Malian soldiers and foreign fighters, identified as members of the Russia-linked Wagner Group, have committed extrajudicial executions and forced disappearances of dozens of civilians in central Mali since December 2022, according to a new Human Rights Watch report shared with The Intercept. Researchers found that the longtime U.S.-backed Malian military also tortured detainees in an army camp and destroyed and looted civilian property as part of its protracted campaign against militant Islamists.
The Malian soldiers committed the atrocities in four villages in the center of the country, according to telephone interviews with 40 people knowledgeable about the abuses, half of them witnesses to the violence. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that foreign, non-French-speaking armed men whom they described as “white,” “Russians,” or “Wagner” participated in most of the attacks.
In December 2021, the Malian junta reportedly authorized the deployment of Wagner mercenary forces to fight Islamist militants after close to two decades of failed Western-backed counterterrorism campaigns in exchange for almost $11 million per month and access to gold and uranium mines. Since then, Wagner — a paramilitary group led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former hot dog vender turned warlord — has been implicated in hundreds of human rights abuses alongside the country’s military, including a 2022 massacre that killed 500 civilians.
Human Rights Watch’s new findings add to the grim toll.
“We found compelling evidence that the Malian army and allied foreign fighters linked to the Wagner group have committed serious abuses, including killings, enforced disappearances and looting, against civilians during counter-insurgency operations in central Mali with complete impunity,” Ilaria Allegrozzi, the senior Sahel researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The Intercept. “The failure of the Malian authorities to identify and prosecute those responsible will most likely only fuel further violence and crimes.”
The U.S. has poured billions of dollars in military assistance into Mali and its neighbors over roughly two decades — enabling human rights abuses by providing weapons and training to militaries that have terrorized civilians, according to the United Nations, human rights advocacy groups, and the U.S. State Department. U.S.-trained military officers have also repeatedly conducted coups, including the putsch-leader who toppled Mali’s governments in 2020 and 2021. While the coups triggered restrictions on U.S. aid, Pentagon officials have pointed to Wagner’s growing influence across Africa as a reason to keep the money flowing.
Sarah Harrison, a senior analyst at International Crisis Group who advised on U.S. activities in Africa for the Pentagon’s Office of General Counsel from 2020 to 2021, noted a fundamental flaw in America’s reliance on security assistance to cement relationships with allies. “It would make more sense for the U.S. to rely on a broader toolkit to responsibly engage with foreign countries, especially ones like Mali experiencing conflict and instability,” she told The Intercept. “It really shouldn’t be the case that the U.S. considers its influence severely weakened because it can’t provide military equipment or training to a certain country.”
The new report documents atrocities committed during joint missions by Malian and Wagner soldiers from last December to late March. On February 3, for example, dozens of white camouflage-clad fighters and at least one Malian soldier flew into Séguéla village on helicopters. Residents said that no Islamist militants were present in the village that day. Despite this, the soldiers went door to door rounding up men, beating people, and stealing their money and jewelry. “There were almost only white Wagner soldiers, they led the whole operation,” said a witness. “They were heavily armed, masked, and wore camouflage uniforms and spoke a language we did not understand, but which was not French.”
The language barrier exacerbated the violence, according to residents. “Some of us did not comply with their instructions because we didn’t understand what they wanted, and so the soldiers beat us even harder,” one victim told researchers. “They beat us with an iron bar. I was beaten on my back and buttocks.”
The white soldiers arrested 17 men and took them away. Survivors found the corpses of eight of them, and five other men, about 40 miles from Séguéla. The victims appeared to have been bound prior to their execution, according to a video that was verified by Human Rights Watch and reviewed by The Intercept. Some were apparently killed by gunshot, while others appeared to have had their throats slit. The researchers are not publishing the video to protect the witnesses.
On March 6 in Sossobé village, Malian troops and white fighters assaulted people and killed five civilians, according to witnesses. Locals said that the Malian and white soldiers arrested 21 men and took them away in helicopters, never to be seen again. On March 23, foreign soldiers and pro-government militiamen beat people and killed at least 20 civilians, including a woman and a 6-year-old child, in Ouenkoro village. The armed men also arrested 12 civilians who were taken to an army camp in the town of Sofara where they were tortured, according to the report.
The government of Mali disputed Human Rights Watch’s findings and touted its “promotion and protection of human rights,” but stated that due to the allegations, it had opened an investigation into potential war crimes and crimes against humanity.
These latest atrocities, as well as earlier abuses, were committed on behalf of a military junta that first took power in August 2020 when Col. Assimi Goïta — who worked with U.S. Special Operations forces, participated in U.S. training exercises, and attended a Joint Special Operations University seminar in Florida — overthrew Mali’s government. Goïta took the job of vice president in a transitional government charged with returning Mali to civilian rule but soon seized power again, conducting a second coup in 2021.
The coups triggered prohibitions on many forms of U.S. security assistance, but American tax dollars nonetheless continue to flow to Mali. The U.S. provided more than $16 million in security aid to Mali in 2020 and almost $5 million in 2021, according to a State Department spokesperson named Jennifer who refused to provide her last name. The department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism is currently waiting on congressional approval to transfer an additional $2 million to Mali.
Gen. Michael Langley, the chief of U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM, has argued against the constraints on military aid following coups. “Recent coups d’etat have triggered U.S. restrictions that hinder AFRICOM engagement, forcing those military regimes to double-down on their dependence on Wagner,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee this spring. “Although well intended, U.S. coup restrictions can inadvertently incentivize the most at-risk African countries to dig themselves deeper into the mire of militancy and corruption.”
Langley failed to mention that U.S.-trained officers have conducted at least 10 coups in West Africa since 2008 including Burkina Faso (2014, 2015, 2022), Gambia (2014), Guinea (2021), Mali (2012, 2020, 2021), and Mauritania (2008). AFRICOM did not reply to questions about Langley’s stance and the many U.S.-trained putschists but did acknowledge “limited communications” with Mali’s ruling junta “to discuss the need for them to keep to their promise to hold credible, transparent elections.” Most recently, said spokesperson John Manley, an AFRICOM official met with Mali’s prime minister and defense minister in October 2022.
This spring, Rear Adm. Milton “Jamie” Sands, the chief of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa, told The Intercept and other reporters that Wagner’s “presence and their activities run counter to a safe, stable, and secure Africa.” He failed, however, to mention that it was the U.S.-mentored Goïta who struck a deal with Wagner in late 2021. Nor did he acknowledge that the Sahel’s security challenges increased as the U.S. deployed elite commandos to, and poured military aid into, Mali and its neighbors, and far predate significant Russian involvement in the region.
AFRICOM did not respond to questions about any steps taken to counter Wagner’s influence in Mali. The State Department says that the U.S. will “continue to support Mali in achieving its goals of peace and economic development.”