March 2020: A regiment of the French Foreign Legion patrols the Malian desert. The armored vehicles are moving in the dangerous border area with Niger. The region is a retreat for Islamist fighters. Suddenly shots are fired. Two men are the shooters. They jump off their motorcycle and take cover. The foreign legionnaires aim at both attackers, who succumb to their injuries a short time later.
In the Sahel, such attacks are occurring more and more frequently. In Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso alone, at least 4,800 civilians died last year in terrorist attacks and ethnic violence — 10 times as many as 2014.
Phasing out Foreign Legion
As part of Operation Barkhane, the French army has been fighting Islamist terrorism in the region since August 2014. In early summer 2021, France deployed 5,100 soldiers and mercenaries. However, French President Emmanuel Macron has announced that most of them will leave before the end of 2021.
The fact that France is not only deploying its own soldiers in the Sahel is rarely an issue. The 10,000 or so fighters in the Foreign Legion today come from around 150 countries. They have one thing in common: They like to go to war, are not afraid to kill, and earn money doing it. But, unlike soldiers, they are paid by a state that is not their home country.
The Foreign Legion was founded in 1831. It is now considered a discontinued model. However, since the end of the 1990s, a new industry has been booming: military and security companies. Their services range from radar surveillance and spy flights to front-line operations. Other companies provide more logistical support to the armed forces of numerous countries: in medical care, in kitchens and laundries, or the supply of food and ammunition.
From tanks to Kalashnikovs
According to Herbert Wulff, a political scientist specializing in peace and conflict research, some governments use these companies to evade their responsibilities. "For example, in the US or even Great Britain, it is not very popular to deploy one's own soldiers due to the number of fallen soldiers in wars and conflicts," Wulff says. "Or also, as in Russia's case, when you want to achieve goals — as in Ukraine, for example — but you don't want to take responsibility for it as the formally responsible government."
It's a strategy that Russian President Vladimir Putin is also using in Syria and Africa by deploying the private Russian military company Wagner in the oil-rich country of Libya and the mineral-rich Central African Republic. Both these nations are embroiled in a bloody civil war. Moreover, Russia has significantly expanded its overt and covert military presence in Africa in recent years.
Additionally, the country has signed 19 military agreements with various African states, said Benno Müchler, who heads the office of the CDU-affiliated Konrad Adenauer Foundation in the Democratic Republic of Congo. "On the one hand, Russia offers military expertise; advice on strategies, armaments, and military action. But on the other hand, it also offers military material in very concrete terms," Müchler says. That could be anything from helicopters to tanks to Kalashnikov rifles.
At the same time, Russia and Russian military suppliers are encountering strong Western competition. Whereby their activities are no more transparent than Russia's. In May 2018, footage of a drone appeared in US media showing an incident from October 2017. US special forces and soldiers from the Nigerien army were ambushed by Islamist militants in the West African country. Four US military personnel and five Nigerien soldiers lost their lives.
Only because of these images did the strong presence of US forces in the Sahel come to light, as did the close ties between the US Army and private military contractors. The US Department of Defense reported that the ten soldiers had been deployed with a so-called intelligence contractor, a private provider of intelligence information. However, the Pentagon did not provide further details on the contractor's identity and nationality.
As the drone footage showed, the wounded soldiers were recovered by a civilian helicopter. It belonged to the security contractor Erickson. For the US military command in the continent, AFRICOM, based in Stuttgart, Germany, 21 American military service providers work in North Africa and the Sahel. Several other security and military contractors also earn their money there.
Private companies as new clients
Increasingly, their clients are not states, but private companies, for whom they secure land, oil facilities or mines. As a result, the market has become increasingly confusing in recent years, despite international efforts to control the use of such companies. Their goal: to prevent war crimes through possible sanctions and to protect the lives of civilians. Yet the situation is not that complicated, says international law expert Marco Sassoli.
"At least the Americans have the official policy that these companies should not participate directly in hostilities. The problem is the interpretation of the term: What is direct participation in hostilities?" Sassoli says. "The companies would say, 'We're not at war, we're just exercising the individual right of self-defense, or self-defense assistance: If you're attacked, I may defend you.'"
Currently, there are two approaches at the international level to regulate the behavior of private force providers: A UN working group has long sought a convention that would generally prohibit the use of military service providers. However, Sassoli is skeptical: "It's like war. War is also prohibited. But I don't believe that you can eliminate it through a convention or the rules of international humanitarian law. The questions would rather be to create a regulatory framework."
Work is now underway on such a framework. At Switzerland's initiative, an international code of conduct was launched 10 years ago with the so-called Montreux Document. Private security providers are supposed to get certified, commit to complying with certain rules, and submit to a complaints procedure if necessary. The code involves representatives from the security sector, nongovernmental organizations and governments. So far, however, only just under a hundred companies have signed up to the code. And, according to Sassoli, Chinese and Russian companies have not even joined.