July 05, 2023

Salafi-Jihadi Movement Update Special Edition: Wagner Will Remain in Africa

This is a special edition of the Critical Threats Project’s (CTP) Salafi-Jihadi Movement Update. These special editions provide in-depth analysis covering one CTP portfolio. CTP’s Salafi-Jihadi Movement Team covers the Salafi-jihadi movement in Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, Iraq, North Africa, Pakistan, Syria, West Africa, and Yemen in our full Salafi-Jihadi Movement Weekly Update, which you can find here

The Wagner Group will continue operating in Africa following the group’s armed rebellion and is very unlikely to decrease its activity on the African continent. The Wagner Group launched an armed rebellion in Russia on June 23 aimed at forcing leadership changes in the Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD).[1] The rebellion came to an end on June 24 after Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin agreed to a deal on the fate of Wagner with Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko.[2]

Several Kremlin officials subsequently assured that Wagner will continue operating in Africa regardless of the outcomes of the deal for Wagner in Russia, strongly suggesting the group will continue its activities on the continent. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated on June 26 that Wagner will continue operating in the Central African Republic and that the Malian government turned to Wagner “with a request to ensure the safety of their leadership.”[3] Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova noted on June 28 that Wagner’s presence in Africa is a matter of host nation intention, stating that “it is the sovereign right of states to invite and sign contracts with those who are effective and most useful.” Lavrov echoed this point on June 30.[4]

Unofficial Russian sources indicate that the Kremlin will not reduce Wagner’s presence in Africa. The Russian outlet Vedomosti cited an unnamed source close to the Russian MOD who said that “projects to provide security services in Africa and other countries are not curtailed.”[5] A prominent Russian milblogger praised this approach and emphasized that it is imperative for Wagner to continue its mission to “re-decolonize” Africa despite the political ramifications of Prigozhin’s armed rebellion.[6]

Wagner’s continued presence in Africa is imperative to Russia’s foreign policy objectives on the continent. Putin’s assertion that the Russian MOD funds Wagner highlights the group’s role as a Russian government-funded foreign policy tool.[7] Russia exploits Wagner’s partnerships with African governments to gain access to natural resources that it uses to evade and mitigate Western sanctions.[8]Wagner has a significant presence in at least five African countries: the Central African Republic, Libya, Madagascar, Mali, and Sudan.[9] Many of these governments pay Wagner by granting them access to valuable natural resource deposits, such as gold, oil, and chromite.[10]

The Kremlin also uses Wagner’s partnerships to advance its strategic goals of countering Western influence and reestablishing Russia as a global power.[11] Russia has explicitly targeted France and former French colonies as part of this strategy.[12] These relationships help Russia expand its military footprint through Wagner deployments and other military deals.[13] The partnerships also provide Russia with potential votes to help it escape isolation in international bodies such as the United Nations, which Russia used as a component of its international political strategy following its invasion of Ukraine.[14]

It remains unclear whether Wagner will continue operating in Africa as an independent entity or as a formalized unit subordinated to the MOD. Some unofficial Russian sources have suggested that Wagner will continue operations in Africa as a nominally independent entity via Belarusian military infrastructure. A Belarusian insider Telegram channel claimed on June 26 that Wagner will be “legitimized” in Belarus and continue to operate in Africa.[15]

Russian opposition outlet Meduza cited former Wagner Commander Marat Gabidullin and another Wagner veteran who suggested that Prigozhin told Wagner fighters who followed him to Belarus after the armed rebellion they could retain projects in Africa.[16] The Wagner veteran claimed Wagner will use aircraft and logistical support from the Belarusian MOD to support operations in Africa, thus replacing the Russian MOD.[17] A prominent Russian milblogger posited that Belarus may become a “transit country” for Wagner to access Africa.[18] This course of action, however, is unlikely given the Kremlin’s vested interest in pursuing objectives in Africa and the ongoing campaign to officially formalize and subordinate Wagner to the Russian MOD.

