Jihadi Blowback: The Wagner Group’s Hidden Downside
On June 15, 2023, a convoy of white soldiers hit an improvised explosive device near Keibané, Mali, killing two and wounding eleven. They brutally retaliated against local villagers, killing five, including the local village chief. Unfortunately, this kind of savagery is nothing new for many in Mali, the Central African Republic, Libya, and other countries in Africa where the Wagner Group, a Russian-backed and oligarch-supported mercenary group, has taken up residence. This shadowy organization, known for fighting in Ukraine, also holds massive influence over security operations on the African continent, having ousted traditional security guarantors, like France, in Mali and the Central African Republic. Wagner, which operates outside of the Russian government in name only, pushes Russian geo-strategic interests on the continent, building security relationships and government reliance on Russia as a security guarantor.
Up to this point, the group has been a low-cost, high-upside force for the Russian government in Africa — a few trucks in the Central African Republic or a few helicopters in Mali. The group has posed some risks — in Ukraine, some will point to the growing void between Wagner Group and the Russian Ministry of Defense, as well as the potential for the group’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin to potentially challenge Vladimir Putin for the presidency in the future. However, the group’s involvement in Africa may be creating a much bigger problem. If Wagner continues its security assistance campaign on the continent, the group could be unwittingly building the conditions for a jihadist outbreak along Russia’s southern borders and terror attacks within Russia itself. Russia already has a long history of enmity with jihadist groups, and a large base of Russian-born, radicalized Sunni fighters that could be pushed to retribution for Wagner’s human rights abuses against Muslims on the African continent. While such a grave threat to Russian stability might entice some in the West, such a development could aggravate the already-increasing worldwide threat posed by rapidly expanding Africa-based jihadism. Further, the prospects of renewed ethno-religious conflict in the Caucasus and Central Asia have wide-ranging impacts for the United States, China, and India.
Wagner and Russia’s History with Islamism
The Wagner Group is a private military company with deep ties to the Russian government and military. An organization founded and owned by Prigozhin, a Russian businessman with ties to organized crime and a long history as “Putin’s chef,” the company’s first contracts supported Russian deployments in Syria. From there, the group branched out in Africa, beginning with Libya in 2018, and moving into Sudan, the Central African Republic, Mali, Mozambique, and Madagascar soon after. The group’s forces are composed of a variety of former Russian special forces and personnel from other military intelligence groups.
African countries employ Wagner to combat a variety of terrorist, separatist, and jihadist forces that they see as threatening state sovereignty. These non-state armed groups include several non-ideological rebel coalitions including the Coalition of Patriots for Change and Coalition Siriri in the Central African Republic; al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Islamic State affiliates in Mali; and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Islamic State affiliates in Burkina Faso. While the groups in the Central African Republic are insurgents and the groups in Mali and Burkina Faso are Sunni jihadist organizations, they share similar goals — the political overthrow of incumbents and the establishment of new governments. Their aims threaten stability and good governance in the region, particularly as national militaries have been incapable of defeating these groups on their own.
Historically, Western and U.N. forces were brought in to fight alongside each state’s national military — French forces were deployed in Mali for nearly a decade. Western interventions failed to eliminate these threats to central government stability, however, and the Russia-backed Wagner Group stepped in.
When the Wagner Group was brought into the Central African Republic and Mali, French operations were forced out — Paris saw its presence as incompatible with that of the Russian mercenaries. This changing of the guard also forced a reevaluation among the insurgents. The introduction of Wagner fighters has forced jihadist organizations in particular to reorient their propaganda and recruitment tools toward Russia, particularly as the West no longer appears to be the primary supporter of such regimes and as Russian mercenaries have begun committing a stunning streak of war crimes. This, in turn, has made Russia a prime target for terrorist attacks.
