Security fears mount as rival jihadists claim Mali hotel attack
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Two jihadist groups, working in conjunction with other Islamist militant groups, have claimed the deadly November 20 attack on a Bamako luxury hotel, underscoring the worsening security in Mali.
Exactly a week after the Paris attacks, gunmen stormed a luxury hotel -- considered one of the safest places for internationals -- in the Malian capital of Bamako in a brazen attack that underscores the threat undermining the West African nation’s road to political and economic recovery.
Days after the attack on the Radisson Blu, a number of details surrounding the assault remain unclear. The death toll is disputed, with Malian authorities saying 20 people were killed in the hotel while initial reports put the figure as high as 27.
The number of attackers is also disputed. One of the two jihadist groups that have taken responsibility for the attack has maintained that there were only two gunmen. Another militant group claims there were five, three of whom escaped. Meanwhile, witnesses and some government officials have indicated that there were around 10 gunmen in the hotel, but since the attack the bodies of only two gunman have been recovered from the scene.
Capping the uncertainty are two rival -- or probably even collaborative -- claims of responsibility for the most high-profile attack in Mali since a 2013 French military operation succeeded in wresting northern Mali from militant control, if not necessarily eliminating the threat posed by jihadist groups.
Hours after gunmen shouting, “Allahu Akbar,” (“God is great,” in Arabic) stormed the hotel, the jihadist group al-Mourabitoun claimed it carried out the attack in a joint operation with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
But days later, a little-known group called the Macina Liberation Front took responsibility for the Radisson Blu attack.
The dueling claims are an indication of the mercurial nature of jihadist movements in Mali, where groups merge, splinter, re-group, break away and cooperate like the shifting sands that blow through this beltway straddling the Sahara and sub-Saharan Africa.
Hallmarks of a Belmokhtar attack
Al-Mourabitoun is a group led by veteran Islamist militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, whose fighting career dates back to the al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, followed by the 1990s Algerian civil war. The Algerian jihadist -- whose monikers include “Laâouar” ("one-eyed" in Arabic)– was an AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) commander before he split from al Qaeda’s North African branch in 2012 over a power feud.
As the leader of the breakaway al-Mouwakoune bi-Dimaa (“Those Who Sign in Blood”) Belmokhtar took credit for the daring January 2013 attack on the In Amenas gas plant in southern Algeria, which killed 40 people, mostly foreign nationals.
Months later, the Algerian jihadist announced the merger of his al-Mouwakoune bi-Dimaa group with another group, MUJAO (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa). The new group was called al-Mourabitoun (the Sentinels) and the statement announcing its presence in the already crowded jihadist scene proclaimed its mission was to “rout” France and its allies.
Last week’s Bamako hotel attack bore the hallmarks of a Belmokhtar operation: a high-profile target, where foreign nationals can be held hostage ensuring international media coverage. Acknowledging the veteran jihadist’s signature just hours after al-Mourabitoun claimed the attack, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters on Friday that Belmokhtar “was likely” behind the attack.
Indeed two days later, al-Mourabitoun released another statement, this time an audio message affirming the hotel attack was conducted by two Mourabitoun militants, identified as Abdel Hakim al-Ansari and Moadh al-Ansari, according to a Mauritanian news site that receives messages from West African jihadist groups.
A Fulani group enters the fray
The al-Mourabitoun audio statement followed the rival claim by the Macina Liberation Front over the weekend.
Adding to the confusion, the Macina Liberation Front statement maintained there were five attackers in the Radisson Blu attack, including “three who came out safe and sound”.
The Macina group first caught the attention of the international community earlier this year, when locals in the central Malian region around Mopti reported human rights abuses such as execution-style killings by a new group calling themselves the Macina Liberation Front.
The rise of a new group in the central Malian region underscored the increasing insecurity in the impoverished West African nation despite the presence of a 10,000-member UN force, MINUSMA.
Led by Amadou Kufa, a radical preacher of Fulani ethnicity, the Massina Liberation Front gets its name from the Macina Empire [sometimes spelled Massina] – a 19th century Fulani state spread across what is now the Mopti and Segou regions of Mali.
Enter Ansar Dine and another old warrior
In a communiqué sent to AFP and FRANCE 24 sister radio station RFI (Radio France International), the Macina Liberation Front claimed to have conducted the Radisson Blu attack in conjunction with Ansar Dine, a predominantly Tuareg group from northern Mali.
Led by Iyad Ag Ghali, a former Malian diplomat turned jihadist leader, Ansar Dine’s stronghold has been the northern Kidal region, where Ag Ghali was born and raised. Its fighters are predominantly drawn from Ag Ghali’s Kel Iforas clan and had a reputation for brutality in 2012, when the group controlled the region before the January 2013 French military operation.
According to J. Peter Pham, head of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Centre, there appears to be evidence that the Macina Liberation Front arose among ethnic Fulani Islamists influenced by preachers with links to Ag Ghali.
In an interview with the International Business Times earlier this year, Pham noted that, “The use of the name and appeal to the history of Macina may be a vehicle to make Iyad Ag Ghali’s Islamism more palatable to [the] Fulani.”
Global jihadist war for supremacy in Africa
Into this complex web of local allegiances and alliances, a global jihadist agenda appears to be at play, according to Philippe Hugon of the Paris-based IRIS (French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs).
The rival claims, according to Hugon, could be due to the fact "that each group wants to win the media war.”
The propaganda wars could be linked to the supremacy contest being waged thousands of miles and an ocean away from Africa’s dusty Sahel region.
While al Qaeda and the Islamic State group battle it out for relevance on the global jihadist stage, African jihadist groups are playing a game of checkers, aligning themselves with the new jihadist superpower or reaffirming their commitment to an old one.
Shortly after al-Mourabitoun announced its presence in August 2014, Mauritania's al-Akhbar news website posted a recording of a speaker calling himself Adnan Abu Waleed al-Sahrawi claiming to speak on behalf of the new group and urging all jihadist groups to follow the Islamic State group's self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
But al-Mourabitoun's pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State group was quickly refuted by Belmokhtar, who issued a statement saying the pledge was invalid as it had not been approved by al-Mourabitoun's shura council.
Days later, Belmokhtar maintained the new group had pledged allegiance to al Qaeda leaders in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region – and not the group’s North Africa branch.
Whatever the claims and counter-claims, the global jihadist power struggle is causing ripples in West Africa and this does not bode well for peace and stability in Mali.