Abstract: The attack on Bamako’s Radisson Blu Hotel in November 2015 shocked Mali and confirmed the reach of jihadist group al-Mourabitoun and the continued challenges to security in the region. The attack also marked the absorption of al-Mourabitoun into al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) amid tests to AQIM’s position from fighters who have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. AQIM and AQIM-linked groups have also expanded their operations across Mali and the wider region, a trend that will likely continue in 2016, as illustrated by the January 2016 attack on the Splendid Hotel and the Cappuccino Café—both popular with foreigners—in Burkina Faso’s capital of Ouagadougou. This latest attack killed at least 29 people and wounded dozens more.

On November 20, 2015, two attackers stormed the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali. Armed with assault rifles and grenades, the men rampaged through the hotel, one of the most luxurious in the city and supposedly one of its safest. After hours of fighting and the intervention of Malian and French Special Forces,[1] the two gunmen lay dead and unconfirmed rumors spread that other shooters may have escaped.[2] In the end, the two terrorists killed 19 people in the hotel, including several Malian security guards, a Senegalese businessman, six Russian airline employees, an American health worker, three Chinese railroad executives, and a Belgian parliamentarian.

The jihadist group al-Mourabitoun claimed responsibility for the attacks on Twitter and in communiqués sent to Al Jazeera, published online, and sent to the Mauritanian newspaper al-Akhbar.[3] Al-Mourabitoun, led by the al-Qa`ida-linked commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar and created in 2013 after Belmokhtar’s departure from AQIM and the French military intervention in Mali in January 2013, merged the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and two of Belmokhtar’s brigades.[a]

Two days later, another Malian militant group, Front de Libération de Masina (FLM), claimed credit for the attack, saying it was carried out in collaboration with the Malian Tuareg-led jihadist group Ansar al-Din.[4] But AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel (Abu Musab Abdelwadoud) released a video claiming credit for the attack and announcing al-Mourabitoun’s allegiance to AQIM.[5] The group also released photos of the two attackers, and Mali’s chief prosecutor later confirmed that a slip of paper found in the pockets of one of the attackers indicated that the attack was conducted by al-Mourabitoun.[b] This month saw the same group claim responsibility for an attack on a hotel and café in Ouagadougou which killed at least 29.

This article will provide an initial assessment of the information available about the attacks as well as the context and significance of the militant realignments in the Sahel with a particular focus on the possible influence of the Islamic State on these changes. It will also examine how the militant landscape in the region may evolve in 2016.

Targeting and Significance
The luxury Radisson Blu sits in one of Bamako’s newer neighborhoods, ACI 2000, and until the attack, it was considered one of the city’s safer hotels.[c] However, the two attackers were able to overcome security measures rather easily. According to witnesses, the attack began in front of the hotel just before 7:00 AM when the men pulled weapons and grenades from suitcases and killed several guards before storming into the lobby and adjacent restaurant where hotel patrons were sitting down to breakfast. The gunmen then proceeded to search the hotel’s kitchens and front-of-house areas, reportedly firing into elevators where guests sought shelter, before moving from floor to floor looking for other guests. The nature of the attack itself also remains somewhat unclear. Associated Press reporter Baba Ahmed reported that the gunmen shot at anyone in sight while initial accounts from witnesses suggested that some hotel guests were released after demonstrating some knowledge of Islam.[d] Malian and French special operations forces finally killed the men on the hotel’s third floor, more than nine hours after the assault began.[6]

Immediately after the attack, the Malian rebel group Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA) condemned the incident as an attempt to undermine Mali’s fragile peace process. An Algerian delegation staying at the hotel in advance of planned meetings of the Algerian-led Comité de Suivi de l’Accord d’Alger (CSA) was able to escape unharmed, though the circumstances remain unclear.[7] [e] Other accounts suggest that the gunmen specifically searched for Air France employees staying at the hotel.[8] Eyewitness accounts can be unreliable,[9] and it remains difficult to confirm the veracity of one account or the other. However, in choosing one of Bamako’s best-known hotels, and one that was popular with foreign elites, it should be assumed that the planners sought to target foreigners. This did not stop them, of course, from accepting the death of Muslims in the attack; AQIM and al-Mourabitoun have not shied away from killing Muslims in the past in Mali or elsewhere. However, the choice of target in this case was unmistakably foreigners or those associated with foreign governments—like the meeting of the CSA. The reported separation of Muslims from non-Muslims was reminiscent of previous attacks by al-Qa`ida-affiliated groups, including Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s January 2013 attack on the gas facility at In Amenas, Algeria.[10] And regardless of the target, some jihadist supporters certainly received a message from the Bamako attack, comparing it favorably to the Islamic State-directed assaults in Paris just one week earlier that killed 130 people.[11]

