Late last November, videos of a gruesome killing went viral on Russian social networks. The shaky cell phone footage taken at al-Shaer gas plant near Palmyra, Syria, shows a Syrian man, who was known to friends and family as Hamdi Bouta, lying on the ground, surrounded by Russian-speaking men in military fatigues. They beat his extremities with a sledgehammer before decapitating him, setting his body on fire and posing for photographs with his remains.
The perpetrators, who have not yet been charged, were identified by the Russian independent news outlet Novaya Gazeta as private military security contractors for the so-called Wagner Group. Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin who was indicted in the United States for attempted interference in the 2016 presidential election, is widely regarded as the driving force behind the mercenary group.
Bouta’s slaying is symptomatic of the accountability vacuum in which the Wagner Group operates. While mercenary groups are outlawed within Russia, they have served as the tip of the spear of the Kremlin’s proxy wars abroad.
Close to Russian government but nominally independent, private military contractors give the Kremlin a degree of plausible deniability and have complicated efforts by Western policymakers to formulate a response. They are the Swiss Army knives of modern Russian warfare and serve as “force multipliers, arms merchants, trainers of local military and security personnel, and political consultants,” according to a recent report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
This style of hybrid warfare has become a cornerstone of Russia’s efforts to project its interests abroad. A similar melding of public and nominally private entities was used in 2016 in a bid to influence the outcome of the U.S. presidential election, with Russian military hackers stealing emails and documents from the Hillary Clinton campaign while the so-called troll factory, allegedly funded by Prigozhin, sought to fuel divisions between American voters.
Having first appeared in 2014 in eastern Ukraine, where Wagner fighters trained and fought alongside separatist rebels against the Ukrainian army, the group’s operatives have since cropped up everywhere from Venezuela to the Central African Republic, Syria, and Libya.
A new report by Frontline Forensics, a joint initiative of Arizona State University and the New America think tank, published on Tuesday explores the circumstances of Bouta’s death using company records and social media analysis. It sheds new light on the network’s operations and reveals how the killing became a rallying point for Russian ultranationalists online.
“There is a dynamic evolution in the fusion of Russian ultranationalist groups and Russian paramilitaries going on that nobody is really paying attention to or seeing yet,” said Candace Rondeaux, a professor of practice in the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University and the author of the report.
The report’s revelations have chilling implications, as Russian mercenaries motivated by both money and far-right ideology are increasingly operating unchecked in some of the world’s most fragile countries.
“You’d better believe it’s terrifying,” Rondeaux said. “And neither the United States government understands how terrifying it is nor do its European allies.”
The Wagner Group has achieved near-mythical status in the Russian and international press in recent years for its role in Russia’s interference efforts abroad, but there is no evidence that a single registered entity called “Wagner” exists, said Jack Margolin, a senior analyst with the nonprofit Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS), which provided analytical support for the report.
“The Wagner Group is a very convenient fiction for a lot of people in Russia who both want to get rich and project power abroad,” Rondeaux said.
Rather than being a single organization, Wagner is an opaque network of titular companies and private military contractors that simultaneously further the Kremlin’s interests abroad while lining the pockets of those involved by gaining access to lucrative energy and natural resources mining contracts in the countries in which they operate. Elements of these networks have been identified by researchers and journalists through their overlapping ownership structures, personnel, and supply chains. “It’s a really adaptable network, which makes it hard to target, but also hard to talk about,” said Margolin of C4ADS. Mercenary activity that enables and secures these business interests has become the most visible manifestation of these networks.
The men responsible for murdering Bouta are believed to have worked for EvroPolis, a company that exemplifies the way organizations within the network have blended business and warfare. “EvroPolis really, perhaps more than any other single entirety in the Prigozhin-associated network, captures the full suite of services that the Prigozhin networks have access to,” said Margolin.
Russian corporate records and customs documents reviewed by C4ADS as well as EvroPolis company records provided by the London-based Dossier Center show that the company was offered a 25 percent share of the revenues of Syrian oil and gas fields it was able to seize from the Islamic State. The documents reveal that the company earned $162 million from oil and gas fields in central Syria in 2017 alone.
EvroPolis was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury in 2018 for being owned or controlled by Prigozhin. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied any connections to Russian private military security contractors operating in Syria.
U.S. forces clashed with pro-Syrian government forces, the majority of which are believed to have been Russian mercenaries, in Syria’s Deir Ezzor province in 2018. Between 200 to 300 fighters were killed in the battle, including scores of Russian mercenaries believed to be working in the region to seize control of a nearby gas plant on behalf of EvroPolis. “Two years after the United States clashed with some sort of Wagner Group contingent in Deir Ezzor, the United States government still doesn’t know anything about the organizational structure of these military contingents,” Rondeaux said. But researchers from groups such as Bellingcat and the Conflict Intelligence Team, as well as Russian journalists most notably from Novaya Gazeta and Fontanka, have been able to use fragments of publicly available information to build a clearer picture of who is fighting for Russia’s private military contractors abroad.
An analysis of Russian social media groups for followers of the Wagner Group as well as the friend networks of individuals who shared details of Bouta’s murder online revealed “a burgeoning online movement of Russian ultranationalists with an abiding interest in mercenary culture who claimed to have served in Russian military units,” according to the research by Frontline Forensics, which was published by New America. The researchers’ social network analysis also revealed substantial cross-affiliation with Rusich, a Russian neo-Nazi paramilitary group that has operated in eastern Ukraine.
As the videos of Bouta’s torture and beheading were circulated, they became a rallying point for the social networks that have coalesced around Russia’s mercenary activity abroad. “What we saw was an astounding number of people who would pass this video around, talk about it, or adopt poses from their video as their profile photo,” Rondeaux said.
Bouta is believed to have been killed in the spring of 2017, and a video of his death first emerged online in June 2017. It wasn’t until November 2019, when further videos emerged, that journalists were able to identify the perpetrators as well as the victim. The Paris-based Syrian investigative news site Jesr Press was able to piece together the most detailed account of Bouta’s life and how he came to be captured by Russian mercenaries.
A father of four from Syria’s Deir Ezzor governorate, Bouta travelled to Lebanon in 2016 in search of work in the construction industry as large swaths of the region came under Islamic State control. On his way back to Syria in 2017, he was arrested and drafted into the Syrian military. At some point in late March or early April, he escaped on foot from the T4 air base in Homs. Lost in the desert, he appears to have sought refuge in al-Shaer gas field, where he was later tortured and killed.
It’s not clear how the videos ended up online or why the perpetrators chose to document the killing. A member of the group can be overheard discussing whether they should cover their faces before one says there’s no point, as the video is “not going to go anywhere.”
Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack