21 Nov 2015

Why Mali is an insurgent hotspot

11:37 am on 21 November 2015

While most global attention has been focused on Nigeria, Mali has been West Africa's other insurgent hotspot in recent years.

Malian troops take position outside the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako

Malian troops take position outside the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako Photo: AFP

Mali is threatened by various armed groups - from Ansar Dine, which is linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), to Touareg separatist rebel groups.

AQIM and its off-shoot al-Murabitoun have both claimed they carried out the most recent attack at Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako, in which 170 people were taken hostage and 27 killed.

Al-Mourabitoun is led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a prominent jihadist in North Africa, notorious for the January 2013 siege on a gas facility in Algeria during which at least 37 hostages were killed.

The attack on the Radisson Blu Hotel is the second this year. Attackers killed 13 people, including five UN workers, in another hotel siege in the Malian town of Sevare, 600km north of Bamako, in August.

Militancy in Mali:

  • October 2011: Ethnic Tuaregs launch rebellion after returning with arms from Libya
  • March 2012: Army coup over government's handling of rebellion, a month later Tuareg and al-Qaeda-linked fighters seize control of north
  • June 2012: Islamist groups capture Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao from Tuaregs, start to destroy Muslim shrines and manuscripts and impose Sharia
  • January 2013: Islamist fighters capture a central town, raising fears they could reach Bamako. Mali requests French help
  • July 2013: UN force, now totalling about 12,000, takes over responsibility for securing the north after Islamists routed from towns
  • July 2014: France launches an operation in the Sahel to stem jihadist groups
  • Attacks continue in northern desert area, blamed on Tuareg and Islamist groups
  • 2015: Terror attacks in the capital, Bamako, and central Mali
Al-Mourabitoun leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar

Al-Mourabitoun leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar Photo: AFP PHOTO / HO / ANI

Key players

The lawlessness in Libya after Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in 2011 led to a spread of weapons across the Sahel region of northern Africa, which fell into the hands of such groups and fuelled unrest in the region.

In 2012 the handling of the Touareg rebellion prompted some army factions to stage an uprising, sparking a civil war.

Jihadist groups took advantage of the situation and took control of the north of the country, imposing strict Islamic law.

The Islamist group Ansar Dine was involved in taking control of Timbuktu.

The resulting fighting needed the intervention of French forces to push away the militants and regain much of northern Mali.

But the jihadists are still active and have carried out numerous attacks across the country.

The most prominent group is Ansar Dine, led by Iyad Ag Ghaly. The group is linked to AQIM and has vowed to destabilise the Sahel region. Ghaly recently called for attacks on France and its interests in Mali.

The group implemented Sharia law in towns it captured during the 2012 uprising, including the ancient city of Timbuktu.

A new jihadist group known as Macina Liberation Front (FLM) has recently emerged in central Mali.

It is linked with Ansar Dine and just last week, carried out an attack on a military checkpoint in the region of Djenne, a town 500km north-east of the capital Bamako.

Its leader has called for continued attacks on the government.

Last week, the Malian authorities said that information from members of the public had led to the arrest of one of the group's leading financiers during an army operation in the central region of Mopti.

AQIM has a much larger reach, operating across North Africa and the Sahel, including Mali.

Boko Haram, the group linked to Islamic State and based in the Lake Chad Basin, has also been known to have links to Malian extremist groups, receiving training and weapons from some jihadists in the north of the country.

Well co-ordinated attack

The security situation in Mali has prompted counter-insurgency measures by the country's military forces including just north of the capital Bamako. France has also maintained its involvement. France colonised Mali in the late 19th century, and it regained independence in 1960.

France has 3000 forces operating in the Sahel as part of an anti-terror operation known as Operation Barkhane.

In response to the latest Bamako attack, France also deployed its Special Forces unit to Bamako, including the National Gendarmerie Intervention Group (GIGN) involved in countering the recent Paris attacks.

Mali's neighbours like Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast have expressed concerns about the spread of jihadist fighters and have stepped up the security operation on their border areas in an attempt to keep the militants out.

Malian security forces evacuate a man from an area surrounding the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako

Malian security forces evacuate a man from an area surrounding the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako Photo: AFP

Second attack this year

Today's attack on the Malian capital Bamako is the second this year, after five people were killed in a bar popular with foreign nationals back in March.

In August, attackers killed 13 people, including five UN workers, in another hotel siege in the Malian town of Sevare, 600km north of Bamako.

However, until recently, Islamist-related violence has not reached too far south in this vast West African state.

Instead, Malian security forces and UN peacekeepers have kept their focus on areas north of the River Niger and in the Sahara desert, where al-Qaeda linked militants and Touareg secessionists combined to seize vast swathes of territory back in 2013, before France sent troops to push them back.

Malian security forces evacuate two women from an area surrounding the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako

Malian security forces evacuate two women from an area surrounding the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako Photo: AFP

Mali attack unlikely to be linked to Paris

AQIM and its affiliate al-Murabitoun, which is led by Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, have claimed joint responsibility for the attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali's capital, Bamako, the Mauritanian news agency Al-Akhbar reported.

Al-Akhbar is considered a reliable source of information about al-Murabitoun operations, and the group has often chosen to publish its messages through the agency.

Just a week after the attacks on Paris, people are discussing if the attack on a hotel in Mali's capital, Bamako, could be linked.

Brett McGurk, the US Special Presidential Envoy to the coalition battling so-called Islamic State, told the MSNBC news channel that it was too early to tell.

Groups in Mali weren't particularly connected to IS - and it now seemed that an al-Qaeda off-shoot may have carried out the attack.

Meanwhile, politics and security analyst Andrew Lebovich said logistics made him doubt there was a link.

The attack on the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako appears to have been well co-ordinated and carried out by a group that had studied the layout of the building and knew the hotel normally has a large number of international guests.

This was a group that had strong a local knowledge but also a wider agenda to grab global headlines.

-BBC