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What the Bamako Hotel Attack Reveals About Islamist Militants in Mali

The violence adds to a continued trend of attacks and kidnappings by militant groups in the country, with experts warning against making any connection to recent events like the Islamic State-led attacks in Paris that left more than 100 people dead.

by Kayla Ruble
Nov 20 2015, 6:55pm

Stringer/EPA

At least 27 people were killed when armed men stormed the Radisson Blu hotel in the Malian capital city of Bamako on Friday morning, taking more than 170 people hostage at the international hotel that is largely seen as a safe spot for foreigners traveling to the volatile former French colony. The latest violence adds to a continued trend of attacks and kidnappings by militant groups in the country, with experts warning against making any connection to recent events like the Islamic State-led attacks in Paris that left more than 100 people dead.

The assailants gunned down guards at the entrance of the hotel around 7am local time, spraying bullets as they stalked the floors of the facility and yelled "Allahu Akbar." Witnesses reported hearing gunshots at various points during the hostage situation, according to Reuters.

Special forces managed to rescue 80 people from the facility, while dozens reportedly escaped on their own or were let go after reciting Islamic religious verses to the attackers. Speaking to reporters on Friday, Malian Army Colonel Mamadou Coulibaly said at least 10 bodies have been found in the hotel and that all hostages were thought to be off the premises. According to the official, however, attackers are believed to still be inside the building.

Related: Terrorist Groups Are Poaching Elephants In Northern Mali, Warns UN

The West African militant group al-Mourabitoun ultimately claimed responsibility for the attack on Twitter on Friday afternoon, although the claims could not be verified. The militants carried out another hotel attack earlier this year. Led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a former al-Qaeda leader, al-Mourabitoun is just one of many rebel groups operating in the country.

Currently, three of the main Islamist groups active in Mali include the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the al-Qaeda breakaway group Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao), and Ansar Dine, which aims to see Mali ruled under Islamic Law. Other groups include the Islamic Movement for Azawad (IMA) and al-Mourabitoun, while other, smaller cells are also present in the country as well.

"There's no shortage of groups that could have carried this out," said Bruce Whitehouse, an expert in the Sahel region of Africa where Mali is located and an anthropology professor at Lehigh University. "This is not exactly unprecedented."

AQIM took on its current form in 2007, while Mujao broke off from the al-Qaeda affiliate in 2011. Ansar Dine — mostly based in the northwest part of Mali — gained notoriety when it overran the city of Timbuktu in 2012. This occurred at the same time that Tuareg rebels in the country led a parallel operation against the government in the northern region. IMA formed as a separate faction after it splintered away from Ansar Dine in 2013.

French forces intervened in Mali at the beginning of 2013 with an operation aimed at pushing back the Islamist militants. By April of that year, the United Nations set up the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) to bring stability to the land-locked West African country. While the Tuareg separatists ultimately signed a peace deal with the government in June, militant activity in the region has not come to a halt.

Related: Jihadists Suspected of Killing UN Peacekeepers in Mali

The UN's MINUSMA has become the deadliest mission ever for the international body, with more than 40 of its troops killed and nearly 170 injured since opening its operation. Some of the high profile attacks include a 2014 kidnapping of five Red Cross workers, which Mujao claimed responsibility for. Al-Mourabitoun's earlier hotel attack took place outside of Bamako in August. Seventeen people died, including local UN workers, militants, and Malian soldiers.

According to Lehigh's Whitehouse, Friday's hostage situation is likely part of a larger pattern that has seen attacks spread beyond the rebel-populated north and into places like the capital city.

"There was this pattern of increasing attacks both in frequency and their distribution around the country," he said. Whitehouse explained that he sees the attacks as a part of a concerted effort by multiple groups, which may or may not be working in concert together, to destabilize the Malian government.

Targeting the Radisson Blu, the only western hotel chain in the capital, does add a unique element to this latest attack in Mali. The hotel had a reputation as being the safest place for expats to stay in Bamako, which likely made it an appealing target for the militants, according to Whitehouse.

The attack in the former French colony comes just a week after the deadly armed attacks in Paris that were carried out by the Islamic State. Friday's events in Bamako raised eyebrows, with Reuters highlighting a comment from a Syria-based foreign fighter for the Islamist militant group that controls large parts of Syria and Iraq.

"This is just the beginning. We also haven't forgotten what happened in Mali," he told the media outlet in an email. "The bitterness from Mali, the arrogance of the French, will not be forgotten at all."

In fact, French President Francois Hollande had recently praised the Mali intervention when discussing his country's efforts against terrorism elsewhere in the world following the Paris violence.

Related: How the West Could Actually Defeat the Islamic State

"France is leading this war with its armed forces, its soldiers, its courage," he said. "It must carry out this war with its allies, its partners giving us all the means available, as we did in Mali, as we are going to continue in Iraq, as we'll continue in Syria.

Hollande offered French support to the Malian government in the wake of Friday's events.

The Islamist groups in Mali have only tenuous connections with the Islamic State (IS). While some spokesmen have claimed affiliations, Whitehouse said there has been no confirmation this is actually the case. Al-Mourabitoun does not have any known links to IS. According to him, this attack likely has more of a domestic bent. The expert cautioned against making links between recent events in Paris and Syria to today's attack in Mali.

"Armed jihadism has been in Mali since the beginning of the century, long before the advent of the Islamic State," he said. "They have beefs with the French that long predate what happened in Syria... It's more about the situation in Mali and northwest Africa than it is about the situation in Syria or France."

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB