Wagner Group

The Wagner Group: How PMCs Drive Extremism

Fourteen years ago, the world became aware of the many atrocities committed by private military contractors (PMCs) when Blackwater killed Iraqi civilians. The incident strained relations with the Iraqi government and proved counterproductive to American counterinsurgency efforts. PMCs have existed in conflicts for hundreds of years, but they have been under the international community’s radar during the War on Terror. Over a decade later, the European Union has sanctioned the Wagner Group for human rights abuses.

The Wagner Group

The Wagner Group, a private military contractor, is reported to be led by Dmitry Utkin and has been present in various conflicts throughout the globe. A significant core of the group originated from another mercenary group called the Slavonic Corps, which operated in Syria to protect oil fields.

The first instance of the Wagner Group appearing in a conflict was during 2014 in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists declared independence. Before leading the group, Utkin had worked in the Russian military intelligence service as a brigade commander. The group has also been linked to the Russian government, which they have denied. However, this contrasts reports that the Wagner Group operates in areas where the Russian government is known to also operate.

The Group’s Global Activities

In addition to Ukraine, the Wagner Group has operated in Syria, much like the mercenary group which preceded it. While in Syria, the PMCs have been accused of a wide variety of abuses which has caught the attention of international watchdog organizations. Among the most egregious was the reported torture of a Syrian man in 2017. They have also been alleged to have attacked American special forces in concert with pro-Assad forces.

An Expanding Presence

Furthermore, the group has expanded its operations within Africa to include several conflict zones. An infamous theater for its activities has been within the Central African Republic. The mercenary group was reportedly brought in at the behest of President Touadéra to help fight against rebels who opposed his rule. They, however, took liberties to the mandate given to them by their host as they were found to have committed several human rights cases of abuses. These abuses range from executions and torture to groundless imprisonment.

Another engagement of the group in Africa, which demonstrates their growing foothold in the continent, has been that of Libya. It is reported that the organization first appeared in Libya in 2019 to aid forces fighting the UN-backed government. The Wagner Group, unsurprisingly, engaged in nefarious behavior, which demonstrates a larger pattern of disregard for international law. Among such actions have included the placement of mines within noncombatant areas.

Alarmingly, there have been growing concerns of the Wagner Group continuing this disturbing pattern in a potential deployment to Mali. This comes on the heels of Mali denying the deployment of UN peacekeeping efforts to help stabilize the country. An invitation of the organization would certainly contribute to a deterioration of security for Mali’s citizens.

More alarming, it appears that governments in the region are turning away from long-established international norms for diplomacy and instead turning to mercenary groups to resolve political opposition.

Mercenaries only serve to instill a greater hatred for the governments that employ them and drive individuals to seek out organizations that oppose them. In some instances, they join extremist organizations that provide them that opportunity, as well as economic security which their governments have denied them.

Policies to Curtail Mercenary Activity in Africa

For the Wagner Group to operate within Africa, there must be an understanding of what allows them to do so. The reason stems from the political instability within the region as well as the perceived ineffectiveness of UN peacekeepers to bring stability to the states.

A critique of UN peacekeeping missions is with merit as there have been allegations of misconduct regarding different peacekeeping operations throughout Africa. One of the most recent is the allegations of abuse within the Central African Republic, which have damaged the credibility of the institution. Additionally, the procurement of mercenary groups allows these governments to not abide by international law and use whatever means are at their disposal to eliminate armed opposition.

Thus, it is necessary for nations who contribute to UN peacekeeping missions and the institution itself to implement harsher penalties on their citizens who have been found to be guilty of abuses while serving in an official capacity. Without institutional integrity and trust from fragile states, they will look for alternatives, such as mercenary groups.

Nations who comprise the UN should also consider providing more resources to peacekeeping missions. These resources may be more effective in providing credible deterrence and bringing stability to the region through tried and tested diplomacy.

Lastly, the international community must pressure nations that employ mercenary groups through sanctions and forbid their citizens from engaging in such efforts.


Christopher Ynclan Jr., Counter-Terrorism Research Fellow


Disintegration of the Second Marquetalia: The Death of “Romaña” and “El Paisa”

Two of the most important ex-commanders of the extinct FARC guerrilla were assassinated in Venezuela. Dario Velásquez, known as “El Paisa,” and Henry Castellanos, known as “Romaña,” died in ambushes last week, which is a great blow to the FARC dissidents, known as the Second Marquetalia.

