Massacres, Executions, and Falsified Graves: The Wagner Group’s Mounting Humanitarian Cost in Mali
May 11, 2022
On April 22, 2022, the French military released satellite imagery and drone footage documenting an attempt by Russian Wagner Group mercenaries to stage evidence of French atrocities near an army base in Gossi, in northern Mali. The footage showed Wagner troops arriving at the base and arranging corpses in shallow mass graves to falsify evidence of mass killings by French forces. France transferred control of the base to the Malian armed forces (Forces Armées Maliennes, or FAMa) earlier that week amid the withdrawal of French troops from the country. Russian-linked social media accounts quickly blamed French forces for the killings in a series of inauthentic posts—the latest in an ongoing campaign to discredit French efforts in West Africa and instead promote Russian partnerships.
Although Wagner attempted to stage evidence of French atrocities at Gossi, it is the Russian contractors themselves that frequently commit such indiscriminate killings. Wagner is a Russian private military company (PMC) unofficially linked to the Russian government, including the Kremlin, Russian Ministry of Defense (particularly the Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU), Federal Security Service (FSB), and Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). Wagner deployed to Mali in December 2021 to train local forces and provide security services amid political instability and a growing Salafi-jihadist threat in the country. In exchange, Wagner has secured financial gains, including access to natural resources, and is able to pursue Moscow’s geopolitical goals. This model follows Wagner’s typical pattern of engagement in sub-Saharan Africa, where it has pursued partnerships with resource-rich states with weak governance in order to trade paramilitary, combat, intelligence, disinformation, and other security services for financial gain, most frequently through mining concessions, and to pursue Russian interests on the continent. The participation of Wagner troops adds a new dimension to the threat against civilians: Wagner itself has a long history of human rights abuses, and Moscow is unlikely to hold the new Malian government—with its own history of violence against civilians—accountable for its actions.
Violence against civilians has increased in number and severity since Wagner's arrival in December 2021. In the first quarter of 2022, civilian fatalities in the conflict were greater than in all of 2021. Most notably, at the end of March, FAMa, assisted by Wagner troops, massacred more than 300 civilians in the central Malian town of Moura during a five-day siege, making the attack the worst atrocity in the decade-long conflict in Mali.
This commentary analyzes recent Wagner involvement in human rights abuses in Mali, Wagner’s history of committing atrocities against civilians, and the likely effects of Wagner’s presence in Mali, including the normalization of civilian harm. It concludes with recommendations for policymakers and international actors seeking to prevent further harm to Malian civilians.
Wagner Fuels the Fire of Civilian Harm in Mali
Abuses against civilians by security forces and non-state armed groups are not a new phenomenon in Mali. In 2019, Dogon militia forces killed more than 150 civilians in the village of Ogossagou in response to the locals’ alleged support for jihadist groups. The Malian army has also been accused of forced disappearances and other abuses, particularly against ethnic Fulani communities. This cycle of violence is a key component of what Dr. Alexander Thurston has called the “endogenous dynamics” that propel the conflict in Mali forward—dynamics to which Wagner is now contributing.
From late December 2021—shortly after Wagner arrived in the country—to March 15, 2022, Human Rights Watch tracked a total of at least 71 civilian deaths linked to FAMa. Due in part to the inherent difficulty of collecting witness testimony in conflict zones, this number is likely an undercount. From February to early March, for example, FAMa and Wagner conducted a series of raids in Ségou region that left more than 50 civilians missing in addition to the confirmed killings. Events tracked by Human Rights Watch during this period include:
- December 31, 2021: FAMa detained and executed at least 13 men in Boudjiguiré, Koulikoro region. Their bodies were found in a shallow grave the following day, and villagers confirmed to Human Rights Watch that, despite the army’s claims, none of the men killed were jihadists. There is no evidence that Wagner troops were present.
- January 4, 2022: FAMa killed four civilians in Nia Ouro, Mopti region. Soldiers also looted and burned homes in the village and severely beat at least two men. There is no evidence that Wagner troops were present.
