Hours later, men in military uniform believed to belong to the Wagner Group—the Russian paramilitary organization with close ties to the Kremlin—landed an L-39 Albatros ground attack aircraft at the Gao military airport. After unloading equipment, the group of men settled in for an indeterminate duration. By now, it was a well-established pattern, one that had repeated itself in Menaka in June, Gossi in April and Timbuktu in January. The French would hand the keys to the bases over to the Malians, who would immediately pass them on to Russian paramilitary forces.
As Mali shuffles its partners, there has been much catastrophizing in Western media and analysis surrounding the Wagner Group. While not misplaced, the concerns serve as a useful distraction that helps to brush over other actors’ mistakes. The rapid-fire replacement of French forces by Russian mercenaries marked a decade of failed efforts to shore up stability in Mali. The Mali that French troops were leaving was far worse off than the country they had flown into to help steady. It had lost much of its vast north and breadbasket center to armed groups with militant ethnic and ideological agendas. Thousands of civilians were dead and almost one million displaced. State institutions had grown weaker than ever. Coups d’etat in 2020 and 2021 swept military leaders into power who regarded the candid Russian model of authoritarian rule and violent repression as more appealing than the confused Western approach, which mixed murdering terrorists with preaching about human rights.
As a once-unified French-led coalition continues to falter, and Algerian efforts to promote peace stagger along, disparate actors within and outside of Europe, including Russia, are staging their own Sahel interventions. Meanwhile, the intervention model deployed by the French remains deeply rooted elsewhere in the Sahel and is firmly expanding southwards toward the Atlantic in response to perceived threats emerging in the Gulf of Guinea states of Benin, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Togo.
French Intervention in the Sahel
French military interventions in Libya and Mali over the past decade have quietly pit France and Algeria against one another around questions of conflict mediation in the region. In January of 2013, Paris deployed counterterror forces at the request of Mali’s unelected interim authorities to respond to a complex emergency that witnessed political-military rebellion by northern armed groups, the occupation of the North by jihadist coalitions and the toppling of political rule in the capital.
In the years that followed, France led Europe in a flurry of foreign-led state-building initiatives. On paper, France espoused a strategy that relied upon four pillars: the fight against armed terrorist groups, capacity building for the armed forces, support for the return of the state and development coordination. In reality, counterterrorism was the focal point of the intervention while the other three pillars made no notable progress. Indeed, by most metrics, each backslid considerably.
In 2014, the French also supported the heads of state of Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger in creating the Group of Five for the Sahel. The joint force was meant to foster regional military cooperation, especially around shared borders, and to provide a way to channel development funding. It officially launched in July of 2017, but its operations made no dent in the rising insecurity. And soon enough, its forces were linked to abuses against civilians. Mali’s withdrawal from the Group of Five in May of 2022 cemented the irrelevance of an organization that received billions of euros in funding from the European Union, Saudi Arabia and the United States and made no notable improvements to development or security landscapes.
Between French Arms and Algerian Peace
As fighting spread from northern Mali into its more densely populated central regions, counterterror operations further enflamed the dynamics they were allegedly meant to resolve. In 2017 and 2018, French counterterror forces teamed up with Tuareg and Daosahak community-based militias in the Ménaka region bordering Niger. The violent offensives they led against rival civilians from the Peul ethnic group backfired, sending recruitment numbers soaring for an Islamic State chapter that offered protection, training and weapons.
In central Mali, communal militarization inspired the Dogon and Bambara community-based militias. In 2019, they began staging their own counterterror attacks, often embracing whole-scale assaults on Peul civilians. The bloodiest assault occurred in March 2019, when a militia attacked the Peul village of Ogossagou, killing 157 villagers, including 46 children. Eleven months later, armed men returned to the devastated village and massacred 35 more people.
Expectations sank and many came to perceive the Algiers-led process as doomed or a parody of itself. It lacked popular buy-in, ignored major facets of the evolving crisis and was led by actors who lacked the political will to implement it. Its three signatory groups appeared more interested in preening and feuding than in implementing its provisions. Meanwhile, northern armed groups negotiated power-sharing arrangements among themselves, portioning out different regions and enjoying the autonomy that accompanied the delay in the return of state forces while complaining bitterly about the ongoing closures of schools and public functions.
From 2019 to early 2020, as violence against civilians rose sharply and European and US partners began voicing doubts, France doubled down on its militarized intervention model in Mali. At a January summit held in the French city of Pau, President Emmanuel Macron insisted on the soundness of the militarized strategy, flouting the popular support that was growing in Mali for dialogue with jihadists. The following month, France committed a 600-man “surge” to the triborder region between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. By August, however, a coup in Bamako confirmed growing suspicions that the Malian state, the intervention’s main partner, was increasingly untenable. The events set Paris and Bamako on a collision course that resulted in the rapid souring of relations in 2021 and, ultimately, the withdrawal and expulsion of French troops and their replacement by Wagner mercenaries.
Constant suspicion between Mali’s two most influential partners played no small part in the failures of both. Algiers, deeply unsettled by the stationing of French troops on its southern border, was convinced France was supporting secessionist Tuareg tendencies and undermining the peace deal. Paris, finding terrorist groups far more resilient than expected, believed Algeria was sheltering Iyad Ag Ghali, the leader of Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin, and otherwise providing support to these groups. Fragile, war-torn Mali paid the heaviest price.
Enter the Wagner Group
In 2021, as relations between France and Mali broke down, multiple external entrants, each with its own agenda, set off a new round of after-shocks. The warming of relations with Russia and the arrival of Wagner mercenaries has received the most attention. While Russia claims its intentions are to be a post-colonial partner to African nations like Mali, it has largely followed in France’s footsteps, adopting the counterterrorist intervention model and relying on communal militarization for short-term gains that do little to conceal longer-term losses.
The Russian partnership meant that the gloves were now off. Over the next six months, the partnership between the Malian Armed Forces and the Wagner group embraced ruthless techniques of violence in central Mali—some of which, like the frequent targeting of civilians in extrajudicial killings, especially among the Peul, would not have been attempted in the presence of European partners. In a joint raid on Moura, hundreds of civilians were killed and dozens of women raped. Near Diabaly, a town in central Mali’s Segou region, a former MINUSMA camp was converted into a Wagner-run torture camp that has been linked to dozens of summary executions. Elsewhere, Wagner operatives were implicated in the first recorded episodes of Malian forces booby-trapping dead bodies for use in military operations.
The Pretorian aims of this intervention were to beat back jihadists by striking at their rural strongholds and to strengthen the Malian state’s presence in a key contested region. These goals appear more targeted and attainable than the sweeping architectural ambitions of the French, even as their pursuit has reinforced several trends that picked up momentum under the partnership with France, like community-based militia mobilization and the persecution of Peul civilians.
But the brutality and inefficiency of the Russian/Wagner approach is more likely to speed up than to reverse the Malian state’s rapid loss of territory in the country’s central regions, while providing Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin with a new source of propaganda and recruitment. In the early months of the Ukraine war, a flurry of media reports that Wagner fighters in Mali were unpaid and unsupported in the field and could be redeployed to Ukraine raised hopes among many in Western Europe and the United States that they would not be around for much longer. But signs increasingly suggest Wagner is not leaving Mali anytime soon and indeed may be looking to expand its regional presence into neighboring Burkina Faso.
New Actors, New Approaches
As French influence waned, another external actor, Italy, has taken greater liberties in Mali.
In May 2021, the Rome-based NGO Arapacis and Italian foreign minister Luigi Di Maio hosted the two main rival coalitions of northern Malian Tuaregs in Rome. The Coalition des Mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA) and Plateforme signed a declaration pledging to work together within a common structure known as the Permanent Strategic Framework (CSP). Two months later, the groups formally launched the CSP in Kidal with the attendance of a high-level delegation from the transitional government authorities following the second coup. It was a hopeful moment of unity for two Tuareg-led groups that had lost years and perhaps hundreds of young men to intra-communal fighting, and it had support from a government whose preceding leaders had often played one camp against the other.
A final external actor of note is Turkey. In July 2020, at a time when Ankara was increasing its military engagement in Somalia and Libya, Turkey signed a defense pact with Niger, raising fears—especially in France and among its Gulf rivals—of Turkish military ambitions in the Sahel. In 2022, sales of Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 drones to Niger and Burkina Faso suggested this engagement could take the form of air support and training for use by partner state forces in counterterror operations. It is therefore likely to add a new layer of risk for civilians, increasing states’ technical capacities to strike in volatile regions without making any progress on the political front. In spite of these risks, Sahelian elites and populations tend to see Turkey—which is primarily interested in developing new export markets—as a fellow Islamic country, one that is less overbearing than the European Union or France and has crafted a well-tailored offer of support, including infrastructure projects, education and healthcare.
It is important not to exaggerate the role or agency of external actors in the Sahel crisis. But over the past decade, foreign partners have compounded the region’s problems. They have encouraged and empowered military operations that lack political aims in contested areas and promoted the use of community-based armed groups, multiplying their force and, therefore, the weight of their damages. The worsening situation sheds light on how foreign-assisted counterterrorism enables rather than diffuses inter- and intra-ethnic fighting and military and paramilitary violence against civilians. Moreover, it provides a warning to those who are reheating the same intervention narratives, techniques and policies in response to perceived threats emerging in the Gulf of Guinea states of Benin, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Togo. The Accra Initiative—a regional counter-terrorism mechanism aimed at securitizing peripheralized border zones—was launched by these states in 2017 with support from France and Germany. This initiative, along with associated counterterror campaigns in northern Benin and Togo, seems poised to lead coastal West African countries down similar dangerous trajectories.
[Hannah Rae Armstrong is a writer and adviser on peace and security with over a decade of field-based experience in North Africa and the Sahel.]
 United Nations, Security Council Resolution 2100, April 25, 2013.
 Interviews with security sources in Bamako, Mali, June 2022.
 Interviews with diplomatic sources in Kidal, Mali, July 2021.