Up to three gunmen stormed the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, the capital of Mali, taking as many as 170 occupants hostage Nov. 20. They reportedly entered the hotel using diplomatic license plates – a security oversight likely observed by the attackers. The hotel’s popularity among diplomats and tourists made it a highly desirable target for attack.
The attack comes just days after militants affiliated with the Islamic State staged coordinated attacks in France. It is unclear if the two incidents are related — the Islamic State and the ethnic Tuareg militant groups that dominate in Mali have competing interests – but the Paris attack may well have inspired the raid in Bamako.
French paramilitary forces have been deployed to the scene of attack, and Malian security forces have launched a rapid counterassault to clear the hotel. Dozens of the hotel’s occupants have locked themselves in their rooms, and as many as 80 have fled the building. The militaries of several countries, including France and the United States, are active in Mali and can be expected to support Mali’s security forces.
Sources in Mali have blamed the attack on Ansar Dine, an Islamist militant group headed by a Tuareg leader named Iyad Ag Ghali. The group served as the Malian branch of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. With the help of al Qaeda, Ansar Dine briefly gained control of nearly all of northern Mali during its insurgency in 2012-2013. France subsequently retook northern Mali in a military intervention, and European and African troops have remained there ever since.
Tuareg militants attack Malian and foreign military and diplomatic personnel in northern Mali intermittently, but attacks in southern Mali are relatively rare. Attacks in Bamako are rarer still. If Ansar Dine is in fact behind the attack, it would be the most prominent and sophisticated by the group.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is known to take hostages to generate income, but this is not the type of hostage situation that would produce ransoms. The intent of this attack was to terrorize, destabilize and promote Tuareg interests and remind the world that al Qaeda is still a force to be reckoned with.