cover image: The Wagner Group in the Central Sahel: Decolonization or Destabilization?


The Wagner Group in the Central Sahel: Decolonization or Destabilization?

20 Dec 2023

Since 2012, the central Sahel region has been plagued by protracted insurgencies: in northern and central Mali, al-Qaeda affiliate Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM) and its affiliate Katiba Macina carry out almost daily attacks, whereas the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) more commonly targets northern Burkina Faso and western Niger.1 Despite drastically transforming their counterinsurgency approach in the past two years, the three Sahelian countries have yet to contain the longstanding conflict. As violent jihadist groups remain undeterred, the counterterrorism response from the central Sahel trio has shifted towards Russia and away from the West. This report explores the implications of the presence of the Wagner Group, a Kremlinbased private military company (PMC), across the multiple conflict theatres of the central Sahel and determine whether the PMC has increased or deteriorated security across the region. Initially, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger enlisted support from France, their former colonial power. In January 2013, France launched Operation Sérval, a successful mission that significantly contained the violent extremist threat in Mali’s north. Operation Sérval transitioned into Operation Barkhane in August 2014. Barkhane, which encompassed not only Mali but the former French colonies of Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, and Mauritania, lacked a clear counterterrorism direction and resulted in a protracted occupation of the region. 2 Although France continued to revise and expand their military and development operations across the Sahel, violent extremists persisted, leading to an ongoing—and in Mali’s case, a decade-long— overlapping insurgency. Following the removal of French forces, the Wagner Group, has attempted to fill the security gap left by France and the United Nations. By aligning with Wagner, the central Sahel will limit itself to military responses as the only remedy for violent extremism. Wagner’s counterinsurgency strategy lacks the infrastructure and long-term development initiatives that were incorporated into both the French and the U.N.’s counter-extremism programs and peacekeeping missions in the central Sahel.19 Decades of research on insurgencies and experience has demonstrated the need for a multi-disciplinary approach, encompassing both kinetic campaigns and developmental programs, to sustainably and safely contain violent extremism.20 An exclusively militaristic response is often counterproductive and results in a very high number of civilian casualties. Wagner’s track record is notably bloody and lacking in clear success stories. But the PMC continues to establish itself as an ally—and increasingly the only ally—to coup leaders in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. Below, this paper further documents how Wagner’s presence in the central Sahel has fueled insurgencies rather than contained violent extremism, creating greater challenges in the fight against the global networks of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.
russia conflict sahel


Riza Kumar

Published in
United States of America

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