For the Western media, Africa is always a mere footnote, a continent that is generally forgotten in matters of espionage and electronic surveillance. However, as leaders in Europe, Latin America, and Asia bemoan the surveillance activities of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), Africa has also been a victim of overarching communications surveillance by the United States…
Although Africa trailed the rest of the world in adopting enhanced information technology, it has not been ignored by the signals intelligence (SIGINT) agencies of the Five Eyes countries (United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) or one of the Nine Eyes SIGINT alliance nations, France. Satellite communications, undersea fiber optic cables, cell phones, and Internet are all subjected to the same level of surveillance by NSA, Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), and Australia’s Defense Signals Directorate as is directed against targeted countries in Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and eastern Europe.
In fact, African nations have long worried about the susceptibility of their Internet communications to eavesdropping by the West. In an article written by this author for the May 1, 1990, edition of the computer magazine Datamation, titled «African Nations Emphasizing Security,» it was pointed out that the African countries taking a lead over twenty years ago to protect their sensitive data from surveillance included South Africa, Ghana, Egypt, Senegal, Tanzania, Botswana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Benin, and Namibia.
The classified NSA documents revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden point out how Africa’s communications are under constant surveillance by NSA’s and its allies SIGINT agencies. One TOP SECRET STRAP 1 document from GCHQ states that all countries’ diplomatic services use smart phone and that these are favored targets for surveillance. Thousands of e-mail addresses and cellular phone numbers or «selectors» of African government officials are stored in massive worldwide phone book and e-mail directories. NSA databases containing «selector» and «content» information are used by eavesdroppers to focus in on certain conversations in Africa and abroad. These metadata capture and storage repositories have cover names such as FAIRVIEW, BLARNEY, STORMBREW, OAKSTAR, and PINWALE.
One NSA global email and phone call interception analysis program called BOUNDLESSINFORMANT tracks the monitoring of digital telephony (dial number recognition or DNR) and email and other digital textual communications (digital network intelligence or DNI). A «heat map» generated by BOUNDLESSINFORMANT indicated that the number one target for «Five Eyes» surveillance in Africa was Egypt, followed by Kenya, Libya, Somalia, Algeria, Uganda, Tanzania, and Sudan. In 2009, NSA’s «selector» databases contained the email addresses, phone numbers, and other personal information for 117 customers of Globalsom, an Internet service provider in Mogadishu. The names included senior Somali government officials, a senior UN officer resident in Mogadishu, and an official of World Vision, a non-governmental organization (NGO) which has often been linked to CIA covert activities. A number of informed observers have speculated that Snowden, who worked for the CIA before switching over to the NSA, may have been prompted by nameless officials in Langley, Virginia to release to the world the nature of NSA’s surveillance. NSA’s omniscient surveillance capabilities may have threatened to expose covert CIA agents abroad to a competitive and more powerful intelligence agency so an effort was made, through Snowden, to clip the wings of an NSA that was increasing its influence at the expense of the CIA.
There has always been a rivalry between U.S. intelligence agencies in Africa. Long the haunt of the CIA, especially during the Cold War, there has been resentment in the corridors of the CIA in Langley over the increasing activities of NSA in Africa. In the 1950s and 60s, NSA’s operations in Africa were largely confined to three signals intelligence support bases: Naval Security Group Activity Kenitra (formerly Port Lyautey); the Army Security Agency’s intercept station at Kagnew station, Asmara, in what was then Ethiopia; and airborne SIGINT support at Wheelus U.S. Air Force base, outside of Tripoli, Libya. NSA made no secret of its presence at the three bases and it was the fear of the new revolutionary government of Zanzibar in 1964 that prompted it to expel the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Project Mercury tracking station from the island nation because of the presence of Bendix Corporation technical representatives. Bendix, in addition to supporting NASA, also provided technical support for NSA bases circling the Soviet Union.
