Russian Paramilitary Wagner Group Activities In Mali, The Sahel Risk Bolstering Jihadi Groups As The Company's Abuses Against Civilians Compound

By: Matt Schierer*
June 26, 2023
By: Matt Schierer*

The following report is now a complimentary offering from MEMRI's Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor (JTTM). For JTTM subscription information, click here. 

Following this weekend's coup attempt in Russia by the Wagner Group, we are republishing our extensive JTTM study from August 31, 2022 on Wagner activity in Mali, where it has been working for the country's military junta since December 2021. After it was announced that Wagner group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin would be relocating to Belarus, in a deal brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko,[1] Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on June 26, 2023 that the group will continue its operations in Mali and that the events of the past few days would not affect Russia's ties with "partners and friends."[2]

The Wagner Group – a Russian State-backed private military company (PMC) – has mounted a bloody campaign across Mali since December 2021, when the country's ruling military junta contracted its support to counter the growing Salafi-jihadi threat posed by Al-Qaeda's Sahelian affiliate, the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (GSIM),[3] and the Islamic State's Sahel Province (ISIS).

Alongside Malian forces, Wagner contractors have been implicated in a series of human rights abuses committed under the guise of counterterrorism operations, including the summary execution of approximately 300 civilians in March 2022, an atrocity considered by Human Rights Watch to be the worst in Mali's decade-long armed conflict.[4]

This recent increase in indiscriminate violence, augmented by the arrival of Wagner contractors to Mali, risks further exacerbating instability in the country, undermining the legitimacy of the government and security forces, and indirectly bolstering the standing of GSIM and ISIS among the local populace. Indeed, GSIM has already attempted to exploit Wagner-linked acts of violence against civilians to portray itself as the defender of local Muslims against victimization by corrupt Malian authorities in league with foreign mercenaries.

Yet, the Wagner Group's track record in Mali largely reflects the company's pattern of engagement in Africa, where it has provided an array of unscrupulous security services to successive African governments in exchange for compensation, often in the form of natural resource concessions to Wagner-linked Russian entities. Through these ventures, the company has demonstrated its willingness to forego human rights concerns in favor of economic gains and broader Russian geostrategic interests on the continent.

Compiling dozens of MEMRI JTTM reports and other open-source information, the following report firstly overviews the Wagner Group, documenting its origins, structure, and affiliation with Russian State actors. Then, it tracks the Wagner Group's growing presence in Africa, where the group has engaged in documented violence against civilians as it promotes its model of engagement from one country to the next. Finally, the report concludes by reviewing recent Wagner operations in Mali, including human rights abuses and escalating clashes with local Salafi-jihadi groups, including GSIM and ISIS. Looking ahead, the report forecasts the possibility of the Wagner Group's further expansion into neighboring Sahelian countries, an outcome which would further destabilize the region and likely embolden local jihadi groups.

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The Wagner Group's logo

The Wagner Group: Russian State-Backed Mercenaries

The Wagner Group is a Russian private military company (PMC) that offers an array of services – such as combat operations, military training, security, intelligence collection, political consulting, and information operations – to a global clientele comprising dozens of governments and militaries in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and beyond. It reportedly maintains a force of up to 5,000 contracted fighters.[5]

As an unregistered company in Russia, the Wagner Group operates outside the normal legal bounds which regulate the activities of other PMCs. It often deploys in secrecy to combat theatres and conflict zones, where it buttresses Russian and client forces, secures and guards natural resources sites, and covertly shores up political support for its clientele, which include autocratic African regimes. This, typically in exchange for lucrative concessions to Wagner-linked front companies to extract natural resources.

Origins, Structure, And Affiliations With The Russian State

Despite secrecy surrounding its command-and-control structure, the Wagner Group is almost certainly affiliated with the Russian State. Reportedly founded by Dmitry Utkin, a former special forces officer in Russia's Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), the Wagner Group first emerged during the 2014 Russian-Ukrainian Crisis, during which Utkin led a band of fighters under GRU control into battle against Ukrainian forces. Today, the Wagner Group retains ties with the GRU and Russian Ministry of Defense, as evidenced by a Wagner training base located near a GRU special operations facility in southern Russia.[6]

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A picture purporting to show Dimitry Utkin, founder of the Wagner Group.[7]