In many ways, the attack on the Splendid Hotel this January followed a similar pattern while also demonstrating evolutions in tactics as well as AQIM and al-Mourabitoun’s media approach. Burkinabé and French authorities are still trying to understand the attack, and initial conclusions drawn after the attack may change as further investigations take place. What is known is that around 7:30 PM on January 15, gunmen opened fire inside the Cappuccino Café, reportedly executing “white” patrons, although a number of Burkinabé citizens also died in the attacks. Simultaneously, the attackers or another group of gunmen (the number of attackers remains unknown)[12] reportedly set off explosives in cars parked in front of the hotel before storming inside to the hotel’s lobby and restaurant, which was filled with Friday evening diners.[13] Other reports indicated that the attackers set off some sort of explosives inside the hotel, presumably in order to slow efforts to retake the site.[14]

It took a combination of Burkinabé, French, and American forces nearly 15 hours to end the siege. The attackers were eventually killed early in the morning in front of an adjacent restaurant. During this time, AQIM released two different statements. One was a graphic incorporating pictures from the attack, and the other was a clip from an audio “interview” between an AQIM member and the attackers while the assault was still underway. AQIM’s al-Andalus media followed these statements with a formal claim of responsibility just two days later, entitled “When Muslim Africa Avenges its Victims.”[15]These statements all focused on the international community and particularly France’s role in the Sahara and Sahel, condemning the actions of the “Crusaders” and their servants. In the official claim, AQIM also says the attack was vengeance for defaming the Prophet Muhammad and that it targeted places that were the centers for “war against Islam and the theft of the riches of Africa.” This is no doubt a reference to the Splendid Hotel’s use not just by NGOs and business people, but also sometimes by soldiers taking part in Operation Barkhane, France’s regional counterterrorism mission that succeeded Operation Serval.[16 ]More broadly the comment may be a reference to the important role Burkina Faso has played for several years as a basing point for French Special Operations Forces (COS) taking part in Operation Sabre,[17] the official name for the COS taskforce in the Sahel.

The statement also made reference to support for jihadis fighting in Syria and Iraq, and the statement alluded to vengeance for crimes committed against Muslims in Central Africa, Mali, and elsewhere in the world. There are no reports of fighters specifically sparing Muslims from violence. The attack killed at least eight Burkinabé, which prompted an immediate backlash from Muslim as well as non-Muslim Burkinabé in the famously tolerant country.

The attack also comes at a fragile political moment not long after Burkina Faso installed its first freely-elected president since 1987, which followed more than a year of political turmoil that included a coup and an attempted coup and the dissolution of the elite Régiment de la Sécurité Présidentielle (RSP). [18]

The Once and Future AQIM?
The reconciliation between AQIM and al-Mourabitoun came about amid competition from a growing Islamic State presence in North Africa and the Sahara/Sahel region, a reorientation of jihadist groups in the aftermath of French military operations in the region, and the longstanding and complex relations between various Algerian jihadist factions. Belmokhtar was among the first Algerian militants to invest heavily in the Sahara, where he formed important marriage, social, and business ties with local populations starting in the late 1990s.[19] These connections and his knowledge of the Sahara helped Belmokhtar maintain a strong degree of independence from the central leadership of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC in French), which officially became AQIM in early 2007.[20] This independence and refusal to follow orders led to significant tension during the occupation of northern Mali by Tuareg rebels and then increasingly by jihadist forces in 2012. These tensions, over leadership, but also the ethnic composition and geographic dispersal of jihadist groups, had already led in part to the creation of MUJAO in 2011.[21] They came to a head in October and November 2012 when Belmokhtar was expelled from AQIM and took much of his Katibat al-Mulathimeen with him.[22] During this time, however, Belmokhtar repeatedly affirmed his allegiance to al-Qa`ida’s central command and its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, possibly vying for recognition that would never come.[23]

Since the Islamic State proclaimed its so-called caliphate in June 2014, it has expanded in both symbolic and real terms in North and West Africa.[24] The group’s biggest successes have come in Libya where, according to a UN report, it may have between 2,000 and 3,000 fighters,[25] and in Nigeria following the acceptance of Boko Haram as the Islamic State’s representative in West Africa.[26] It is unclear, though, exactly how much control the Islamic State’s central leadership exercises over the Nigerian branch now known as the Islamic State’s West Africa Province. Regardless, the Islamic State’s expansion remains contested and uneven in much of North Africa and the Sahel.

