Wagner in Mali: an exclusive investigation into Putin’s mercenaries

By Benjamin Roger, Mathieu Olivier
Posted on Friday, 18 February 2022 12:19, updated on Sunday, 20 February 2022 18:39

Photomontage: JAMG

For several months, mercenaries from Wagner Group have had a foothold in Mali. But how did they get there? How many of them are there, and where are they deployed? And how do they finance themselves? We lift the veil on the shadow theatre from Moscow to Bamako.

Everyone made sure to bring their files. Emmanuel Macron, wearing a black suit and matching tie, placed a folder of the same colour under his left hand. The French president took care to prepare some notes. The former Minister of the Economy has been taught well: several of his elders in the government taught him that a good politician never goes anywhere without a few papers under his arm. It’s a question of credibility.

A few metres away, on the other side of a five-metre long table, Vladimir Putin is watching him. Dressed in a navy blue that contrasts with the cream-coloured hues of the Kremlin’s representation room, with his elbows spread out, the Russian head of state had dug his heels into the ground. The posture evoked nonchalance, assurance and experience.

For five hours on 7 February, the two adversaries discussed security in Eastern Europe and the crisis in Ukraine, which is threatened with invasion by Russia. But Mali was also on the agenda. For several months, Paris has been denouncing the growing involvement of the Wagner group in Bamako, while Moscow has simply denied any link with these mercenaries. Emmanuel Macron is not fooled. The intelligence at his disposal proved the connection between the group and Yevgeny Prigozhin, someone familiar to the man now facing him on the other side of the huge table.

The French president knows that the posting of mercenaries in Mali, which precipitated the withdrawal of Barkhane, was done with the approval of the Kremlin. This is not the first time that Emmanuel Macron has denounced this relationship. He did so a few months ago about another African country, the Central African Republic, and his Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian, has also repeated it.

It takes more to destabilise Vladimir Putin. The president knows he is caught but protected. The Wagner group has no legal existence in Russia, where private military companies are prohibited. And no one has ever been able to find a direct order from the Kremlin to the mercenaries. So the Russian president denies it. On 7 February, the game of lying poker continued.

Ivan Maslov, number one in Bamako

Another round had already been played in Bamako on 22 November. This time, Abdoulaye Diop, the Malian Minister of Foreign Affairs, is in charge. At home, he summoned the African ambassadors accredited to his country to discuss the diplomatic row with ECOWAS, which is preparing to increase the sanctions imposed on Mali. The head of diplomacy hopes to settle the game. He says that President Assimi Goïta and his government are ready for dialogue and denies any external interference. For Bamako, as for Moscow, Wagner does not exist and the information according to which an agreement has already been reached is propaganda and a relentless attack on Mali.

For many months, relying on a growing anti-French sentiment and spreading the anti-colonial speeches of the political scientist Aleksandr Dugin or the oligarch Konstantinos Malofeev, Moscow and Evgueni Prigojine have nevertheless upped their stakes by advancing on Malian territory. Through his media group Patriot, the association Afric or the Russian Foundation for the Defence of National Values, the businessman has given support and funding to several civil society figures. Adama Ben Diarra, president of the association Yerewolo, has benefited from this. As early as January 2019, Yerewolo claimed to have submitted a petition with eight million signatures to the Russian embassy – where diplomat Igor Gromyko and his “influence cell” are closely following it – to call on Moscow to “counterbalance Minusma [UN force] and Barkhane”.

So on 22 November, far from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a man was already at work. His name is Ivan Aleksandrovitch Maslov.

This former non-commissioned officer of the special forces (the famous “Spetsnaz”) of the Russian Navy is not yet forty years old. Born on 11 July 1982 in Arkhangelsk, on the icy shores of the Dvina Bay in northern Russia, he landed in Mali in 2021. Very discreetly. The man can hardly afford to be too easily identified: in Bamako, he was asked by Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner’s financier, and Dmitri Utkin, the group’s number two and operational leader, to take charge of the future mercenary units.

A Malian general at the helm

Western intelligence services have ranked this seemingly pleasant character, who willingly shares family photos and content linked to the Russian military intelligence services (the famous GRU) on his social networks, number one in Wagner’s organisation chart in Mali. At his side in Bamako, he has two right-hand men who help him prepare the deployment of the group and its troops. His motto: “I prefer to be hated for what I am rather than loved for what I am not.

