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​Terror in Bamako; Has Africa Been Dragged Into an Unfamiliar War or…?
By David Otto
TGS Counter Terrorism expert

The terrorist attack on the 20th Nov. 2015 at the luxury Radisson Blu Hotel in Mali- Bamako claimed about 21 lives, including western guests from China, USA and Belgium. It is known yet known which hostages were killed by the attackers and who might have died when the hotel was stormed by Special Forces made up of Mali-France and USA. But this attack and others - more lethal, illustrate that the world is fighting a global war for the third time with Africa playing a significant role in the ‘war on terror’ as victims and perpetrators alike.
The attack follows a string of attacks by Boko Haram, ISIL and Al-Qaeda- affiliated groups in Nigeria, Cameroon, Beirut, Paris, Niger, Chad, Somalia, Kenya, Iraq, Syria… ; . The hostage crisis in the Malian capital-Bamako ended after a combination of Malian- French and USA Special Forces stormed the hotel rescuing all hostages and killing two of the assailants. The remainder of the gunmen have not yet identified or apprehended.

Which Group claimed responsibility for the 20/11 Attacks?

Al- Mourabitoun, a group led by Algerian Mokhtar Belmokhtar (He may have been killed by airstrikes this summer 2015) has claimed responsibility for the Mali attacks. Al-Mourabitoun is a known affiliate of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb despite some members pledging allegiance to ISIL in May 2015 to the anger of its leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar. Boko Haram, the Nigeria Islamic sect which has terrified the Sub Saharan Africa region - since 2009 has been known to with Al-Mourabitoun, Ansar al- Dine and Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA).

The group is known to be based in Northern Mali after its formation in 2013 immediately after the Libya crisis which saw the demise of Gaddafi.Crucially for France, this attack in Mali comes just 7 days after Paris 13/11 which left about 130 dead and more than 300 wounded. ISIL claimed responsibility for the deadly terror attack forcing France to declare a 3 months state of emergency. Other EU states including the UK have all raised their threat levels to severe or imminent. Despite ISIL calling on its Wilayats including Boko Haram (Nigeria interior) to launch attacks against Western targets and interest (Paris- Rome), security at the Malian based Radisson Blu Hotel was easily breached by gun men.

Why Mali:

Mali is a former French West African colony, making it part of the French la Francafrique. France has been leading a fight against Islamic insurgents mainly from the North- Azawad since 2013 after a rebel military coup against the democratically elected government of Ahmadou Tounami Toure in 2012. Islamist had combined forces with members of the Tuaregs minority group that have been seeking for their independence from Mali since 1958 making claims they have been hugely marginalised and discriminated compared to other major ethnic groups in Mali.

The Tuaregs declared their independence in 2012 leaving groups like Ansar-Dine and Al- Mourabitoun amongst others, who benefitted from weapons and fighting experience from Libya to take advantage and declare a highly strict Islamic law- banning music and even destroying Islamic tombs in an area in the North that practiced Sufi Islam.The involvement of the French in Mali under Nicholas Sarkozy came after French key military role in Libya. The French involvement contributed to the collapse of the Libyan regime under Moammar Gaddafi. These groups, some of whom enjoyed funding from Gaddafi are retaliating against the French and western coalition involvement in Libya, Mali and recent airstrikes in Syria under Francois Hollande.

Why Radisson Blu Hotel?

Radisson Blu hotel is a U.S owned hotel by the Rezidor Hotel Group and attracts mostly western guest due to its international recognised standard and price tag for an average Malian. At the time of the attack, the hotel was playing host to Air France and Turkey cabin crew, international diplomats, local and regional celebrities and nationals from Belgium, U.S.A, China, India...
It is a high target for ISIL and Al-Qaeda led groups that want to hurt western interest by targeting their citizens and their owned assets. It appears from victim reports that the terrorist singled out non-Muslims and western guest with some saying gun men shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’ as they struck.
The number of hostages held (About 170) compared to the death toll (about 20) may indicate that these terrorist were not as deadly as their ISIL Paris counterparts. Today’s Terrorist groups have adapted to selecting their targets. They prefer easily accessible soft targets like places of worship, government buildings, hotels, bars, restaurants, schools, cinemas, theatres, shopping malls and holiday resorts to inflict maximum casualties, strike fear amongst the population and attract well needed international attention and propaganda to help them recruit more militants to their cause.

