On November 10, 2020, a 7-page report that discussed the potential unraveling of Ethiopia – due to the outbreak of war between the Federal Military and TPLF – was concluded and forwarded to a carefully selected team of EU officials, who would then present it to the EU council. The scenario considered in the report was a potential deluge of refugees into Europe from a disturbed region, the Horn of Africa (HoA). The report cautiously analyzed the then 7-day-long armed conflict between ENDF and an alliance of Tigray armed groups, including Tigray Regional Forces and Special Police, and expressed concern about the cohesion of ENDF and the possibility of spill-over of the conflict into Oromia region.
The report also cautioned against the Tripartite Alliance of Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia, Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea, and Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed of Somalia. Additionally, the report noted the concerns of Saudi Arabia, which feared the crisis could negatively impact the Gulf region – a concern shared by United Arabs Emirate. Another notable prospect raised in the report was cutting off of the Ethiopia-Djibouti terrestrial transport corridor should the conflict continue unabated. In May 2021, Goitom Gebreluel opined that the HoA is falling under an axis of tyranny led by the 3 aforementioned leaders and that the Tripartite Alliance was destabilizing the region.
Among the issues discussed in the West concerning the future of Ethiopia are if Ethiopia can be peacefully broken up if a rebel coalition takes power in Addis Ababa, and then allow the ethno-regional states to use referendum to vote for secession, which the central government will accept. This is to avoid the Somaliland-like limbo where the semi-autonomous state cannot gain full recognition as a republic unless the national government in Mogadishu consents to its secession. For USG and its European Allies, this will allow for a peaceful version of Yugoslavia-like breakup, while enabling the trial of Abiy Ahmed Ali for crimes against humanity in an international court just as it happened to the second last President of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic.
If Ethiopia accepts regime attenuation, then there will be a need for a national dialogue supervised by a Government of National Unity that includes the TPLF (and even excludes Abiy Ahmed), which will oversee a constitutional review that will strengthen decentralization. So far, there has been no assessment of whether Abiy Ahmed can develop a strong personality or valor like Xi Jinping who defeated enhanced political warfare, or if Abiy can take bold decisive actions to survive political warfare. It also overlooks the fact that the Ethiopian people have not shown a strong dislike for the government. Even so, popular perception can be changed using witful narrative management that is tailored to drive a wedge between the people and GoE.
Relatedly, how is the USG-EU alliance going to manage the crisis in Ethiopia, while promoting their agenda for Ethiopia?
Command and Control Fusion Center (C2FC) Running a Basma-like Campaign on Ethiopia
In a previous post, it was reported that C2FC “has delegated some of its tasks to disparate subsidiary fusion cells that enjoy some degree of operational autonomy but organizational dependence on the fusion center”. So, what are the functions of C2FC, and who staffs these fusion cells?
The key functions of C2FC can be summarized as advisory, facilitation, capacitation, and intelligence operations. This post focuses on the information capacitance function of the C2FC and some intelligence operations of its allied military and intelligence organizations. The other functions of C2FC will be discussed in later posts.
Information capacitance is key to any propaganda campaign, and in the Ethiopian crisis, it involves moderating and controlling media coverage of the war in Tigray – and armed rebellion in Oromia – in a way that disadvantages GoE. This managed media coverage is quite helpful for fusion cells located in Kenya where they work with anti-Abiy elements in the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) and National Intelligence Service (NIS) to shape public opinion in favor of supporting TPLF and Oromo secessionists. This clique in KDF and NIS has partnered with other national intelligence agencies and private intelligence firms to train media activists and promote the idea of 2 parallel governments-in-exile – the Oromia Regional National Transitional Government and the Government of the National State of Tigray.
As will be explained later, the current information capacitance operation uses methods and techniques developed in Project Basma, which was a regime change campaign conducted against the government of Syria. The same methods and techniques were then used against Xi Jinping as part of an enhanced political warfare campaign to weaken the Communist Party of China.
The staffs of these fusion cells are made up of popular media personalities, journalists, university-educated intellectuals, lawyers, democracy activists, humanitarian aid workers (HAW), private intelligence firms, non-governmental organizations (including the Europe External Programme with Africa [EEPA]), and researchers affiliated with Western humanitarian aid agencies and research institutions. The current conjecture by Geopolitics.Press is that Stratfor and Janes Information Group – which is owned by Montagu Private Equity – do aid the operations of these cells. Among the democracy activists working in, or with, these fusion cells are prominent democracy activists from Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Uganda; as well as democracy activists based in Europe, Oceania, and North America.
The staff help to create narratives, repurpose descriptions of events, and find ways to deny GoE media publicity. The narrative created by these cells is processed by C2FC before being issued to “media actors” for amplification. The most prized media actors are the multinational media agencies that have a global network of influence that can be leveraged in information warfare campaigns.
Consider Reuters with its global network of about 4,000 journalists, and one can get an idea of how a created narrative can be popularized worldwide by these journalists, and even be made the vogue narrative. This was evident during the execution of Project Basma.