- January 14, 2022: FAMa, accompanied by Wagner troops, killed five civilians in Feto and Wouro Gnaga, Ségou region. The victims included an elderly woman who was burned to death inside her home after the soldier began looting and setting buildings on fire in Feto.
- January 27, 2022: FAMa executed 14 Dogon civilians in Tonou, Mopti region, including the village chief and a teenage boy. There is no evidence that Wagner troops were present.
- March 2, 2022 (approximate): Near Danguèrè Wotoro, Ségou region, local residents discovered the charred bodies of 35 civilians who had been bound and executed. The perpetrators have not been identified, but evidence indicates that the killings were linked to military operations in the area conducted by FAMa and Wagner troops.
The worst single civilian massacre in the history of Mali’s ongoing conflict occurred several weeks later, from March 27 to 31, 2022, as FAMa and Wagner troops laid siege to Moura, a town in Mopti region, in an alleged counterterrorism operation. During this period, soldiers rounded up and executed approximately 300 civilians in Moura. FAMa and the Malian government deny these accusations, instead falsely claiming that all individuals killed (claimed to be 203) were jihadist militants. Although evidence indicates that some jihadists were present at the beginning of the attack, the majority of victims were unarmed civilians.
Although reports of the massacre were met with international condemnation and calls for a UN investigation, including from the U.S. Department of State, the Malian junta has refused to grant access to Moura to investigators from the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). Russia, for its part, blocked a proposed UN Security Council request for an independent investigation into the killings. Given the government’s complicity with atrocities, it is increasingly difficult for observers to document atrocities or to provide aid to survivors. If this trend continues, the role of local journalists and civil society organizations will be even more critical to documenting events and, ultimately, holding perpetrators accountable.
By making civilian harm part and parcel of its operations, FAMa and Wagner will worsen Mali’s broader conflict ecosystem. FAMa and Wagner have continued their abuses after Moura, opening fire on a market in Hombori after a Wagner operative was killed in a roadside bomb explosion near the town. Civilians, faced with these predatory actors, will be increasingly forced to look elsewhere—such as toward communal militias and jihadists—for security and basic services. While jihadist groups such as Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) have similarly committed violence against civilians, they have also demonstrated an ability to construct political order, resolve land disputes, and offer protection to local populations. As one resident of Gossi told French newspaper Le Figaro, “We live in fear. We fear Wagner much more than the terrorists, really. The terrorists, they have never come to destroy a market (authors’ translation).” Other armed groups, namely ethnic Tuareg and Dogon militias, will likely attempt to counter jihadist expansionism, further aggravating the conflict. Clashes between Tuareg militias and the Islamic State Sahel Province resulted in hundreds of casualties across northern Mali this year, including many women and children. This struggle will place many civilians in the crosshairs of armed groups as they violently compete with each other for influence, further raising the civilian toll of the conflict.
Wagner’s History of Committing Atrocities
Wagner’s war crimes and human rights abuses in Mali are not an isolated case but rather the latest in an ongoing trend. In many of their past and ongoing deployments, Wagner has perpetrated a wide range of abuses against local civilian populations.
Wagner’s activities in the Central African Republic (CAR) provide the most well-documented example of civilian harm. From the time Wagner arrived in the country, its troops were implicated in crimes against local populations, including frequent rapes of teenage girls in villages near its operating bases. Wagner-linked atrocities in the CAR multiplied as PMC troops became increasingly involved in combat operations. In June 2021, a panel of experts convened by the UN Security Council reported numerous indiscriminate killings and other human rights abuses conducted by “Russian instructors” (primarily Wagner troops) in the CAR. These included “excessive use of force, indiscriminate killings, the occupation of schools, and looting on a large scale, including of humanitarian organizations.” The report cited examples such as an attack in February 2021 in Bambari, CAR, in which Wagner and local soldiers killed at least six civilians after opening fire at the al-Takwa mosque. Only a day later, Wagner and local troops pursued a fight inside the medical center of an internally displaced persons site, wounding 36 civilians, including 9 children, with bullets and explosive blasts. A subsequent inquiry led by the CAR’s government corroborated UN human rights abuse accusations against the Russian instructors, including torture and extrajudicial killings. However, the Russian government denies the claims, and Wagner remains active in the CAR.
