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How Russia’s Wagner Group Is Fueling Terrorism in Africa

Moscow’s scramble for valuable resources has come at the cost of regional security.

By , the director of research at the Soufan Group and a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center.
People fleeing violence in Mali walk through the weekly market in the M'Berra refugee camp in Bassikounou, Mauritania, on June 7, 2022.
People fleeing violence in Mali walk through the weekly market in the M'Berra refugee camp in Bassikounou, Mauritania, on June 7, 2022.
People fleeing violence in Mali walk through the weekly market in the M'Berra refugee camp in Bassikounou, Mauritania, on June 7, 2022. GUY PETERSON/AFP via Getty Images

Speaking before the United Nations Security Council this month, James Kariuki, Britain’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, warned of the “destabilizing role the Wagner Group plays” in the Sahel, a conflict-ridden stretch of territory spanning western and north-central Africa, from Senegal to Sudan. Speaking of the Kremlin-linked private military contractor, Kariuki concluded, “They are part of the problem, not the solution.”

From human rights abuses to a rapacious approach to natural resource extraction, stabilizing countries where it operates—Sudan, Central African Republic, Mali—has never been the Wagner Group’s objective. Instead, the Kremlin’s mercenaries are deployed abroad in a transactional manner, tasked with providing security to kleptocratic regimes in return for access to valuable commodities, including gold, diamonds, uranium, and other precious resources.

According to the 2022 Global Terrorism Index, 48 percent of all terrorism deaths worldwide occurred in sub-Saharan Africa, with three of the top 10 countries with the largest increases in terrorism-related deaths located in the Sahel: Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. The region also remains awash in weapons, with the proliferation of the smuggling and trafficking of small arms and light weapons further destabilizing the Sahel.

Speaking before the United Nations Security Council this month, James Kariuki, Britain’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, warned of the “destabilizing role the Wagner Group plays” in the Sahel, a conflict-ridden stretch of territory spanning western and north-central Africa, from Senegal to Sudan. Speaking of the Kremlin-linked private military contractor, Kariuki concluded, “They are part of the problem, not the solution.”

From human rights abuses to a rapacious approach to natural resource extraction, stabilizing countries where it operates—Sudan, Central African Republic, Mali—has never been the Wagner Group’s objective. Instead, the Kremlin’s mercenaries are deployed abroad in a transactional manner, tasked with providing security to kleptocratic regimes in return for access to valuable commodities, including gold, diamonds, uranium, and other precious resources.

According to the 2022 Global Terrorism Index, 48 percent of all terrorism deaths worldwide occurred in sub-Saharan Africa, with three of the top 10 countries with the largest increases in terrorism-related deaths located in the Sahel: Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. The region also remains awash in weapons, with the proliferation of the smuggling and trafficking of small arms and light weapons further destabilizing the Sahel.

Furthermore, in a report released last week, the United Nations said the U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali “documented violations of international humanitarian and human rights law allegedly committed during military operations conducted by the Malian armed forces, accompanied by foreign security personnel”—in what was an oblique reference to Wagner.

Research that examines best practices and lessons learned from all insurgencies waged between the end of World War II and 2009 suggests that the Wagner Group’s approach in Africa is likely to further destabilize the countries where it operates. Historically, collective and escalating repression against insurgents as well as a singular focus on kinetic operations have failed to quell conflicts and, more often than not, have prolonged them rather than contributing toward their cessation. The Sahel is no exception. There are three primary ways in which Wagner’s presence will directly affect the terrorist threat emanating from the region.

First, human rights abuses perpetrated by Wagner Group forces are likely to contribute to grievances among the population, which in turn provide fertile ground for terrorist groups like al Qaeda-linked Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin and the Islamic State Sahel Province to recruit new members, providing much-needed resources to these organizations. In Mali, Wagner’s forces have been accused of mass atrocities, torture, summary executions, and other brutal crimes. Since December 2021, more than 2,000 civilians have been killed in Mali, compared with 500 individuals over the previous year. In the Central African Republic, Wagner has been implicated in instances of forced disappearances, rape, and extrajudicial killings.

Since private military contractors will not be held accountable for any of these crimes, as the states where they are operating have weak investigative capabilities and judicial systems that are not independent, the sense of impunity is only likely to incentivize further marauding. Moreover, there is still a gray area regarding where private military contractors fit in terms of accountability and international law, as they are neither civilians nor lawful combatants to conflict. And as Wagner forces suffer significant casualties fighting in Ukraine, reporting suggests that Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group, has lowered standards to the point where he is now deliberately recruiting convicts and felons directly from Russian prisons. By adding violent criminals to its ranks, Wagner Group ensures future anomie in areas where its members operate.

Second, Wagner’s transactional relationships with Sahelian governments will further delegitimize these regimes in the eyes of the population. Over the past several years, there have been military coups in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Chad. Legitimate governments maintain a monopoly on the use of violence, enforce the rule of law, and provide basic services to their citizens. Countries where the Wagner Group operates do none of these things, which emboldens terrorists, insurgents, and violent extremists seeking to supplant the government or operate in parallel. Wagner’s assistance comes with no strings attached, so African dictators need not concern themselves with lectures about human rights, anti-corruption initiatives, and good governance.

Russian diplomats have interfered and meddled in the politics of the countries where Wagner is deployed. In the Central African Republic, Russian government officials insisted that President Faustin-Archange Touadéra abolish constitutional restrictions on presidential term limits. Wagner-backed disinformation campaigns and influence operations in sub-Saharan Africa also whip up anti-Western sentiment among local populations, further distorting already complex political dynamics. Wagner operatives have even advised dictators on how to run social media campaigns to crush democratic movements.

Third, since Wagner mercenaries are only providing security cooperation along purely kinetic lines—eschewing good practices of counterinsurgency training, such as strengthening the rule of law, promoting good governance, and establishing an independent judiciary—any perceived security gains will be fleeting. Accordingly, the Wagner Group’s presence has energized jihadi groups, which have seized and sought to control territory throughout the region. This has given both Islamic State and al Qaeda affiliates greater freedom of maneuver and space to operate.

The situation has been exacerbated by the Western pivot from counterterrorism to great-power competition as well as the drawdown and relocation of U.S. and French troops from the region, leaving a power vacuum that the Wagner Group has been eager to fill. The result of more Wagner activity in sub-Saharan Africa will be spillover violence into previously unaffected countries, including Togo, Benin, Senegal, and Ivory Coast. Levels of violence considered beyond the pale will accelerate the movement of internally displaced persons, which can often fuel grievances among the region’s patchwork of ethnic and religious groups.

It’s unlikely that Moscow views its involvement in Africa through the lens of long-term security interests. On the contrary, the Wagner Group has acted in a predatory manner, siphoning resources in exchange for security. Once the resources and minerals are depleted, Russia will withdraw, leaving behind a volatile region that could develop into a safe haven and sanctuary for jihadi groups.

Washington, Paris, and their allies should reconsider their respective military drawdowns from the Sahel. By ceding ground to the Wagner Group, the West is opening the door for Moscow to consolidate influence in the region while simultaneously making the region more dangerous.

Colin P. Clarke is the director of research at the Soufan Group, an intelligence and security consulting firm headquartered in New York City. He is also a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, an independent nonprofit center offering research, analysis, and strategic dialogue on global security challenges and foreign-policy issues. Twitter: @ColinPClarke

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