Small Wars Journal

Alternative Ways to Seek Regional and Global Influence: How Shadowy Organizations Serve the Interests of Turkey, Iran, and Russia

Thu, 04/07/2022 - 11:26pm

Alternative Ways to Seek Regional and Global Influence: How Shadowy Organizations Serve the Interests of Turkey, Iran, and Russia

Mahmut Cengiz, Layla Hashemi, and Vladimir Semizhanov

The quest for global influence has led some states to turn a blind eye to and even support non-state actors regardless of whether these groups could objectively be deemed terrorist organizations rather than benevolent organizations simply trying to do good works. This reckless approach to working with virtually any non-state actors that came along ended in the early 1990s. Globalization changed the rules of the games, and states now are reluctant to use illegal entities in their interest-seeking activities because of their concerns about being listed as state sponsors of terrorism. To carry on as usual, however, many of these states have created seemingly legal entities in the form of official armed forces or private military companies that offer a cover of plausible deniability. The SADAT International Defense Consultancy in Turkey, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Iran, and the Wagner Group in Russia are three examples of shadowy organizations that seek to increase their country’s influence across the globe by any means possible. These organizations, for example, have also been accused of engaging in suspicious acts in the countries where they operate.

Recently, leaders of the Western world have become aware of the suspicious nature of these groups and began to take action against these shadowy organizations. For example, the United States designated the IRGC as a terrorist organization in 2019[1] and commended the European Union’s sanctions against the Wagner Group and its affiliates in 2021.[2] Reputable and reliable sources in the United States released articles that reflect the government’s growing concerns about the roles SADAT has undertaken in Turkey.[3] This article provides insight into the powerful role of these groups and aims to shed light on how these groups serve the interests of dark regimes and threaten global security.                

Case Study: Turkey and the Foundation of SADAT

Until early 2014, Turkey was seen as a model country by successfully combining Islam and democracy. It was also one of the secular Muslim countries to take the side of the Western world during the Cold War. However, when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi – AKP) was reelected for the third time in 2010, the AKP began to show authoritarian tendencies[4] and created shadowy organizations to protect the Erdogan regime.[5] The 17 and 25 December 2013 corruption scandals left little room for Erdogan to protect his authoritarian rule.[6] Based on solid evidence, these scandals implicated Erdogan, his family, and his cabinet. Erdogan, of course, knew that if he were to resign from the presidency, he would land in prison. He therefore began to use shadowy organizations—one of which is SADAT, Turkey’s first international defense and consulting company—to protect his position of power. Ostensibly, SADAT is a private military company; however, everyone in Turkey knows that the organization is under the control of Erdogan and serves only the interests of Erdogan and his political party. 

SADAT—the International Defense, Consultation, Construction, Industry and Trade Company (Uluslararası Savunma Danışmanlık İnşaat, Sanayi ve Ticaret Anonim Şirketi – SADAT)—was founded by a retired general, Adnan Tanriverdi, and 23 other military personnel on February 28, 2012. According to the company’s website, its mission is “to establish a Defense Collaboration and Defense Industry Cooperation among Islamic Countries to help Islamic World take the place where it merits among Superpowers by providing Strategic Consultancy, Defense and Security Training and Supply Services to Armed Forces and Internal Security Forces of Islamic Countries.”[7]

Tanriverdi worked at the Special Forces of Chief of Staff and Northern Cyprus Civil Defense Units for 30 years and, at one point, was a military trainer for Turkey’s land forces. One of Tanriverdi’s former students is Hulusi Akar, the current Minister of National Defense. Tanriverdi, however, was labeled an Islamist when he was in the army and was forced to retire from the service after the February 28, 1997, military-led coup in Turkey. The military inserted itself into politics that year because it was concerned that an increase in Islamist ideology might turn the country away from secularism. After Tanriverdi retired, he joined the Association for Defending Justice (Adaleti Savunanlar Dernegi – ASDER) and became the organization’s director five years later. By 2012, Tanriverdi had established SADAT and, in 2016, Erdogan appointed Tanriverdi as his chief military adviser. The appointment was perhaps not surprising given that Tanriverdi was one of only a few soldiers who met with and gave their support to Erdogan when he was elected as the Mayor of Istanbul Municipality in 1994. The relationship soured in December 2019 after Tanriverdi gave a speech in which he said, “We need to [be] prepared for the appearance of [the] Messiah.” Erdogan subsequently removed Tanriverdi from his position as chief military adviser.[8]

Domestic Affairs

SADAT is crucial for the continued existence of Erdogan’s government because the primary goal of the organization is to protect the current regime in Turkey. It is rare for authoritarian leaders to leave their position as the result of an election. When defeat seems imminent, authoritarian leaders create chaos and panic and use the tumultuous situation as an excuse to delay or cancel the election. This is the position in which Erdogan now finds himself. He knows that if he loses in the next election, he will be removed from office and sent to jail for his involvement in a multitude of criminal offenses: illegally transferring weapons to conflict zones, enabling jihadist groups to use Turkish territory for their violent acts, engaging in corrupt activities, providing terrorist financing, and turning a blind eye to and encouraging a group of police and military personnel to oppress and torture the opposition. In the face of such a harsh reality, Erdogan plans to use SADAT as a tool to ignite a civil war and intimidate the opposition. Meral Aksener, the leader of the İYİ Parti (Good Party),  said that serious rumors were circulating that members of SADAT will create chaos in Turkey if the AKP government has not accepted the results of the election.[9] 

Given the nature of SADAT’s activities in the past, one should not underestimate the ability and willingness of the organization to whatever it deemed necessary to keep Erdogan and the AKP government in power. SADAT, for example, was involved in the July 16, 2016, coup attempt which, by some accounts, was the weirdest coup attempt in the country’s history.[10] Turkey is familiar with military coups and recorded successful ones in 1960, 1971, and 1980, though the one in 2016 was markedly different. A small group of soldiers attempted to overthrow the government, but their effort was seen as hara-kiri because it was badly orchestrated, and the soldiers were not well-prepared. Evidence discovered after the coup attempt proved that Erdogan knew in advance what the soldiers were planning to do but did nothing to stop the uprising even though he could have done so. Erdogan failed to act because he knew he would benefit from the results of an attempted coup.[11] Unfortunately for Turkey, he was correct.  