Weapons used and significance;

Capability is very important, if not the most important to any successful terrorist attack either by a lone wolf or a group. In the Mali luxury hotel siege, the gunmen appeared heavily armed and well trained for the target. No report of suicide bombers was used in the Mali siege as a weapon unlike in other recent attacks in Nigeria, Beirut 12th Nov. 2015 and Paris 13th Nov. 2015. The terrorists used grenades and automatic weapons indicating that they were prepared to kill as many guests as their capability could allow them. Victim reports that gunmen allowed some foreign guest to leave unhurt may indicate that their bullets and ammunitions were numbered- limited.
There are fears that, despite the involvement of a joint Malian- French and US Special Forces, not all the perpetrators have been apprehended so far, leaving Mali under very high alert. Therefore the number of terrorist who planned the attack is not yet known. In response, the Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita has declared a national state of emergency effective from the mid-night of the attacks, possibly to track the rest of the assailants or their collaborators.

Is this is a one off attack on Mali alone?

This attack follows another nearly 24 hour hostage siege just recently in August 2015 in the Malian city of Sevare at Hotel Byblos (Frequents foreigners )involving the death of three UN workers , five Malian soldiers and four terrorists. This frequency of attacks gives credits to fears that similar attacks may continue elsewhere in Mali or beyond prompting a national state of emergency. This latest incident occurred despite the fact that Mali has been on high alert after the 8th Aug. 2015 hotel Byblos attacks which left 12 people dead. In March 2015, five people including a French and Belgian citizen were shot dead at a restaurant (La Terrasse) in the capital Bamako. No group claimed responsibility for the attack but suspicion was placed on Tuareg Islamic groups mainly operating in the North of Mali. Similar attacks on soft key targets are highly likely within a short period within and without Mali.

International significance:

This latest attack in Mali followed by recent attacks globally will have significant local, regional and international implication in the ‘war on terror’ and violent extremism. It happens just a week after ISIL claimed responsibility for the Beirut and Paris 13/11 attacks and calling on its Wilayats including ‘Nigeria interior’ to launch attacks against Paris and Rome. An international strategy is required to tackle violent extremism. More important, African terrorism must be given equal attention. No one is safe and all nations are vulnerable to terrorist attacks. A comprehensive framework of information sharing and proactive counter terrorism and counter insurgency action is required to defeat ISIL and other terrorist groups in the world.

Where we are after now:

The world peace is under imminent threat from Islamic violent extremism after the Mali Radisson Hotel siege and all other attacks that have taken place globally including the ignored ISIL affiliated group- Boko Haram- now the most deadly terrorist group in the world. This is the time for stakeholders to take a step back and make well thought through decisions to fight a global war.
These kinds of attacks on innocent citizens, going about doing their business can be avoided or worst minimised. But Might is not always Right and we should not under- estimate the strategy of a determined terrorist groups like ISIL and Al-Qaeda and their global affiliates. Experience tells us that the ideology will be passed on to a new generation of jihadist even when the flesh is killed.

There must be a global honest effort to combat terrorism from the source and not by addressing the symptoms alone. However to be able to address the underlying causes, one must be able to stay alive to see that through. In that case some iron fisted approach is inevitable.A life lost, is a life lost irrespective of the origin or status of a victim. The world must stand together genuinely to address the issue of global terrorism from the source.

All these recent events beginning with the 9/11 trigger of ‘War on Terror’ indicates that the world is experiencing a 3rd World War but this time, the enemy comes from an unexpected end- Terrorism mainly from Salafist Islamic fundamentalists groups with an extreme Jihadist ideology eating the fabrics of society slowly but steadily. Their sole objective is to create and maintain an Islamic Caliphate under ultra-strict Sharia law. The main players, united by a common ideology but sometimes divided in approach and modus operandi are the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL); Al-Qaeda; Taliban and affiliates against a global Western coalition front headed by US and Russia, albeit divided in strategy and operation.This is the sad position of the world as it stands today.

Whatever is done in mitigation against violent extremism must have as a central referral point that ‘hurt people hurt people’ and no amount of retaliation, iron fisted punishment frightens men who are not afraid of death. If such hard-line tactics do not change, the ‘War on terror’ may never see victory. A nuanced approach addressing structural and societal concerns is the only way forward.

David Otto
TGS Counter terrorism expert
Twitter: @ottotgs