Hated or not, Ivan Maslov was, in any case, welcomed on Malian soil by a high-ranking figure, an officer considered to be Wagner’s most zealous promoter within the army: Colonel Alou Boï Diarra, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, who was promoted to general last January.

Before playing matchmaker for Prigojine’s teams, this seasoned pilot, for a time at the controls of the Malian army’s only Casa C295, had long cultivated a certain closeness with France. Trained partly in Salon-de-Provence, he was also, according to one of our sources, a “correspondent” of the French intelligence services.

Then came the time of disillusionment. The humiliation of the Malian army in 2012, the arrival of French soldiers who, from rescuers, are gradually transformed into occupiers. This military man, with his exacerbated nationalist feelings, has a hard time with it. He can no longer stand the state of decay of his country and his institution. Clever and opportunistic, he joined the leaders of the putsch against Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) in 2020 and then managed to find a place for himself in the junta.

The officer is particularly close to Sadio Camara, the Russophile Minister of Defence, described by many as the real strongman of the country. Trained in Russia, this colonel of the powerful National Guard, whose neck is often girded with a beige chèche, is the main architect of the rapprochement between Moscow and Bamako. In recent months, those who waited in his air-conditioned antechamber often saw Alou Boï Diarra leaving his office. During their meetings behind the padded door, there is no doubt that cooperation with the Russians was often discussed.

“Sadio Camara and Alou Boï Diarra planned and organised the deployment of Wagner in Mali. The first was the thinker, the second the executor,” says a highly placed French source. In 2021, Sadio Camara made several return trips to Russia, including in June and August. Some sources say that Colonel Diarra was sometimes on the trip. The aim of these missions was to draw up an agreement between Wagner and the Malian transitional authorities.

Aerial ballet over Bamako

At the end of 2021, as the gap between the French and Malian authorities widened, Wagner wove his web in the land of Soundiata Keïta. At the helm, once again, is Ivan Aleksandrovitch Maslov. In consultation with Alou Boï Diarra, the former Spetsnaz continued his scouting, organised and planned the arrival of the first contingents of mercenaries. According to our information, he refers directly to his boss, the tycoon Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has already followed the African operations of his men in Libya, Sudan, Central Africa and Mozambique. In the last days of November, accompanied by the chief of staff of the air force, Maslov went to Nara, in the Koulikoro region, to Sikasso and to Mondoro, near the Nigerian border.

As New Year’s Eve approached, the first Wagner mercenaries landed at Bamako airport. Their numbers would continue to grow throughout January. According to French intelligence estimates, they totalled around 800 men at the beginning of February – with a target of a thousand by the end of the month. It is impossible to know their exact nationality, but the majority of them are said to be Russian or from Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. Most of these fighters were flown into Mali from Libya and Syria in Russian Air Force Ilyushins. In recent weeks, these transport planes have been making frequent rotations between Bamako airport and the other theatres where Wagner operates.

Aerial view of Bamako airport 14 December 2021. © Center for strategic and international studies

Many of these flights have gone under the radar, but some have been recorded. The ballet of Ilyushin II-76s, but also of Tupolev-154s, a more massive cargo plane, unfolds from the vicinity of Moscow to Bamako, passing through Syria, Libya and, sometimes, Sudan. On 18 December, for example, the Tu-154 aircraft, registration number RA-85042, took off at 10.17 pm from Chkalovsky Airport, located some 30km northeast of Moscow and regularly used by the Russian army. It flew to Syria and then to Egypt, where it landed in the vicinity of the Mediterranean city of Alexandria. The aircraft then rotated through Libya, between Sirte and Misrata, before landing in Bamako on 19 December at 10.08 pm.

An airport under a Russian flag?

The aircraft spent just over five hours there. At 3.25 a.m., it headed back to Syria and then to Russia, where it landed in the evening at Chkalovsky. He is far from being the only one to make the journey. Multiple round trips are organised by the 223rd and 224th flight units of the Russian Air Force, hybrid public-private entities that ensure the military deployment of Russia and its private partners. The latter has a fleet of Tupolev and Antonov cargo planes, as well as nearly twenty Ilyushin II-76s, which are popular for transporting troops. On 28 January, another Tupolev (RA-85041) landed in Bamako from Chkalovsky after stops in Latakia, a Russian military base in Syria, Khartoum – where the Wagner group has had a presence for several years – and Benghazi, in Libya.

