December 20, 2022

IntelBrief: Wagner Group Continues Expanding Through West Africa

AP Photo/Sophie Garcia

Bottom Line Up Front

  • There are recent reports that the Russia-based Wagner Group is trying to expand its operations into Burkina Faso.
  • While officials within the government of Burkina Faso have denied this, there have been signs of closer relations with the Russian Federation that would make Wagner’s expansion into the country unsurprising.
  • There are reports that the Biden administration is considering the possible designation of the Wagner Group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in the U.S.
  • Such a designation would have serious legal consequences for individuals doing business with the Wagner Group and could deter other governments from brokering agreements with them.

Last week, the President of Ghana, Nana Akufo-Addo, claimed that neighboring Burkina Faso is now hosting the notorious Russian organization known as the Wagner Group. President Akufo-Addo’s statement was made at the U.S.-Africa summit, which convened last week in Washington D.C. The Ghanian President claimed that Burkina Faso made a deal with the Wagner Group in an effort to combat the growing threat posed by jihadist terrorism in Burkina Faso. In exchange, according to Ghana’s claims, the Wagner Group would gain access to a gold mine. President Akufo-Addo said at the summit, “to have [Wagner] operating on our northern border is particularly stressful for us in Ghana.” Reports of Wagner’s presence in Burkina Faso predate the summit but gained traction after this exchange. If true, the fact that the Wagner Group struck a deal to provide security services to another government in Africa while harvesting that country’s natural resources would be in keeping with Wagner’s strategy of accumulating wealth through natural resource exploitation. Moreover, Burkina Faso’s President, Apollinaire Kyelem, has been working to improve bilateral relations with Russia and visited the country in early December. Burkina Faso rejected Akufo-Addo’s claims on December 16 and in a display of these concerns, Burkina Faso summoned the Ghanian Ambassador to challenge assertions that the country struck a deal with the Wagner Group.

The Wagner Group’s reputation for leaving high numbers of civilian deaths and instability in its wake raise concerns about the reports of its presence in Burkina Faso. Like Mozambique, Mali, Libya, Sudan, Syria, and the Central African Republic (CAR), all countries where the Wagner Group had a presence (or currently maintains one), Burkina Faso has been plagued by terrorism which has resulted in thousands of deaths. According to the U.S. Department of State’s (published December 2021) Country Reports on Terrorism, multiple terrorist groups operate in Burkina Faso, to include ISIS-Greater Sahara, Ansaroul Islam, and Jama’at Nasr al Islam. Elsewhere in Africa, the Wagner Group has been enlisted to fight, and/or train government personnel to fight other al-Qa’ida or ISIS linked groups. In Mozambique, the Wagner Group was ineffective in combatting ISIS’s Central Africa Province (ISCAP). ISCAP, in fact, killed multiple members of the Wagner Group in ambushes, resulting in the Wagner Group’s eventual retreat from the country. In the CAR, according to data from the non-profit Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED) project, Wagner Group members were involved in nearly 40% of the acts of political violence against civilians in the CAR between December 2020-July 2022. The Wagner Group is, unfortunately, more capable of killing innocent civilians than it is delivering on its promises to rid Africa of ISIS and al-Qa’ida affiliates.

Reports that the Wagner Group may be operating in Burkina Faso come at a time when the Biden administration is reportedly considering whether to designate the Wagner Group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) under the Department of State’s legal authorities. The Wagner Group very likely meets the three legal criteria for listing as an FTO. First, it is a foreign-based organization (the State Department cannot legally designate domestic-based groups). Second, the Wagner Group has engaged in a wide array of violent activity that would meet the definition of terrorism pursuant to Section 1182(a)(3)(B) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which guides FTO determinations. The INA is broad enough that attacks against combatants are allowable for inclusion into a designation package (or for renewal). Wagner’s actions against both civilians and combatants in armed conflict are an attempt to create an atmosphere of fear in the wider communities where they operate. Third, the terrorist activity the Wagner Group engages in threatens U.S. national security interests. In this case, U.S. foreign policy and military interests in Africa and Ukraine, where the Wagner Group has engaged in wanton acts of terrorism. This includes laying mines encircling a nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, earlier this year.

Quickly pursuing an FTO designation of the Wagner Group may be in U.S. national security interests. The U.S. Congress seems to agree, having introduced earlier this year a bipartisan and bicameral bill titled “Holding Accountable Russian Mercenaries (HARM) Act” that, if passed, would designate the Wagner Group as a terrorist organization. In theory, and often in practice, one of the key non-legal benefits of an FTO designation is that it could deter future support to the proscribed group, given the stigma of cooperating with a designated terrorist entity. In the case of the Wagner Group multiple U.S. senior policy and intelligence officials traveled to West Africa in October, including Burkina Faso, as part of an effort to discourage countries of the region to hire the Wagner Group.

If reports resulting from the recent U.S.-Africa summit are true, the U.S. overtures failed. Perhaps, if the Wagner Group were already designated pursuant to U.S. law as an FTO, it would deter countries from entertaining the notion of working with Wagner. In the best of cases, it would result in countries derisking from their existing relationships with the Wagner Group. Given the confluence of recent events, the possible expansion of Wagner into Burkina Faso, continued Wagner Group atrocities across the globe, to include Ukraine, recent reports that the Biden administration is considering affixing the terrorist label to Wagner, and Congressional interest, there is a possibility that the Wagner Group may soon be designated. Indeed, the designation could be a useful tool to achieve policy compromise, especially given bipartisan support to label Russia as a State Sponsor of Terrorism. Designating the Wagner Group would signal to Capitol Hill and several countries that have already identified Russia as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, that the U.S. is willing to increase the stakes of with an important arm of the Russian Federation’s national security structure.