In March this year, a drone plummeted through the sky and into the dense bush of Cabo Delgado province in Mozambique, landing at the feet of members of the Mozambique Defence Armed Forces (FADM). The FADM had successfully scrambled the signal being transmitted from the drone’s controller, thwarting operations by Islamist insurgent group al-Shabab (no relation to the Somali group).
Al-Shabab, which began terrorising the province in 2017, has employed the use of drones at various times since 2020. But the use of signal jamming technology was new for the FADM. Al-Shabab’s brutal attack on Palma town in March 2021 not only resulted in boots-on-the-ground support from regional actors and the international community, but also spurred improvements in the FADM’s technological capabilities. And as the growing terrorism threat across countries portends the destabilisation of large parts of the continent’s subregions, other governments in Africa are adding this type of technology to their arsenals.
Studies show that across the globe, including in Africa, the use of aerial drones by nonstate actors, including terrorists, has increased every year since 2015. Terrorist groups favour their use for intelligence collection, explosive delivery (dropping explosives, direct drone impact, or drones equipped with rocket launchers) and chemical weapons delivery.
This increasing sophistication has coincided with these groups’ expansion across Africa. The Islamic State (IS) now has six official provinces in Africa, including Libya, Algeria, Egypt (Sinai Peninsula), West Africa (Lake Chad), the Sahel, Somalia, Mozambique, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC); Boko Haram operates in Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger; and al-Qaeda has an estimated 76 active cells across West, North and East Africa. In 2021, sub-Saharan Africa accounted for almost half of all terrorism deaths worldwide.
Drones are not difficult to obtain – images of the captured drone in Mozambique showed a device commonly available to consumers – making it clear that signal blocking devices are an increasingly necessary part of any government’s security arsenal. But what happens when the use of such technology goes beyond the legitimate fight against terrorism?
A suspicious event
In South Africa in February 2015, then-president Jacob Zuma (2009-18) stood in parliament ready to deliver that year’s State of the Nation Address (SONA). Before he could begin, members of parliament (MPs) and the media announced that it appeared that all mobile devices in the building had been blocked. Proceedings were disrupted for 15 minutes before signal was restored and SONA could begin.
The State Security Agency (SSA) tried to explain it away as an operational error, stating it had employed signal blocking technology that evening to guard against “the threat of hidden explosive devices within the vicinity that could be activated by a radio signal or a cellphone, including devices that might be carried on remote-controlled drones”. But the excuse was flimsy, especially as it occurred alongside a limit on the broadcast of footage of Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) MPs being ejected from parliament after heckling Zuma at SONA. It also came amid increasing criticism of the media by Zuma administration.
The proceeding court action declared parliament’s use of signal blockers unlawful and unconstitutional. Specific reference was made to the limits it placed on media freedom and in tandem, democratic freedom: any curtailment of journalists’ ability to disseminate information in real time from parliament was effectively a limit on citizen participation in the democratic process.
South Africa’s robust democratic institutions and vocal civil society ensured this incident did not go unscrutinised. But it also showed that technology meant to protect the state against external threats is open to manipulation. In Africa, where 12 countries shut down the internet 19 times in 2021, this has the potential to be weaponised against the populations it is meant to protect.
A different problem
For governments with a penchant for censorship, signal jamming technology in the hands of their security forces offers a much more insidious way to limit the dissemination of information and stifle citizen voices. Of course, it is much more constrained in its reach than blanket shutdowns, as the technology must be employed within the vicinity of the signal it seeks to disrupt. But it provides a much less obvious way to disrupt the spread of information at anti-government protests and opposition rallies.
Media freedom is often under threat across Africa. Internet shutdown offenders in 2021 included Burkina Faso, Chad, Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Gabon, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, South Sudan, eSwatini, Uganda and Zambia. In terrorism-afflicted countries like Mozambique, Mali, and Benin, the intimidation of journalists is a frequent occurrence.
Private military contractors (PMCs) have this technology in their arsenal, too. In December 2019 in Libya, a Turkish drone in support of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) was brought down by the Libyan National Army (LNA), a group of militias competing for national power. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan openly accused PMC the Wagner Group (Wagner) of interference.
Wagner is no stranger to controversy. The accusation by the US that Wagner planted landmines in Libya and Sudan is one of the most striking examples of how PMCs do not operate in the interest of democracy – and even actively undermine it by exacerbating existing conflict.
To fight terrorism, some governments in Africa employ PMCs – particularly those with weak militaries. Mozambique has previously enlisted Wagner and the South African Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), while Wagner is believed to also be active in Mali and the Central African Republic. These groups’ indiscriminate use of signal jamming technology has wider ramifications for unstable environments where democracy has yet to take a firm foothold.
Marisa Lourenço (@marisalourenco) is a political analyst based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Her analysis on developments in Africa is regularly featured in local and international media. She currently works as an independent consultant advising organisations operating in the southern Africa subregion.