Jihadists storm Radisson hotel in Malian capital

Map of al Qaeda-linked attacks in Mali and neighboring countries since 2014. Map created by Caleb Weiss for The Long War Journal.

Jihadists stormed the Radisson Blu Hotel in downtown Bamako in the early morning today, killing at least 27 people and taking more than 170 hostage. Malian commandos have assaulted the hotel in an effort to end the siege. The counterattack is still underway.

The attack began when gunmen penetrated a security barrier outside the hotel. Quoting a witness, the BBC reports that “They [the jihadists] were in car with a diplomatic license plate. They were masked. At the gate of the hotel, the guard stopped them and they start firing.”

The jihadists then shot their way into the hotel. Once inside, the gunmen reportedly made their way through the hotel “floor by floor, room by room” according to Reuters. The attackers were heard yelling “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is greatest,” in Arabic while fanning out through the hotel. Two attackers were overheard speaking English, one witness said.

An estimated 80 hostages were freed after they were able to correctly recite verses of the Koran. The tactic of separating Muslims from other hostages is one that is often used by al Qaeda to avoid killing Muslims.

Malian special forces are reported to have assaulted the building after cordoning off the area. Additionally, the French GIGN, the elite counterterrorism unit of the National Gendarmerie, is being deployed to Bamako to assist Mali in the hostage crisis. US Special Forces are reported to have rescued six US citizens.

The exact number of gunmen involved in the attack on the Radisson Blu is unclear, with reports varying between two and 13 fighters.

The Radisson Blu Hotel, which is US-owned, is popular with foreign nationals, including French tourists and businessmen. A number of French, Chinese, and Indian citizens were staying at the hotel when the attack began.

Al Murabitoon, an al Qaeda group led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, claimed credit for the attack and demanded the release of jihadist prisoners as well as an end to French intervention in northern Mali. [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda group claims credit for attack on hotel in Mali’s capital.]

The hostage crisis is the second to occur in Mali this year. The previous hostage crisis was executed in August, when jihadists from Al Murabitoon stormed a hotel in the central Malian town of Sevare. The siege left at least 12 people dead. Al Murabitoon also targeted a nightclub in Bamako earlier this year.

Today’s attack took place just weeks after Iyad Ag Ghaly, the leader of Ansar Dine, released an audio statement calling for attacks on the French and their interests in Mali. Ghaly called for the increased targeting of French interests to avenge French intervention in the country.

“May your explosive belts respond to them, and your directed devices, and your loud car bombs,” he said. He ends his statement by saying that the Muslims must expel the “Crusaders” to “take revenge for honor of our noble Prophet.”

Ansar Dine, a front for al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, has also claimed several attacks in southern Mali this year, including two near the border with the Ivory Coast. One of the those attacks targeted a police station near the border, which left at least one Malian police officer dead. Additionally, the Macina Liberation Movement, which a front for Ansar Dine, has also been behind several attacks in southern and central Mali this year. [See map above for more information.]

Assaulting hotels is a common tactic of al Qaeda, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Islamic State, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and other jihadist groups. Many of the hotels targeted by jihadists are frequented by Western tourists, Western government officials, or host to local government figures.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al Qaeda’s official branch in North Africa, has a history of kidnapping Westerners, many from Malian hotels. These individuals includes the Swede Johan Gustofsson, South African Stephen McGowan, and the Dutchman Sjaak Rijke. The three, along with a German national, were kidnapped from a hotel in Timbuktu. Rijke has since been released, but Gustofsson and McGowan are still being held.

Caleb Weiss is an editor of FDD's Long War Journal and a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation, where he focuses on the spread of the Islamic State in Central Africa.

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  • Arjuna says:

    They were also heard speaking English which is always concerning to this analyst. Poss Nigerians or Kenyans involved? Don’t buy three attackers, figure more. Dip plates??
    AQ affiliate just took credit on Twitter.
    This is what I called “operational outbidding” predicted over a year ago.
    Zawahiri will say look how nice we were, we spared the Muslims and only slaughtered infidels (many more than three).
    They are in a race to use WMD. Baghdadi v Zawahiri, who will win?
    That will be the mother of all recruiting posters.

  • David says:

    ISIL’s recent successes will put pressure on Al Qaeda to be extra brutal in this attack. They don’t want to be seen as the lesser threat. Now that they have separated the Muslims out from everyone else, I expect that they will be very brutal with the rest, possibly executing them.

  • Ken North says:

    I’ll be mildly surprised if al Shabaab doesn’t have at least an advisory role in this; they are certainly experienced in hotel assaults, and have trained with A.Q.I.M. in the past. Possibly even an “intern” or two from Minnesota.

    The local police and paramilitary forces will undoubtedly perform at least as admirably as the Kenyans at Westgate.

    With Ansar Dine’s assault unit “trapped” on the 7th floor, they are presumably right where they want to be, control the high ground, and have stairwells and roof hatch(es) well-wired.

  • Arjuna says:

    Couldn’t agree more. Party’s on the Seventh Floor (not Langley)

    RIP those crazy and brave enough to work and travel in Mali

    They cancelled Paris-Dakar years ago because it was too dangerous.

  • Arjuna says:

    You mean securing all the Rolexes and Omegas? You sound like you’ve been in Africa.

  • Arjuna says:

    Only part of their assault unit went upstairs to meet the virgins. Other attackers are missing. I bet they were trying to kidnap (or at least kill) diplomats and got surprised by the speed and violence of the response and skedaddled. There was supposedly a “peace conference” being held in the hotel. They got a Belgian lawmaker and Chinese and Russians. There will be blood.

  • ken.north says:

    Two aspects of this are increasingly noteworthy: (1) it is nearly impossible to acquire accurate information and insight into the precise nature of the attacks. How many assailants in Bamako ? How many shooters KIA/WIA ? How many shooters possibly escaped? Are the sought after subjects shooters, drivers, or support crew ? If the assault team was actually as small as a 3-5 team, why did an overwhelming local force take up to 7 hours to subdue? Besides the long guns, did the shooters use grenades, BBIED’s, portable IED’s?

    There are presumably French and U.S. tier one’s who know those answers regarding the TTP’s in play but they understandably are gray and gone.

    (2) Why do potentially high yield attacks like this fall short of prior attacks that were successful? Basically the same crew, but Bamako was not Amenas. 32 shooters with VBIED’s, BBIED’s, and grenades would have changed the equation significantly and the local constabulary, even with professional help, would have been seriously engaged.

    Simultaneously, Paris concert hall was not Beslan or Moscow theater template. Several more shooters at the Paris concert hall with IED’s would also have been a game-changer. Both IS and AQAM have the head count; so why do they pull up short? It may be as simple as the commanders see these events as somewhat secondary and only sent the relatively expendable as the attack force. Or are these essentially scrimmages for a coming main event?

    Admittedly, we know virtually all that we need to know regarding jihadi tactics from a long series of highly sophisticated [pulsed kinetic] attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, and Lebanon from 2010 until now. And any attack that doesn’t incorporate uparmored BMP/VBIED’s is potentially a manageable scenario. Contingent upon your loadout.

    At some point, they absolutely will add CBRNE elements to the secondary attacks on the response units, prospectively enabling a tactical cascading incident. [The Cherchell, Algeria
    26 August, 2011 attack is a useful illustration.]

    But, as in Beslan and Westgate, the internal political dynamics driving the decision processes of the local police and military continue to suppress genuinely informative intelligence that will still further prepare other local forces for the next series of complex attacks.

  • pyrus says:

    Guys, great map.
    Was just wondering about the sources and if you were planing to keep it updated ?


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