In 2014, it was revealed that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Department for International Development (DfID), and Ministry of Defence – which are all part of the Government of the United Kingdom (GUK) – have been running a joint program to capacitate information campaigns and kinetic operations in Syria. This joint program used the methods of “strategic communications, research, monitoring and evaluation, and operational support to Syrian opposition entities” to achieve its goals. The revelations also showed that FCO favored the building of “local independent media platforms” to outbid the government in narrative management. This joint program is now known as Project Basma, and it fronted an entity called Basma (after which the project is named).
Basma was cloaked as a civil society group that provided a citizen journalism platform. This can be related to the obtuse civil society organization called Civil Society Reference Group, which is a front for the anti-Abiy clique in KDF and NIS to lobby the Kenyan government to support rebels fighting against GoE.
As a citizen journalism platform, Basma was able to plant stories in international media outlets and run a network of journalists who doubled as intelligence agents. It is still not clear if the Integrity Initiative and Institute for Statecraft played any roles in Project Basma.
Basma Program for Regime Change
In September 2020, leaked documents – which were later acknowledged – revealed that GUK has been funding a propaganda campaign to promote regime change in Syria, as well as buy public sympathy for the armed opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime. To cultivate media activists who would serve as stringers in Syria, GUK used the Basma program to train these activists and deploy them to the field. These activists were paired with public relation (PR) firms, which edited and modified their reports before forwarding them to mainstream media outlets as journalistic pieces. The media agencies named in the expose are BBC, Al-Arabiya, Al-Jazeera, and Orient TV.
Private intelligence contractors that were involved in this Syrian campaign include The Global Strategy Network (TGSN), Albany, Analysis Research Knowledge (ARK), and Innovative Communication & Strategies (InCoStrat). InCoStrat and Albany helped the armed opposition to handle media relations. Albany even admitted that its core task was defined as “collecting and organising stories and content that support and reinforce the core narrative”.
The Dubai-based ARK describes itself as a humanitarian NGO that has worked with the State Department, FCO, European Union, United Nations, and the Governments of Australia, Canada, and the Netherlands. TGSN prides itself of having Richard Barrett among its directors. Richard Barrett is the former director of global counter-terrorism for the Secret Intelligence Service (popularly known as Military Intelligence Section 6 or MI6). This implies that he knew that some of their Syrian allies had ties – either direct or indirect – to AlQaeda. ARK, which describes some of its functions as “developing civil defence capabilities”, “preventing and countering violent extremism” and “promoting accountability for war crimes“, boasts of having an operational presence in Kenya and Somalia.
ARK started developing the political narrative for the opposition in 2011 while still in Gaziantep, Turkey; and later partnered with TGSN to run “97 video stringers, 23 writers, 49 distributors, 23 photographers, 19 in-country trainers, eight training centers, three media offices, and 32 research officers”. ARK was tasked with rebranding the public image of Salafi jihadi rebels, and their civil front (or civilian-facing front). Benjamin Norton states that “ARK ran the social media accounts of the White Helmets, and helped turn the Western-funded group into a key propaganda weapon of the Syrian opposition”.
ARK has boasted of providing “regular branded and unbranded content” to “well-established contacts”, which included top media outlets like “Reuters, the New York Times, CNN, the BBC, The Guardian, the Financial Times, The Times, Al Jazeera, Sky News Arabic, Orient TV, and Al Arabiya”. It also sent dozens of articles to be published by Al Hayat and Asharq Al-Awsat (ibid).
When the Supreme Military Council (SMC) of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was globally denounced for working with violent Salafi mujahideen, ARK was mandated “to establish the image of (SMC and FSA as) a functioning, inclusive, disciplined and professional military body”. A similar situation is ongoing in Ethiopia where TPLF and TDF are being presented in mainstream media outlets as “ functioning, inclusive, disciplined and professional” political party and military body respectively.
TDF field commanders have enjoyed laudatory coverage in mainstream media, with Lieutenant-General Tsadkan Gebretensae of TDF giving an interview to Kenya’s The Elephant in July 2021, where he marketed TDF as the armed military force of the Government of Tigray, not the armed wing of TPLF. In the Interview, Tsadkan presented an image of TDF that is a functioning, disciplined, and professional military body (ibid).
TPLF recently, in an error of judgment, paraded armed children, an act that led to condemnation in Ethiopia.
PHOTO SOURCE: Jeff Pearce.
TPLF has also been accused of trying to achieve moral equivalence by dressing children in Tigray with flags of the Amhara regional State and giving them rifles. Still, the public image of TDF can be softened using clever narrative management and media framing.
ARK is known for “softening the image” of armed groups that Westerners may find troubling as is evidenced in these photographed stickers that it made for the AlQaeda-laced Free Syrian Army.
