A constellation of Israeli firms, businessmen and consultants with a long-standing foothold in Africa are leveraging their connections to local corridors of power, to indirectly serve the interests of their country. This brand of back-channel diplomacy is thriving – and thoroughly devoid of transparency.
In early October this year, a military delegation from Sudan made a discreet visit to Israel. Sudanese officials – including Lieutenant-General Mirghani Idris Suleiman, head of the state-run Defense Industries System (DIS) – met with their Israeli counterparts for two days. The visit proved controversial because in Sudan, like in other African countries, the establishment and normalisation of relations with Israel is a hotly contested issue.
Though the opening of Israel’s first consulate on the continent, in Ghana, which dates back to 1957, the nation’s relations with Africa have especially flourished in the last 10 years, driven by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2009-2020).
His Africa policy oscillated, however, between assertive action and reluctance.
“Although the Israeli leader has undoubtedly achieved some milestones regarding the recognition of his country by almost all African states, he has not yet succeeded to fill these relationships with tangible content. Netanyahu has chosen not to provide his diplomatic corps with sufficient financial resources to further strengthen its involvement in Africa and has thereby failed to deploy his political gains by enhancing his influence on the continent,” Benjamin Augé, an associate research fellow at the French Institute for International Relations (Ifri), said in a November 2020 report.
Lurking beyond surface-level diplomatic relations between states is a somewhat darker underside to Israel’s relationship with Africa – one that stretches from Abidjan to Yaoundé.
Businessmen, a wide array of consultants, and firms with long-established operations on the continent form a system of back-channel diplomacy and its players indirectly serve the interests of their home country. They are Eran Moas, Gaby Peretz, Didier Sabag, Orland Barak, Hubert Haddad, Eran Romano and Igal Cohen.
They have access to African presidents and expertise in areas like intelligence, surveillance, cybersecurity and the arms trade, while acting as a gateway for Israeli companies to expand to Africa.
Some companies and business leaders set up shop in Africa to develop agricultural projects, and then later branched out into the security field because African states approached them for help.
Israeli firms have dominated the wiretapping and electronic surveillance market in sub-Saharan Africa for several years now. The most well-known outfits are Verint and NSO Group, the latter of which was founded by Shalev Hulio and whose star product is the spyware software Pegasus.
Others are Mer Group, which operates in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – providing services to its national intelligence agency – as well as in Guinea, Nigeria and the Republic of Congo, and Elbit Systems, which is present in Angola, Ethiopia, Nigeria and South Africa.
These firms’ main selling point are their close ties with the Israeli army and intelligence services. Many of their employees previously served in the Israel Defence Forces’ cyber-warfare-focused Unit 8200. This is true of Shabtai Shavit, who runs the Mer Group subsidiary Athena GS3 and was the director of Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, from 1989 to 1996.
Shavit is more than well acquainted with Africa, having fostered relations between the intelligence services of Israel, Zaire under Mobutu Sese Seko’s rule and Cameroon. Verint, for its part, is headed by Dan Bodner, a former Israeli army officer.
Approached by African states
“Some companies and business leaders set up shop in Africa to develop agricultural projects, and then later branched out into the security field because African states approached them for help,” a source familiar with the continent’s cybersecurity sector tells The Africa Report.
While these firms have actual ties to Israel’s intelligence services, some don’t hesitate to oversell them. “There are lots of wild ideas about this supposed proximity. Yes, it’s true that most systems developers served in Unit 8200, but apart from that, the Israeli government doesn’t necessarily have a direct connection with them and uses equipment that’s even more up-to-date than what they offer. Sometimes these firms end up treading on Mossad’s toes, but the agency doesn’t rely on them for African intel,” says an Israeli businessman working in the continental space.
In sharp contrast to this strategy, other companies choose to play down their Israeli connection altogether, so as to gain entry to markets in countries whose governments have yet to normalise diplomatic relations with Israel.
Such an approach was adopted by a firm that was in attendance at the Milipol Paris security conference in late October. The company recently supplied Nigeria’s government with a phone-tracking system. Incorporated in Canada and with production in Bangladesh, the firm’s management are nonetheless based in Tel Aviv.[H5] In 2018, the company approached the intelligence services of a certain north African country which cut off contact upon discovering its Israeli origins.