Africa dossier: the deployment of the Wagner group in Mali threatens the efforts to fight terrorism

Africa dossier: the deployment of the Wagner group in Mali threatens the efforts to fight terrorism

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader’s awareness.]

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To remember : The Wagner Group, a private Russian military company, has deployed in Mali. Wagner’s activities are likely to exacerbate popular grievances and accelerate the deterioration of counterterrorism pressure in Mali, allowing Salafi-jihadist groups to strengthen.

Figure 1. The Salafist-Jihadist movement in Africa: January 2022

See the full map.

Source: authors.

Read an overview of the Salafi-jihadist threat in Africa here.

The Wagner Group is active in Mali. The Wagner group deployed staff in Mali in November and December 2021, arriving in the capital, Bamako. Wagner personnel deployed to central and northern Mali in early January 2022. Wagner forces clashed* with members of the Malian branch of al-Qaeda, Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM), in the Mopti region in central Mali on January 3. Wagner’s probable forces busy a base in Timbuktu on January 6 following November 30 Departure* French troops from Operation Barkhane. The Malian government has indicated that Russian personnel form Malian troops at the base in Timbuktu.

Figure 2. The Wagner group deploys in Mali as French troops withdraw

Source: AEI Critical Threats Project and Andrew Lebovich, “Mapping Armed Groups in Mali and the Sahel: Operation Barkhane”, European Council on Foreign Relations, May 2019, https://ecfr.eu/special/sahel_mapping/.

The activities of the Wagner group are likely to exacerbate popular grievances which allow JNIM to gain a foothold in northern and central Mali. JNIM has exploited cyclical intercommunal violence and abuses by the security forces to spread into central Mali in recent years. Wagner’s forces deployed in other African conflicts have inflamed pre-existing conflicts and allegedly engaged Human rights abuse. Wagner’s forces in Mali risk repeating this pattern either through their interactions with the local populations or their formation of Malian military units which were accused human rights violations.

The Wagner group may also exacerbate popular grievances by engaging* in the mining sector of Mali. Local Malian armed groups dominate the mining sector and can challenge Wagner’s foray, particularly in the north. Grievances over the control of mining and the treatment of local populations can also create opportunities for JNIM and other Salafist-jihadist groups to gain popular support and access to mining benefits, mirroring the trend in neighboring Burkina Faso.

The presence of the Wagner group will accelerate the deterioration of anti-terrorist pressure in Mali for the benefit of Salafist-jihadist groups. Wagner’s deployment in northern Mali will complicate the backfill* the departure of French forces from Operation Barkhane by Task Force Takuba, a European special operations task force. European forces are unlikely to train Malian army units already in partnership with Wagner or conduct operations in close proximity to Wagner forces. Wagner’s presence also helps preserve the Malian junta, whose relations with regional security partners deteriorate as Mali’s coup plotters resist* a democratic transition. These tensions are likely to undermine the joint operations of the G5-Sahel joint force. JNIM will likely exploit any backlash from Wagner’s presence and diminishing counterterrorism pressure to strengthen its influence and expand its efforts to rule in northern and central Mali.

Read “Mali-Wagner Group Agreement Threatens Counterterrorism Gains in the Sahel” for a more in-depth analysis of deteriorating counterterrorism pressure in Mali.