Malian security forces were hunting on Saturday for at least three at-large suspects involved in the brazen attack on a five-star hotel that killed 21 people in the heart of the capital, Bamako.
A breakaway al-Qaeda faction from the country’s troubled north, al-Morabitoun, claimed responsibility for the nine-hour siege that ended after special forces stormed the hotel, killing two attackers.
But Friday’s assault on the Radisson Blu was just the latest in a series of attacks this year on high-profile targets in a country that has battled various rebel groups for years.
The situation is complex. Here, I answer some frequently asked questions.
Who are al-Morabitoun and what is their relationship with the other groups they coordinated with?
Al-Morabitoun is a splinter group of Al Qaeda in The Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Its founder Mokhtar Belmokhtar, also known as Bella’war, was initially the leader of AQIM until he split from it in 2012. The initial name he gave to his new group translates as “Those who sign with blood”. Then he changed the name to “al-Morabitoun” (an Islamic state that ruled over parts of North Africa and southern Spain in the 11th and 12th centuries).
Belmokhtar is known for his uncompromising approach. He staged several attacks on Western targets in the region. The biggest such attack was in 2013 when his group seized a gas plant in southern Algeria killing 40 hostages including 3 US citizens.
Earlier this year his men attacked a restaurant in Bamako killing a French national and a Belgian.
In August they also attacked a hotel in another Malian city killing 13 people.
Even though Al Morabitoun split from AQIM, it remained loyal to the top leadership of Al Qaeda. When some of the AQIM sub-groups announced allegiance to ISIL, Al Morabitoun stayed away from it.
Now we see signs of emerging cooperation between those different groups. Al-Morabitoun announced in its statement on Friday that it staged the Radisson Blu attack in conjunction with AQIM.
Belmokhtar has a $5m bounty on his head, placed by the US after the Algeria gas plant attack.
He’s been announced dead a few times after US and French attempts to kill him but his group always denied the claim.
Why did they carry out the attack? What are their demands?
Al-Morabitoun and their allies, the Movement of Oneness and Jihad and Ansaruddin, have been heavily involved in Northern Mali. In 2012 they took over most of that region known as Azawad including the three major cities of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal.
In 2013, they were ejected from those cities through a French military air campaign. Meanwhile the Malian army assisted by French troops retook the cities and took prisoners. Some of those arrested are still in Malian jails.
Al-Morabitoun wants to free them by any means.
The other demand is a political one. They say they want the government to stop persecuting “their people in the north and in the center”. This is interesting because usually they refer to the north only as the area they mostly care about because its inhabitants are mostly fair-skinned Tuareg and Arabs who complain of racism, marginalisation and injustice.
Now the mention of the center comes after members of the black African tribe of Fullan took up arms and began to fight against the government, allegedly in coordination with al-Qaeda-linked groups in Mali.
This can only complicate the situation for the regime in Bamako as even back ethnic ties are joining the rebellion against it.
Is there any significance to the hotel or the area where the operation took place?
The choice of the Radisson Blue in western Bamako is laden with significance. This is the area most heavily guarded because it hosts the biggest hotels, diplomatic missions and government buildings. For al-Qaeda groups to be able to reach it and stage a major attack exposes the utter fragility of the Malian government. It’s also a message to the French and the Americans that al-Qaeda can always strike at their interests where and when it chooses.
What was the general security atmosphere before this attack?
Bamako has been supposedly in a state of alert since the latest Tuareg rebellion in 2012. You can only imagine that the government has been taking all necessary measures to protect its high value assets including international Hotels. France, the US and Britain have been working with Mali to improve the capacity of the army and the security forces. But the results are clearly unsatisfactory.
Also remember that Mali is one of the poorest countries in Africa. It’s been in political turmoil for the last few years when coups and counter-coups severely weakened the government, compromised national harmony and left the army in a state of near paralysis.
In such a context, there’s every likelihood the security apparatus is infiltrated by elements who wish to inflict damage on the government or at least to accept bribes and facilitate breaches.
What impact does the attack have and what is next for Mali?
We’ve seen similar incidents in the past not only in Mali but even in France when a few weeks later no major change in tactics or policies happens. Things would return to apparent normalcy, only to see the same incidents occurring again. Governments even in advanced countries cannot maintain a real state of alert for a long time, let alone in poor countries. It’s not only very costly but also it’s nerve wracking to security personnel and to the population.
I can see this incident, like those before it, quickly swept under the carpet, and perhaps more of the same happening in the future.
And that’s for another important reason. The root causes of the entire phenomenon of political violence need to be addressed in full. Mali is destabilised because endless peace agreements with the northern rebels were not implemented. This has created conditions for insecurity across the country.
The major tribe of Fullan, a black ethnic group in the center, now also claims to be marginalised and persecuted. In the eyes of those deprived social groups, Western powers come to Mali mainly for minerals and for political control, but have never invested heavily in infrastructure or economic and social development. They are accused of ignoring the suffering of the people of the norther region. In addition to that, corruption in political and administrative circles plays a major role.
If these core issues are not addressed, you can only expect Mali to continue to be a favourable space for Jihadi groups that essentially rely on local complicity in order to stage successful attacks.