The death of Velásquez and Castellanos, who were signatories in the peace process, but later abandoned it, reveals the struggle being wedged between dissident groups of the FARC for control of the illicit economies in Venezuela and Colombia.


Hernán Darío Velásquez, better known as “El Paisa,” began his criminal career in the FARC at the age of 19. He joined the eastern bloc of the FARC and was under the orders of the historical commanders of the guerrilla, the “Mono Jojoy.” “El Paisa” rapidly rose through the ranks of the FARC, specializing in activities such as drug and arms trafficking and extortion, especially in his hometown of Antioquia.

Years later, “El Paisa” led the Teófilo Forero mobile column, which was a special operations force within the FARC known for its combat expertise and bloody terrorist attacks.  Notable attacks include the bomb attack on the El Nogal Club in Bogotá, in which 36 people died, and the mass kidnapping of the deputies of Valle del Cauca.  These events led “El Paisa” to become one of the most wanted and feared men in Colombia, and one of the most important members of the FARC.

On the other hand, Henry Castellanos, better known as “Romaña,” commanded the 53rd front of the FARC, one of the most important in areas such as the Department of Meta. “Romaña” was also known as “the kidnapping czar” because of his specialty in random kidnappings on national roads, popularly known as “miraculous fishing.”

These kidnappings were carried out with the intention of financing the FARC’s guerrilla activities and occurred mainly in the Departments of Villavicencio, Cundinamarca, and Boyacá.

Castellanos also participated in the bloody takeover of the city of Mitú, where 43 people were killed and 61 members of the security forces were kidnapped. “Romaña’s” efficiency in kidnappings, extortion, and guerrilla takeovers led him to become a member of the FARC’s secretariat, the leadership of the terrorist organization.

Signing the Peace Agreement and its Abandonment

Both “El Paisa” and “Romaña” participated in signing the peace agreement with the Colombian government in 2016, and both were part of the FARC negotiating team despite being late additions to the negotiating table. The agreement sought to demobilize more than 32,000 guerrillas, reincorporate them into civilian life, and bring an absolute end to hostilities between the Colombian government and the FARC.

In July 2018, “El Paisa” left the Territorial Training and Reincorporation Space (ETCR) in Caquetá, where he was worked alongside other ex-combatants. Velásquez argued that the government betrayed the agreement since the terms were not being fulfilled and the capture of another FARC leader, Jesus Santrich, was a trap.

As for “Romaña,” he decided not to appear before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) in 2019, arguing that he had received death threats.

Months after the disappearance of “Romaña” and “El Paisa,” the former commanders appeared in a video with Iván Márquez, Jesús Santrich, and other deserters from the peace agreement announcing the creation of the Second Marquetalia. In the video, Márquez points out that the ex-guerrillas were forced to create a new organization because the government did not comply with the prior agreements. Thus, a new terrorist organization with a significant presence in Colombia and Venezuela was created.

The Killings and their Implications

On December 8th, the Colombian Defense Minister confirmed that both “Romaña” and “El Paisa” died in isolated events in Venezuela. The Minister also emphasized that the members of the second Marquetalia were protected by Nicolas Maduro’s regime, which significantly facilitated their illegal operations.

Although it is not possible to fully confirm who was behind the death of two of the most feared FARC dissidents, there are varying hypotheses. Some sources indicate that “El Paisa” was assassinated by the men under his command due to their mistreatment and that they wanted to seize his hidden fortune of millions of dollars.

However, the most viable hypothesis is that “El Paisa” was assassinated in an ambush by the 10th front of the FARC. Gentil Duarte leads the 10th front and disputes for control of drug trafficking routes, the illegal exploitation of minerals, and other activities from criminals in Colombia and in some areas of Venezuela, such as the State of Apure.

“Romaña’s” situation appears similar in nature. A Colombian news portal revealed that the photo where “Romaña” appears dead was taken by the FARC dissidents who ambushed him.

In addition to the deaths of “Romaña” and “El Paisa,” Jesús Santrich was also assassinated this year. The conditions of his death were very similar; there is no clear party responsible, it occurred on Venezuelan soil, and it is suspected that he was murdered due to drug-trafficking disputes.

The deaths of the leaders of the Second Marquetalia represent a great blow to this criminal and terrorist organization. The only relevant leader still alive is Iván Márquez, who is suspected to be hiding in another country.

In the event that “Romaña” and “El Paisa” were indeed killed by Gentil Duarte’s dissidents, this would demonstrate that Duarte’s group is winning over the Second Marquetalia. Meaning that Gentil Duarte’s dissidents are taking over a vast amount of territory in Colombia and Venezuela and that they are increasing in economic and arms power.