Russia has long been a historical target of jihadist enmity, albeit a lesser-known one than oft-mentioned enemies such as Israel, France, and the United States. Traditional jihadist literature tells a tale of near and far enemies — near enemies being the apostate, westernized regimes of the 1980s Arab world and far enemies being Western states and other non-Muslim governed countries. However, the former Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 put the state in the crosshairs of the nascent al-Qaeda movement. More recently, Islamic State leader Abubakr al Baghdadi, in his famed 2014 speech, “A Message to the Mujahidin and the Muslim Ummah in the Month of Ramadan,” divided the world into two camps, pitting Muslims against “Jews, Crusaders, and their allies … being led by America and Russia, and being mobilized by the Jews.”
The Islamic State, in particular, has a variety of grievances with Russia, including its involvement in Syria in support of Shiite leader Bashar al Assad, relations with the Iraqi state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, historical claims against territorial agreements and claims by imperialist Russia (including the Sykes-Picot agreement), its ties with Israel and China, and its alleged role in the anti-Islamic State campaign in the Philippines. The group also maintains enmity towards Russia for campaigns the state has carried out, including anti-Islamic activities in Dagestan, the 2000s war in Chechnya, operations against Russian-based Islamic State cells, influence campaigns in Central Asia, expanding ties with the Taliban against Islamic State affiliates in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and “its alleged desire to occupy Muslim lands.” The Islamic State, as a result, sees Russia as the “leader of the ‘crusader East’” — similar to its views of the ‘crusader’ West. Islamic State Khorasan Province has even praised support by “crusader governments” — Western states — for Ukraine against Russia as a sign of divine justice for campaigns by the latter against the Islamic State.
Today, Russia is also a significant source of terrorist activity in the greater Middle East and former Soviet states — and such fighters from Russia, Chechnya, and the Caucasus could turn on Russia if provoked by Russian anti-Sunni activities. Sara Brzuszkiewicz argues that thousands of fighters from Russia and the Caucasus have joined jihadist organizations in the last decade and, as of 2019, many had gone to join the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq: “roughly 800 in both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, between 1,500 and 3,000 in Uzbekistan, around 1,900 in Tajikistan and at least 400 in Turkmenistan.” Another source suggests that 1,700 “homegrown violent extremists” from Russia and the Northern Caucasus had joined the Islamic State of Iraq-Syria. Senior leadership of the Islamic State even reflects such jihadist inflows, including the now-deceased “minister of war” of the Islamic State Syria-Iraq, Tarkhan Batirashvili, known as “Omar the Chechen.” Islamic State Khorasan Province and Tajik Islamic State have also seen an increase in Russian-linked financial support recently, including digital donations of rubles. Further anti-Sunni activity on the African continent could turn these Russian-born fighters against the Russian government — such grievances have already pushed Islamic State Khorasan Province to attack the Russian embassy in Kabul, killing two embassy staff.
Russia’s intervention in Syria has provided further fodder for an anti-Russian attack by jihadists. In this conflict, Russia aligned with the Assad regime, a Shiite government, and its Hizballah allies, an Iran-backed Shiite jihadist group, in combating the Islamic State and other Sunni Islamist groups. Playing sides among Sunni and Shiite extremist parties is a dangerous game, particularly given Russia’s large foreign fighter flows toward such terror groups. Such groups — and Russian-born fighters — may now even view Russia as the primary patron of Shia Islam. Colin Clarke argued in testimony to the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee that such “ready-made, native force(s)” could return to Russia and blend in with local populations while plotting attacks.
Wagner in Africa
The Wagner Group’s involvement on the African continent is stoking even further enmity towards Russia among Sunni jihadist groups. Wagner has specifically targeted Malian civilians “in (the) Mopti, Segou, Tombouctou, and Koulikoro regions,” areas known to be affiliated with jihadist organizations. According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, this includes “nearly 500 civilian fatalities from these attacks, including the massacre of hundreds of civilians in Moura in the Mopti region in late March 2022. Overall, 71% of Wagner’s engagement in political violence in Mali has taken the form of violence targeting civilians.” Wagner also attacks civilian targets without Malian army participation — raiding the towns of Lougui and Hombori in May 2022.