Observers at Bamako airport have come to recognise this sort of circuit. “They land, unload and leave. It has almost become a routine,” says a security source. Once on the tarmac, most of the mercenaries go to the base built by Wagner on the southeast side of the runway. With its twenty or so tents and barracks, this is a sort of logistical rear base for the organisation in the country. At the other end of the runway, another building, hidden from view, is also used for the activities of the Wagner group: the airport’s presidential pavilion.

Built by Chinese companies, it was inaugurated by IBK for the Africa-France summit held in Bamako in 2017. Officially, the transitional authorities continue to use it, but since December and the appearance of armed guards blocking its access road, doubts have been growing about what is really happening within its walls.

Away from the hustle and bustle of the main airport building, passengers can enter without being seen. The building, described as “huge” by one of its former users, has large halls, lounges, toilets, kitchens and even fully equipped private flats. In short, there is plenty of room for important guests such as Wagner executives and some of their equipment. “The Russians are sometimes welcomed in the presidential zone,” confirms a Malian security source, without giving further details.

Abuses and torture

Once in Bamako, the mercenaries are sent to their theatres of operation, by land or air. A few Russian helicopters were flown from the Central African Republic to Mali in January. According to a source in Bangui, there has been a regular flow of troops back and forth between the Kassaï camp in Bangui and Mali since November. Aleksander Maltsev, commander of the mercenaries based in Bria, Central African Republic, was sent to Mali at the end of October to work with Ivan Aleksandrovitch Maslov on the deployment of troops in Malian territory.

At the beginning of February, about 200 Wagner elements were present at the Bamako base, 150 in Sikasso and another 150 in Timbuktu, where – ironically – they had taken up residence in the former French compound. At the end of January, they started patrolling the area around the “city of 333 saints”, but without yet engaging in combat with jihadist groups. They also started training the Malian Armed Forces (Famas) in Diabali, in the Segou region.

The mercenaries have begun to take action in the centre of the country. Nearly 300 of them are spread between Mopti and an outpost in Sofara, from where they carry out their security missions – some of them under the cover of Operation Keletigui, launched in December by the Malian army. On the ground, Wagner fighters and Famas form joint units. Most of the time, they are composed of about fifty men from each side. Among the Malian units deployed with Wagner is the Bataillon autonome des forces spéciales (BAFS), from which a certain Assimi Goïta comes. As for equipment, the members of Wagner have their own weapons, means of intercepting communications and observation drones, but they often travel onboard Typhoons or other Famas armoured vehicles to remain relatively discreet.

At the end of January, several operations involving mercenaries were recorded by the French services. In the Niono circle and in Diabali, but mainly in the Sofara, Bandiagara and Bankass areas. There they carry out scouting patrols and are sometimes equipped with air support – helicopters, but also small planes. On the ground, they track down members of jihadist groups or those they suspect of being members.

According to several security sources, their methods are “brutal” and “expeditious”. “These people don’t do things by halves. They take civilians at random and torture them, sometimes with tools, to make them talk,” said a source. Once a camp or a jihadist group has been identified, the mercenaries decide to send in Famas or to intervene themselves, not hesitating to open fire.

Body bags

According to several sources, their presence and violent behaviour would also tend to further disinhibit the Malian military, which is often blamed for abuses against the population. As in the Central African Republic, several accusations of abuses against civilians have begun to emerge since the arrival of Wagner’s fighters in Mali. Various examples can be cited. On 28 January, near Tonou, in the Koro circle, a Famas vehicle jumped on an improvised explosive device (the so-called IED) while Wagner elements were patrolling the area. A punitive expedition was then carried out in the neighbouring village and several people were killed. Another case, this time near Sofara, in the village of Balaguira, attached to the commune of Timniri. Between 26 and 29 January, incidents took place there and around ten civilians were reportedly executed.

What about the losses on the Wagner side? It is difficult to give a precise estimate. Several of their men were wounded in combat or after their convoys ran over IEDs. Some sources also mention deaths, based on body bags seen in helicopters flying from Mopti-Sévaré to Bamako. But, of course, no official announcement has been made. Deaths within the group are treated with the utmost discretion, with Yevgeny Prigozhin’s companies paying a small amount of compensation to the families of the disappeared. This is also a way of buying the silence of those concerned and maintaining the myth of the mercenaries’ omnipotence.