Moreover, the Wagner Group is also affiliated with the Kremlin via the company's patron and financier, Yevgniy Prigozhin. Known as "Putin's chef"[8] for his catering contracts with the Kremlin, Prigozhin first cultivated relations with Putin two decades ago as a restauranteur in St. Petersburg. Since then, he has also financed other ventures of strategic interest to Putin, such as the Internet Research Agency, an infamous "troll factory" indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice alongside Prigozhin for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.[9] Prighozhin is also sanctioned by the U.S., UK, and the European Union for his efforts to subvert U.S. democratic processes.[10]

Yevgeny Prigozhin, financier of the Wagner Group, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.[11]

The Wagner Group's Expanding Presence In Africa Facilitated By Russian State

The Wagner Group's unofficial ties to the Russian State help elucidate the PMC's activities in Africa, where it has steadily increased its presence since 2014. For Russia, the use of PMCs offers two strategic advantages: firstly, deploying contracted fighters to combat theatres – such as Ukraine, Syria, and Libya, where the Wagner Group has operated in a combat capacity – provides Moscow with plausible deniability and lessens the prospects of public backlash over combat fatalities. Secondly, relations cultivated between PMCs and the governments of states of strategic interest to Moscow can serve as entry points for wider bilateral cooperation.

The latter is particularly prescient in view of the Wagner Group's engagement in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the PMC has liaised with autocratic states – such as Sudan, the Central African Republic (CAR), and Mali, among others – all of which have had strained security relations with the West, face instability and domestic threats amplified by weak governance, and maintain a rich reserve of natural resources. In sum, such states present lucrative arenas both for the PMC itself – in the form of economic gain through natural resources concessions – as well as for the Russian State – in the form of geopolitical gains in its influence competition with the West.


Libya: Combat Support On The African Continent

The Wagner group deployed to Libya in 2018 to shore up support for Libyan National Army (LNA) General Khalifa Haftar during the Second Libyan Civil War. The PMC facilitated large-scale LNA offensives against the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) through engaging in direct combat, providing intelligence support, and training LNA forces.[12]

The deployment, which comprised at least 1,000 contracted fighters by 2020, but likely doubled thereafter, largely mirrored Wagner operations in previous combat arenas, most notably Syria. As with the Assad Regime, Wagner reportedly provided part of its security services to Haftar in exchange for Libyan energy concessions.[13] The PMC has been documented providing security at key oil and gas facilities in Libya, including Tobruk, Derna, Beghazi, and Sirte.[14]

The Wagner Group's presence in Libya has come at a cost to the civilian population. Beyond its direct combat role, The U.S. State Department reported that the PMC placed landmines and boobytraps while withdrawing from Tripoli in 2020, actions which in part accounted for more than 300 civilian casualties between May 2020 and March 2022.[15]

Sudan: Goldmining At The Expense Of Protesters

The Wagner Group has similarly done well in making inroads with African autocrats not engaged in active combat. For example, in Sudan – the first African nation the Wagner Group entered under a non-combat function – the PMC bartered political and military assistance to then-Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir for gold mining concessions, which – according to a March 2022 statement released by Troika diplomats – the company continues to exploit, despite Al-Bashir's ouster in 2020. "In Sudan, the Wagner Group... spreads disinformation on social media and engages in illicit activities connected to gold mining," the statement read.[16] Prior to the revolution, the PMC reportedly trained the country's repressive National Intelligence and Security Services as well as the police and military forces in protest suppression tactics.[17]

With Russian diplomats at the time facilitating the mining agreement, the deal also reportedly included the right for Russia to establish a naval base at Port Sudan on the country's Red Sea coast – a concession which further exemplifies the nexus of Wagner and Russian State interests. While the deal was suspended by Sudan's Transitional Military Council in 2020, the country's second-in-command, Mohammed "Hamedti" Dagalo, suggested in March 2022 that the Sudanese Defense Ministry is willing to consider resurrecting the agreement. "We have no problem dealing with Russia or anyone building a naval base along our Red Sea coast as long as it doesn't threaten our security interests," Dagalo said.[18]

Central African Republic (CAR): Infiltrating The Political And Security Landscape

Meanwhile, in the CAR, the Wagner Group has engaged in counterinsurgency operations alongside state security forces, launched information operations designed to undermine French influence in the country, and provided political consulting to CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadera.[19] Valery Zahkarov, a Russian national and former GRU official linked to Wagner financier Prigozhin, serves as Touadera's national security advisor – illustrating the extent to which the Wagner group and individuals associated with it have enmeshed themselves in the CAR's political and security landscape.

