Russian Mercenaries Staged Atrocities in Mali, France Says

The French military watched what appeared to be Wagner operatives attempting a false-flag operation to discredit the West.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Presumed operatives of the Russian mercenary Wagner Group, accompanied by a Malian soldier (far left), near Gossi in Mali on April 20
Presumed operatives of the Russian mercenary Wagner Group, accompanied by a Malian soldier (far left), near Gossi in Mali on April 20
Presumed operatives of the Russian mercenary Wagner Group, accompanied by Malian troops, near Gossi in Mali on April 20. The French Armed Forces have accused them of staging a mass grave in a bid to discredit France’s forces. French Armed Forces

The French military has accused Russian mercenaries in Mali of staging a mass grave using real bodies in an apparent attempt to frame French forces and discredit Paris’s counterterrorism operation in the region. 

Images gathered by an intelligence overflight conducted by the French Armed Forces last week and shared with Foreign Policy show around a dozen white men in combat fatigues—thought to be operatives from the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group—shoveling sand over a pile of bodies partially buried near the site of the former French military base in Gossi. 

The images were gathered just days after France handed control of the base over to the Malian Armed Forces as part of its military withdrawal from the country, following nearly 10 years of counterterrorism operations. A French military source said the bodies are thought to be real and may have been taken from the town of Hombori in northern Mali, where reports have emerged of human rights abuses being committed by Malian troops traveling with foreign fighters, thought to be from Wagner. 

The French military has accused Russian mercenaries in Mali of staging a mass grave using real bodies in an apparent attempt to frame French forces and discredit Paris’s counterterrorism operation in the region. 

Images gathered by an intelligence overflight conducted by the French Armed Forces last week and shared with Foreign Policy show around a dozen white men in combat fatigues—thought to be operatives from the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group—shoveling sand over a pile of bodies partially buried near the site of the former French military base in Gossi. 

The images were gathered just days after France handed control of the base over to the Malian Armed Forces as part of its military withdrawal from the country, following nearly 10 years of counterterrorism operations. A French military source said the bodies are thought to be real and may have been taken from the town of Hombori in northern Mali, where reports have emerged of human rights abuses being committed by Malian troops traveling with foreign fighters, thought to be from Wagner. 

Foreign Policy has reviewed a series of images shared by the French Armed Forces but is unable to independently verify them. However, several current and former U.S. officials who track Russia’s presence in West Africa said the images track with the pattern of how Russian-backed mercenaries operate in conflict zones, including their role in committing atrocities against civilians and launching propaganda campaigns to undercut adversaries and garner public favor.

“Perhaps what is most surprising is not that the Russians tried such a false-flag operation but how amateurish and sloppy it was,” said J. Peter Pham, a former U.S. special envoy for the Sahel region. “It does not augur well for the operational competence of the personnel deployed to Mali by Wagner—or whatever organization sent them—much less their strategic sense.” 

A French intelligence overflight captured footage of around a dozen people, assessed to be Russian mercenaries, covering a pile of bodies 2.5 miles east of a former French military base in Gossi, Mali, on April 21. French Armed Forces

The French decision to rapidly disclose the images comes as Western countries, most prominently the United States, are increasingly declassifying and sharing intelligence assessments about Russian activities in Ukraine in a bid to expose Moscow’s plans and rob it of the ability to operate in the shadows. In Ukraine, Western officials and researchers have warned that Russian forces may stage a false-flag operation as a pretext to escalate the conflict. Repeated and unfounded Russian allegations that the United States and Ukraine are developing chemical and biological weapons has led U.S. officials to warn that Moscow may be laying the groundwork to justify its own use of chemical weapons. 

Ahead of the transfer of control over the military base, French intelligence assessed that Wagner forces might attempt to stage a disinformation operation, according to the French military source, and dispatched an intelligence overflight to monitor the area. On April 20, they observed the dozen or so white men in combat fatigues—presumed to be Wagner mercenaries—unloading equipment at the base in Gossi, accompanied by Malian troops. 

The next day, drone footage taken a few miles east of Gossi showed the same men gathered around a pile of bodies, covering them in sand, while one man was seen filming the corpses. Later that day, a Twitter account known to French analysts to have previously published false allegations in support of Russian activity in the country released a graphic close-up video of the bodies, with the caption: “A video that shows lifeless bodies near the base on Gossi. For those who have any doubts.” The Twitter account has since been closed down.

The Malian Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment. The Russian Embassy in Washington also did not respond to a request for comment.

Western officials estimate that around 1,000 Wagner forces have been deployed to Mali at the invitation of the country’s military junta since December 2021. They arrived as French and European countries began scaling back their involvement in the country, as disputes mounted between European powers and the military junta and public support for the mission began flagging in both France and Mali. The ruling junta expelled France’s ambassador in Mali in January after Paris criticized the military coup, and a month later, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that French troops would withdraw from the country. 

While Mali continues to grapple with a very real terrorist threat, the introduction of Wagner forces, which have a long track record of reported involvement in atrocities, is likely to further undermine the security situation in the country. Two U.S. and European defense officials said the Russian force, in both size and its military effectiveness, would not be enough to fill the vacuum left by the European withdrawal. 

“It underscores that, having seen off the Europeans, the Malian Armed Forces ultimately will have to win on their own—a reality that perhaps the prolonged French-led intervention shielded them from having to face,” Pham said.

Russia’s new military presence in Mali follows the pattern of another of its campaigns for influence in Central Africa, where Russian mercenaries have been deployed to the politically unstable Central African Republic since at least 2017. A 2021 report for the U.N. Security Council determined that Russian mercenaries deployed in CAR committed atrocities during military operations there, including indiscriminately killing civilians and looting. Russian officials denied those reports. At the same time, Moscow has sought to use propaganda, including Russian-produced films in the country, to garner support for its presence and strengthen its ties with President Faustin-Archange Touadéra’s government.

Russia has sought to shore up its flailing military offensive in Ukraine by withdrawing troops as well as mercenaries and foreign fighters from other conflict zones where it maintains a footprint, including Syria, Libya, and CAR. However, Western officials assess that the number of Russian troops and mercenaries deployed to Mali hasn’t changed, and their presence has even been bolstered by recent deliveries of Mi-35M attack helicopters and advanced air radar systems. 

Human Rights Watch released a report this month accusing Malian forces and associated foreign soldiers of massacring an estimated 300 civilian men in central Mali in March, purportedly during counterterrorism operations. Some of the eyewitnesses of the incident believed the foreign troops were Russian.

Mali has been embroiled in violent crisis since 2012 amid a rise in violent jihadi groups and armed insurrection movements that were fueled by grievances over the country’s poor governance structures and local conflicts. France first deployed forces to Mali in 2013 to conduct counterterrorism operations and stabilize the country, alongside other European countries and a large U.N. peacekeeping mission. The international intervention has not stemmed the tide of terrorism, however, as groups stepped up attacks and spread south and east to neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger. 

The number of violent attacks in the Sahel in 2021 shot up 70 percent—to more than 2,000 incidents—compared with 2020, according to a report released by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in January. Two extremist groups, the al Qaeda-linked Macina Liberation Front and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, were responsible for a majority of the attacks.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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