A few weeks after the arrival of the first Wagner contingents in Mali, dissension and even tension are already noticeable between the Famas and their new allies in the joint units. Mercenaries and soldiers do not have the same modes of action. The latter, who consider their partners to be incompetent, tend to take more and more autonomy. The former, on the other hand, do not appreciate receiving orders, sometimes curt, from these foreigners who know nothing about their country.

A feeling that is also emerging in the headquarters in Bamako, where instructors from Wagner are beginning to arrive. “They are trying to take control of operations. Obviously, this makes Malian officers nervous,” says a security source. In addition to the various army corps, members of the group also work with the internal security forces, namely the police and the national guard.

Million-dollar price tags

What is the price of the deployment of these mercenaries on Malian territory? For the moment, this secret is only known by Sadio Camara, Alou Boï Diarra and Ivan Aleksandrovitch Maslov. As in the Central African Republic, the objective would be to allow them to earn money by accessing the country’s extractive sector. In August 2021, Sergueï Laktionov, a geologist working for Wagner, arrived in Bamako with one of his subordinates, named Evgueni. This 54-year-old professional is no stranger to Western intelligence.

He is in fact one of the collaborators of Andrei Mandel, who has already presided over Wagner’s mining destiny in Sudan and the Central African Republic. Mandel himself, head of the M-Invest company (a satellite company of the Wagner galaxy) in Sudan, was in Bamako at the end of November 2021 to monitor Wagner’s mining interests, as in the Central African Republic.

After having crisscrossed the Central African Republic, Sergueï Laktionov flew to Mali to explore the centre and south of the country in search of mining potential – notably gold and magnesium – that might interest his employers. He also did at least a second Mali rotation at the end of November, together with Ivan Maslov. According to our information, the two men worked together to create a mining company under Malian law called Alpha Development through nominees. This company has not yet been formally registered but should in future carry Wagner’s interests in the extractive sector. Several regions are reportedly targeted, in particular Kayes and Sikasso.

Suspicions have also recently arisen around mining permits granted in the Bakolobi area to companies controlled by relatives of the Minister of Mines, Lamine Seydou Traoré, who is a close associate of his colleague in the Defence Ministry, Sadio Camara.

Mining concessions

Have concessions already been granted to Alpha Development or another Malian company linked to the Wagner group? Despite suspicions, there is no evidence yet that a contract has been formally signed. According to US officials, the Malian government is paying about $10 million a month for Wagner’s services. According to our information, in January Bamako made at least one transfer of 1.5 million euros from the national budget. When contacted, members of the Malian government did not wish to comment.

The cost is not important. For the transitional authorities, it is now necessary to show that they were right to kick out the French and to call on Wagner. Hence their desire to quickly show an assessment of the cooperation with their new partner in the centre of the country. Even if it means, as a diplomatic source fears, “lining up corpses”, jihadists or not, to show that the results are there. Or to inflate the balance sheets of ongoing military operations, as several observers suspect. What is the next step in the strategy? No one knows precisely. But some believe that the number of mercenaries will continue to grow in the coming weeks.

In the minds of some members of the junta, and in particular Sadio Camara, the temptation to deploy these allies in the North is real. The ultimate goal is to recapture Kidal, which the ex-Tuareg rebels have never been able to digest. In addition to Timbuktu, where their men are already present, Wagner officials are also said to have gone to Gao to carry out reconnaissance in early January. While the French and European contingents have left, the Minusma peacekeepers, who are mainly present in the north, remain on the minefield. For the time being, there have been no clashes with Wagner’s troops. But UN officials fear this and are worried about the situation.

As for the French and Emmanuel Macron, they now fear a domino effect. After having underestimated the risk when Wagner gained a foothold in the Central African Republic, and after having thought, wrongly, that a repetition of the Central African scenario was unlikely in Mali, they now have their eyes on Burkina Faso and Niger, the designated targets of Wagner’s ambitions and where anti-French sentiment is already very present.

Just as Soviet leaders once worried about a ripple effect toppling one after another of the sister republics of Eastern Europe, the West and its allies are now watching for another risk of aftershocks in West Africa. Questioned recently by Jeune Afrique on the arrival of Wagner in Bamako, the Nigerian President said that it was “not the solution”.

 

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