The coup attempt gave Erdogan the leverage he needed to sweep all his perceived enemies from power and make himself the sole leader of the country with absolute control over all branches of Turkey’s constitutional system. SADAT members were heavily involved in the coup attempt. They were on the streets and used violence that night, resulting in the death of more than 250 civilians. They delivered weapons to a group of civilians, most likely for use during the uprising, though the whereabouts of those weapons after the coup attempt is not known. SADAT members also were on the Bosporus bridge in Istanbul and targeted Air Force cadets, even beheading one of them.[12] Erdogan’s goal was to convince the Turkish people that the soldiers aimed to oust his regime, that the soldiers were followers of opposition leader Fethullah Gulen, and that he, Erdogan, had saved the country from a military takeover of the government. But it was all a ruse. Erdogan’s real goal, of course, was to destroy Turkey’s 100-year-old democratic gains and solidify his power as an autocratic leader. He succeeded. Democracy was dead, as were hundreds of innocent people, and thousands of people who had nothing to do with the coup attempt were jailed. 

SADAT, which also has blood on its hands, now operates provincial-level branches in 44 out of 81 provinces of Turkey. According to İYİ Parti Chairman Meral Aksener, SADAT has training camps in Tokat (a city in the mid-Black Sea region of Anatolia) and Konya (a city south of Ankara in Turkey’s Central Anatolia region).[13] The organization has trained several thousand people who will be assigned if any attempts are made to overthrow Erdogan’s government. SADAT, however, is not an official government agency; rather, it is a quick reaction team responsible for protecting Erdogan’s regime. In June 2021 for example, one of SADAT’s trained members, Onur Gencer, was involved in the assassination of Deniz Poyraz, a member of the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, at the Izmir provincial building.[14]

In addition to SADAT’s involvement in violent acts, the organization played a role in the hiring process for military personnel for three years after the 2016 coup attempt. Members of SADAT interviewed candidates for service in the Turkish army, giving the organization a say in who was hired and who was rejected. The Erdogan government, however, has been unwilling to launch an investigation into or respond to written questions from parliament about SADAT’s questionable and nefarious activities.[15]

Regional and Global Affairs

According to the SADAT website, the organization operates in Turkey and other Muslim countries. In one of his media interviews, however, Tanriverdi said that the organization is not active in Turkey but that it is active in another country, which he declined to name because of what he referred to as confidentiality restrictions. The France Intelligence Research Center paints a far different picture of SADAT’s involvement in other countries, noting that SADAT has links in 22 Muslim countries.

Based on news reports, SADAT’s geographical range stretches from Yemen and Nagorno-Karabakh (a region of southwestern Azerbaijan) to Libya and Syria. For example, SADAT actively gives its support to forces that are fighting against the Haftar militia in Libya. In one case, SADAT transferred members of the Free Syrian Army to Libya.[16] According to the U.S. Department of Defense, “SADAT maintains supervision and payment of the estimated 5,000 pro-GNA [Government of National Accord] fighters in Libya.”[17] Thanks to SADAT’s support for the GNA (an interim government in Libya that was formed under the Libyan Political Agreement, a United Nations-led initiative signed on 17 December 2015),  the Libyan army gained victories against the Haftar militia.

SADAT also is active in Syria and functions as a facilitator between Turkey-backed groups fighting against Syrian regime forces and Syrian allies in the country. The groups backed by Turkey appear to be moderate in terms of their tactics against the Syrian regime, though they do show signs of adopting a jihadist ideology. Some of these groups also have been linked to al Qaeda in Syria. In terms of the official Turkish army to influence actors and events in Syria, it pales in comparison with the influence that SADAT wields in that country. For example, despite the objections by Turkish army generals,[18] SADAT was able to get observation towers built in Idlib, a city in northwestern Syria. SADAT also was responsible for carrying out the transfer of weapons to Jabhat Al Nusra (JAN), the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, according to mafia leader Sedat Peker.[19] Peker, who was forced to leave Turkey after making serious allegations of corruption, drug trafficking, and human rights violations by Turkish Minister of Interior Suleyman Soylu. In the 30 May 2021, installment in a series of videos from Dubai, Peker said that while his mafia group was directed to set up a truck convoy to transfer weapons to Turkmen groups in Syria, it was SADAT—not Turkey’s Ministry of Interior nor its military—that carried out the actual transfer of arms to JAN.[20]             

As one might expect, Erdogan and his proxy, SADAT, do not confine their machinations to Syria. The Turkish president has made frequent visits to Africa, though not with benign intentions. He goes with the intention of offering millions of dollars in bribes to the leaders of African countries to shut down the Gulenist schools, engaging in arms sales, and developing suspicious relationships with corrupt leaders on the continent. Accusations have arisen that some of the African leaders who have received a visit from Erdogan use Turkey and the country’s state banks as havens for transferring and laundering ill-gotten money. Evidence acquired from wiretappings conducted as part of the 2013 corruption scandals in Turkey includes a record conversation between high-level Turkish bureaucrats about transferring weapons to jihadist terrorist groups in Nigeria. Furthermore, Turkey has sold arms and explosives to countries in the Sahel. SADAT has been active in Africa since 2013 and aligns its thinking with Turkey. This alignment was apparent in a speech that the group’s leader, Tanriverdi, gave in 2018. In that speech he said that Turkey should give its support to fighting groups in Nigeria, Mali, and the Central African Republic. SADAT’s presence also has been reported in Sudan.[21]