Wagner Group killings and human rights violations against civilians have acted as a strong recruiting tool for jihadist groups and have led to shifts in jihadi rhetoric in the Sahel away from France and towards the Wagner Group and Russia. In August 2021, ahead of the anticipated Wagner deployment to Mali, Iyad Ag Ghali, the Tuareg leader of al-Qaeda, mentioned Russia as a group enemy for the first time. Approximately one third of al-Qaeda propaganda statements in 2022 either mentioned Wagner Group or “used their presence to justify anti-army attacks.” The Russian mercenary presence in Mali has helped these groups to garner support — local sources say that jihadist recruitment increased in central Mali between May and July 2022, followed by a fundraising increase in September and October 2022 in markets and mosques.
Mozambique displays many of the same symptoms of a jihadi pivot towards Russia. In the East African country, Wagner Group failed in its operations against Islamic State affiliates in the Cabo Delgado region and quickly withdrew in 2019. Yet, Islamic State’s newsletter highlighted Russia’s (and China’s) ambitions in exploiting Mozambique’s natural resources, associating the group with other “crusader” states investing in the country, including businesses from the United States, France, and South Africa. This pivot toward Russia as the common enemy is becoming more and more common, particularly when Wagner Group and the Russian state come up against jihadist groups in Africa.
Given the globalized nature of jihadism today, the reactions to Russia’s anti-Sunni activity in Africa will not necessarily be localized to the Sahel. The international networks of affiliations between al-Qaeda and Islamic State have allowed these groups to plot cross-continental attacks in the past, as was seen in the November 2015 Paris attacks by Islamic State Syria-Iraq. Indeed, anti-Russian jihadist propaganda originating in West Africa is free and available to potential acolytes in far-away Russia — it is only a click away in today’s internet age. The Wagner Group could very well be sowing future jihadist movements on Russian soil with its war crimes against Sunnis in Africa.
A Vulnerable Russia
Russia is no stranger to terrorist attacks, and Putin’s government has tended to respond to such attacks with massive displays of force. Putin’s rise to power followed a string of apartment bombings across Russia in 1999, which prompted then-prime minister Putin to initiate a massive air campaign against Chechnya. He said of the attackers, “we will pursue them everywhere … we’ll catch them in the toilet. We’ll wipe them out in the outhouse.” Then, in 2004, when Chechen insurgents took 300 hostages at a school in Beslan, he oversaw a bloody Russian rescue operation featuring flame-throwers, grenade launchers, and a tank cannon, which killed 180 children and injured over 750 people.
However, the Wagner Group’s anti-Sunni activities in Africa could now spur another wave of attacks against a Russian state made uniquely vulnerable by the war in Ukraine. If reports on Russia’s military commitment to Ukraine are correct, 97 percent of the military is currently deployed to Ukraine, according to the U.K. defense minister. Although Russia’s Border Security Service — which would likely deal with cross-border Islamist threats — is separate from the regular Russian army and its deployments in Ukraine, this organization is not immune to the effects of the conflict. In December 2022, Putin ordered the Federal Security Service to step up operations in border regions, perhaps reflecting weakness within the Border Security Service.
Should Sunni jihadist organizations choose to strike into Russia, Russian-born or foreign fighters will likely enter from the Caucasus or Central Asia. Russia’s western border already appears to be porous, as demonstrated by far-right Ukrainian militia leader Denis Nikitin and his Russian Volunteer Corps’ partisan-like attack on the Bryansk region in early March. If Russia’s borders near Ukraine are weakened, the same is likely true in the Caucasus and Central Asia — as seen in an attack on a southern Russian border checkpoint in May by the Musulmanskii Corpus. These weak borders could allow for a massive influx of jihadist fighters looking to punish a weakened Russian state still supporting anti-jihadist regimes in Africa and the Middle East.
The Breaking Point
Though Wagner Group operations in the Sahel and North Africa have provided the basis for renewed grievances against the Russian state, an internal event could actually provide the spark for a jihadist uprising within Russia’s borders. Three scenarios could cause such a conflagration: Chechen leadership change, an anti-Muslim event, such as renewed selective drafting of minorities, or an attack by one of the jihadist organizations in the Caucasus.