Wagner will almost certainly continue fueling the Sahel’s Salafi-jihadi insurgency. Wagner has undermined security in Mali by working with Malian officials to force the withdrawal of more-capable French and UN forces.[19] Wagner has also strengthened al Qaeda– and Islamic State–linked insurgents by increasing human rights abuses that serve as a free recruitment tool by driving targeted communities to partner with jihadists for protection.[20] These actions have contributed to the spread of these Salafi-jihadi insurgents since Wagner arrived in 2021.

Wagner has not stopped al Qaeda–linked militants from increasing their rate of attacks in politically sensitive areas of southern and western Mali or stopped the local Islamic State affiliate from expanding across northeastern Mali.[21] Al Qaeda–linked militants also remain entrenched in central Mali despite an increase in the rate of joint Malian army–Wagner operations in 2023.[22] Wagner’s successful push to end the UN mission will further strengthen the momentum of both al Qaeda– and Islamic State–linked insurgents in northern Mali.[23] 

Figure 1. The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Africa

Source: Kathryn Tyson.

This is a special edition of the Critical Threats Project’s (CTP) Salafi-Jihadi Movement Update. These special editions provide in-depth analysis covering one CTP portfolio. CTP’s Salafi-Jihadi Movement Team covers the Salafi-jihadi movement in Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, Iraq, North Africa, Pakistan, Syria, West Africa, and Yemen in our full Salafi-Jihadi Movement Weekly Update, which you can find here

[1] https://understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-june-23-2023

[2] https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-june-24-2023; https://understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-june-25-2023

[3] https://russian.rt dot com/world/article/1166794-lavrov-intervyu-rt

[4] https://www.newsweek.com/africa-russias-wagner-group-too-big-fail-putin-knows-it-1809442; https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/6/30/future-of-wagner-contracts-up-to-african-states-russias-lavrov 

[5] https://www.vedomosti dot ru/politics/articles/2023/06/30/983060-vagner-ne-otpravyat-v-zonu-spetsoperatsii

[6] https://t.me/boris_rozhin/90821

[7] http://kremlin dot ru/events/president/news/71535#sel=15:1:DkW,15:52:xTa  

[8] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/russia-wagner-group-ukraine-war-putin-prigozhin-africa-plundering-resources

[9] https://russianpmcs.csis.org

[10] https://thesoufancenter.org/intelbrief-2022-may-2

[11] https://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/ISW%20-%20The%20Kremlin%20Campaign%20in%20Africa%20-%20August%202019.pdf

[12] https://jamestown.org/program/the-hybrid-role-of-russian-mercenaries-pmcs-and-irregulars-in-moscows-scramble-for-africa

[13] https://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/ISW%20-%20The%20Kremlin%20Campaign%20in%20Africa%20-%20August%202019.pdf; https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2022-03/fs_2203_at_2021.pdf

[14] https://jamestown.org/program/the-hybrid-role-of-russian-mercenaries-pmcs-and-irregulars-in-moscows-scramble-for-africa; https://www.chathamhouse.org/2022/03/un-vote-russia-invasion-shows-changing-africa

[15] https://t.me/belarusian_silovik/17171

[16] https://meduza dot io/feature/2023/06/28/vernulis-obratno-moemsya-chistimsya-otdyhaem

[17] https://meduza dot io/feature/2023/06/28/vernulis-obratno-moemsya-chistimsya-otdyhaem

[18] https://t.me/boris_rozhin/90533

[19] https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/un-security-council-ends-peacekeeping-mission-mali-2023-06-30; https://www.criticalthreats.org/briefs/africa-file/africa-file-burkina-faso-coup-signals-deepening-governance-and-security-crisis-in-the-sahel

[20] https://www.criticalthreats.org/briefs/africa-file/africa-file-wagner-group-in-burkina-faso-will-help-the-kremlin-and-hurt-counterterrorism; https://ctc.westpoint.edu/how-the-wagner-group-is-aggravating-the-jihadi-threat-in-the-sahel

[21] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/salafi-jihadi-movement-weekly-update-april-5-2023#Mali20230405; https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/salafi-jihadi-movement-weekly-update-may-24-2023#Mali20230524

[22] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/salafi-jihadi-movement-weekly-update-april-27-2023#Sahel20230427

[23] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/salafi-jihadi-movement-weekly-update-june-21-2023#Mali20230621

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