SADAT also provides protection for Erdogan during his visits to other locations abroad.[22] For example, a group of SADAT members served as guards in Erdogan’s protection team when the Turkish leader visited Germany in 2018. In addition, some media outlets have reported that SADAT helped Hamas launder money in the Middle East.[23]

Future Risks

SADAT’s Islamist and nationalist identities may engender sympathy from Turkish people who are not aware of the organization’s suspicious acts and involvement in terror and criminal activities. Erdogan’s AKP government has used the lack of awareness about the true nature and motives of SADAT to convince these same people that Turkey remains a target of the Western world (i.e., foreign forces) and continues to endure intense attacks by Europeans and Americans. It is a strategy that has the potential for success because in Turkey, the average follower of the AKP blames foreign forces for every kind of issue the country has faced and therefore accepts and approves of the government’s legal—and illegal—policies because they are seen as being motivated by nationalistic and religious concerns.

SADAT easily operates like a time bomb in the darkest areas of Erdogan’s authoritarian regime, ready to be detonated whenever Erdogan believes that he or his regime are at risk. Erdogan also uses SADAT as a tool to gain sympathy from persons beyond the borders of Turkey. SADAT’s presence and its activities in Turkey and elsewhere will not only tarnish the country’s reputation as a democratic state (albeit one teetering on the brink) but also enable Erdogan to serve his own interests at the expense of the greater good.

Case Study: Iran and the Foundation of IRGC

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC – Sepâh-e Pâsdârân-e Enghelâb-e Eslâmi or Sepâh) was founded shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution that overthrew the previously ruling monarchy and formed the current Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI). Established on 5 May 1979 by the interim administration of Mehdi Bazargan and under a decree issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the IRGC was given the responsibility of preserving and guarding the Islamic revolution. This role of the corps was intended to be distinct from the role of the regular army (artesh) which was responsible for defending the country’s territorial integrity and political independence as outlined in the new Constitution of the Islamic Republic. Since its inception, the IRGC has sponsored non-state paramilitary forces throughout the Middle East in an attempt to expand the influence of Shi’a Islam and protect what it perceives as a threat against Iran’s Islamic revolutionary values.

Domestic Affairs

From its relatively humble beginning, the IRGC has now become one of the most powerful paramilitary organizations in the Middle East and has sponsored proxy wars and other conflicts throughout the region. The IRGC has provided military assistance and training to several countries in the region and controls up to one-third of the Iranian economy.[24] While the Corps was already heavily sanctioned by the US for its promotion of terrorism, in April 2019, US President Donald J. Trump designated the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization. Shortly after in January 2020, the group’s Quds commander General Qassem Soleimani was assassinated by the US in Iraq, a move that was harshly criticized by Iranians and many in the international community.[25] These recent developments demonstrate the evolving and expanding role of the IRGC not only within Iran, but throughout the region and the world.

The IRGC has played a particularly large regional role in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. The Corps played a major role during the 1980–1989 Iran-Iraq war and with the establishment of Badr Brigade whose influence spread to other countries after its formation. While the IRGC’s original scope focused on the military, its role quickly expanded to becoming involved in the IRI’s economic and political affairs. This shift to more economic involvement was particularly prominent during and after the war with Iraq. The corps expanded its scope from military to the economy as it was tasked with rebuilding the country’s infrastructure in the post-war period. It has now become involved in many sectors including banking, oil, shipping, manufacturing, and technology. IRGC-affiliated companies and other non-state actors benefit from no-bid contracts from the state for major oil and infrastructure projects. The revenue from these grants and projects are then used to fund covert activities abroad as well as to strengthen the corps internal capacity. The IRGC also expanded its influence beyond the country’s borders by establishing the IRGC-Quds Force which is responsible for extraterritorial operations. The IRGC-QF supports several shadow mercenary Shia militias including Lebanese Hezbollah, Palestinian Hamas, Yemeni Houthis as well as Shia groups in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and other countries.

With control over the distribution of goods and services, the IRGC uses its elite networks to gain preferential treatment to government contracts. The IRGC uses an extensive system of secret military harbors and airports to smuggle alcohol, narcotics, arms, and other goods to help fund terrorism and transport sanctioned weapons to proxy fighters abroad, thus violating the 2014 UN weapons embargo.[26] By controlling the political and financial structures of the country, the Iranian state and its financial surrogates secure their ability to run drug smuggling, sex trafficking and terrorist networks while avoiding detection and punishment. Since its inception, the IRGC has shifted from protecting the IRI’s traditional Islamic values, the IRGC is now known as the country’s chief smuggler.

The IRGC consists of several branches, including the Basij (a paramilitary volunteer militia), Aerospace Force, Navy, Ground Force (IRGC-GF) and the IRGC-Quds Force (IRGC-QF). Founded in 1980, the IRGC-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) is a special branch of the Revolutionary Guard in charge of the organization’s foreign operations. The QF plays an active role in providing training and weapons to paramilitary groups including Iraqi insurgents, Hezbollah, and Hamas which have been connected to the IRI’s involvement in the transnational drug trade. The IRGC-QF plays a crucial recruitment role for the Iranian state, strategically placing recruiters near holy sites, mosques, schools, and community centers to attract international Islamic volunteers. As part of the IRGC’s economic empire, the IRGC-QF helps the IRI to use its illicit financial flows to fund terrorism and exert control over the country’s strategic industries, commercial services, and black-market enterprises. The IRGC-QF and its front companies are heavily involved in everything from the pharmaceutical industry to telecommunications. The corps controls the country’s pipelines and uses control of Iran’s airports and harbors to facilitate its smuggling activities.[27]

