On November 21, only a week after terrorist attacks rocked Paris and left 130 dead, heavily armed gunmen streamed into a hotel in Bamako, Mali, taking over 150 hostages and eventually killing 27 in the hotel. The hotel attack brought Mali back into the international spotlight at a time when the world’s gaze was fixed instead on the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), overlooking the continued civil strife in the former French colony, which was controlled almost entirely by terrorists just over two years ago. The crisis in Mali reveals the localized conditions and fraught histories that underpin terrorism in the region while also highlighting the changing and increasingly competitive nature of large international terrorist organizations.
In the aftermath of the Mali hotel attack and hostage crisis, the international community needs to understand the emerging ISIL versus Al-Qaeda race to the bottom as a pressing global threat. At the same time, we must not overlook the localized conditions and historical issues in Mali, specifically decades of neglect and marginalization in the North, which set the stage for this tragedy.
Mali has long struggled with insurrection and Islamist extremism. In 2012, Northern Mali fell under the control of rebels and Islamist militants, including the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In 2013, a French-led offensive was able to oust them, but the United Nations peacekeepers and hundreds of French soldiers who remained in the country have since struggled to maintain order. A peace accord signed in June by the government and several rebel groups provided a glimmer of hope, but it has since been broken several times by the rebels and government-allied groups, and civilians driven out from the North have repeatedly voiced grievances about persistent violence and corruption in the state. Because of lapses in the peace deal, Mali has continued to fall victim to a mixture of civil war and extremism, which has made this UN peacekeeping mission one of the deadliest in the world, with 40 peacekeepers killed since the beginning of the mission in June 2013. The danger posed to the peacekeepers continues to this day, with two blue helmets among the three casualties of a mortar attack on the UN base in Northern Mali on November 28.
Yet despite the international nature of the fight against terrorism and the heavy global focus on international terrorist organizations like ISIL and al-Qaeda, many terrorist organizations remain strong because of incredibly localized conditions. “Seeing the current increase in terrorist attacks in Mali as just another tentacle of globalized Islamic terrorism…misses the point,” writes Paul Jackson, professor of African Politics and International Development at the University of Birmingham. Indeed, the numerous groups of violent Islamists in Mali are products of specific local conditions. In particular, the historical neglect and marginalization of the North has created “ripe recruiting grounds for those who seek to perpetrate violence.”
Shaped like an “uneven bowtie,” most of Mali’s population resides in the smaller southern triangle while the northern region, which includes a swath of the Sahara, is mostly sparsely populated. Due in part to the population imbalance and in part to the exclusion of Northerners from roles in the Malian State at its time of independence, the south has long remained the more powerful part of the country both politically and economically. The nomadic Tuareg people of the North have protested perceived marginalization and resisted the Malian government through decades of rebellion. After Mali gained independence in 1960, the Tuareg found themselves a minority “removed from the centers of power not only geographically, but also culturally.” Beginning in the early 1990s, the Tuareg began an insurgency over land and cultural rights, which has persisted, despite the government’s military and diplomatic efforts. As the rebellion shifted toward a full-fledged separatist movement when the Mouvement National Pour la Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) rose to power, the war that led to the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi in nearby Libya resulted in an influx of weapons, and in 2012, the separatists took up arms and declared the establishment of an independent state called Azawad. After initially attempting to bolster the movement by gaining the support of armed Islamist groups, the insurgency was quickly hijacked by an array of Islamist fighters, including AQIM and a pair of newer groups, Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa. Together, these groups infamously destroyed historical shrines and records in Timbuktu, an internationally revered cultural site, and ruled the North under a harsh form of Sharia law, eventually gaining control of over two-thirds of the country’s land. Meanwhile, many of the Tuaregs were forced to flee as refugees, with the MNLA eventually realigning with the government. When they began to march southward, French troops successfully intervened and transferred power to the United Nations. But the frequent attacks and deaths of peacekeepers in the north are evidence that the victory may have been fleeting; the jihadists that took over large swathes of the country never truly left, but rather splintered and have now begun to creep back into the region.
This troubled history remains part of the present reality lived by Malians, as many continue to call for reform and redress. Malian citizens have repeatedly pointed out that they prefer urgently needed government reform over any security response, as a solution to the instability in the country. A February 2014 report by Oxfam noted in particular that the “combined impact of weak decentralization, corruption, and lack of transparency regarding budget allocation and the distribution of aid has led to a widely-held belief that the country’s citizens are not receiving their fair share from the government.” It also recommended that the country respond to the harms caused by the conflict by strengthening judicial institutions, which are trying suspects for crimes committed during the conflict, and making an “effective, inclusive reconciliation process” one of its top priorities. According to 2013 opinion polls, most internally displaced persons in Mali cited improving governance and reducing corruption as the single most important solution to the crisis in the country. These issues rest on top of persistent and underlying ethnic tensions between the northern Tuaregs and black Africans in southern Mali and have led an already weak state to become an opportune region for Islamists to swoop in and gain influence.
While the attack in Mali is most revealing about local incentives for terrorist organizations, responses to the tragedy from international terrorist organizations reveal equally harrowing trends on a global scale. During the nine-hour siege, it was not immediately clear who was responsible for seizing the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako. Al-Murabitoun, an al-Qaeda offshoot led by one-eyed Algerian jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, claimed responsibility, as did the Macina Liberation Front (LWF), another jihadist group from central Mali. But even before credit was known, reactions on social media revealed a heated ISIL-al-Qaeda rivalry that seems to be spiraling into a contest to one-up each other in staging high-profile attacks against civilians.
In the midst of the hostage crisis, one al-Qaeda supporter wrote on Twitter that ISIL could “learn a thing or two” from the Mali attack. “This is how Muslims SHOULD act,” one declared. Another al-Qaeda supporter agreed, citing specifically the Malian gunmen’s strategy of requiring hostages to recite Quran verses and sparing those who could. “Lions who carried out #MaliAttack separated Muslims from Christians in order2 protect the inviolable blood of Muslims,” the supporter wrote.
According to Richard Barrett, former head of global counterterrorism operations at Britain’s MI6 intelligence agency, while the attention was focused on ISIL and threats to the West, “The guys in Mali saw a big opportunity to remind everyone that they are still relevant.” Immediately after al-Qaeda and ISIL stopped collaborating in Syria in 2013, the break and even the ensuing competition between the two groups were seen as positive developments. It was expected that the two would use their resources to fight each other, leaving less resources to fight other foes, with jihadi-on-jihadi violence eventually weakening both groups and providing a net positive for counterterrorism.
Instead, today’s experts have begun to fear that the competing networks are attempting to outdo one another in a global theater of spectacular attacks. Although the two groups still fight each other directly in places like Somalia to gain control on the ground, as both groups grow increasingly dependent on recruitment and resource gains that come after high-profile attacks, ISIL and al-Qaeda are entering a deadly game of one-upmanship to carry out fear-inspiring attacks. Rather than canceling each other out, the groups could create a crescendo of terrorist violence.
The attack that occurred on the hotel in Mali highlights both the persistence of localized terrorism and the deadly international rivalry growing between ISIL and al-Qaeda. It also stands as a reminder that although it is important to thwart terrorist attacks in the West, policy makers also must not fail to engage with the underlying structural weaknesses and local historical factors that can trap states like Mali in cycles of crisis and instability.