Because they tolerate human rights abuses and require no accountability from host nations, Wagner and other Russian PMCs are particularly appealing to illiberal regimes that already do not prioritize human rights concerns. Mali, for instance, has long faced human rights challenges, but the military regime that gained power in a 2021 coup—the third Malian coup in a decade and second within a nine-month period—is more interested in securing its own power and longevity than in addressing human rights or stabilization concerns. Therefore, Wagner’s atrocities in Mali are likely to continue unchecked.
The United States should more fully recognize and address the multifaced challenge that the Wagner Group poses in Mali by appointing a new special envoy for the Sahel region of Africa within the Department of State and empowering them to coordinate U.S. policy. The issues that led to Wagner’s entrance into Mali go far beyond the insecurity and militancy plaguing the country. They are instead rooted in economic disparities and political grievances with Mali’s previous civilian governments that span decades. Addressing these problems will require international engagement that deftly coordinates political, economic, and military initiatives, both within the U.S. government and with like-minded partners. A properly empowered official is essential to steer that process. The special envoy position, created in March 2020 and held by J. Peter Pham until January 2021, currently sits vacant. Members of Congress, including members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, have called on the Biden administration to appoint a special envoy to the Sahel as part of a broader rethink of U.S. strategy in the region. A timely appointment of a special envoy with deep regional expertise and the administration’s trust could reinvigorate U.S. policy toward Mali at a time when it is much needed to hold perpetrators responsible for violence against civilians.
The United Nations and troop-contributing countries should carefully consider the extent and impact of FAMa and Wagner’s abuses when considering the extension of MINUSMA’s mandate, which will expire on June 30. The end of Operation Barkhane in Mali will further constrain MINUSMA’s already limited access to valuable medical and logistical support. Flight restrictions on reconnaissance drones have further hampered MINUSMA’s ability to operate and conduct effective force protection, and shifting political conditions have hamstrung its ability to enforce its mandate. Malian authorities have blocked MINUSMA’s investigative access to Moura, and Russia has blocked requests for investigations made at the UN Security Council. If MINUSMA cannot fulfill its current mandate, UN member states could consider ways to rescope the mission’s mandate in an effort to preserve its credibility and ability to protect civilians in Mali’s constrained operational environment.
As abuses by FAMa and Wagner will likely continue, it is critical that international actors empower and strategically support local journalists and civil society actors to further raise awareness of abuses against civilians and lay the groundwork for accountability. The Malian junta has already taken concrete steps to stifle conflict reporting in the country, banning both Radio France Internationale and France24 in March 2022 for reporting on allegations of FAMa abuses. In April, the junta issued a summons for opposition politician Oumar Mariko following his criticism of FAMa for its involvement in the Moura massacre. As the junta continues to clamp down on criticism of its governance and abuses against civilians, the international community should redouble its efforts to publicize bad behavior by both FAMa and Wagner, fighting back against the Malian junta’s attempts to suppress information and sew disinformation. The U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) has previously provided a blueprint for how this could be done, publishing satellite imagery of Wagner forces in Libya. Already in Mali, the French debunking of the staged mass grave in Gossi was a strong move to preemptively negate Russian disinformation. Efforts such as these should continue in order to overcome the obstacles to free information that the Malian junta has attempted to put into place and to aid Malians in their attempts to get accountability for violence against civilians.
The conflict in Mali is, unfortunately, likely to continue, with civilians paying the price. The United States and international actors have an obligation to push back against actors such as the Wagner Group that are incentivized to drive conflict and have a demonstrated record of civilian harm. While the time to deter the Malian junta from partnering with the Wagner Group is now past, it is not too late to help the Wagner Group’s victims in Mali hold their government accountable, seek justice for abuses, and frustrate the Wagner Group’s efforts moving forward.
Catrina Doxsee is an associate director and associate fellow with the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Jared Thompson is a research associate with the CSIS Transnational Threats Project.
The authors give special thanks to Marielle Harris for her helpful comments on an earlier draft of this piece. They also thank Jeeah Lee and William Taylor for their outstanding publication and graphic design support.
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