The IRGC-QF and its affiliates profit from trade along the Balkan and Southern routes by controlling border crossings and taxing illegal smuggling activity. Several high-ranking IRGC commanders have been identified as colluding with drug smuggling networks in Afghanistan, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. For example, commanding officer of the QF Ansar Corps, Brigadier General Gholamreza Baghbani, was implicated by the US Department of Treasury of making deals with Afghani heroin smugglers. Baghbani coordinated the safe movement of drugs along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan in return for the transport of weapons by the drug traffickers. A CIA report claims that the IRGC-QF uses planes and ships to transport illicit drugs to Albania, Romania and Bulgaria, suggesting connections between the IRGC-QF, Hezbollah and international smuggling networks such as the Albanian mafia and Latin American drug cartels.[28]

With the backing of the QF’s proxy Hezbollah network, the Albanians have been able to forge links with Latin America’s most powerful drug gangs, swapping heroin for cocaine and making a fortune for IGCC-QF and Hezbollah.[29] Smuggling operations of the IRGC are not limited to narcotics. According to Callum Paton (2017) the organization uses its extensive network to transport alcohol, weapons, and other illicit goods, resulting in an estimated profit of $12 billion dollars each year, which it then uses to fund and arm proxy terrorist fighters such as Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen as well as Hezbollah and other forces in Lebanon and Latin America.[30]

There is significant evidence to suggest that the authoritarian government of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) and its financial surrogates such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC or Sepah Pasdaran), Basij forces and charitable funds (bonyads) are heavily involved in illicit activity such as drug smuggling, sex trafficking and terrorism. While many have confirmed state involvement in illicit activity, explicit ties to the Iranian regime are difficult to determine because the IRI has successfully obfuscated their activities through proxy forces at home and abroad as well as by covering up the profits of these activities by funneling revenue through legitimate channels. Iran’s concealing of state illicit activity through the use of licit channels has been so successful that it is nearly impossible to distinguish between the two. As Ottolenghi et al note, the regime’s “legitimate businesses are used to procure goods for illicit activities, and the profits from the former are used to finance the latter, as IRGC members have admitted on the record.”[31]

The primary and initial motivation behind the creation of the IRGC was to defend the Islamic revolution domestically and from foreign forces, but it has now grown to be one of the most powerful (if not the most powerful) domestic organizations in the IRI. With its large role in the military successes of the nearly decades long Iran-Iraq war, the IRGC was praised by Iranians for its protection of the country and its territorial integrity. The necessity of military power during a time of crisis caused the organization to gain tremendous influence and power early on in its inception.

The IRGC emerged from the war with Iraq in 1989 in a stronger position than ever, and the organization’s military, economic and political influence would continue to expand in the post-war period. Like the Sadat, the IRGC will do anything to keep its people in power. Two thirds of the country’s current conservative parliament are tied to the IRGC and Basij militia.[32] Currently, the Guards protect the country from not only external but internal threats against the Islamic Revolution. For instance, the IRGC played a role in suppressing protests after the 2009 disputed election of conservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The Basij (‘mobilization’) militia was founded in 1980 and established as one of the IRGC’s 10 subordinate units in 1981. After helping to recruit Iranian volunteers to fight during the Iran-Iraq war, the Basij was promoted to being one of the five main arms of the Corps. The organization's scope and power grew again after October 2009 under the leadership of General Mohammad Reza Naqdi who expanded the Basij’s civilian and military capacity. Before his assassination, General Qassem Soleimani noted the presence of the Basij not just in Iran, but throughout the region in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.[33]

Regional and Global Affairs

While the IRGC’s initial focus was to protect and defend the Islamic Revolution within the country’s borders, the paramilitary organization quickly began to expand its scope to broader regional and international affairs. The Corps provides assistance and training to non-state military groups in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Yemen. Through its use of paramilitary organizations, the IRGC, and specifically the IRGC-Quds Force, is able to exert significant influence throughout the region and globally while avoiding direct or explicit ties back to the Iranian government.

The IRGC has supported proxy forces in several countries including but not limited to Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. By cultivating Hezbollah, a Shia movement in Lebanon, Iran sought to export its Islamic revolution beyond its borders. Since its initial involvement in Lebanon’s Civil War, the Guards have had a very close relationship with Hezbollah. Nurturing Hezbollah over decades, the IRGC has successfully used its relationship with non-state actors to create a state within a state. Now, over 40 years later, Iran has a consolidated model—it controls not only one of the most powerful militaries, but also political entities in Lebanon.

The Badr Brigade was established by the IRGC in 1982-1983 by recruiting Iranian-held Iraqi Shia prisoners of war (ahrar) and anti-Saddam oppositionists (mujahedin) who fought for decades against Saddam’s Baathist regime using terrorist tactics. The IRGC’s increased involvement in Iraq after the US invasion in 2003 resulted in further tension between Iran and the United States. Over 20 years, the Badr Brigade has become deeply embedded within the Iraqi state and has significant influence. By October 2021, Badr was “the largest party (9 seats) in the 20-seat Tahalof al-Fatah (Conquest Alliance).”[34]

The IRGC-QF continued to expand its influence in the region after the Arab Spring in 2011 by recruiting and training Shi’a militias. The Guards supported the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and the Iraqi government’s fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as Badr members began to take over Iraqi security forces. In June 2014, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) or Hasht al Shaabi was formed to defend Iraq against ISIS/Daesh forces. Hasht al Shaabi eventually grew into a way to influence foreign policy and exert the IRI’s dominance within the region. The Iranian-backed forces also use violence and coercion to maintain power. For instance, Iranian controlled militias in Iraq, including the many groups under the umbrella of Hasht al Shaabi, were behind the harsh repression of the 2019 anti-corruption protests.[35] Beginning in 2011, IRGC-QF and the Badr brigade sent fighters to Syria to support the Assad regime.”[36] There is also a Badr military brigade in Syria that is directly commanded by the IRGC. The IRGC’s support of violence beyond its borders led it to be declared as a terrorist organization by Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in October 2018 and in April 2019 by the US. 