In Algeria, several small groups of fighters largely composed of defectors from AQIM have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, notably the group referred to as Jund al-Khilafa (Soldiers of the Caliphate) as well as groups in the wilayat of Constantine and Skikda, both in eastern Algeria.[27] Although Jund al-Khilafa gained public attention with the beheading of French hiker Hervé Gourdel in May 2014, the Algerian army has ruthlessly hunted down the fighters and reportedly killed a large number of them, including the group’s first emir Abdelmalek Gouri and at least one subsequent leader after Gouri’s death.[28] And while the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for two IED attacks that wounded Algerian soldiers in the hills near Constantine,[29] at the moment these units remain small and relatively inactive according to Western diplomats and local specialists.[30] In Tunisia, meanwhile, despite the large number of Islamic State fighters from the country, AQIM has maintained a foothold there through Katibat Oqba Ibn Nafi, located primarily in the Jebel Chaambi along the border with Algeria. This group may have been involved in the deadly attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis in March 2015 that killed 22 people, not the Islamic State, which claimed the attack. The attack has also been attributed to Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia, some of whose fighters are linked to the Islamic State and others to AQIM or other groups.[31]

However, developments in Libya and Mali appear to have catalyzed the reunion between AQIM and Belmokhtar’s fighters. In both countries, al-Qa`ida-aligned groups are working to stave off competition from the Islamic State. Although the Islamic State has expanded rapidly in Libya, particularly in the country’s eastern cities of Derna and Benghazi as well as in the central town of Sirte, this push is contested. In addition to facing threats from troops under the command of General Khalifa Haftar, various Libyan cities such as Ajdabiya have seen fierce fighting between Islamic State fighters and a complex array of Islamist and jihadist groups. These include the Fajr Libya coalition and groups such as the Ajdabiyah Shura Council (ASC) and the Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen Darnah. Indeed, the U.S. airstrike that targeted Belmokhtar in Ajdabiya in June 2015 reportedly occurred when he was in the city to negotiate a common front against the Islamic State. These talks were part of ongoing discussions between AQIM’s leadership and Belmokhtar in the spring and summer of 2015 about whether to reunify in the face of Islamic State expansion.[32]

These negotiations happened against a backdrop of disagreement within al-Mourabitoun. In May 2015, and without consulting Belmokhtar, Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahraoui, the titular head of al-Mourabitoun, announced to al-Akhbar that the umbrella group to which Belmokhtar belonged had pledged allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Forced into making an unusual public statement, Belmokhtar quickly countered with a statement criticizing al-Sahraoui and stating that the bay`a (allegiance) did not reflect a decision of al-Mourabitoun’s shura (guiding council).[33] In August, Belmokhtar effectively wrested back control of al-Mourabitoun after the group released a statement appointing Belmokhtar as the group’s emir, formalizing a direct leadership role that he had studiously avoided since the group’s formation in August 2013.[34] Questions remain, however, about Belmokhtar’s status and even possible death after the airstrike in Ajdabiya.[f]

The divisions that emerged in al-Mourabitoun were a long time coming. The leadership arrangements made before the group’s creation meant that it was a compromise between Belmokhtar[35] and Ahmed Ould Amer (also known as Ahmed al-Tilemsi), the erstwhile military commander of MUJAO who had become its paramount figure by the time al-Mourabitoun was founded. To avoid confrontation, Belmokhtar and al-Tilemsi did not seek to take over leadership of the umbrella group. According to Mauritanian journalist and researcher Mohamed Mahmoud Abu al-Ma’ali, the two men agreed not to lead al-Mourabitoun, leaving the command instead to an Egyptian known as Abu Bakr al-Masri.[g] But al-Sahraoui, one of the senior leaders in MUJAO, and some other senior figures initially refused to pledge allegiance to al-Masri, although al-Sahraoui later reversed his position.

