Mali Hotel Attack: Who Are The Prime Suspects?

Briefing Note

Mali Hotel Attack: Who Are The Prime Suspects?

23 Nov 2015

Tracing a situation of chronic insecurity that has been ongoing since 2012 and seen several hotels and public spaces being targeted, we take a look at the different actors operating in the country.

The attack at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako has brought global attention to jihadi activity in Mali, which continues in the country against, and under the radar of, international troops. This latest attack comes after militants in the country spent the past three years destabilising Mali, which was once considered a haven of stability within the Sahel region.

Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) and a local Saheian jihadi group, al-Murabitun, which has links to al-Qaeda, claimed joint responsibility for the attack. The Masina Liberation Front (MLF), a relatively new Malian group on Sunday also claimed responsibilityfor the attack. AQIM has a long history of activity in the Sahara, Sahel, and in Mali where it has had a presence among local communities and carried out attacks against government and international targets since it was defeated by the Algerian military and pushed into the desert in the mid 2000s. ISIS does not have an official affiliate in the country, though in May this year several individuals from a faction of the same local group released a statement swearing allegiance to ISIS' leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

There are several homegrown separatist groups, which are predominantly ethnic Tuareg in make up, and seek autonomy and/or independence from the central Bamako government. They seek to establish their own state in the north, which they call Azawad. Several uprisings and rebellions have been fought between the central government and Tuareg separatists. In 2012, a lack of military equipment and government support for the fight against the Tuaregs, led to a mid-level officers' coup against the government. The largest Tuareg group is a coalition called MNLA (Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) which sits within an umbrella organisation called the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA).

This coup led to the effective implosion of the Malian state, providing space for separatist and Islamist groups to seize control of large swaths of northern Mali, effectively removing it from state control. Several new rebel groups, most with an Islamist or jihadi motivation, were established just before or during the 2012 uprising. They hijacked the Tuaregs' rebellion, transforming it into an Islamist occupation of the major cities of the north where they declared Islamic rule and imposed a harsh form of sharia. This included the ancient city of Timbuktu as well as Gao and Kidal. There was little local support for the occupation as traditional Malian Islam has deep scholarly and Sufi roots. The Islamists destroyed priceless documents during their occupation of the city.

These groups include Ansar Dine, which is an Islamist inspired separatist group in Mali that was founded in 2011, just before the coup and implosion of the country, by Iyad Ag Ghali, an Ifoghas Tuareg militant leader. The group has connections with AQIM and fighters were prominent in the occupation of northern Mali (Azawad) following a military coup in 2012. In loose cooperation with other separatist and Islamist groups, Ansar Dine took control of much of northern Mali and occupied its main towns Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu, until forced back into the desert by Malian, French, and regional forces in 2013. 

Also present in the country is the Islamist group Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, which is known by its French acronym MUJAO, a nationalist-Islamist splinter group of AQIM. MUJAO formed in 2011 in Mali and fought to gain control of major northern Malian towns. It is believed that Hamada Ould Mohamed Kheirou, a Mauritanian militant, led the group. MUJAO was forced from towns it controlled in northern Mali in 2013 but continues to launch attacks from camps in the desert. Of the numerous groups active in Mali since 2012, MUJAO is the most closely aligned with international jihadi ideology.

Increased cooperation of militant groups - unclear picture of allegiances

In August 2013, MUJAO merged with parts of a group run by Algerian militant, trafficker, and hostage taker Mokhtar Belmokhtar. The new group was renamed al-Murabitun. In May 2015, the purported new leader of the linked MUJAO and al-Murabitun, Adnan Abu Walid al Sahrawi, released a message swearing allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This statement was quickly denied by Belmokhtar, who remains loyal to al-Qaeda. The fate of Belmokhtar also remains uncertain, with the United States, French, and Chadians at various times claiming to have killed him.These dynamics, along with the statement reported by a Mauritanian news agency, claiming that the Radisson Blu Hotel attack was carried out jointly by al-Murabitun and AQIM emphasises the obscurity of the relationship between al-Murabitun and the other groups. Tehse groups have a history of competition and cooperation when it suits them, so a joint attack in Bamako is not entirely unlikely.

Ansar Dine has in recent months increased its attacks, and has expanded beyond its northern stronghold. For example, two attacks it claimed on 30 June were outside its normal northern sphere of activity. One attack was on the border with Mauritania to the West, the other was in the deep south along the border with Côte D'Ivoire. The Islamist and insurgent groups have also escalated guerrilla attacks against each other, locals, and Malian and international troops. IEDs alone resulted in over 100 injuries to these forces and the deaths of 19 MINUSMA personnel in 2014. In an audio message from October, Ansar Dine's leader Ag Ghaly called for attacks against France and denounced the groups party to a peace deal with the government this year. Ag Ghaly also called on young people to wage jihad.

A French connection?

All of these groups are combatting not only the Malian military, which has received training from numerous international partners, including the United States and France, but the country also hosts the UN's MUNISMA forces, brought in to eject Islamist groups from their occupation of Mali's northern cities and to contain the instability.

The French, Mali's former colonial power, intervened in the country in January 2013 when AQIM and other islamist groups advanced south toward the central town of Mopti and threatened southern Mali. In coordination with United Nations and West African troops, the Islamists were pushed from the major urban areas but retreated into the deserts and mountains from where they have carried out guerrilla attacks, taken hostages, and continue harrying the local population.

The Bamako attack is a continuation of an ongoing insurgency incorporating divergent Islamist, jihadi, ethnic separatist, and tribal groups.