Finally, to stop the violence between the dissident groups of the FARC, it is necessary that both the Colombian State and the Venezuelan State confront narco-terrorist groups and gain control over their territories, especially near the borders. However, this is especially difficult since the two countries do not have diplomatic relations, which makes cooperation difficult, especially considering that the Venezuelan regime sponsors and protects some of these organizations.


Daniel Felipe Ruiz Rozo, Counter-Terrorism Research Fellow


The Escalation of Terrorism in Syria

Syria is one of the countries severely impacted by terrorism. It is widely known that Syria is afflicted by suffering, as terrorists have attacked innocent people, obliterated foundations, plundered Syria’s assets, and generated a humanitarian catastrophe throughout the country. Since 1979, Syria has been exposed to terrorist attacks, which persist today.

The Escalation of Terrorism

In 1979, Syria was designated as a State Sponsor of Terrorism and proceeded its political and military bolster to aid several terrorist groups. Over the last few years, Syria has captivated global audiences due to its counter-terrorism endeavors. The unexpected and terrifying rise of ISIS in 2014 drew worldwide attention to Syria. In a few weeks, the broadest transnational alliance in global history was deployed to set in motion a counterattack against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The jihadist group, after five years, referring to themselves as “caliphate,” had been demolished. Whereas announcements of ISIS’s overcome were certainly untimely, a worldwide approach and consideration on countering fear-based oppression in Syria has since declined, as if to suggest that the work is exhausted.

In fact, as 2020 began, the world appeared to misunderstand counter-terrorism efforts in Syria, since the danger of ISIS could be long from over. ISIS holds thousands of warriors in Syria and maintains an unfaltering pace of agitators and fear-based oppressor assaults east of the Euphrates. More worryingly, ISIS appears to be developing strength and capacity west of the Euphrates. This is also where Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad and his local army accomplices generally appear unable to contain and overcome ISIS’s exercises.

The Current Situation in Syria

In 2021, according to military officials, over 14 soldiers were killed and three were injured in a bomb assault on a bus with armed forces in Damascus, the capital of Syria. Immediately after the attack, the army fired on a rebel state in Idlib, killing 12 people, according to rescue workers. The bombing of Damascus was the deadliest the capital has experienced in recent years. This was an infrequent incident, considering that the government’s army conquered the suburbs once owned by the opposition’s fighters after a decade of conflict in Syria.

Ultimately, 2021 has been one of the hardest years for Syria. Over the years, the accumulation of wars and terrorism has led to a crucial economic crisis and an enormous reduction of food resources. Therefore, the United States should adjust its policies and reflect on the current situation in Syria.

In 2021, the armed conflict in Syria has passed a ten-year milestone. At the present moment, the conflict has outstretched into a violent and ongoing deadlock, with several different and simultaneous armed conflicts overlapping with regional security concerns regarding Turkey, Iran, Israel, Kurds, and jihadist activities.

While the United Nations-led process has had difficulties progressing, Western nations have withdrawn their involvement, and some Arab nations are looking for ways to realign with Assad’s regime.

Conclusions and Suggestions

Syria’s attacks have resulted in a humanitarian disaster with dramatic repercussions for the country, neighboring states, and in general, globally. Approximately 500,000 people didn’t survive the attacks, and over 13 million have abandoned their homes.

Since 2015, the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) has played an important role in supporting people and building peace. USIP has likewise supported common society associations, informed policymakers, helped refugees in Syria’s neighboring states, and ultimately promoted peace.

In order to have critical outcomes, an organized effort is needed to help Syria diminish terrorism and conquer peace. Global support is needed to defeat the terrorist attacks. However, international counter-terrorism cooperation faces many obstacles, from geostrategic rivalries to the ubiquitous double standards and the influence of domestic politics at the time.

Regarding the current conditions in Syria, it is vital for Assad and his compatriots to be expelled. Today’s government supports the continuation of conflict to maintain its power. Although this eviction is needed for the same reasons, it remains a very complex operation.

Overall, the major concerns that make Syria a fertile ground for terrorism include the regime’s security drift, Islamist terrorism’s resilience, and recent demographic changes in some regions profiting Shias. Europe should enact guidelines to support Syria, such as providing aid to refugees, rebuilding regions attacked by ISIS, and providing solutions for future conflicts between neighboring states.


