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Counter-Terrorism in the Sahel


Orion Policy Institute, Washington DC

In this episode of the OrionTalks Podcast, Broderick McDonald and Guy Fiennes join host Dr Suat Cubukcu to discuss the Wagner Group's expanding relations in the Sahel region and its potential impact on the security and stability of the region.


They delve into the specific roles undertaken by the Wagner Group, examining their economic and political motivations, as well as the implications of their involvement in countering rebels and insurgency in the region. Additionally, they assess the Russian government's interest in Wagner's activities and explore potential measures the international community can take to address these concerning developments.

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Broderick McDonald is an Associate Fellow at Kings College London's International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and a doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford examining extremism, disinformation, and online harms. He previously served as a Special Advisor in Parliament and as a researcher with the Non-Partisan Parliamentary Group for Genocide Prevention. Prior to this, he was a Fellow with the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) and Executive Editor of the Cambridge International Law Journal. Broderick is an Associate Member of Chatham House, the Global Network on Extremism & Technology (GNET) and the Extremism and Gaming Research Network (EGRN), and the All Tech is Human Responsible AI Working Group. Brody was recently named as a World Economic Forum Global Shaper and is a Fellow with the Aspen Institute UK. His research spans the ideological spectrum and he has conducted fieldwork across the Middle East and North Africa region. As Co-Founder of the Oxford Disinformation & Extremism Lab, he works on researcher safety training and monitoring emerging technologies including Generative Artificial Intelligence, 3D Printing, and Weaponised Drones.


In January 2023, the leader of Burkina Faso’s junta, Ibrahim Traoré, asked French counterterrorism forces to withdraw from the country within a month amid rising anti-French sentiment in the Sahel. By doing so Traoré exercised the country’s sovereign right to determine which, if any, foreign presence is welcome. However, many analysts argue Burkina Faso is likely to replace the military support of French forces with Russia’s notorious Wagner Group in the coming months. While Traoré denied this, it is widely believed that high-level meetings between Wagner and senior officials in Burkina Faso will culminate in collaboration despite Western concerns and probable high-cost repercussions.

The use of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group would be a dangerous mistake for Burkina Faso’s government, and would threaten broader efforts to contain the rising Salafi-jihadist threat in West Africa. The introduction of Wagner mercenaries with a history of grievous human rights abuses will not improve the situation—it will inflame it.

While long-term solutions cannot come from Russian mercenaries, the prolonged French military presence has also failed to bring peace and stability to the region. Tainted by a long colonial legacy in North Africa and limited success in the Sahel crisis since 2013, the French have been facing a wave of rejection and anti-French sentiment from both civilians and governments in the Sahel countries as they have struggled to contain the Salafi-jihadist rebels operating there. Just last year, Mali’s ruling junta replaced French military support with the Wagner Group, which was seen as more flexible and potentially more effective than the French. With France’s withdrawal from Burkina Faso and Traoré’s legitimacy dependent on improving the security situation, many fear that the new military regime will follow the Malian model and resort to the Wagner Group as a primary security partner. But with the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara and the al-Qaeda-affiliated JMIN surging across West Africa, the deployment of Wagner mercenaries in Burkina Faso would exacerbate the conflict in three provocative ways.

First, the brutal methods of the Wagner Group have been on full display in Ukraine, where its contract soldiers carry out indiscriminate attacks with no regard for civilian life to make minor advances. In neighboring Mali, which has already welcomed Wagner forces, data published by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project reveals that civilian deaths skyrocketed as the group targeted Fulani tribes and herders seen as sympathetic to the militant Islamists. Such indiscriminate targeting further deepens ethnic divisions and pushes local communities to seek protection and closer ties with extremist groups. The dire consequences are clear in the Malian case: in the year following Wagner’s arrival in December 2021, civilian targeting by rebel groups increased fourfold. The brutal tactics of the Wagner Group are not only morally wrong, they are counterproductive. If Burkina Faso follows the path of Mali in relying on Wagner mercenaries, it will only further inflame the conflict.

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