Future Risks

The IRGC is at risk of continuing to grow as an economic empire and expanding the IRI’s influence across the region and the broader Islamic world. The Corps pose several specific future risks that threaten stability in and beyond the region. The IRGC, and the IRGC-QF, supports non-state and militant groups throughout the region and challenges official governments and state actors. Seeking to build a state within a state, the shadowy mercenaries affiliated with the IRGC challenge weak governments with their powerful paramilitary and non-state organizations. The Corps rose in prominence in the region once again after the Arab Spring (2010–2011). The increase of Iranian-backed proxy wars, paramilitary forces led to growing tensions with the US and caused fear of a potential rise in nuclear weapon states in the region. Perhaps the largest future threat posed by the IRGC is its involvement in widespread and systemic corruption. The corps are actively involved in cross-border smuggling of narcotics, humans, and weapons as well as financial and cybercrime. The IRGC’s involvement in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and throughout the world demonstrates how a non-state entity can expand to become an economic and political empire that exerts its influence both at home and abroad.

Case Study: Russia and the Foundation of the Wagner Group

Commonly believed to be a private military company at the service of the Russian government, the Wagner Group (a.k.a. PMC Wagner, or the League) is rather a vehicle for the recruitment, training, and deployment of paramilitary task force personnel in pursuit of Russia’s hybrid foreign policy.[37] The Russian government controls, directs, or exploits the group through a close interface between the Russian Ministry of Defense, the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff (the GRU), and a quasi-private business infrastructure that is embedded into Russia’s corrupt governance system and serves as a conduit to its presence in conflict zones of interest.[38] Born in the early months of the conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2014, the Wagner Group had its operational concept finalized while shoring up Bashir al-Assad’s repressive regime in Syria in 2015, has since spearheaded the Russian expansion into at least 10 conflict-ridden African countries, and redeployed back to Ukraine in 2022.[39] The Wagner Group’s raison d’etre, modus operandi, and the outcomes of its operations pose serious threats to international security. 

Russian Hybrid Foreign Doctrine

The origins, mission, and significance of the Wagner Group are best thought of in the context of Russia’s hybrid foreign policy as it evolved over the past twenty years. After the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, there were hopes the newly independent Russia would integrate into the rule-based international order. Indeed, while still occasionally falling out with the United States and its allies, Russia under President Yeltsin was generally seen as “a constructive player.”[40] But after taking power in 1999, President Vladimir Putin has increasingly viewed the United States and NATO as encroaching on Russia’s interests in its near abroad and asserting their dominance globally.[41] Since Russia lacked the capabilities and the reach of the Soviet Union, its military strategists looked for asymmetric ways to compete with militarily stronger adversaries.[42]

Russian military strategists argue that since the lines between the states of war and peace were increasingly blurred, a broader range of actions can be interpreted as acts of war and, therefore, warrant a response. And desired policy outcomes can be achieved using non-military means, such as provoking or rekindling a domestic conflict through propaganda and paramilitary operations, with regular troops being deployed only to finalize the gains.[43] These beliefs formed the basis of Russia’s hybrid warfare doctrine aimed at creating or exploiting foreign policy opportunities through a coordinated application of information warfare, political influence, and economic coercion operations. Importantly, the Russian General Staff had sought to delegate “delicate missions abroad” to proxy paramilitary personnel, which, while lacking a legal status, is fully controlled by the state and serves one purpose only.[44] This vision was realized with the emergence of the Wagner Group as an integral part of Russia’s hybrid foreign policy enterprise.

The Wagner Group grew out of a botched operation conducted in Syria in September 2013 by the private security company Slavonic Corps LLC. Its parent, another Russian private security company Moran Security Group, registered Slavonic Corps in Hong Kong to avoid sanctions for dealing with the Syrian government. Initially recruited to guard oil facilities in Deir az-Zor province, 267 Slavonic Corps contractors—many former intelligence, military, and police personnel with prior combat experience—were sent to capture oil facilities from the ISIS in the town of As-Sukhnah, Homs Province. They left Syria in October 2013 after taking a beating from the rebels and amidst logistic arguments with the Syrian customer.[45] Two Slavonic Corps commanders were arrested by the Federal Security Service (FSB) for illegal mercenary activities in late 2013,[46] but the Military Intelligence (the GRU) used the opportunity to send Slavonic Corps contractors, including the future Wagner founder and commander Dmitry Utkin, first to Crimea and then to Luhansk Region in eastern Ukraine in early 2014.

Ukraine: 2014-2015

In Crimea, Utkin and his men operated under GRU supervision and alongside the unmarked Russian special forces, taking over and securing Ukrainian military and government facilities. In the Luhansk region, future Wagner personnel, along with other Russian “volunteer” units trained and armed by the GRU, formed the core of battalion-sized tactical groups engaged in major battles against Ukrainian forces, such as the battle of Debaltseve and the siege of Luhansk Airport, and were involved in the downing of a Ukrainian military aircraft.[47] In addition to fighting on the frontlines, Utkin and his men exercised operational oversight of separatist commanders and, reportedly, acted as GRU enforcers in Donbass, assassinating unruly rebel warlords.[48] It is in eastern Ukraine that Utkin’s men started referring to themselves as the Wagner Group.

