UN Security Council convoy drives through the streets of Mopti, Northern Mali.

Mali Attacks–What We Know So Far

Gunmen stormed an upscale hotel in Bamako, Mali today, apparently killing several people and taking hostages. The situation is still fluid, but here is what we know.

The Target

The Radisson Blu hotel is the kind of upscale hotel that is familiar in many African capitols. A fancy, high-end hotel that serves as a meeting place for government officials, foreign diplomats, business travelers and flight crews.  The attackers knew that this would be a place where many foreigners would be staying. A siege of the Radisson Blu could inflict mass fear around the world, just one week after the Paris attacks. American, French, Chinese and Indian nationals were all reported to be staying at this hotel.

The Political Context

Mali, which was one of the more stable democracies in West Africa, succumbed to political violence and a coup in 2012. In the midst of this coup, a separatist group in Mali’s far north expanded its rebellion against the government in Bamako. This group, the Tuaregs, sought a degree of political independence from the state. And in the midst of the Tuareg rebellion, a radical jihadi movement emerged and quickly overpowered both the Tuareg rebels and government forces. The jihadi movement gained steam, taking over towns like Timbuktu in the north. As they threatened to advance on Bamako, French special forces intervened and repelled the assault.

To support the French intervention, the Security Council authorized a 10,000 strong peacekeeping mission to help fill the security void left on the ground as the jihadi’s melted away. This peacekeeping mission has the dual job of both helping fill the security vacuum and also guaranteeing a fragile peace agreement between the Tuaregs and the government.

The jihadis, though defeated on the battlefield, have regularly attacked UN troops in the north. The peacekeeping mission is the deadliest in the world; 56 blue helmets have been killed in action. UN troops have regularly been the target of suicide attacks. Still, the UN blue helmets and foreign intervention did give the main rebel group and the government the political space they needed to enter a meaningful dialogue. This resulted in a peace deal this summer.

Throughout it all, however, the jihadist groups have acted as spoilers to the peace process, launching attacks against the UN and against soft targets like hotels and businesses. This latest attack is most likely committed by these jihadis in an attempt to unravel this deal, terrorize the international community, and create the conditions in which civil war returns to Mali’s north–a context in which these jihadi group had previously thrived.