2 May, 2022
by Sam Biden, Global Leadership Fellow
On 1 April 2022, the Malian government proudly announced their successes during a recent operation in Moura that left an estimated 300 ‘militants’ dead. Between 23 and 31 March, the Malian army and suspected Russian mercenary counterparts, Wagner Group (WG), summarily executed these estimated 300 men. Prior to the execution, men were gathered in small groups ranging from 4 to 10 people and forced to walk towards their execution point. These men were not only targeted because of their supposed connection to Islamic extremism but also for trivial reasons. For example, men were targeted because of what they wore, others were targeted because they had beards and had been forced to alter their clothing by jihadists while others claim selection based on ethnicity. Claims that white men speaking in an unknown language were present have been made, possibly being the Wagner Group, a private Russian security firm. The victims, mostly of ethnic Peuhl or Fulani origin, were rounded up and executed for their supposed ties to Islamic extremism plaguing areas of Mali. While the Malian government strongly claims that all of the victims were extremists, multiple sources have shown that the overwhelming majority of victims were in fact civilians. Locals claim that while the area was certainly under the control of Islamic extremists, the victims were not the intended target but rather the opposite.
The operation came as efforts to tackle the rise of the Group of Supporters of Islam and Muslims (JSIM) were executed. JSIM is a coalition force of Salafi-jihadist insurgents from Sub-Saharan Africa. Formed in 2017, the group spread quickly across West Africa and waged violence against anyone in its path, including civilians. JNIM is notorious for its imposition of conservative Islamic beliefs on people in Mali, even going so far as to attack those who refuse to accept this new ideology. JSIMs influence is so strong in many areas of Mali that one local described his local area as a Caliphate, an institution of public office strictly held under Islamic rule.
The role of the WG in the attack is unconfirmed, therefore, all reference to their involvement is alleged.
WG began deployment to Mali in December of 2021 with the intent of training local forces and developing a close relationship with the Malian army as an attempt to mitigate extremist ideologies in the State. This relationship is described as ‘shoring up’ Mali’s current political position rather than actually addressing the insecurity of the State. Upon arrival, WG began to construct camps surrounding Mali’s Airbase 101, a military air force base. WG then supposedly transported a large amount of personnel and equipment to Mali. For example, a Russian Tupolev TU-154 aircraft was recorded landing in Bamako, Mali’s capital city, on 19 December 2021. This specific aircraft has been linked to efforts from WG in other African countries such as Sudan. WG has further provided security for important political figures as well as possibly serving as security for Russian mining operations in Mali.
WG gained international attention with their efforts alongside the Assad regime at the height of the Syrian Civil War. From this, they expanded security efforts into Libya, Madagascar, Mozambique and the Central African Republic (CAR). This expansion has resulted in a diversification of intentions. Stepping away from purely contractual security work, WG has begun to expand their influence into the political and economic sphere in Africa. One key example refers to the retreat of French troops from Mali, where third party security efforts were now required to keep the State somewhat stable and to combat the rise of Islamic extremism. The movement of WG and its subsequent spreading of disinformation only confirms their intent to warp the political spheres of African states in their favor.
While the main purpose of WGs presence is to provide security support and training, they have consistently shifted towards spreading Russian influence as well.
1. Foreign Policy Initiative
In 2012, France intervened in Mali to help bring stability to the State. France cooperated with the UN in order to achieve this, beginning Operation Serval and Operation Barkhane. Operation Serval was aimed at pushing Islamic extremists out of Northern Mali as they attempted to spread South. Operation Barkhane is a multinational effort by France, Estonia, Sweden, the Czech Republic and other African nations to control the Sahel region. WG began their deployment to Mali shortly after the retreat of these French troops, although Operation Barkhane is still active. Because of this new environment, WG could influence domestic policy with foreign ideas with relatively little backlash from the now retreated parties.
WG have a history of promoting disinformation wherever they go. This is done by attempting to create a ‘favorable information’ environment, such as supposedly rigging polls showing the Malian population was in favor of the new WG-Mali relationship. In October 2021 a surrogate of WG, Alexandre Ivanov, claimed that WG is bringing immense value to the people of Mali. These statements were backed up by images of WG operatives training Mali soldiers, although these photos have now been proven as fakes. This doctoring of images only raises further suspicions of a possible propaganda-based relationship between WG and Mali.
WG has a three-tiered approach to spreading its influence. First, WG conducts disinformation campaigns including promoting pro-government information such as fake polls, and engages in harsh counter-demonstration measures. This allows for them to create a duopoly of propaganda with whichever government they are working with at the time. One example of this is the rigging of polls showing support for the groups presence in Mali when the true feelings of the population may be far from that result. Second, WG secures payment for its services in the State, primarily involving the extractive industry such as establishing mining complexes. This has already been seen with their mining operations being set up in Mali. Third, WG develops a close relationship with the armed forces of the State. This is facilitated by Kremlin-linked support directly via the Russian military, allowing the allocation of personnel, weaponry and training to struggling States.