The Wagner Group Command and Control

The Wagner Group field commander is Dmitry Utkin, a retired GRU special forces lieutenant colonel, Chechen war veteran, and a Third Reich aficionado, who assumed his callsign (which became the group’s namesake) after Adolf Hitler’s favorite composer Richard Wagner. He reports to the GRU and Russian military overseers of the Wagner Group,[49] as well as to the group’s executive manager Andrey Troshev, an Afghan war veteran and retired high-ranking police officer, who also heads the League for the Protection of the Interests of the Veterans of Local Wars and Military Conflicts, whose namesake, the League, is the Wagner Group’s most recent reincarnation.[50] Recruited via Russian social networks, Wagner contractors are trained at a training camp adjacent to a GRU base in Molkino, Krasnodar region, with the Russian Military of Defense supplying weapons and ammunitions, and providing logistic support.[51]

The Wagner Group is funded by Vladimir Putin’s associate Evgeniy Prigozhin, a major defense contractor providing catering, cleaning, and building services to the Russian Ministry of Defense. The Kremlin uses his quasi-private business infrastructure as a conduit to its hybrid foreign policy encompassing political engineering, information warfare, and paramilitary operations.[52] Even before putting the Wagner Group on his books, Prigozhin created in 2013 the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the infamous troll factory implicated in the meddling with the 2016 U.S. election and designated by the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) in 2018.[53] Prigozhin fronts and payrolls the Wagner Group through Prigozhin’s businesses dubbed as the Kremlin’s off-book accounts. This operational model has laid the basis for the Wagner Group’s expansion into Syria, Libya, and other African countries.

Regional and Global Affairs

Syria: 2015–present

Syria became Russia’s major battlefield in its proxy war against the United States, at times coming dangerously close to a kinetic contact. The military assistance Russia allegedly provided to Syria to fight ISIS was mostly aimed at shoring up Bashar al-Assad’s regime. As a payment for the assistance, the Syrian government signed an agreement with Yevgeny Prigozhin’s firm Evro Polis to capture and secure Syrian oil facilities from ISIS in return for 25% of the proceeds from oil and gas production.[54] Wagner contractors hired by Evro Polis operate as Russian boots on the ground in Syria, training Syrian army and pro-regime militia, conducting combat operations, providing intelligence support to Russian air forces, and coordinating operations of other Russian private military companies (PMCs), such as the Patriot, Vega, and the neo-Nazi Rusich Group;[55] pro-regime militia, such as the Syrian Tiger Forces and Palestinian Liwa al-Quds; and Russian-controlled Syrian PMCs, such as ISIS-Hunters and Sanad Protection and Security Services.[56]

The Syrian campaign has exposed one of the key risks associated with the Wagner Group operations. In February 2018, a Wagner unit operating alongside pro-Syrian troops attacked a CONOCO oil facility in Deir az-Zor province, coming into a kinetic contact with US special forces deployed there. Reportedly, the unit was ordered into action by Evgeniy Prigozhin acting on his own initiative, although with tacit Kremlin consent. While the clash did not result in an escalation between US and Russian regular forces in Syria, the incident exposed the dangers resulting from the commercialization of Wagner operations in contested conflict zones.[57]

Libya: 2018Present

In Libya, Russia operated in similar vein, providing air support to General Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA), with the Wagner Group serving as the boots on the ground, spearheading an assault on the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), training LNA troops on warfare tactics and weapons systems, providing battlefield intelligence support to LNA and Russian air forces, and coordinating operations of other PMCs.[58] In Libya, however, an information warfare component was added to the Wagner operational model, with massive disinformation campaigns targeting GNA, Turkey, and the US, and spreading pro-Haftar and pro-Qaddafi message through Prigozhin’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) and regional media outlets acquired by Prigozhin for that purpose.[59]

A concerted deployment of information warfare, political engineering, predatory economic practices, and paramilitary operations as part of secret deals signed with autocratic, often illegitimate governments in conflict-ridden regions has become Russia’s signature strategy aimed at challenging U.S. interests in Africa.[60]

Other African Countries: 2017Present

The Wagner Group serves as the enforcer of the Russian foreign policy in Africa aimed at exerting malign political influence and spreading predatory economic practices in Sudan, Central African Republic, Mali, Chad, Zimbabwe, Angola, Madagascar, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Mozambique, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.[61] The Wagner Group interferes in civil wars and internal conflicts on the side of pro-Russian regimes in those countries, training and fighting alongside their security forces, employing brutal counterinsurgency tactics, quelling popular protests and helping enforce repressive laws and regulations. In doing so, Wagner contractors engage in extrajudicial killings, torture, and sexual violence.[62] Autocratic African regimes pay for their services by providing Russia basing rights,[63] as well as mining concessions to Prigozhin’s companies, reinforcing the Kremlin’s resilience to U.S. and western sanctions imposed in response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.[64]

Future Risks

The Wagner Group’s international exposure and its ability to tap into the pools of private military contractors in the countries of its operations pose a threat to international security. In addition to having deployed thousands of private military contractors from all over the former Soviet Union to Ukraine, Syria, Libya, and other African countries between 2014 and present, the group recruited pro-Syrian regime militia for its Libyan campaign,[65] and most recently is reported to have begun relocating its own and Syrian fighters from Libya to Ukraine, where Russia is said to have suffered heavy losses since 24 February 2022.[66] The Pentagon reports that about 1,000 Wagner fighters are already present in eastern Ukraine, and while the reports about deploying Syrian fighters to Ukraine could not be confirmed, there is little doubt in the group’s ability to do so.[67] A continued practice of recruiting foreign mercenaries for deployment in conflict zones greatly undermines a rule-based international order by reinforcing autocratic regimes, depriving fragile nations of development opportunities, and prolonging wars and civil conflicts.


