Dakar – Since the withdrawal of the French army from Mali, Russia’s Wagner Group has replaced it as a target of jihadist propaganda, experts say, with extremists making hay with claims that its mercenaries have committed atrocities against civilians.
Having been pushed towards the exit by the leaders of Mali’s 2020 coup, France finally withdrew in August this year more than nine years after its military intervened to stop a jihadist takeover of the troubled Sahel nation.
The colonels in charge in Bamako have been increasingly turning to Russia, and particularly to Wagner’s paramilitaries, according to Western sources.
Bamako denies this, acknowledging only the support of Russian military “instructors”.
But it is Wagner that the Al-Qaeda-linked group Jama’at Nasr al‑Islam wal Muslimin, or JNIM, has been targeting in the information war.
“Wagner’s operations are mainly located in central Mali and mainly target the Fulani community, of which JNIM presents itself as the protector,” said Heni Nsaibia, a senior researcher at ACLED, which specialises in the collection of conflict-related data.
“There have been many clashes between the JNIM and the Malian armed forces and Wagner, who are operating jointly,” Nsaibia said.
“In many ways Wagner has replaced France as the foreign force in the conflict, even if the jihadists don’t refer to Wagner as ‘crusaders’ like they did to the French, but as a ‘criminal militia’ of mercenaries.”
Wagner emerged in 2014 during the first war in Ukraine and is suspected by the West of doing the Kremlin’s dirty work in conflicts including Syria and the Central African Republic – a charge Russia has always denied.
JNIM boasts of having caught the “Malian army, Wagner’s mercenaries and pro-government militias in an ethnic war against Muslims” in an ambush in the central Bandiagara region late last month.
They also claim to have given Fulani herders back the animals that government forces had taken from them.
For years “jihadists groups have presented themselves as the defenders of local populations from the army and its proxies, which according to them, do nothing but kill civilians,” said Boubacar Haidara, a researcher at the Bonn International Centre for Conflict Studies.
The use of this “alibi to justify their violence” has been made easier by the “arrival of Russian elements”, he argued, at the same time as the “toll on civilians has become more and more deadly”.
While the majority of the 860 civilians killed in Mali in the first six months of the year were the victims of jihadists, some 344 – or 40 percent – were killed in army operations, the United Nations said.
“The people judge by the atrocities committed on civilians,” said Binta Sidibe Gascon, of monitoring group Kisal, which stands up for Fulani communities. “Since Wagner arrived, and particularly after what happened in Moura, we are witnessing an exponential rise in the number of civilian victims.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Malian soldiers of massacring some 300 civilians in Moura in March with the help of foreign fighters, who witnesses said were Russian. The Malian army denies those killed were civilian, saying it “neutralised” more than 200 jihadists.
JNIM’s main leader in the region, the Fulani preacher Amadou Koufa, accused Wagner and the Malian army of the bloodbath in a rare video in June, claiming that only “around 30” of his fighters were killed, while the rest of the dead were “innocents”.
“What is going to wake people up,” said Sidibe Gascon, is that despite “all these atrocities against civilians, no territory is being retaken and sadly the situation is getting worse, with more displaced people, schools closed and a humanitarian crisis.”
However, Haidara said much of the Malian public “do not believe that civilians are being killed”, and are receptive to the military’s claims that talk of massacres are “French calumnies to denigrate the Malian forces when they are ‘doing more than Barkhane (the French military operation) was able to do in nine years.'”
But using Wagner has turned out to be “a very bad choice”, argued US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland, late last month, “with a rise of around 30 percent in terrorist acts” in the past six months.
The public perception in Mali, however, is very different, according to Niagale Bagayoko, president of the African Security Sector Network.
“If the government was looking to Wagner for help in the information war, it can be happy with the results.
“In the capital and on social media they have won the opinion war against the West,” she added.