Wagner mercenaries embolden extremist fighters, displace civilians in northern Mali

By Mustafa Omar

Wagner mercenaries talking with a Russian media outlet in Mali in 2021. [Wagner]

Wagner mercenaries talking with a Russian media outlet in Mali in 2021. [Wagner]

NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania -- The November assassination of a Songhai man in Timbuktu has reignited fears of renewed attacks against civilians in northern and central Mali, especially among the Songhai, Tuareg, Arab and Fulani communities, local sources said.

The latest incident comes amid a spate of civilian deaths, they said, with the army and the Russian mercenary group Wagner most often to blame for the killings, which have become commonplace.

Ibrahim Bilal, 26, was reportedly killed by Malian army forces in Timbuktu on November 11 in an incident that began with a verbal altercation.

Malian TV journalist Omar Sidi Mohammed told Al-Mashareq that Bilal was working at a gas station across the street from a tavern.

Malian refugees sit under a tent at the Mbera refugee camp in southeastern Mauritania on September 29, 2017. [Selim Saheb Ettaba/AFP]

Malian refugees sit under a tent at the Mbera refugee camp in southeastern Mauritania on September 29, 2017. [Selim Saheb Ettaba/AFP]

Two drunk soldiers in civilian clothes walked out of the tavern, sat down next to the station and lit cigarettes, he said.

"Bilal asked them to leave the place, and there was a verbal altercation which angered the soldiers," he said. "They beat Bilal, who was transferred to the hospital and died two days later. The soldiers are are now under arrest."

While most victims of the Malian army are typically from the Fulani, Tuareg or Arab communities, the violence this time has reached the Songhai too, Sidi Mohammed said.

Civilians displaced

According to the United Nations (UN), 344 out of 860 civilians killed in Mali in the first six months of the year were killed in army operations, while the rest (about 60%) were the victims of extremist groups.

Malian civilians are paying the price of the conflict among the extremist groups, which has displaced many of Malian citizens and increased the number of Malians departing for Mauritania -- their closest refuge.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recently reported that the number of registered refugees in Mauritania, most of whom are Malian, has exceeded 101,000.

More than 10,000 refugees from Mali sought refuge in Mauritania between January 1 and September 30 alone, it said.

The vast majority of Malian refugees in Mauritania are housed at Mbera camp in the arid southeast Hodh Chargui region, according to Aswat Magharebia.

Others have taken refuge in cities, including the capital, Nouakchott, and the country's economic hub, Nouadhibou, the media outlet 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 about 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 but rather more than 200 extremists, AFP reported.

Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen'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 about 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."

Rival extremists clash

Bloody clashes between the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" in the Greater Sahara (ISIS-GS) and the extremist coalition Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen in Gao and along the Mali-Burkina Faso border are driving more residents to flee.

The reason for the clashes is the defection of 150 members of Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen to ISIS-GS, said Algerian journalist Qassem Ras al-Maa, who specialises in armed groups and security in the Sahel region.

Most of the defected fighters are Tuareg, he said, explaining that they have quit the extremist coalition to join an ISIS-affiliated group led by Musa Mumuni, who is originally from Niger.

"The Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen group gained more power on the ground following the withdrawal of the French forces from Malian territories, as that allowed it to ramp up its activities on the ground," he said.

However, it has not been engaging in any armed clashes with the Wagner Group mercenaries, according to al-Maa.

One reason for this could be that the Wagner Group's mission has been to expel the French forces rather than engage in battles with terrorist groups, he said.

"The goal of the Wagner elements is to secure the interests of the Mali regime," said Network for Strategic Reflection on Security in the Sahel president and co-founder Jérôme Pigné.

"There are rumours that they have undertaken the task of providing security for Malian President Assimi Goïta," he told Al-Mashareq.

Having been pushed toward the exit by the leaders of Mali's 2020 coup, France withdrew from the country in August, more than nine years after its military intervened to stop an extremist 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 Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen has been targeting in the information war.

Media wars and propaganda

Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen has launched a media war against Wagner Group elements and the Malian government, observers say.

This is because the group needs justification for its activity in the region, they said, particularly after the withdrawal of French forces.

"Since the withdrawal of French forces from the region, we have not heard of military confrontations in the Taoudenni or Timbuktu regions," Ham Ali, mayor of the Taoudenni region in northern Mali, told Al-Mashareq.

Yet news of the killings and confrontations in the Gao and the Burkina Faso border area has reached the area, he said.

"In the past, we witnessed serious security disturbances, a victim of which was my father, who was killed in the city of Timbuktu ... and we were made to suffer greatly by all sides," Ali said.

"Today, the situation is stable, but the media campaigns and propaganda have not stopped, and this is impacting the stability of the situation," he added.

According to Malian journalist Omar Sidi Mohammed, "thieves, organised crime groups, and recently ISIS, are responsible for the instability in northern Mali".

"ISIS recently has wreaked havoc on the region and committed unspeakable massacres against citizens in northern Mali," he told Al-Mashareq.

For years, extremist 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."

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