2. Foreign Influence In Independent Investigations
As a customary rule of international law, breaches of the right to life are a grave violation per Article 6 of the ICCPR. Most commonly, this occurs when States or state actors intentionally kill either individuals or groups during international (State v. State) or non-international armed conflicts (State v. non-state actor). There is a duty on the State in question to investigate these killings in a prompt, effective, independent and impartial as well as transparent manner.
The Malian government have claimed to have opened an investigation into the Moura killings. This seems unnecessary since they have already stated openly during an operation that they killed 300 ‘militants’. If these deaths were committed during an attack where the militants’ raised arms to the Malian forces, then the deaths of the ‘militants’ during combat, is lawful. However, the nature of the deaths through summary executions is unlawful regardless of combatant status. Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions prohibits any form of executions made without prior judicial guarantees, such as a fair trial. Because of this, the assumption and subsequent execution of the ‘militants’ violates common Article 3 and constitutes a war crime. The Malian forces could have captured the militants as prisoners of war, as is their legal right. They would still owe the basic protections such as humane treatment of prisoners, respect for these prisoners, equal treatment and freedom from violations of physical security. It appears that regardless of a combatant, prisoner of war or civilian status being attached to the victims that the Malian forces and their counterparts would still have engaged in the unlawful use of summary executions.
Given the developing propogandist paradigm emerging through resource exploitation between WG and Mali, independence and impartiality during an investigation is a major cause for concern. As mentioned prior, the Malian government have not clarified to what extent WG was involved in these kinds of operations, if at all. The nature of WG is to provide private security and the pursuit of ridding the North of Islamist extremists seems a reasonable activity for WG to assist with. After the withdrawal of French forces, Mali was left to handle the developing crisis alone. Now they have the assistance of a well-trained world superpower security force it seems unlikely they would throw them under the bus for atrocities in their own State. It’s important to remember, WG and the Malian government both want to rid the North of Islamic extremists and any compromising effort by either party could sour their relationship. It is therefore fair to assume that in the event WG is confirmed as a party that pulled the trigger on the civilians that the Malian-WG relationship could collapse.
‘Doubt’ In International Humanitarian Law (IHL)
The element of doubt is a quintessential component within the principle of distinction. The principle of distinction states that at all times every party to a conflict must distinguish between civilians and combatants. Civilian protections are lost the second arms are taken up, even if this means handling a rifle without the intent of fighting. The doubtful element requires that in the event of uncertainty pertaining to a combatant status, the individual is assumed to be civilian.
There is not necessarily a level of doubt regarding the Malian perspective on the Moura massacre, but there is certainly international doubt over their claims. They claim all the victims were ‘militants’ – this would slot them into a category of combatant and therefore killing them during combat is not a war crime. However, many testimonies from those at the scene describe a series of doubtful acts on behalf of the perpetrators. For example, men with beards who dressed a certain way were assumed to be jihadists. This assumption itself is a violation of IHL as there was no conclusive proof that just because someone wore or looked a certain way that they were jihadists. What we are seeing here is not the strict targeting of jihadists, but the religious and racial profiling of Northern settlers.
There is no doubt the Malian government cannot unequivocally prove that everyone they and their alleged counterparts executed was a combatant. Until an official and verifiable list of death certificates and information can be obtained, the Malian government and their state actor accomplice are in violation of the principle of distinction.
Crimes Against Humanity – Murder (art. 7 ICC)
As a war crime, the conclusion of crimes against humanity being committed follows smoothly on from the assessment regarding distinction. What we currently assume and know is that; 300 people were executed, the Malian government was involved, a white, foreign speaking security force was involved and not all those executed were combatants.
With a basic assessment, the Malian government has supposedly executed some civilians as part of the 300-man massacre. There is no conclusive proof that all 300 were civilians, whether 50% were combatants and so on. However, even if only one was an innocent man, the element of doubt present, the failure to distinguish this man’s identity and the subsequent execution of this man results in a crime against humanity regardless. While this is not the most elegant solution, it allows the conclusion that if testimonies are to be believed and verified, the Malian government and their counterparts engaged in crimes against humanity on some scale, whether making up the entirety of the massacre or not.
Dogmatic Denial & Conclusion
The Malian government, the entity famous for not investigating prior atrocities and even committing atrocities will continue take a dogmatic approach with the assumption all those executed were combatants. To maintain a stable relationship with their new foreign state actors they perhaps believe it is in the best interests to maintain their current recalling of events.
In conclusion, there is significant, mounting evidence that the Moura massacre took the lives of innocent people. This was certainly at the hands of the Malian government and a currently unconfirmed counterpart, Wagner Group. The Malian governments reluctancy to open investigations into prior atrocities in the state raises concerns of an investigation into the Moura massacre. If Mali continue on this ignorant path in which civilian deaths aren’t worth investigating, then international efforts to restore stability and mitigate corruption at the governmental level may have to take place.