Pushed out by the colonels in power in August 2020, France completed its withdrawal from Mali on 15 August 2022, more than nine years after the launch of its intervention against jihadist groups there.
At the same time, Malian authorities turned to Russia, and more specifically to Wagner Group, which is led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close associate of Vladimir Putin. Bamako denies this, acknowledging only the support of Russian military “instructors”.
However, it is indeed Wagner that Nusrat al-Islam, officially known as Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM), the official branch of Al-Qaeda in Mali and the Sahel, has been citing by name in the headlines of its communiqués in recent months.
‘Wagner is really an enemy of JNIM’
“Wagner’s operations are mainly located in Central Mali and mainly target the Fulani [Peuhl] community, which the JNIM presents itself as protecting; so in this dynamic, Wagner is really an enemy of JNIM,” says Héni Nsaibia, a researcher with the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), which specialises in collecting conflict-related data.
“There have been a lot of clashes between JNIM against the Malian armed forces and Wagner, [the latter two of whom] operate jointly,” he says. “In a way, Wagner has replaced France as a foreign force in the conflict arena, even though the jihadis do not call Wagner ‘crusaders’ like French troops, but rather mercenaries or ‘criminal militia’,” he says.
In late October, JNIM claimed that thanks to an ambush in the Bandiagara region (centre) against “the Malian army, Wagner mercenaries and pro-government militia waging an ethnic war against Muslims”, it had returned cattle that authorities had taken away from their owners.
Abuses against civilians
For years, “jihadist groups have presented themselves as defenders of the population against the army and its auxiliaries, who, according to them, only kill civilians”, says Boubacar Haïdara, a researcher at the Bonn International Centre for Conflict Studies (BICCS).
The use of this “alibi to justify their violence”, according to Haïdara, has been facilitated by “the arrival of Russian elements”, coinciding with “reports of repeated and increasingly deadly abuses against civilians”.
Even though the majority of the 860 civilians killed in Mali in the first half of 2022 were victims of jihadist groups, 344 (40%) died in army operations, according to the UN.
“The population makes its judgement based on the [number of] abuses committed against civilians,” says Binta Sidibé Gascon, vice-president of the Observatoire Kisal, which defends the interests of pastoral populations. “Since Wagner’s arrival, particularly with what happened in Moura, we have seen an exponential increase in civilian casualties”.
In March, Malian army soldiers associated with foreign fighters, possibly Russian, massacred some 300 civilians in the town in Central Mali, according to Human Rights Watch. The Malian army denies this, claiming to have “neutralised” more than 200 jihadists.
In an unusual video in June, the main JNIM leader in the region, Fulani preacher Amadou Koufa, blamed Wagner and the Malian army saying “only about 30 fighters” were among those killed in Moura and the rest were “innocent”.
They have won the battle of opinion against all Western partners
“What will accelerate awareness,” says Observatoire Kisal’s Gascon, “is that in the face of all these abuses against civilians, no recapture of territory is effective and unfortunately the situation is getting worse: an increase in the number of displaced people, closed schools, a humanitarian crisis […]”.
Nevertheless, Haïdara of the BICCS notes that “many members of the population do not believe that it is civilians who are being killed”, and are receptive to the army’s official discourse, rejecting “French slander that denigrates Malian forces”, even though the latter are “doing more than Barkhane has done in nine years”.
Calling in Wagner has proven to be a “very bad choice” for the Malian authorities, with “an increase of about 30% in terrorist acts” over the past six months, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland was quoted as saying in late October.
On the other hand, Niagalé Bagayoko, president of the African Security Sector Network, believes that “if the Malian government was expecting support from Wagner in terms of information warfare, from this point of view it can be satisfied with the results. […] On Malian territory to a very large extent, in any case in the capital and on social networks, they have won the battle of opinion against all Western partners”.