French spies, the great investigation: Africa, cyber-security… Intelligence flaws

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From kyiv to the Elysée, via Moscow, Bamako, Ouagadougou, the beautiful Parisian districts, without forgetting the very pressing cyber threat, French spies are struggling to protect our security and our interests. The Express wanted to dig deeper: what do intelligence agents really do in the field? And above all, are they up to the challenges of the moment? The main leaders of French intelligence gave us their opinion, as did some thirty former members of the secret services. The result is an unprecedented dive into the troubled waters of the most confidential French operations. Revelations in three parts on the secrets of French espionage… and worldwide. Third and final part: Africa and the cyber threat.

Chapter 5: Africa

“We know very well how to mesh presidential entourages, but when the coup comes from captains, junior officers, we don’t know how to do it”, notes a former DGSE expert, connoisseur of African issues. The coup d’etat which took place in Mali on August 18, 2020, led by middle managers of the army, caused trauma in the French intelligence community. Neither the DRM, present on the spot in the wake of Operation Barkhane, nor the DGSE were able to foresee the putsch. “We had indicated that something would happen within four to five weeks”, nuance our source having frequented foreign intelligence. Interviewed in July, Laurent Nuñez, then intelligence coordinator, acknowledged that the episode had prompted the secret services to review their methods: “The 2020 coup in Mali led us to tighten our sensors, including on intermediate strata of the army or society.”

The emergence of a junta led by Colonel Goïta in the country where the army has been intervening since 2013 has unfortunate consequences: anti-French sentiment is legitimized, the paramilitary group Wagner, under the control power, now has a bridgehead in Africa, the fight against local jihadist groups is inevitably parasitized. Robert aka “Bob” Dulas, 74, a veteran of parallel diplomacy in Africa, says he has seen intelligence methods evolve, not necessarily for the better: “I find that the DGSE in Africa is becoming Americanized. They pay but don’t don’t really try to understand. Some of my contacts have told me that they don’t talk to them anymore because of this.” More surprisingly, “Bob” understands that the dirty tricks between services persist, contrary to presidential doctrine: “There are squabbles between the DRM, the DGSE, even the DGSI, which is also present. I can tell you that incomplete information was reported six months ago. Well, fortunately, not on a subject touchy.

“The blunder thesis was pushed by Russian trolls on the Internet”

Intelligence also comes up against the disinformation of its adversaries. For secret service leaders, the “Bounti wedding” affair in central Mali has become an anti-model. “For forty-eight hours, we suffered,” testifies a senior intelligence official. On January 3, 2021, French fighter planes bombed and killed around twenty people in this village. “Jihadist fighters” identified after an “intelligence operation lasting several days”, then specifies the staff of the armies. The Peul Youth Tabital Pulaaku association disputes and claims that the strike hit simple civilians, gathered for a wedding. A UN investigation, unveiled on March 30, 2021, leans towards the blunder hypothesis. General Lecointre, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, reacted by scolding, in Le Figaro of May 21, 2021, “the errors and biases of the” UN report, affirms “that they result in part from manipulation”. An operation with Russian connotations, assures an intelligence official today: “We realized that the thesis of the blunder was pushed by Russian trolls on the Internet.” At the time, the Minister of the Armed Forces refused to declassify photos of the place. “Showing images is showing our enemies what we see of him,” she assumes before the Senate.

Change of doctrine on April 22: an obscure “Malian patriot”, a “false profile”, considers the French army, publishes on Twitter a video of a mass grave near the Gossi military base. He accuses France of being responsible for these abuses. The French army staff then published images from a DRM drone, obtained with the assistance of the DGSE. They show soldiers filming these corpses. “Very precise information makes us say that these are Wagner’s men. We have no doubt,” adds the army. France has learned the lesson.

Still, the influence of Wagner, already present in the Central African Republic, threatens to spread to other countries, Niger or Burkina Faso. On January 24, 2022, the coup d’etat in Ouagadougou aroused the anger of Emmanuel Macron, tells us a source familiar with the matter. The presidential wrath targets the diplomatic cell of the Elysée but also the DGSE. The risk of a putsch was perceived but the measures to prevent it did not work. However, the destabilization of the “country of honest men” could benefit jihadist networks and Wagner. A new coup d’etat, on September 30, 2022, confirms French fears. Russian flags are unfurled in the streets of the Burkinabe capital. A French intelligence source sighs: “We would like us to be present in Africa as we were sixty years ago, but times have changed, these are independent countries. It is therefore not desirable. let’s not communicate on everything we do and in particular not on the coups d’etat that France has hindered.

Chapter 6: Cyber

Emmanuel Macron has decided. According to information from L’Express, at the end of 2020, when the general public was unaware of the existence of the Pegasus software, the President of the Republic warned French intelligence leaders that he had decided not to order the product developed by the Israeli company NSO. The subject has sparked a real debate within the secret services. Senior executives from domestic intelligence do not hide their interest in a tool that would greatly benefit police investigations: because it remotely infects the entire phone – “it allows conversations, photos and saved messages”, reveals Guilhem Giraud, ex-engineer of the DST and recent author of Confidences of a French intelligence agent (Robert Laffont) -, Pegasus would bypass encrypted applications popular with criminals. However, obtaining data from WhatsApp or Telegram is sometimes a challenge for law enforcement. The price offered is not that expensive: 10 million euros all included. However, NSO has many Mossad retirees in its ranks and no one doubts its links with Israeli intelligence. Faced with the risk of espionage, the head of state prefers to give up. According to our information, the tricolor intelligence agencies are currently working, and in secret, on the emergence of Franco-French software.

Failing to be a customer of Pegasus, France has become a victim. According to the revelations of the collective of journalists Forbidden Stories, the numbers of Emmanuel Macron, Edouard Philippe and 14 other members of the government have been selected by Morocco for screening. Since last May, the DGSI has been working to meet each ministerial cabinet for an hour in order to pass certain cyber-security instructions. “We remind you that no smartphone sold commercially is completely safe, that there should be no sensitive exchange through this, including on end-to-end encrypted applications”, describes Nicolas Lerner, the boss of the DGSI. Another tip: delete sensitive messages after sending. They won’t be found that easily. Common sense precautions that come up against habits rooted in macronist circles, where Telegram is massively used, an application considered particularly insecure because it was coded by neophytes in cyber security.

At a time when computer attacks are on the increase, bringing out a generation of French cyber-spies has become a national issue. Nevertheless, the secret services today come up against the hard law of the market. Thirty-something experts from the DGSE or DGSI can hope to double their salary by joining a large private sector company. Within the DGSE, between retirements, the end of mobility for the military and resignations, the last year has seen the departure of “between 500 and 700 agents”, according to a well-informed source. A huge figure, which corresponds to almost 10% of the workforce. To retain talent – in cyber but not only – the house began in the summer of 2022 the biggest reform of its organization since 1989. The directorates of operations and intelligence, between which there was an ancestral rivalry, were recast within of a large “directorate of research and operations”, directed by a civil administrator from the seraglio. Above all, the reform provides for the establishment of thematic or geographic “mission centres”. The idea? Achieve a less stratified operation, while respecting secrecy, of course. “This reform is the result of two years of reflection workshops. The objective is in particular to put in the best conditions a new generation of agents aged 30 to 35, who no longer support hierarchical stacks”, indicates a member of the intelligence community. Even secret service leaders have to manage human resources.


EPISODE 1 >DGSE-DGSI, in the secret of anti-terrorist operations

EPISODE 2 >How our secret services hinder Putin