Shadowy organizations such as SADAT, the IRGC, and the Wagner group act like chameleons, operating in the darkest areas of authoritarian regimes and so-called democracies for the sole purpose of serving the interests of the regimes they help to perpetuate. Such groups often are successful because they have strong links to terrorist organizations, insurgents, or militia groups in the regions where the groups operate. The deployment of chameleon-like groups enables government officials to claim plausible deniability by denouncing the groups’ wrongdoings, accusing them of working against the public good, and claiming that the groups are not officially linked to the government.

It is crucial, therefore, that the world turns its attention to shadowy organizations such as SADAT, the IRGC, and the Wagner Group that indiscriminately inflict violence, death, and destruction on anyone their “owners” perceive to be a threat to their authoritarian rule. Powerful non-state organizations with deep ties to both the state and militia groups such as the IRGC spur violence and increase insecurity throughout the Middle East and the international community. Portraying itself as the beacon of Islamic values allows the IRGC to recruit followers beyond those who are seeking to gain the benefits of membership. The high level of support for IRI and the IRGC’s Islamic values and ideology further increases its influence and power.

With the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, it is particularly important to address the destructive role shadowy organizations and mercenary groups play in regional and international politics. The ongoing conflict has underscored the Wagner Group’s ability to recruit and deploy Russian and foreign private military contractors from across the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, and Africa to serve as the paramilitary arm of the Russian hybrid foreign policy enterprise. Continued operations of the group contribute to sweeping human right abuses, deteriorating economic situation, and prolonging wars and civil conflicts in the areas of its operation.


[1] “The State Department Designates Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a Foreign Terrorist Organization,” American Journal of International Law. Vol. 113, no. 3, 2009: pp. 609-613,

[2] “Commending the European’s Sanctions Against Wagner Group and Affiliates.” Press Release. Washington, DC: US Department of State. 14 December 2012,

[3] Matt Powers, “Making Sense of SADAT, Turkey’s Private Military Company,” War on the Rocks. 8 October 2021,

[4] Mahmut Cengiz and Kutluer Karademir, “The Impacts of Authoritarianism on Organized Crime in Turkey.” Small Wars Journal. 8 November 2020,

[5] Suat Cubukcu, “The Rise of Paramilitary Groups in Turkey.” Small Wars Journal. 3 March 2018,

[6] Mahmut Cengiz, “How the Corruption Investigations of 2013 Still Shape Turkey’s Bleak Future.” Vocale Europe. 22 December 2017,

[7] “Our Mission,” SADAT. 2012,

[8] “Erdoğan’ın başdanışmanı: Mehdi gelecek, ortamı hazırlıyoruz.” Birgun. 30 December 2019,

[9] “Tokat ve Konya'da silahlı eğitim kampları bulunduğunu duyuyoruz," Odatv4. 2 January 2018,

[10] Mahmut Cengiz, “Why Turkey Failed to Remove the Shadows on the Coup,” Vocale Europe. 10 July 2017,

[11] Mahmut Cengiz, “Who Was Behind the July 15, 2016 Military uprising in Turkey?” Small Wars Journal. 3 July 2019,

[12] Mahmut Cengiz, “Who Used ISIS Tactics to behead an Air Force Academy Cadet in the July 15th Military Uprising,” Small Wars Journal. 2 February 2020,

[13] “Ulusal Guvenlikte Bir kapali Kutu: SADAT,” DW (Deutsche Welle). 13 February 2020,üvenlikte-bir-kapalı-kutu-sadat/a-52357400.

[14] “Huda Kaya’dan Onur Gencer’I SADAT Egitti Iddiasi.” Cumhuriyet. 17 June 2021,

[15] “Huda Kaya’nin Aciklamasina SADAT yanit Verdi,” Gazete Duvar. 18 June 2021,,955562.

[16] Sedat Peker’in “Suriye'deki Türkmenlere benim adıma gönderilen silahlar, El-Nusracılara gidiyordu" açıklamasıyla gündeme gelen SADAT nedir?” T24, 30 May 2021,,955562.

[17] Op. cit., Powers at Note 3.

[18] Op. cit., “Ulusal Guvenlikte Bir kapali Kutu: SADAT” at Note 13.

[19] Can Dundar, “Opinion: A Turkish gang leader’s revelations are shocking Turkey. I reported the truth six years ago.” Washington Post. 14 June 202!,

[20] Ibid.

[21]  “SADAT: Turkey’s Paramilitary Wings Take Flight in Africa.” Defense. 16 April 2021,

[22] Op. cit., “Ulusal Guvenlikte Bir kapali Kutu: SADAT” at Note 13.

[23] Michael Rubin, “The State Department Has a Turkey Problem.” American Enterprise Institute. 9 August 2020,

[24] “Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.” Council on Foreign Relations. 6 May 2019,

[25] Layla M. Hashemi and Steven L. Wilson. 2020. “Analysis | If Any Iranians Supported Soleimani’s Killing, It Would’ve Been Dissidents on Twitter. The Opposite Happened.” Washington Post. 8 January 2020,

[26] Callum Paton, “Iranian Revolutionary Guard in $12bn Smuggling Operation to Fund Terror Says Opposition.” International Business Times. 10 March 2017,

[27] “IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps).” Counter Extremism Project: p. 37,

[28] Sami Kronenfeld, and Yoel Gurzansky, The Revolutionary Guards’ International Drug Trade. 1 November 2013,

[29] Ibid. and Tony Duheaume. Al Alarabiya. 20 May 2020,

[30] Op. cit., Paton at Note 26.