Fusion Cells for Intelligence Activities and Lethal Journalism
Understanding the functions and methods of Project Basma makes it easier to understand how C2FC works, and why it chooses the methods it uses to achieve its goals. As mentioned, C2FC’s tasks are delegated to fusion cells.
These fusion cells collect and collate raw information about the state of affairs in Ethiopia. This information is obtained through social media posts, direct communication with TPLF cadre, and testimonies of HAW and Tigray diaspora who had spoken with their kin in Tigray.
Also, these cells work with C2FC to fast-track the verification of social media accounts of their political and military allies. This explains why the Twitter handle of Getachew Reda, which was started in September 2020, was quickly verified in the second quarter of 2021. Apart from helping its allies and assets dominate the social media space, they also work to stifle the presence (and voice) of their opponents in social media.
Pro-ENDF Facebook Accounts Suspended enmasse just before TDF’s Offensive
The fusion cells work to identify social media accounts that are operated by, or affiliated with, their targeted organizations and persons. In the second quarter of 2021, these cells identified social media accounts that are operated by, or affiliated with, the Ethiopian Information Network Security Agency (INSA), and compiled them before forwarding them to their American aids, who then pressured US-based social media companies to suspend the accounts.
On June 16, 2021, Facebook announced that “it had removed a network of fake accounts in Ethiopia targeting domestic users”, and that these accounts were associated with INSA. This reduced the ability of GoE to control social media messaging inside Ethiopia, while biasing social media parity between TPLF and GoE in favor of the former. Two days later, an alliance of Tigray armed groups, who had consolidated themselves under the umbrella of the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF), launched an offensive called Operation Alula.
TDF is probably named so to imply its character as a military organization that aspires to be a national military just like the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) or Rwanda Defence Force (RDF).
Richard Landes identified 3 forms of partisan war journalism. They are patriotic war journalism (e.g GoE insisting that Ethiopian media should not describe TDF as a military force but instead use TPLF to describe both TPLF and TDF), lethal war journalism (e.g foreign media reports TPLF’s propaganda as authentic news), and own-goal war journalism (where Ethiopian media reports TPLF’s propaganda as authentic news). The latter two forms of war journalism are what constitutes lethal journalism, whose aim is to de-energize the will of the target polity to resist the messaging and acts of C2FC.
In June 2021, GoE punished Addis Standard, an Ethiopian Media, for own-goal war journalism; an act that was condemned by the West using carefully scripted words, which reveals the influence of C2FC.
Professor Landes identifies lethal war journalism as prone to promoting narratives, and this is exactly what happens in Ethiopia. Starting from November 2020, GoE has been described as an ego-bloated, incapable, and cruel belligerent fighting to destroy the Tigray people, and this makes TPLF’s armed opposition a moral obligation that the world should support. The coordinated and synchronized delivery of this narrative by Western mainstream media reveals that C2FC manages the media scripting.
As Landes notes, lethal journalism works to promote a narrative using stories and claims of events, and “when (these) claims (are) disproven…these news outlets (do) nothing to correct their errors“. This was evident in July 2021 when Amnesty International purposely misguided its audience by using photographs – taken by Amanuel Sileshi – of Ethiopians being frisked, before entering a polling station, to condemn GoE for ethnic profiling in Addis Ababa.
Lethal journalism can be augmented by tweaking the algorithms of search engines. This can allow C2FC to exploit search engine algorithms so as to bias internet search results, with the goal being to improve the ranking of any article that sheds positive information about TPLF. This helps achieve information dominance, where the information provided by a specific actor dominates the reporting by mass media and social media.
Information capacitance as applied to lethal journalism allows for deployment of a legally-sound, short-term media strategy that is laden with propaganda value and good optics. This explains why almost the same message against the Ethiopian government has been released by supposedly different Western governments, aid agencies, journalists, reports (published by research institutions), and social media personalities.
In 2011, ARK partnered with Tsamota to develop a subproject within Basma called the Syrian Commission for Justice and Accountability. This name was later changed in 2014 to the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA). CIJA used seed fund provided by the Conflict Pool of GUK to build a transitional justice architecture to execute lawfare against the Assad government should the plan for regime change fail. The goal was to bring cases against top Syrian government officials in international courts, and then use these cases to justify specified narratives, as well as call for sanctions to be imposed on Syria.
During the Ethiopian crisis, there have been coordinated calls by pro-TPLF intellectuals, lawyers, democracy activists, NGOs, and private intelligence firms for Abiy Ahmed to be tried in an international court for crimes against humanity. In February 2021, the National Interest published a post with a self-revelatory title: Abiy Ahmed: The First Nobel Laureate On Trial at the International Criminal Court? The author, Michael Rubin, called for Abiy to “face war crimes charges”. However, this trial can only happen if Abiy is removed from power, failure of which, the calls for his prosecution will be used to justify sanctions against GoE and its top officials. This can result in sanctions being imposed on the Ethiopian people.
Feature image shows children waiting in a line. PHOTO CREDIT.
An excerpt of this post has been published in our Medium blog.