It's been three days since militants went on a rampage at a luxury hotel in Mali's capital, and many basic aspects of the attack remain unconfirmed, including the death toll, the total number of gunmen, and the group responsible. But one thing seems certain: Without the heroic actions of one hotel employee, many more people would have died.
The attack began early Friday morning in Bamako when gunmen stormed into the Radisson Blu hotel and opened fire, kicking off a bloody siege that lasted for nine hours. In an interview with French news channel BFM TV on Sunday, hotel employee Tamba Diarra explained how he was able to flee the building and then work closely with security forces to rescue hostages.
After making his escape, Diarra, who worked at the hotel's front desk, called each room and gave the guests who had barricaded themselves inside a password — his first name, Tamba — so they would know those knocking on their door later were rescuers and not attackers. Wearing a bulletproof vest, Diarra led Malian soldiers through the hotel "door to door, hallway to hallway, and floor to floor," allowing security forces to "free everyone one by one."
Not everyone made it out alive. Malian government sources said 19 people died in the attack, including 18 guests and one Malian police officer. MINUSMA, the UN's peacekeeping mission in the region, said 22 people were killed, including two attackers. Malian military sources have put the number of dead at 27. The victims include six Russians, three Chinese, an American, a Belgian, a Senegalese, an Israeli, and at least six Malians.
An investigation is currently underway to formally identify the attackers, and French forensic experts have been dispatched to Mali to help identify the bodies of victims. In a statement released on Friday, the French Defense Ministry said security forces killed two attackers, and that French special forces stationed in the region worked alongside Malian forces to free the hostages.
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Ali Yazbeck, a pastry chef at the hotel who was shot in the neck during the siege, saw two attackers who appeared to be in their early twenties. Speaking to the New York Times on Saturday, Yazbecksaid one of the gunmen took a break from the killing spree to cook himself some meat in the hotel kitchen. Another attacker reportedly laughed when he opened fire on the foreign guests. Yazbeck told the Times one attacker was dark-skinned and wore a black turban around his neck, the other he described as lighter skinned.
"Right now we can't say for sure what nationality the attackers were, but it's important to note that they were black — they were not Berbers or Arabs," said Lemine Ould Salem, a French journalist who wrote a book about Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the infamous leader of a militant group that has claimed responsibility for the attack. "They were able to blend in with the locals."
Terror groups in the region are mainly comprised Tuareg, Berber or Arab militants. Boubacar Sidiki Samaké, the Malian prosecutor heading the investigation, said authorities were on the hunt for at least three potential accomplices. On Monday, Malian state TV released images of a man and a woman suspected of helping plot the attack.
Belmokhtar's group Al-Mourabitoun claimed responsibility for the attack on Friday, saying on Twitter that it carried out the attack "with the participation" of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
On Sunday, however, the Malian jihadist group Macina Liberation Front (MLF) issued a dueling claim of responsibility. The group sent a statement to French news agency AFP and the Bamako offices of French radio RFI claiming that three of its fighters had fled the hotel after the siege and were "safe and sound." MLF said it worked with the militant group Ansar Dine, which is also active in Mali, to carry out the attack.
"[The purpose of] Friday's attack is to show that al Qaeda still exists.'
Al-Mourabitoun also sent an audio message to Al Jazeera shortly before MLF claimed the siege as its own. In the message, Al-Mourabitoun said that the attack was carried out by two fighters identified as Abdelhakim Al-Ansari and Moez Al-Ansari. The group did not confirm nationalities of the alleged attackers, but the name Al-Ansari suggests they were Malian nationals.
Salem, the French journalist, said the attack bore the hallmarks of Belmokhtar, a notorious figure dubbed "The Bin Laden of the Sahara." "It is very likely that Mohktar Belmokhtar is behind this attack," Salem said. "Belmokhtar has enough men in the region to carry out this type of action, and he also has experience of this type of operation."
Last March, Belmokhtar's Al-Mourabitoun claimed responsibility for an attack on La Terrasse, a restaurant in Bamako that was popular with the city's expat community. Five people died in the attack, including three Malians, a Frenchman, and a Belgian.
Salem noted similarities between the attacks, which both targeted establishments patronized by expats in the capital, which has largely been viewed as safer than the country's troubled northern region. "It allows them to prove that they can strike anywhere in Mali," Salem said.
Belmokhtar — also nicknamed Mr. Marlboro over allegations he once smuggled contraband cigarettes through the Sahara — is believed to be hiding out in Libya. Libyan authorities announced in June that the terror chief was killed by an American airstrike, but AQIM — Al-Mourabitoun's alleged partner in the Radisson Blu attack — later denied that he was dead.
In August, MLF and Al-Mourabitoun made dueling claims to a deadly hotel siege in the central Malian town of Sévaré.
Salem explained that jihadist groups in the region have been "pooling forces" since 2013, when the French launched military operations against militant strongholds in northern Mali. All four groups linked to Friday's attacked — Al-Mourabitoun, AQIM, MLF, and Ansar Dine — are affiliated with al Qaeda.
"[The purpose of] Friday's attack is to show that al Qaeda still exists, even as the Islamic State has been striking in Europe or in Nigeria, with [IS affiliate] Boko Haram," Salem said. "The attack will also help destabilize the peace process that is underway in northern Mali."
Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter: @PLongeray