharing information than Paris.
Meanwhile, some diplomats are concerned about Russia’s progress ever since the company PROTEI made its ambitions public during the Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi in October 2019. Already present in Tunisia (via Tunisie Telecom) and Sudan (via MTN), the company markets products developed by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). According to a market player in the Gulf region, “The Russians are increasingly present in Dubai, where there’s a lot of interest in Africa.”
“We’re watching the Russians from afar, but the real threat comes from the Chinese, who are already doing whatever they want in Algeria,” said a French entrepreneur. In a West African country, Chinese operator Huawei controls the communications network and no port can be opened to set up wiretapping without informing them first. “That doesn’t surprise me,” responded a source. “A few years ago, the machines at DGSE in Paris were partly outfitted with Chinese equipment!”
An African diplomat tempered: “The French and the Americans regularly warn us about China, saying that they put cookies into their systems and listen in on our communications. But, in this field, who doesn’t do that?”
In August 2019, a Wall Street Journal investigation described how Huawei used its networks in Zambia and Uganda (where opposition leader Bobi Wine claims to have been spied on) to help local authorities conduct surveillance on their opponents. The Chinese firm denied the allegations.
The Ugandan government confirmed its ties to Huawei and explained that the company’s technicians work with the police and the intelligence service for national security purposes.
Back in January 2018, Beijing was accused of spying on the African Union’s headquarters in Addis Ababa. The outcome: the Belt and Road Initiative, a series of infrastructure networks that Beijing wants to create between Europe, Africa and Asia, and that is particularly troubling to the West.
Huawei and its compatriot ZTE Corporation (present in Ethiopia) are especially implicated in these scandals. Both companies have been working around the clock to equip their clients with surveillance systems (including facial recognition cameras in Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Côte d’Ivoire, Rwanda, Kenya and South Africa).
However, is there a dark side to what China presents as a win-win partnership? According to an expert, “The Chinese build and manage infrastructure based on fibre optic networks.As a result, they have the technical capability to spy on everything that goes through these networks.” A diplomat from the Sahel described the dilemma Africa faces: “None of our countries are able to perform an adequate amount of surveillance without outside help. Whether we partner with Westerners or others, we have no choice but to entrust someone else with it.”
One thing is certain: whether the technology comes from the French, the Russians or the Chinese, no one manages to be fully protected. According to an entrepreneur from the sector, “If you want to enter a network, a phone or a computer, all you have to do is pay good money. No one is completely secure.” Including the most informed users.
In 2018, the phone of Jeff Bezos, head of Amazon and owner of The Washington Post, was hacked after a virus infected his phone through a WhatsApp conversation with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Several dozen gigabytes of data were stolen and an investigation is currently ongoing to determine if the leak is connected to the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a reporter at the newspaper.
Since then, WhatsApp (like Apple shortly before it) has announced a system update that supposedly protects users against hacking. Nevertheless, as our source pointed out, “It’s never-ending. The second Apple announces its new system, the Israelis will have already found the loophole!”
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