After the closure of the three African bases and the creation of the joint NSA-CIA Special Collection Service (SCS), NSA SIGINT outposts, operating under diplomatic cover, were set up in U.S. embassies, including those in Nairobi, Lagos, Kinshasa, Cairo, Dakar, Addis Ababa, Monrovia, Abidjan, and Lusaka.
For the past twenty years, NSA has increased its mobile intercept operations in Africa. In particular, during the first Rwandan invasion of the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire) in the 1990s, the NSA maintained a communications intercept station in Fort Portal, Uganda, which intercepted military and government communications in Zaire. Some of the intelligence derived from the SIGINT was shared with the armed forces of Rwandan leader Paul Kagame, a client dictator of the United States whose invasion of Zaire led to the ouster of long-time American ally Mobutu Sese Seko.
During the Cold War, NSA’s ground operations in Africa were largely confined to an intelligence-sharing relationship with apartheid South Africa. NSA received South African SIGINT, mostly intercepts of naval and merchant ships sailing around the Cape of Good Hope. NSA covertly supported South Africa’s Silvermine intelligence center, located inside a mountain under Costanzia Ridge, near Cape Town. NSA kept its relationship with Silvermine under complete wraps, owing to international sanctions against South Africa at the time. Silvermine has fallen into general disrepair with thieves now stealing copper from the base’s antenna field.
However, with the mushrooming of drone bases throughout Africa there has come a renewed NSA SIGINT presence on the continent that provides both technical support to drones fitted with signals intelligence-gathering payloads and on-site analysis of the communications intercepted by the remotely-controlled intelligence platforms. The largest permanent NSA presence in Africa is at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, where NSA analysts monitor communications intercepted by drones and manned surveillance aircraft and directly from intercept taps on foreign satellites and undersea cables. Pilatus PC-12 surveillance aircraft, complete with SIGINT packages, are flown out of Entebbe, Uganda as part of Operation TUSKER SAND. NSA military and civilian personnel are also assigned to U.S. surveillance installations at Ouagadougou International Airport in Burkina Faso and Diori Hamani International Airport in Niamey, Niger. The base in Ouagadougou is part of Operation CREEK SAND that includes the use of SIGINT packages installed on Pilatus PC-12 surveillance aircraft.
NSA mobile units, such as the one that was set up in a residential home in Fort Portal, routinely operate out of U.S. forward bases in Obo and Djema, Central African Republic, and Kisangani and Dungu in the Democratic Republic of Congo. SIGINT-enabled drones also fly from U.S. bases at Arba Minch, Ethiopia and Victoria Airport on the island of Malé, Seychelles. NSA personnel have also been assigned to Camp Gilbert, Dire Dawa, Ethiopia; Camp Simba, Manda Bay, Kenya; Mombasa, Kenya; Nzara, South Sudan; Leopold Senghor International Airport, Dakar, Senegal; and Boulé International Airport, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Small NSA listening facilities have also been located at the Voice of America transmitter stations on Sao Tomé, one of the two islands that comprise the nation of Sao Tomé and Principe, and Mopeng Hill, Botswana.
In fact, NSA personnel are found in so many exotic locations in Africa and elsewhere in the world, one NSA briefing slide released by Snowden, titled "Know your cover legend," instructs NSA personnel on covert assignment abroad to "sanitize personal effects" and bars them from sending home any postcards or buying local souvenirs. In reality, the fastest means of communications in Africa remains the «jungle telegraph,» the word of mouth alerts that travel from town to town and village to village warning the local residents that there are Americans in their midst. It is the one means of communications NSA cannot automatically tap unless NSA’s agents overhear conversations and understand obscure African dialects. Somali insurgents have stymied NSA eavesdroppers by using coded smoke signals from networks of burning 55-gallon drums to warn of approaching U.S., Kenyan, Ethiopian, and other foreign troops.
NSA proclaims its prowess at eavesdropping on any communication anywhere in the world. Africa has shown the boastful U.S. intelligence agency that the only thing NSA excels at is the art of exaggeration.