A deadly attack on a hotel in Mali kills several people, many of them foreigners, and leaves the country unsettled. Very quickly, the al-Qaeda-affiliated terror group al-Mourabitoun claims responsibility for the attack in a statement delivered to the media. But in the aftermath of the attack, a second group comes forward to claim responsibility for the attack, a relatively new and still largely under the radar group called the Macina Liberation Front (MLF, or FLM if you prefer the French version of their moniker, Force de Libération du Macina). And, really, maybe both of them are right.
I’m actually not talking about last Friday’s attack on the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako, although I could be. This same scenario played out in August, when somebody attacked the Hotel Byblos in the central Malian city of Sévaré, an episode that left 13 people dead including the five attackers. Malian authorities at the time were pretty sure that MLF fighters were the ones who carried out the attack, but nobody really settled the question of who was ultimately responsible, and given the ties between the two groups maybe they both were.
Anyway, it now appears that the MLF has also claimed credit for Friday’s attack:
Meanwhile, a different extremist group that emerged only this year also issued a claim of responsibility for the attack. The claim, reported Sunday by French media, underscores the shifting alliances and memberships of the extremist groups operating in Mali and nearby countries.
The new group, the Macina Liberation Front, is active in central Mali and said it had worked with yet another militant group, Ansar Dine. The claim said the attack was in retaliation for Operation Barkhane, the regional French fight against Islamic extremists, according to Radio France Internationale.
Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita told Al Jazeera today that “all indications are” that it was actually the MLF who were behind the Raddison Blu operation. I don’t know what “indications” Mali’s investigators have uncovered, but Bamako is a lot closer to MLF’s usual range of operations (central Mali, where Sévaré is located) than to al-Mourabitoun’s (which tends to be the Mali-Algeria-Niger border region, so more northern and eastern Mali). Ultimately, though, this may be a distinction without much of a difference. The man who claimed responsibility for the Sévaré attack apparently (that link is in French, sorry) had ties to both Amadou Kouffa, the MLF leader, and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the likely head (again, assuming he’s still alive) of al-Mourabitoun. Little is known about the MLF’s allegiances, but they claimed to have worked with Ansar Dine, the Tuareg terror group with ties to al-Qaeda and al-Mourabitoun, in carrying off Friday’s attack, so it seems like all of these groups are playing for more or less the same team (al-Qaeda’s, or perhaps more specifically Belmokhtar’s). The attack may have been a joint operation, or may have been an MLF operation using assets from al-Mourabitoun, or any number of other permutations.
I assume you have some questions, like “who are the MLF” and “what is ‘Macina,’ and why does somebody think it needs to be liberated,” so here are some very rudimentary answers. “Macina” is the Fulani word for the Inner Niger Delta, a floodplain created by a bifurcation of the Niger River around the same point where it’s joined by a major tributary, the Bani River. This region roughly corresponds with the central Malian provinces of Mopti and Ségou, which you can see on this map:
The originally pastoralist Fula people, whose historical range stretched all the way from the western coast of sub-Saharan Africa to southern Egypt, started carving out their own political entities all over West Africa in the 19th century. This trend began in 1804, when a Fulani leader named Usman dan Fodio (d. 1817) drove the Hausa out of much of what is today northern Nigeria and Cameroon and founded the Sokoto Caliphate, which survived until it was abolished by Britain in 1903. Usman’s success inspired other pockets of Fula resistance to the various and mostly declining kingdoms under which they’d been living. One such movement, led by a man named Seku Amadu (d. 1845), gained traction in the Macina (or Masina, or Massina, you see all three variations). Starting in 1818, that movement repeatedly defeated and irreversibly weakened the once-powerful Bamana Empire based in Ségou (which still practiced a traditional religion based on ancestor worship), establishing a Fula empire in its place.
At its height, which is not totally reflected in that map up there, the Macina Empire reached from not quite Ségou in the south to Timbuktu in the north. But this wasn’t a very long-lived empire; it only survived into the 1860s, when it was overrun by the newly-expanding Toucouleur (an ethnic group related to the Fulani) Empire of El Hadj Umar Tall. Umar Tall put the faltering Bamara Empire out of its misery in 1861 and conquered the Macina Empire the following year. The Toucouleur empire was itself not very long for the world; it was toppled by French forces in the 1890s.
The MLF is the modern heir to the Fula separatist sentiment that led to the creation of entities like the Sokoto Caliphate and the Macina Empire (it openly embraces the Macina Empire as their forerunner). It’s comprised of Fulani fighters who cut their teeth in northern Mali during the Tuareg uprising that began there in 2012, and its ostensible goal is to see the creation of an independent Fula state in the Mopti/Ségou region. The group’s leader, Kouffa, worked/studied under the Tuareg founder of Ansar Dine, Iyad Ag Ghaly, and first rose to prominence during that northern Mali conflict, when he led a joint al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb/MUJAO/Ansar Dine force that captured the town of Konna (in Mopti province) in January 2013.
The Battle of Konna is one of the events that triggered the French military intervention that ultimately put down the northern Mali rebellion–in fact, some people in Mali believe that Kouffa was killed in the French-led action to retake Konna, but that seems unlikely to say the least. But that intervention only ended the rebellion of the Tuareg tribes in the region, not the activities of radical elements operating there, like Ansar Dine, MUJAO (later al-Mourabitoun), and AQIM. MLF first became known in January of this year and have carried out a number of attacks in Mali since then, maybe/probably now including the attack last week in Bamako.
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