Some early thoughts on the Mali hotel attack

The Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako, the capital of Mali, was struck by gunmen earlier today in an attack that so far has killed at least 27 people. The situation is still unfolding (though it may be nearing a resolution), with gunmen still believed to be inside the hotel, though a “special forces raid,” possibly including US and French personnel, has reportedly freed all of the hostages those gunmen were still holding.

Mali has been a playground for an innumerable number of jihadist organizations in recent years, but an organization called al-Mourabitoun has claimed responsibility for today’s attack, in collaboration with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Al-Mourabitoun is sometimes, especially on my TV today, called “Al-Qaeda in West Africa,” which is accurate but oversimplifies the group’s history. This organization was founded in 2013 in a merger of two groups that had themselves broken away from AQIM: the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (often called MUJAO, the acronym for its French name, Mouvement pour l’Unicité et le Jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest) and Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s “Masked Brigade,” or the “Mokhtar Belmokhtar Admiration Society” if you prefer.

MUJAO splintered from AQIM in 2011, ostensibly in order to spread jihad into sub-Saharan West Africa, but also because AQIM’s African fighters started to get tired of taking a backseat to its predominantly Arab/Algerian leadership. Belmokhtar was actually booted out of AQIM in late 2012, ostensibly for not filing expense reports (no, seriously), but mostly because he was seen as a threat by AQIM’s emir, Abdelmalek Droukdel, and because AQIM leadership had reason to believe he was planning to form his own group and pledge allegiance directly to Ayman al-Zawahiri rather than to Zawahiri through AQIM and Droukdel. Which is what he did anyway.

Belmokhtar, who is a singularly dangerous guy, was responsible for the January 2013 In Aménas hostage crisis, in which over 800 people were taken hostage at a large gas field in the eastern Algerian desert, and which ended with the deaths of around 40 hostages and 30 terrorists (including Belmokhtar’s #2 guy, who was in command of the operation). The merger with MUJAO in August 2013 that created al-Mourabitoun brought Belmokhtar’s sphere of operations south, into Mali and Niger, and aligned him with Ansar Dine, another AQIM-linked group, which operates within the Tuareg separatist movement in the northern part of Mali and was behind the 2012 takeover and partial destruction of Timbuktu. It was led by a man named Abubakr al-Masri (“the Egyptian”), who was reportedly killed by French forces in 2014, which left ??? running the group. Maybe/probably Belmokhtar, but it’s not totally clear.

The reason calling al-Mourabitoun “al-Qaeda in West Africa” is problematic is because, in May of this year, the group up and declared its allegiance to ISIS. Or did it? Belmokhtar, who is (or was; I’m getting to that) a real al-Qaeda die-hard, rejected that pledge a day later, but he rejected it on procedural grounds (there was no vote in al-Mourabitoun’s leadership council before the pledge was issued, apparently), not on the grounds that it wasn’t reflective of reality. Belmokhtar was one of the senior figures in al-Mourabitoun, though, so his words presumably carry some weight. Except then a funny thing happened; Belmokhtar was reportedly killed in June…in Libya. What was he doing in Libya? Beats me, and maybe he wasn’t; I’m not really convinced he’s dead yet, and this attack may well indicate that he’s not (the French government is saying that he was “likely behind” it). But the point is that there have been signs of disunity within al-Mourabitoun’s senior leadership.

Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who may or may not be behind today’s attack, and in fact may or may not still be among the living (Wikimedia)
Whatever dispute may have happened within al-Mourabitoun earlier this year, it seems clear (if the claim of responsibility can be accepted) that this attack was perpetrated by a group that’s still aligned with al-Qaeda. Apart from the alleged collaboration with AQIM, the relatively low body count (at one point the gunmen may have held as many as 170 hostages, so this could have been a much deadlier attack) speaks more to al-Qaeda’s modus operandi than to ISIS’s. But I don’t think it’s fair to say, as I’ve heard some people on my TV say today, that ISIS has no presence in Mali — somebody seems to have pledged allegiance to ISIS on behalf of al-Mourabitoun in May, and the faction within the organization that did so is presumably still hanging around.

The natural temptation is to link this attack to last week’s Paris attack. You can’t link the two by perpetrator, apparently, but you can tie them both to the global battle between ISIS and al-Qaeda to become the #1 “brand” (and no, I can’t believe I just typed that) in jihad. ISIS hit Paris, and Beirut, and Baghdad, and Yemen, and on and on, so here’s al-Qaeda’s response. This assumes a couple of things that I think are pretty big assumptions: first, that al-Qaeda Central has enough operational control over its affiliates to direct something like that, and second, that this wasn’t something al-Mourabitoun was planning anyway. The group previously attacked a hotel in Sevare, in central Mali, in August, and shot up a restaurant in Bamako in March, so this attack isn’t exactly out of the ordinary for them.

If Belmokhtar was behind this attack (if he is still alive), then he’s enough of an al-Qaeda guy that he may have undertaken a high-profile attack on his own volition to try to steal a little of ISIS’s thunder, but it’s too soon to be making those kind of determinations in my view. If that is what happened, though, we may be entering a whole new phase of the Coke-Pepsi confrontation between these two groups that promises to be tons of fun for pretty much nobody.

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