Katerina Rebecca Paraskeva, Counter-Terrorism Research Fellow


Abubakar Shekau: His Many Deaths and Lasting Impact

Very little is known about Abubakar Shekau, the late leader of the group Jama’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-jihad. The little we know is that he was a one-time deputy to Mohammed Yusuf, founder of the group commonly referred to as Boko Haram.

Following Yusuf’s execution by the Nigerian forces in 2009, Shekau assumed leadership until his death on May 19th, 2021. In the almost 12 years of Shekau’s leadership, Boko Haram witnessed a steady rise in global recognition, media attention, and publicly acknowledged partnerships with other international terrorist organizations.

Boko Haram’s activities significantly transformed over the years, including a change in its targets, the nature of its attacks, and the weapons it used. Year after year, the group’s choices and standards of weapons continued to improve and the question of funding became louder and more critical to decipher. Additionally, while Boko Haram’s recruitment strategy continuously evolved, it nonetheless continued to produce its desired results.

Regarding Shekau’s leadership, even though deeply flawed and occasionally challenged by top group members, it would be wrong for any counter-terrorism strategy to make light of the capabilities of such an individual.

His Deaths

Conceivably, the Nigerian government may not have thought too lightly of Shekau, due to their many attempts to eliminate him. Since 2009, the Nigerian military, on at least four occasions, declared Abubakar Shekau dead before being debunked by Shekau’s typical video statements.

With such back history, it was no surprise that many would question what may now seem accurate, the announcement of the death of Abubakar Shekau on May 19th, 2021. Although, this time, the Nigerian military did not take credit for his death; rather, ISWAP, a rival faction, accepted responsibility for the events that led to his death, death by suicide.

Some have described the “mystery man” to be a psychopath and a joke. Regardless, Shekau remains an integral part of the group’s expansion. Psychopath or insane, joke or not, was he a dangerous person? Yes. Did he take advantage of the loopholes the Nigerian system graciously afforded him? Yes. Did he get what he wanted? Most definitely.

If his goal was to undermine the Nigerian military and destabilize the country as a whole, then Shekau found success. From influencing, whether directly or indirectly, the current violent crisis and criminalities on multiple fronts, the group’s desire is being fulfilled in the nation.

The growing unrest, much of which receives minute media coverage and security responses, is having a far-reaching effect on the entire nation. One of those many ways that is quite relatable is in the area of heightened food prices resulting from food scarcity.

A Hungry Nation

Northern Nigeria, which is home to numerous crises, such as farmers’ versus herdsmen, bandits, and kidnappers, is a key player in the agricultural sector and contributes significantly to the nation’s entire crop and livestock production output. Indeed, it is not beyond the expectation, that the Nigerian government highly prioritizes the region’s development.

The failure of the nation’s leadership to consider simply this grave consequence over the years has now put the entire nation in an avoidable struggle for daily survival.  A more worrying knowledge is the projection of the hardship that awaits the country in the coming years.

In Conclusion

Unless something is done, and quickly, the present, increasing criminality among citizens will only be the tip of the iceberg. With the grave damages brought about by one “mystery man” and the ripple effect of the actions of Boko Haram, alongside the response or nonresponse of the Nigerian government, a greater problem awaits.

While the Nigerian government continues to do its best to deal with the multiple fixes, perhaps unmasking the man, the group, and the truth behind them all, may lay a solid foundation to winning this blind war against an unknown enemy.


Joan McDappa, Counter-Terrorism Research Fellow


Resisting Russia: Ukraine on the Verge of a Far-Right Insurgency

An unclassified U.S. intelligence document, first reported on December 3rd by The Washington Post, revealed that Russia is planning a massive military offensive against Ukraine as soon as early 2022, involving up to 175,000 troops.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly expressed concern regarding NATO expansion in Eastern Europe. In 2008, NATO, an American-led military alliance, promised membership to Ukraine. Russia saw this offer as a threat to its borders and an intrusion into its sphere of influence. Whilst Ukraine is still working to meet the admission criteria for NATO membership, the U.S. has declared an “ironclad commitment” to Ukraine’s security. The current crisis has provoked fears of an escalating war on European soil.

Should Russia enact its planned offensive, Ukraine’s military would quickly fall. “If Russia really wants to unleash its conventional capabilities, they could inflict massive damage in a very short period of time,” said Robert Lee, a Russian military expert at King’s College, London. “They can devastate the Ukrainian military in the east really quickly, within the first 30-40 minutes.”

In 2014, when Russian troops seized the Crimean Peninsula, Russian-backed separatists launched a takeover of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Ukraine’s military was unable to mount an effective resistance, and volunteer brigades took up arms to defeat the separatists. Eight years later, Ukrainian military officials have begun to speak of how they could mobilise a similar guerilla resistance of irregular military units to counter Russian occupation. One senior military official has stated that, if all else should fail, the Ukrainian military would simply open its weapon depots and allow the Ukrainian people to arm themselves.

Extremism within Ukraine’s Security Forces

The increasing possibility of a counter-Russian guerilla insurgency prompts further analysis of the ideologies of the armed units and volunteer battalions already operating within the country, and who would likely play a key role in such a resistance. Indeed, these groups have already been referred to as “Ukraine’s most potent and reliable force on the battlefield.”

Whilst many of these groups officially fall under the command of the Ukrainian government, they are far from a conventional military force, with many of them retaining their own distinct identity and command structure. The loyalty of these groups to the current government is far from certain, and some volunteer battalions have even been accused of war crimes.

The Azov movement was among the 30-odd volunteer units that helped defeat the takeover of the Donbas region by Russian-backed forces in 2014. Since then, Azov has become one of the most powerful militias in Ukraine. Whilst the group has sought to downplay its more extreme elements, Azov’s ideology of far-right ultranationalism is hard to deny. The group’s logo is a mirrored Wolfsangel, a symbol used by Nazi Germany, and most widely known as an emblem of the SS division Das Reich.

The group’s members openly espouse white supremacist and fascist ideology. Many of them have links to other neo-Nazi groups and have been accused of targeting minorities in Azov-controlled territory. The group’s first commander, Andriy Biketsky, stated in 2010 that Ukraine’s national mission was to “lead the white races of the world in a final crusade… against Semite-led untermenschen [subhumans].” The group has already been accused of numerous human rights violations and war crimes, including mass looting, torture, and rape.

Groups like Azov are central to Ukraine’s expanding prominence as a major international hub for far-right extremism. Azov’s online recruitment strategy has helped establish a cult-like global following of fascists and white supremacists and has contributed to a flow of more than 17,000 foreign fighters who have come to Ukraine since 2015. This flow of foreign nationals is motivated by the allure of fighting alongside other far-right extremists. Many of them see Ukraine as a training ground to develop combat skills which they can bring home.

Security experts warn that Ukraine is radicalizing far-right foreign fighters in the same way as Syria has with Islamist extremists, creating an international network of combat-trained extremists. “I believe Europe is in great danger” says Alberto Testa, an expert on far-right radicalization at the University of West London. Testa describes Ukraine as a staging ground for a “white jihad struggle” where extremists can “train for what some would call racial holy war.”

The United States’ “Ironclad Commitment”

The prominence of far-right extremist groups within Ukraine introduces substantial complexity to the United States’ security commitment. Should Russia’s planned offensive occur, the Ukrainian military would quickly fall, and a grassroots insurgency of armed units and volunteer battalions would rapidly emerge as the country’s most effective resistance.

Far-right ultranationalist units, such as Azov, would likely be among the strongest elements of this insurgency, as they were during the 2014 campaign against Russian-backed separatists. The guerilla tactics led by these units would likely represent the country’s greatest weapon. Indeed, these tactics represent “Ukraine’s best deterrent against Putin’s invasion force,” according to counter-insurgency specialist Thomas X. Hannes.

So far, the U.S. has attempted to distance itself from the extremist elements of Ukraine’s security forces. It has sought to prevent military assistance from reaching Azov. The State Department has branded Azov’s political and paramilitary offshoots as “nationalist hate groups.” However, should Ukraine face the offensive described in intelligence reports, then these elements would be central to the country’s counter-Russian effort.  The U.S. would need to make a difficult choice: does its “ironclad commitment” to Ukraine’s sovereignty justify support for far-right extremists?


The situation in Ukraine represents years of diplomatic failure. The international community’s inability to resolve the Ukraine crisis has fueled violence and extremism within the country’s borders, and beyond. The conflict has turned Ukraine into a violent training ground for fascists and white supremacists, creating a global network of combat-trained extremists ready to wage racial holy war. The crisis also has the potential of igniting a terrifying, and possibly catastrophic, global conflict.

The United States and Russia should work urgently to prevent the possibility of armed conflict and propose a solution for the crisis in Ukraine. The security and prosperity of the Ukrainian people should be central to any peace-seeking effort in Eastern Europe. If NATO and Russia are to co-exist peacefully, then they must work together to build mutual trust, challenge hatred, and serve the cause of peace.


Oliver Alexander Crisp, Counter-Terrorism Research Fellow

Rise to Peace