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Five things you should know about Friday’s terrorist attack in Mali

- November 22, 2015
A painting showing the peace sign over the map of Mali is seen in the Radisson hotel in Bamako, Mali, on Nov. 20. (Joe Penney/Reuters)

The Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali, hosted a gathering of first ladies of West Africa when I was staying there in October 2011. The regal, powerful women and their attendants dominated the upscale lobby. The hotel was known for being safe and secure — a requirement for its diplomatic and business clientele.

In the early morning of Nov. 20, the hotel was the target of a brazen attack in which gunmen breached the security perimeter of the hotel, shot a security guard and then took more than 100 people hostage. Thankfully, most of those hostages escaped. Sadly, many did not. What are the five things you should know about the Mali and the attack on the Radisson Blu?

1. The Bamako and Paris attacks are connected, but analysis should focus less on global terror trends and more on the complicated history of Mali politics. In the wake of the tragic Paris attacks, it is tempting to frame the most recent Bamako attack as connected. While the terrible events in Paris and Bamako are linked because terrorists in both instances crave the attention that such high-profile attacks bring to their project, the Malian attack is part of a more complicated history of insecurity linked to local politics.

Certainly, the Radisson Blu hotel was targeted precisely because it is a favorite among expatriates. Moreover, a video released this past October by Iyad Ag Ghali, leader of Mali-based jihadist organization Ansar Dine, explicitly connects dissatisfaction with Mali’s political settlement to attacking Mali’s former colonial master, France. In the video, Ag Ghali claimed those who signed the Algiers peace accord — a recently brokered peace agreement that offered partial autonomy to northern Mali — had sold out. Ag Ghali also praised the January attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris and called for continued attacks on France.

In recent months, Amadou Koufa, an ally of Ag Ghali, created the Macina Liberation Front (MLF) and has led attacks against the United Nations Mission in Mali. In conjunction with Al Mouraboutin, an al-Qaeda affiliate led by Moktar Belmoktar, it claimed responsibility for the attack on the Hotel Byblos in Sevaré in central Mali occupied primarily by peacekeepers. The week prior to the attack at the Radisson, embassies called for increased vigilance in Bamako and the capital was placed on a heightened terror alert. Al-Mouraboutin has claimed responsibility for the attack.

2. The French intervention in January 2013 was only effective in the short term. Following the 2012 coup d’état in Mali, the French were able to rapidly retake Northern territory occupied by extremist groups such as Ansar Dine, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM). Many Malians applauded the French intervention, and a former French diplomat claimed that it was a courageous act on the part of President Francois Hollande. The same diplomat also pointed out that the intervention ignored the root causes of terrorism and “denied the troubling reality of Malian politics.” The military response only temporarily dispersed adherents to the rebel groups who then splintered and formed new alliances.

The French Operation Serval and subsequent Operation Barkhane did not include a long-term mandate for achieving stability in Mali. The French left those tricky issues to be sorted out and moved on to focus on regional counter-terrorism. However, the political crisis in Mali is intimately linked to the rise in terrorist activities in the country.

3. Counter-terrorism campaigns in the Sahel prioritize security and not politics. The U.S. State Department, in partnership with USAID and the Department of Defense, has led the Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership (TSCTP). The program has suffered from poor management, a lack of coordination and slow disbursement of funds. Some argue that the U.S. program has been a complete failure and, sadly, the French counterterrorism program in the Sahel is modeled on the U.S.  war on terror.

Mali President Amadou Toumani Touré promoted the flagship Special Program for Peace, Security and Development in Northern Mali (PSPSDN) to address insecurity in the North. The program focused primarily on bolstering security forces at a time when local populations in the North complained about discrimination by security personnel and a lack of development funding reaching the region. The program was rife with corruption and only served to stir up animosity across the region.

4. The 2015 Algiers Peace Accord was fragile from the start. In June 2015 rebel factions in Mali signed The Algiers Accord with pro-government groups. Few people had much faith that the accords would actually bring peace and be fully implemented. Mali has a long history of peace accords with the Tuareg that have not been fully implemented. These suspicions were proven warranted when a ceasefire was broken nearly immediately. Since the accords were signed, violence has spread southward.

5. Mali’s fragile democracy remains rife with tensions. The conflict in Mali today is part of ongoing tensions that go back decades despite the country’s democratic reputation. Mali was considered a model democracy prior to the March 2012 coup d’état. Since independence, various Tuareg groups pushed for autonomy and the creation of an independent state of Azawad. The Tuareg are not the only ethnic group living in northern Mali, in fact, they are a minority, which complicates the creation of Azawad.

Even before the crisis in 2012, tensions in the capital had been increasing between those promoting a secular state and those challenging those ideals. The High Islamic Council of Mali gained political legitimacy as President Amadou Toumani Touré became increasingly unpopular. The calls for an Islamic State of Mali, led by Ansar Dine and others, were an extreme version of this complicated tension. In response to the attack on the Radisson Blu, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita declared three days of national mourning and a 10-day state of emergency. Commenting on the terrorist attack, a cellphone merchant in Bamako, Nafila Dao, proclaimed “We were taught that Islam is tolerant of all religions and people. These people are just murderers.”

Susanna D. Wing is associate professor and chair of political science at Haverford College. She is also the author of the award-winning book, “Constructing Democracy in Africa: Mali in Transition.”