Chechnya, the Muslim-majority Russian republic that unsuccessfully fought to gain independence from Russia in the 1990s, could be the starting point of conflict if there were changes in political leadership. Support is waning for Chechen President Ramzdan Kadyrov’s Muslim-majority Chechen private army given high levels of casualties in Ukraine and its questionable efficacy. Kadyrov has extensive ties to the Russian state and Moscow, essentially, pays him off in exchange for peace between Chechnya and Russia. Kadyrov has been able to paper over anti-Russian sentiment in Chechnya with brutal enforced disappearances and killings. Today, rivals have suggested that Kadyrov may be suffering from serious kidney problems, but observers question whether this could significantly shake up the Chechen political system. Still, Kadyrov’s fate as Chechnya’s leader may be tied up with Putin and Russia’s success in Ukraine. If he were to lose power, Chechnya might again become a hotbed for anti-Russian jihadist activity, particularly if a separatist or Muslim fundamentalist leader took power.
A political or military anti-Muslim event in Dagestan or any of the former Caucasus and Central Asian Soviet states, largely Sunni Muslim, could also light the fuse set by the Wagner Group in Africa. Anti-draft protests might provide the necessary kindling. Such protests broke out in September 2022, as protestors in Dagestan accused the Russian military of calling up a disproportionate number of ethnic minorities for military duty in Ukraine.
As has happened in Africa and across the Muslim world, competition between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in the Caucasus could also fan the flames. The al-Qaeda-linked Caucasus Emirate and Islamic State-linked Wilayat Qawqaz have been locked in a recruitment battle recently, which could spur competing “spectacular attacks to persuade potential acolytes that their terrorist or insurgent organization has a stronger resolve to fight the adversary — in this case, the Russian state and security services.” These attacks could provoke a heavily militarized Russian response, as occurred in Chechnya in the early 2000s. Such responses could themselves accelerate the now-familiar cycle of jihadist violence, state-sponsored counter-terror violence, refugee crises, and political crisis.
The Russian government should also be concerned with the long-term effects of militarizing its minority populations — through enforced conscription, military training, and battlefield deployments to Ukraine — many of which have longstanding grievances with the Russian state. Given Russia’s overwhelming military commitment to the campaign in Ukraine, Moscow would struggle to mount a secondary counter-terror operation in the Caucasus or Central Asia. Even if the war ends soon, Russia’s military will likely be hindered by sheer attrition in Ukraine, delaying or preventing potential deployments elsewhere.
Although Wagner Group’s activities in Africa were initially hailed as a low-cost victory for Russia, the group’s activities may actually be fueling renewed jihadism in southern Russia and the borderlands. Wagner’s African operations are inflaming anti-Russian sentiment in the Sahel, which could come back to bite Russia, especially as the invasion of Ukraine has weakened Russian capacity elsewhere in its supposed sphere of influence, particularly the Caucasus and Central Asia. Should the proper spark set the tinder aflame, Russia could face its own wave of militant jihadism sweeping across its borders.
Some leaders in the West may prefer to encourage Russia’s descent into a jihadist backlash in service of great-power competition. Surely, Russia would be weakened by a new Sunni insurgency on its southern borders. Yet, allowing jihadism to grow unchecked in West Africa, the Caucasus, and Central Asia is too dangerous of a side effect. Instead, the proper Western response should be to discourage African governments from aligning with the Wagner Group and Russia. The organization has yet to show the ability to resolve longstanding jihadist conflict and its tendency to commit war crimes against Sunni civilians only inflames tensions. Instead, Western leaders need to encourage countries in the Sahel to pursue solutions that incorporate military and non-military elements to combat jihadism. Many civilians join such organizations because of a lack of services, infrastructure, or local government. Luckily, Western democracies are in a strong position to help build such local capacity in a way that the Russian state, with its over-militarized approach to counter-terror operations, clearly is not.
Raphael Parens is a Eurasia Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute living in Republic of the Congo. He studies African conflict, Russian military policy, and paramilitary groups. He has published papers on the Wagner Group and conflict in Africa through the Foreign Policy Research Institute, the Counterterrorism Center at West Point and Foreign Affairs.
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