Even as traumatized hostages were being escorted out of a hotel under siege by gunmen in the Malian capital of Bamako, rival claims for responsibility surfaced on social media in an indication of just how important notoriety can be to terror groups who live or die based on the fear they can inflict. For several hours on this morning, gunmen held some 170 guests and employees hostage at what was widely considered to be one of the safest hotels in this West African city. Early reports from local witnesses said that gunmen shouted ‘Allahu Akbar,’ or ‘God is Great,’ as they stormed through the security gate, killing two guards. They reportedly let hostages who could recite passages from the Koran go free.
According to U.S. Africa Command’s Colonel Mark Cheadle, speaking to reporters in Washington, a small group of U.S. special operations forces that had already been in the country helped move at least six U.S. citizens to safety, while assisting United Nations, French and Malian forces in securing the building. By late afternoon, Mali’s security minister had reported that all hostages had been freed according to the BBC. UN officials tell Reuters that 27 bodies have been recovered from the hotel, and that some are likely to be the gunmen.
At least two groups have claimed responsibility—Al Murabitoon and Ansar al-Din—both with ties to a long simmering insurgency in the country’s north and both affiliated with al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda’s core representative in the region, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), however, has so far remained silent.
Mali’s recent history, which starts with a long-simmering secessionist movement in the north led by the nomadic Tuareg ethnic group, is rife with grievances ready to be exploited by terrorist groups. In 2012 a military coup sparked by the government’s failure to quash a Tuareg liberation movement led to a leadership vacuum in the capital. Some of the rebel groups joined forces with Islamist terror groups in the region, managing to take over half the country. The French government came to its former colony’s aid in early 2013 and eventually confined the rebel groups to a few redoubts deep in the Saharan desert, but criminal gangs, separatist groups and terrorist networks still flourish.
Any one of them, says Ryan Cummings, chief Africa analyst at the South Africa based Red24 risk consultancy, could be behind the attack. “One thing we do know is that from what we are seeing—security sources are saying that the assailants arrived at the hotel in vehicles with diplomatic plates—it all speaks to a group that is coordinated and not just opportunistic.” But without making premature claims, there are a number of active jihadist groups active in the region that could have the capacity and desire to launch an attack of this scale.
Al Murabitoon, a group based in northern Mali, claimed responsibility on Twitter, according to Reuters. Formerly led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the al Qaeda commander best known for masterminding the Algerian gas plant attack that killed 37 foreigners in 2013, the group was behind Bamako’s first major terror attack in March 2015. The group launched grenades at a nightclub popular with foreigners, killing one Belgian, one French citizen, three Malians and wounding three Swiss. Belmokhtar said it was in retaliation for France’s killing of the group’s co-founder, Ahmed al Tilemsi, in 2014.
It is not clear if Belmokhtar is still alive: US forces say he was killed in an airstrike in Libya in June, though his supporters at the time denied it. An al-Qaeda spokesman confirmed his death in October, another possible justification for an attack. Al-Murabitoon, says Cummings, “has previously demonstrated the intent and the operational capacity to attack sites associated with foreigners in Bamako.”
According to the BBC, the Qatar-based Al Jazeera news station identified the Salafist Ansar al-Din militant group to be behind the attack, but the station did not say how it got that information. The group, whose name means “Defender of the Faith,” has its origins in an early secessionist movement based in the country’s desert north, but now seeks to promote its version of strict Islamic law throughout Mali. Following the 2012 coup, the group, which is affiliated with al-Qaeda, and led by the Tuareg militant Iyad Ag Ghaly, captured the historic northern city of Timbuktu, destroying several of the ancient city’s religious shrines and expelling the musicians for which the city is famous.
They were pushed out by a French military operation in January 2013. According to Cummings, the group recently released a report praising the January 2015 attack on the offices of the satirical French Charlie Hebdo magazine and called for further attacks on France, and French interests in Mali. The Radisson Blu, though not French owned, is quite popular with expatriates, including the city’s large French population. (The territory that is now Mali was under French colonial rule for decades, before gaining independence in 1960.)
Less likely, says Cummings, is that the attack was orchestrated by al-Qaeda’s core African movement, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Once the world’s most feared terror group, al-Qaeda, Cummings says, has recently sought to project itself as more moderate than the rampaging ISIS, which has claimed responsibility for the attacks on Paris, as well as the downing of the Russian passenger jet in Egypt and the recent suicide bomb attacks in Beirut. Noting that several prominent members of al-Qaeda condemned the Paris attacks for being too extreme, Cummings suggests that it would be hypocritical for the organization to turn around and launch another attack on a target still related to French interests.
Analyst Jasmine Opperman, director of African Operations at Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium, similarly dismisses the possibility. She regularly monitors social media traffic from various international terror groups, and has seen little activity on their sites since the hotel attack. Nor does she believe ISIS is likely to be responsible. “They wish they could be that strong in Mali at this point,” she says. While some independent groups may have expressed support for ISIS, the organization does not have the operational presence on the ground to pull off a sophisticated hostage situation in a premium hotel in one of the most fortified parts of the capital.
Opperman points to the little known Macina Liberation Front (MLF) as a group that bears watching in the hours ahead. The MLF took credit for a hotel siege in the central Malian town of Sevare that killed 13 people, including five UN peacekeepers, in August, and has attempted to derail a tentative peace agreement between the Malian government and the country’s northern rebel groups. But al-Murabitoon also claimed credit for that attack, another indication of intra-group rivalry. The MLF claims to be seeking to reestablish a 19th century Islamic kingdom that ruled over parts of Mali and neighboring Mauritania. Despite their historical claims and violent tactics, says Opperman, they are mainly interested in controlling the lucrative smuggling routes of southern Mali. “They are all about money, all about profit making,” she says.
Though the Nigeria-based Boko Haram terrorist group has been recently listed as the most violent terror group in the world by the Institute for Economics and Peace’s Global Terrorism Index, supplanting both al Qaeda and ISIS, few see any of their fingerprints in the Bamako hotel siege. They may be deadly in Nigeria, says Cummings, but “this is simply beyond their operational capacities.” Given all the possible perpetrators, investigators are going to have a hard time laying blame, or confirming claims, for some time. As the Boko Haram terror attack death toll of 6,664 last year shows, terrorism is taking a toll in Africa, a fact that the rest of the world is only just waking up to.
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