[31] Emanuele Ottolenghi, Saeed Ghasseminejad, Annie Fixler, and Amir Toumaj, “How the Nuclear Deal Enriches Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.” Center on Sanctions & Illicit Finance, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD). Washington, DC: FDD PressOctober 2016,

[32] Morad Vaisibiame, “Iran’s Majles: A Parliament of IRGC Commanders.” Radio Farda. 2 June 2020,

[33] Saeid Golkar, “Knuckling Down Under Maximum Pressure: Iran’s Basij in Transition. War on the Rocks.  10 July 2019,

[34] Michael Knights, Crispin Smith, and Hamdi Malik, “Profile: Badr Organization.” The Washington Institute. 2 September 2021,

[35] Paul Iddon, “How Iraq’s Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi turned into an Iranian foreign policy instrument.” Arab News.21 August 2021,

[36] Op.cit., Knights, et al. at Note 34.

[37] Nathaniel Reynolds, “Putin’s Not-So-Secret Mercenaries: Patronage, Geopolitics, and the Wagner Group.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 8 July 2010,

[38] “A Private Army for the President: The Tale of Evgeny Prigozhin’s Most Delicate Mission.” The Bell. 31 January 2019,

[39] “War in Ukraine: How Russia Is Recruiting Mercenaries.” BBC News, 12 March 2022,

[40] Russell Watson, “A ‘Yeltsin Doctrine’?” Newsweek, 9 October 1994,

[41] Angela Stent, “The Putin Doctrine.” Foreign Affairs. 27 January 2022,

[42] Mark Galeotti, “The ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ and Russian Non-Linear War.” In Moscow’s Shadows. 27 February 2013,

[43] Ibid.

[44] “Band of Brothers: The Wagner Group and the Russian State.” CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies). 21 September 2020,

[45] Michael Weiss, “The Case of the Keystone Cossacks.” Foreign Policy. 21 November 2013,

[46] “Wagner Group, Private Military Company ‘Wagner’, a.k.a., Chastnaya Voennaya Kompaniya ‘Vagner’, a.k.a., Chvk Vagner, a.k.a., PMC Wagner, a.k.a.” 12 March 2022,

[47] “Moscow’s Mercenary Wars: The Expansion of Russian Private Military Companies.” CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies). 21 September 2020,

[48] Danyal Hussain, “Putin’s ‘assassination squad’ is sanctioned: Rapes, murders and war crimes dominate the shadowy history of the Wagner Group - which is now in Ukraine with Volodymyr Zelensky on its kill list.” Daily Mail. 24 March 2022,

[49] “Putin Chef's Kisses of Death: Russia's Shadow Army's State-Run Structure Exposed.” Bellingcat. 14 August 2020,

[50] “Wagner PMC fighters already participating in Russian invasion of Ukraine – Defense Intelligence Agency.” Interfax–Ukraine. 9 March 2022, and Jerusalem Post Staff and Michael Starr, Reuters. Jerusalem Post. 10 March 2022,

[51] Op. cit., “Putin Chef's Kisses of Death” at Note 49.

[52] Op. cit., “A Private Army for the President” at Note 38.

[53] “Treasury Targets Financier’s Illicit Sanctions Evasion Activity.” Press Release. Washington, DC: US Department of the Treasury. 15 July 2020,

[54] “Council Implementing Regulation (EU) 2021/2194 of 13 December 2021 implementing Regulation (EU) No 36/2012 concerning restrictive measures in view of the situation in Syria.” EUR–Lex. Council of the European Union. 13 December 2021,

[55] Mark Townsend, “Russian mercenaries in Ukraine linked to far-right extremists.” The Guardian. 20 March 2022,

[56] Waleed Abu al-Khair, “‘ISIS Hunters’ belies mercenaries’ true intent: to protect Russian interests in Syria.” Al-Mashareq. 24 March 2021,

[57] Op. cit., “Putin’s Not-So-Secret Mercenaries: at Note 37.

[58] Op. cit., “Moscow’s Mercenary Wars” at Note 47.

[59] Ibid. and “Stoking Conflict by Keystroke.” Stanford Internet Observatory. 15 December 2020,

[60] Federica Saini Fasanotti, “Russia’s Wagner Group in Africa: Influence, commercial concessions, rights violations, and counterinsurgency failure.” Brookings. 8 February 2022,

[61] Mustapha Dalaa and Halime Afra Aksoy, “Russia’s Wagner Group reportedly deployed in Africa.” AA(Anadolu Agency). 5 March 2021,

[62] “Wagner Group: Why the EU is alarmed by Russian mercenaries in Central Africa,” BBC News. 19 December 2021,

[63] Op. cit., Fasanotti at Note 60.

[64] Ibid.

[65] “Russia's Wagner Group withdraws fighters in Libya to fight in Ukraine.” Middle East Monitor. 26 March 2022,

[66] “Ukraine: Wagner Group Begins Relocating Syrian Fighters from Libya to Russia.” Syrians for truth & Justice. 21 March 2022,

[67] Ellen Mitchell, “Pentagon says Russia sends 1,000 fighters from military contractor to Donbas region.” The Hill. 30 March 2022,


Categories: hybrid threats

About the Author(s)

Vladimir Semizhonov is a research analyst at the Global Terrorism Trends and Analysis Center (GTTAC) at George Mason University (GMU), focusing on South Asia and the former Soviet Union. He is pursuing a Master’s in International Security with a concentration in Intelligence from GMU’s Schar School of Policy and Government. His research interests include state-sponsored terrorist groups, modern counterinsurgency strategies, and covert foreign po

Dr. Layla M. Hashemi is a researcher and data analyst at the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) at George Mason University (GMU) focusing on international supply chains, cybercrime, and illicit trade. She earned her PhD in Public Policy at George Mason University’s Schar School and her Masters in International Relations and Comparative Politics at New York University with a concentration in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. Dr. Hashemi has presented her research among other places—at NATO, the United Nations, and professional conferences, workshops, and webinars. Her work has been published in the Washington Post, academic journals, books, and other outlets. She has held positions at governmental and non-governmental organizations including Forum 2000

Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Assistant Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He also has been involved in the research projects for the Brookings Institute, European Union, and various US agencies.