One week after the Paris attacks, the world's attention turned to another tragic incident of violence that took place in Bamako, Mali. Several gunmen managed to infiltrate a luxury hotel and hold more than 100 people hostage. Most of the hostages escaped or were rescued, while others were released because they were able to 'prove' they were Muslim by reciting verses of the Quran. Circumstances surrounding the assault in Bamako indicate that some planning took place, but it is unlikely the Bamako attack is related to the Paris attacks. The Radisson Blu in Bamako was targeted because it caters to international visitors. Although violent extremist organisations have been targeted by Malian and international troops, the Radisson Blu Hotel attack demonstrates the continuing threat and hostility of such organisations toward foreign interests and Malian authorities.
It is unlikely the Bamako attack is related to the Paris attacks.”
There are several violent extremist organisations operating in Mali. These groups include al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Murabitun, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), Ansar Dine, and a new group, the Masina Liberation Front (MLF). These groups rose to power quickly when they occupied northern Mali in 2012. However, shortly thereafter, foreign forces led by France recaptured the region in a matter of weeks, forcing militants back into the desert and mountains. Malian and French officials quickly declared victory against the jihadist groups, but Mali remains the most dangerous country for United Nations peacekeeping forces. Jihadi groups also repeatedly targeted French and Malian forces, civilians suspected of collaborating with Malian and French authorities, and non-governmental organisation (NGO) workers. Types of attacks range from suicide bombings, improvised explosives devices (IED), and ambushes, to well-planned suicide missions similar to the Radisson Blu hotel attack.
Northern Mali has been the most dangerous area for foreign and Malian forces to operate; however, in 2015, there was a noticeable shift. Specifically, since January 2015, more than 30 attacks took place in central and southern parts of the country. While the MLF has taken credit for most of these attacks, al-Murabitun recorded the most spectacular ones against foreign interests. In March 2015, al-Murabitun claimed responsibility for the attack on a popular restaurant in Bamako and on the Byblos hotel in Sévaré, in August 2015. Both attacks included international casualties. The jihadi groups intentionally target foreign interests as it gives the groups legitimacy among the local population, which that perceives western influence in Mali as an invasion on their values. This same motivation may explain why the jihadi groups released Muslim hostages during the Radisson Blu attack. It is a common tactic used by jihadi groups in an attempt to cast themselves as pious protectors of the faithful.
Jihadi groups in Mali may appear divided and at times loyal to opposing sides of the al-Qaeda/ISIS divide, but this does not preclude collaboration, as the Radisson Blu incident seems to suggest. Al-Murabitun and the Sahara Emirate brigade of AQIM claimed to have orchestrated the assault jointly. Al-Jazeera Arabicand Al Akhbar, a Mauritanian news outlet, reported the claim by AQIM and al-Murabitun. The authenticity of the statement was reportedly verified and confirmed by The SITE Intelligence Group that monitors jihadi groups. A third group, the Masina Liberation Front, also claimed responsibility two days after the attack.
Small scale and spectacular attacks will continue.”
In addition to being weakened by the French intervention in Mali, AQIM and al-Murabitun are facing the increasing risk of ISIS infiltration of the region. A few AQIM brigades have defected and pledged allegiance to ISIS, while one of al-Murabitun's founders, Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, along with a group of his followers also pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in May 2015. Furthermore, members of Jund al-Khilafa, an ISIS branch based in Algeria, recently traveled to northern Mali to convince AQIM brigades to pledge allegiance to Baghdadi. Al-Murabitun and AQIM have suffered the loss of key leaders, killed by French forces, and their main logistical caches have been destroyed in northern Mali. The deaths of charismatic leaders such as Abdelhamid Abu Zeid and Hamada Ag Hama (aka Abdelkrim al-Targui), left AQIM without leadership in the Sahara during a challenging period. Yahya Abou al-Hammam, the head of the Sahara Emirate, is the only remaining AQIM leader in Mali. Despite prior tensions, which led to splinter groups, between AQIM and Belmokhtar (a founder of al-Murabitun) both decided to reconcile and re-confirmed their allegiances to al-Qaeda in July 2015. This could indicate a desire to present a united front in face of major challenges.
The Sahara Emirate brigade, led by Yahya Abou al-Hammam, is an AQIM brigade, which claims to have collaborated with al-Murabitun in the Radisson Blu attack. While small scale attacks by AQIM and other groups will continue targeting UN, French, and Malian forces, the groups will simultaneously attempt more spectacular attacks against foreign nationals, which generate more international media coverage. Additionally, this approach will allow AQIM, al-Murabitun, and other groups in the Sahel to limit ISIS' influence in the region.