The KGB in Africa: light on the modus operandi of a USSR in search of influence

Supporting an attempted coup in Ghana, training African fighters not far from the beaches of Crimea or even spreading “fake news” in Algeria… In the midst of the Cold War, the spies of the Soviet bloc did not lack imagination to try to advance the interests of the Kremlin in Africa . Back to some practical matters.

Vladimir Putin and the Russian FSB spies have not invented much when it comes to disinformation and destabilization operations in Africa. The great history of Russian influence on the African continent is peppered with anecdotes that reveal the arsenal of tools at the KGB’s disposal to push its peasants in the context of the Cold War.

has selected four of them to illustrate the difficulties faced by Eastern Bloc spies in Africa, the structures that made it possible to improve military relations between the Soviet Union and the African countries, and the know-how (already at that time ) ) by Kremlin men in the form of “fake news”.

“Operation Alex”, impossible mission in Ghana

In the late 1960s, Ghana occupied a prominent place on the Cold War chessboard in Africa. Moscow does not digest the fall in 1966 of the rule of Kwame Nkrumah, the first and very pro-Soviet president of this nation since its independence.

A pill all the harder for the Kremlin to swallow since the coup that ousted Kwame Nkrumah brought to power a man – General Joseph Arthur Ankrah – who was much more attuned to Washington.

Behind the Iron Curtain, the spies in the Soviet bloc then hatched a series of plans to try to reinstate Kwame Nkrumah as head of state. One of these cold-weather operations – “Operation Alex” – illustrates both the importance in Africa of the intelligence services of the Soviet Union’s satellite countries and the difficulties encountered by its agents on the continent.

“Operation Alex” started with eggs. In September 1967, Karel Hotarek, the head of the Czech intelligence service in Ghana, went to a farm run by Czech nationals, not far from the capital Accra, on the pretext of buying fresh eggs there. In reality, he has an agreement with Kofi Batsa, a writer and political activist close to Kwame Nkrumah.

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The activist explains to him the detailed plan for a coup d’état to overthrow General Joseph Arthur Ankrah. He claims to have the support of about thirty people close to power and in the ranks of the army. The only thing missing, according to him, is logistical and financial assistance from Prague and Moscow.

Karel Hotarek, excited about the interview, manages to convince his hierarchy to bet on Kofi Batsa. “Operation Alex” was planned for October 1968 and Kwame Nkrumah’s Russophile contacts told him to be ready.

But in the meantime, Karel Hotarek and the GRU, the Russian military intelligence service, question Kofi Batsa’s reliability. When the latter was arrested in August 1968, Eastern Bloc spies feared he had given weapons and money to an overly talkative adventurer on a supposedly covert operation.

A setback that will not shake Moscow’s motivation. The Kremlin intends to continue “Operation Alex” with the other suspected members of this conspiracy. But months go by and nothing happens. No one really knows the circumstances at the end of this adventure. But in December 1968, Kwame Nkrumah asked himself the same question: “I had been made to understand that something had to happen and nothing happened”, he wrote to the British historian June Milne, who dedicated a biography to him.

In Crimea, center-165 or Soviet indoctrination

The planes usually landed late at night in Crimea. These flights, unregistered, concerned groups of young people – aged 15 to 30 – from African countries “friendly” towards the USSR. On the asphalt, buses whose roller blinds were lowered were waiting for these “students” to transport them to Perevalnøe.

Since 1965, this village had been home to the main Russian training center for African “liberation fighters”. Located about twenty kilometers from the seaside resort of Alouchta, the Perevalnoe Center has hosted leaders and apprentice soldiers from the African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and the Cape Verde Islands, the Popular Liberation Movement of Angola, the ANC of South Africa and the Mozambique Liberation Front.

Until the fall of the USSR in 1991, more than 15,000 fighters from liberation movements were trained in this training camp, which could accommodate up to 500 students simultaneously, Russian historian Natalia Krylova emphasizes in a study devoted to center-165.

The training was intense and partly supervised by the KGB. You had to get up at six every day, do more than an hour of gymnastics, swallow a breakfast, and then chain five hours of military exercises. After lunch, new training awaited the students until dinner. But the day did not stop at sunset, as these hopeful freedom fighters after 1 p.m. 21 had to learn, for example, to cross minefields at night.

In addition to military training, there were courses in Russian, Marxism-Leninism and reflection on the history of world revolutionary movements.

Moscow also seeks to improve the socialist way of life. Crimea, with its posh tourist resorts, provided an ideal setting for this propaganda effort. Once a month, the center’s students visited kolkhozes (collective farms), schools or shops. And it was not rare, the evening before the night exercises, that the people responsible for the center showed Soviet films to the residents of the center.

If this center represented a highly influential tool for disseminating Soviet military know-how before the fall of the USSR, it nevertheless left hardly any traces. The former students who “had and sometimes still have leadership positions in their country’s military apparatus, for example in Angola, do not claim their Soviet education”, notes Natalia Krylova.

Algeria, De Gaulle and the KGB

In May 1961, US President John F. Kennedy’s state visit to Paris almost did not take place. In question: one of the KGB’s most successful disinformation operations against the backdrop of the Algerian War of Independence. A case that perfectly illustrates the strategy of Soviet spies, who use the African continent not only to expand their sphere of influence, but also to discredit Washington, also in the eyes of the traditional allies of the United States.

It all started with an article in April 1961 in Paese Sera, a small, left-wing Italian newspaper. “Was the Generals’ Putsch (aimed at overthrowing French President Charles de Gaulle) prepared in Washington?” Ask the authors of this little gem of misinformation.

The article argues that one of the coup generals – Maurice Challe – is actually a CIA agent. This claim is based on a background of truth: the soldier “had served at NATO headquarters and was unusually pro-American for a senior French officer,” the CIA acknowledged in a report written in 2001.

Paese Sera’s “scoop” was ultimately a KGB invention. Pravda, a very official Russian newspaper, rushed to take over the information on its own, as did the TASS news agency. But the Soviet spies must have rejoiced when an editorial in the French daily Le Monde picked up on this false information and said: “It now seems established that American agents more or less encouraged Challe”. The famous daily then quickly retracted, but the damage was done.

Maurice Couve de Murville, the foreign minister, would have to deny these claims in person before the National Assembly to ease US-French tensions.

“It is an excellent example of the know-how of the Communists: to use a false story to achieve a resounding impact”, recognized in June 1961 before a committee of the US Senate Richard M. Helms, who will become the head of the CIA a few years later .

Meet “Altar” and “Secretary”

It is the story of an agent from the East and an emblematic figure of the African liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s, known by the aliases “Alter” and “Secretary”.

The real identity of the first was Miroslav Adamek, a Czech diplomat stationed in Conakry and, by the way, a spy in the pay of Prague. The other was none other than the famous Guinean anti-colonialist activist Amilcar Cabral, founder of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) and one of the most prestigious proven war prizes for pro-Kremlin agents.

This duet will illustrate how Soviet Bloc intelligence services used human resources in Africa in the more global context of the Cold War.

Miroslav Adamek met Amilcar Cabral for the first time in November 1960. After a meal that the Czech spy described as pleasant and “very encouraging”, a report was sent to Prague and Moscow to emphasize the interest in “recruiting” this activist with pronounced Marxist leanings.

The affair seems all the better committed when Amilcar Cabral requests financial and logistical assistance from his new “friend” to prepare a rebellion against the Portuguese colonial power in Guinea. Moscow, eager to gain new allies, quickly gives the green light.

The new recruit “Secretary” is “enrolled” on the morning of August 13, 1961, perhaps without even realizing the reality: his entry into the world of espionage. Because “Alter”, his Czech friend Miroslav Adamek, never left his cover as a diplomat. And it is in this capacity, he explains to Amilcar Cabral, that in return for its financial support, Prague wants to obtain information about the independence movements in Africa.

The PAIGC leader was probably not an “agent” but rather a “secret contact” as the relationships were not as formalized as with an active agent.

Nevertheless, the collaboration was fruitful for both parties. Amilcar Cabral obtained money and weapons that helped make the PAIGC a force to be reckoned with. Her brother was able to study medicine at Lumumba University in Moscow, and her daughter Iva was admitted to a popular boarding school not far from the Russian capital.

On the other hand, Amilcar Cabral was Prague’s ears – and therefore Moscow – at international events such as conferences in non-aligned countries to which he was invited. It also allowed them to better refine their “who’s who” of the African liberation movements of the time.

This source of information dried up somewhat after the Prague Spring crackdown of 1968. Czech spies were less than enthusiastic about working for their big Russian brother, who had just sent tanks to Prague.

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