Why the Radisson?
Bamako’s Radisson Blu hotel was a natural target for terrorists. There is just a handful of luxury hotels in Bamako, and the Radisson Blu is the only one whose name touts its Western ownership. There are no Marriotts, Best Westerns, Sofitels or other global hotel chains present there. Unlike the Hotel de l’Amitié downtown, the Radisson is not currently serving as the headquarters of the United Nations mission to Mali (slated to remain there until the end of the year), and thus is not nearly as heavily guarded. But the Radisson did have the reputation among Western expatriates as being the safest place to stay in Bamako. Several reports indicate that the attackers arrived in a vehicle with green diplomatic plates, which got them right past hotel security.
It’s worth noting that the Radisson is located in the capital’s ACI 2000 district, which also happens to be home to the U.S. Embassy and the Peace Corps office. Today’s attack may spur the U.S. government to reconsider its decision last summer to send Peace Corps Volunteers back into the field in Mali.
The Pentagon has stated that U.S. special operations forces are involved in the “hostage recovery efforts” in Bamako. This would mark a significant development, since the U.S. military has kept its distance from Mali since the 2012 coup.
Who are the attackers?
While no claims of responsibility have been reported as of this writing, there is regrettably no shortage of potential culprits operating on Malian territory these days. The likeliest suspects are the armed jihadi groups. I have adapted the paragraphs below from the introduction that I co-authored with Francesco Strazzari for the December 2015 special issue of African Security dedicated to Mali and northwest Africa.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is perhaps the best-known jihadist organization operating in northwest Africa and was formed by Algerian rebels who had fought in that country’s civil war and subsequently undertaken large-scale kidnapping for ransom of Europeans. The group seeks the overthrow of the Algerian government, the creation of a Saharan safe haven, and the targeting of Western interests in the region. As it pursues these goals, AQIM builds local support in its areas of operation by acting as a sort of Islamic charity and by its leaders cultivating marriage alliances with local populations. It has launched attacks in Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Algeria and collected over US$90 million in ransom payments since 2008.
An AQIM offshoot known as Al Moulathamine and led by the infamous Mokhtar Belmokhtar attacked the In Amenas gas facility in southern Algeria in January 2013, leading to the deaths of dozens of hostages. Seven months later Al Moulathamine united with another group, MUJAO (see below), under the name Al Mourabitoune. Last March Al Mourabitoune claimed responsibility for Bamako’s first-ever terrorist incident, an attack on a nightclub that killed five and wounded eight. In August it also claimed responsibility for attacks that killed thirteen Malian soldiers in different locations in northern Mali and on the Byblos Hotel in Sévaré, in the central Mopti region, in which four Malian soldiers and five UN workers were killed. Reportedly Al Mourabitoune rebranded itself as “Al Qaeda in West Africa” later that month.
MUJAO (le Mouvement pour l’Unicité et le Jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest, or the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa) is another AQIM offshoot that has distinguished itself in terms of leadership and operations from its former mother organization. Its leaders espouse a borderless ideology that can mesh well with local sentiments in the region, where inhabitants may not view traffickers and other outlaw groups as a greater threat than government security forces. Reports suggest that they have been highly active in drug trafficking and that at least one of their former leaders has turned up fighting in a Malian government-backed militia group. After beginning its operations with an October 2011 kidnapping at a refugee camp in Algeria, it occupied the Malian town of Gao for several months in 2012, implementing a harsh version of shari’a law. Since its ouster from Gao in early 2013, MUJAO has carried out sporadic attacks throughout northern Mali as well as western Niger. It briefly merged with Belmokhtar’s group before splitting off again and possibly pledging loyalty to ISIS.
The group known as Ansar Dine, unlike the others, is dominated by Malian Tuareg fighters and commanders. Its leader, Iyad ag Ghali, fought for the Tuareg nationalist cause in the early 1990s. He is known in northern Mali as a canny political player, and while observers debated his motives and level of ideological commitment to jihad, his group enforced shari’a law in Timbuktu for much of 2012. Although Ansar Dine lost considerable manpower in early 2013 (with hundreds of his men defecting to a newly formed, ostensibly secular Tuareg militant group, the Haut Conseil pour l’Unité de l’Azawad), ag Ghali’s organization has claimed responsibility for attacks on Malian security forces, including two carried out in mid-2015 in the far south of the country near the border with Cote d’Ivoire. Ag Ghali recently released an audio recording in which he called for attacks on France, and he has already been speculated as being behind the Radisson attack. One of ag Ghali’s self-proclaimed disciples, a militant preacher reported as Amadou or Hammadoun Koufa, has also announced his own offshoot group called the Macina Liberation Movement.
What do they want?
We should be cautious about drawing direct connections between this attack and ISIS, or last week’s attacks in Paris, or the subsequent French airstrikes in Syria. Armed jihadis have been targeting French and Western interests in northwest Africa since well before the advent of the Islamic State, and as the above paragraphs show, it’s far from evident that any of these groups have solid links to ISIS. The Bamako attackers most likely identify with those who carried out the Paris attacks, but their particular motivations may also diverge: for jihadis in Mali, their main grievance is with the French military for driving them out of the territory they controlled in northern Mali three years ago.
Postscript: Reuters reports that Al Mourabitoune has claimed responsibility for the Radisson attack.
Postscript 2: Guinean music star Sekouba “Bambino” Diabaté was among those freed from the hotel after the attack. In an interview, he says he overheard attackers speaking English, “in what seemed like a Nigerian accent.”
Postscript 3, 22 November: The Macina Liberation Movement has also reportedly issued a claim of responsibility for the attack, “in reaction to the attacks by Barkhane forces which with the Malian military is targeting members of MLM and Ansar Dine.”
Postscript 4, 26 November: I’ve received word that Peace Corps Volunteers will be evacuated from Mali in the wake of the Radisson Blu attack.