Yet, the Wagner Group's growing presence in Africa has often come at a cost to local populations. In the CAR, Wagner-linked atrocities have grown manifold; they include accusations of sexual abuse of local women and girls,[20] a February 2021 attack in which Wagner fighters reportedly killed six civilians at a mosque,[21] and other "excessive use of force, indiscriminate killing, the occupation of schools, and looting on a large scale, including of humanitarian organizations," according to a UN Security Council report issued in June 2021.[22]

The Wagner Group In Mali: Spiraling Violence

The Wagner Group's entry into Mali emulated in large part the group's broader pattern of engagement in Africa. The PMC first deployed to Mali in December 2021 as part of a deal to train Malian forces and provide counterterrorism support. In exchange, Wagner would receive a $10 million monthly stipend and gold-mining concessions in the south of Mali.[23] France 24 released "exclusive photos" in January 2022 reportedly documenting the presence of a contingent of Wagner fighters in the south-central Malian town of Segou.[24]

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For Mali's military junta, the Wagner group presented an opportunity to offset the security void left behind by a French withdrawal of forces from the country – a void which the Russian State was eager to fill. In a precursor to the deal, Russia's top diplomat, Sergei Lavrov, courted members of the junta, inviting them to Moscow and offering a tour of Wagner services, according to Western security officials. Since then, Mali has witnessed pro-Russian demonstrations demanding greater cooperation with Moscow.[25]

As in other African countries, such as CAR, the Wagner Group's deployment in Mali was further preluded by targeted pro-Russian disinformation campaigns. The social media campaigns, cited by the U.S. State Department in May 2022, aimed at promoting Russia as a "viable partner" and "alternative to the West" in Mali.[26]

Malian protesters hold up pro-Russian placards at a January 14, 2022 demonstration.[27]

The Wagner Group's Track Record In Mali

The Wagner Group reportedly operates from a base at Bamako airport and is said to maintain around 1,000 fighters in the country.[28] As in other African countries, the group's presence in Mali has compounded violence against civilians. The PMC regularly accompanies Malian forces on combat operations, which are purported to target "terrorists," but which often bear on civilians.

On January 14, 2022, Malian forces, buttressed by apparent Wagner fighters, reportedly killed five civilians in Feto and Wouro Gnaga, in the country's Segou region. Human Rights Watch reported that the victims included two senior citizens, one of whom was burned to death insider her home.[29]

On March 2, 2022, residents near Danguere Wotoro, also in the Segou region, discovered 35 charred bodies, some of whom had likely been bound and executed. A man who had been detained in the area prior to the incident attested that around 30 men were removed from their cells a day prior. While interned, he described suffering abuse:

"I was one of 16 traders the army arrested at an animal market in mid-February, and while I was being held in the Diabaly army camp, many other prisoners were brought in. I and many others were beaten terribly by Malian and a few white soldiers speaking a language I'd never heard. [...] Many of us were tortured," he recounted.[30]

Between March 27-31, 2022, Malian forces and Wagner fighters conducted a supposed counterterrorism operation in the town of Moura in the country's Mopti region, during which they jointly executed around 300 civilians in an attack described by Human Rights Watch as a "massacre" and the "worst single atrocity reported in Mali's decade-long armed conflict."[31] For its part, the Malian government denied the accusations, claiming instead that 203 jihadis were killed.[32]

Regions of Mali (source:

However, the alleged target of the Moura massacre and other supposed counterterrorism operations – Al-Qaeda's affiliate GSIM – has disputed the government's account of the Moura incident, condemning the Wagner Group for its involvement in civilian abuse and pledging reprisal.

In a June 2022 video address, GSIM leader Amadou Koufa threatened the Malian Government and the Wagner Group, accusing them of massacring civilians at Moura and elsewhere.

"Bamako's authorities, which are fighting Allah and the Muslims, can no longer deny the fact that the criminal Wagner gang is present on Malian soil," Koufa declared, claiming that only 30 "mujahideen" were in fact present in Moura at the time of the massacre.[33]

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GSIM leader Amadou Koufa delivering the June 2022 video address.

GSIM: "You Hire Mercenaries, It Is Our Right To Destroy You"

GSIM has indeed inflicted losses on the Wagner Group since its deployment to Mali, raising the risk of spiraling violence in the country. MEMRI JTTM has published six reports documenting recent attacks of reprisal against Wagner fighters in the country, both by GSIM and, in at least one case, by ISIS.

On April 24, 2022, GSIM's media arm, the Al-Zallaqa Foundation, released a statement in Arabic, English, and French claiming that its operatives captured a Wagner Group fighter in the country's Segou region. The statement referenced the Moura massacre, noting that the "Wagner criminal group" and Malian forces "killed hundreds of innocents after besieging the town for five days.[34]

On July 23, 2022, GSIM claimed responsibility for a series of attacks days prior which targeted Malian forces in various parts of the country. According to the claim, one of the attacks – a suicide attack – was carried out "in defense of the oppressed and in revenge of the weak who were killed by the Malian army and the Wagner Group." The claim further noted: "As it is your right to hire mercenaries to kill unarmed innocents, it is our right to destroy you and target you."[35]

Later, on July 29, 2022, the Al-Zallaqa Foundation published a claim of responsibility for a July 27 attack on a Malian army barracks in Kaloumba, Mali. The statement claimed that the attack came in response to repeated calls for attacks made by "oppressed believers" across Mali.

"Dark days continue to afflict the criminal Malian army and the foreign mercenaries who caused havoc in the land and killed hundreds of innocent people in Nara, Dugofry, Moura, Hombori, and across all regions of the country," the statement read.[36]

In August 2022, GSIM appeared to further escalate its campaign of reprisal against the Wagner Group, claiming no less than five attacks against the PMC. In mid-August, the Al-Zallaqa Foundation published a claim of responsibility for an August 7 IED attack targeting a Malian army tank and the "mercenary" Wagner Group in the country's Mopti region, as well as an August 13 attack which reportedly killed four Wagner fighters in Mali's Macina region. The media arm subsequently released photos documenting the aftermath of the August 13 attack, including some showing traces of bloodstained ground and abandoned motorcycles. [37]

Later, on August 25, Al-Zallaqa reported multiple GSIM operations targeting the Wagner Group in Mali's Boni region, including an August 16 IED attack, an August 17 assault, and clashes on August 21, during which GSIM operatives reportedly seized Wagner Group motorcycles.[38]

ISIS Claims To Down Wagner Aircraft

ISIS in the Sahel has also claimed to target the Wagner Group in Mali. On July 18, 2022, ISIS's Amaq News Agency released a video clip reportedly showing the "downing of a patrol plane belonging to the Russian Wagner Group militia" on July 16.[39]

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The following day, on July 19, the pro-ISIS Murhafat Foundation shared a poster on Telegram featuring a screenshot from Amaq News Agency's video. The poster's text read: "The Russian Wagner militias also get their share of the fire of the soldiers of the Caliphate."[40]

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Outlook: Further Wagner Expansion Bodes Ill For Sahel Region

The Wagner Group's deployment to Mali is only the latest in a series of bloody interventions made by the state-backed PMC in Africa. The company's operations across the continent, fostered by the Russian State, have consistently exacerbated instability and amplified civilian abuse, whether directly at the hands of Wagner fighters or indirectly via the company's disregard for violence perpetrated by its State clients. This, as demonstrated in Libya, Sudan, the CAR, Mali, and elsewhere.

Nonetheless, since 2014 the Wagner Group has greatly expanded its footprint in Africa, exporting its model of engagement from one country to the next, providing violent and unencumbered security and combat services to successive autocratic regimes in exchange for economic gain and geopolitical influence for the motherland.

As such, the Wagner Group's now-established foothold in Mali poses the risk of further forays into neighboring Sahelian countries, in particular Burkina Faso. The PMC could employ information operations to inspire popular distrust of the country's traditional security partners, while simultaneously luring Ouagadougou's newly installed military leaders with pledges of unbridled political and military support. Indeed, supporters of Burkina's Faso's January 2022 military coup have already this year taken to the streets in pro-Russian demonstrations calling for greater cooperation with Moscow in lieu of France.[41]

Further Wagner Group expansion in Mali or neighboring countries would not only bode ill for the region's stability, but could also indirectly bolster the standing of Salafi-jihadi groups, especially should the PMC's presence continue to amplify civilian violence. As one Malian attested: "We live in fear. Wagner is much more feared than the terrorists, in fact. Terrorists have never come to decimate a market. What hurts in these massacres is that we, the population, have become a toy between the forces: the terrorists, on one side, the armies on the other side. It's really outrageous. My anger is great."[42]

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Burkinabe protesters celebrate the country's January 2022 military takeover while waving Russian flags.


*Matt Schierer is a research fellow at MEMRI JTTM Project.

[1], June 24, 2023

[2], June 26, 2023

[3] GSIM is also referred to as JNIM, Jamaat Nusrat Al-Islam wal Muslimin.





















[24], January 13, 2022.








[32] Twitter, FAMa_DIRPA, April 2, 2022.

[38] Chirpwire, August 25, 2022.

[40] Telegram, July 19, 2022.



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