When al-Masri was killed in April 2014, al-Tilemsi was appointed emir, before he was killed by French forces in northern Mali in December 2014, leaving another leadership void.[h] Still, according to al-Ma’ali, with Belmokhtar and some members of the group’s majlis al-shura away from northern Mali, al-Sahraoui at this point became al-Mourabitoun’s new emir, a move Belmokhtar and his fighters purportedly viewed as illegitimate.[36]

This split reportedly exacerbated lingering personal and ideological differences between al-Sahraoui’s and Belmokhtar’s factions, with al-Sahraoui growing closer to the Islamic State even as Belmokhtar and Droukdel were in negotiations to reunify their groups. These differences led to al-Sahraoui’s public bay`a to al-Baghdadi in May 2015.

So far, the Islamic State has not publicly recognized or accepted the pledge. The split reportedly led to deadly fighting between the different factions in June 2015 that may have left al-Sahraoui wounded, although very little confirmed information has emerged about these clashes.[37]

In this context, the realignment of AQIM and al-Mourabitoun appears related to the rise of the Islamic State and a need to stave off Islamic State advances and avoid defections. This is particularly important given the important losses that al-Mourabitoun has faced since its formation, including the deaths of al-Masri and Ould Amer in combat with French forces.[38]

For some observers, this need for unity in the face of external challenges has appeared more urgent since September. A series of AQIM videos focused on the Sahara and featuring AQIM’s Katibat al-Furqan commander Abderrahman al-Liby[39] appear to use Islamic State anasheed (religious chants) as well as themes and filming techniques common in Islamic State videos.[i] Perhaps in response to these concerns, AQIM’s Saharan emir Yahya Abu el-Hammam, in his first interview since the French intervention in Mali, told Al-Akhbar that AQIM’s ulema had judged the Islamic State to be illegitimate. He added that it was not obligatory for Muslims to give bay`a to the Islamic State. As for al-Sahraoui, el- Hammam told the newspaper that AQIM was in contact with him and that he hoped God would guide al-Sahraoui in the right direction, suggesting that he had gone astray in giving his support to al-Baghdadi.[40] In the interview el-Hammam also confirmed the new relationship with al-Mourabitoun, saying that the two groups had formed a shura to coordinate their activities.[41]

At the moment, however, open defections among AQIM networks both in North Africa and the Sahara-Sahel region remain limited, a fact that could be due to AQIM’s efforts to exert control over its networks and component parts. Additionally, the lack of defections could be due in part to the fact that AQIM and AQIM-linked groups have recent governing experience, after implementing their interpretation of the sharia over much of northern Mali in 2012 and thus having instituted a form of Islamic governance before the proclamation of the Islamic State under al-Baghdadi.[42]

The Islamic State, al-Qa`ida, and the “Glocal” 
Despite the importance of Islamic State and jihadist competition in fueling group activity, mergers, and divisions in Africa, this international context is insufficient to explain the evolution and permutation of jihadist violence in the Sahel. Local factors and grievances, as scholars such as Caitriona Dowd have argued, play an important role in fueling violence.[43] In the Sahara and Sahel, however, it is best to understand these groups as “glocal”[44]—deeply embedded in local networks while also operating rhetorically and physically against international targets and engaging with issues of international interest.

Immediately following the Bamako attack, a number of observers, particularly journalists, drew a link to the Paris attacks the week before and the jostling between al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State. According to these theories,[45] the Bamako attack allowed al-Qa`ida affiliates to show that they could also strike international targets and acquire international attention. Although this competition might have been a factor, the Bamako attack and subsequent media productions, in fact, demonstrate the interconnectedness of local, regional, and international issues in shaping jihadist violence.

For instance, in the AQIM message announcing the joining of al-Mourabitoun, Droukdel inveighed against France, while both his statement and al-Mourabitoun’s statement about joining AQIM urged unity against the “Crusaders,” echoing common messages of jihadist propaganda. And the choice of the Radisson Blu, a symbol of foreign presence in Bamako, was clearly meant to signal to the broader world that the attack was meant to target foreigners, even despite the hotel’s possible links to the peace process in Mali. Yet the attackers, as announced by al-Mourabitoun and later confirmed in a photo released by al-Mourabitoun via AQIM media outlets, were two young Fulani men who appear to have been from Mali.[j] This shows not just the extent of local recruitment in which jihadist groups active in the Sahara-Sahel region have engaged for years, but also a distinct desire to demonstrate and affirm these local ties as part of a regionally and internationally connected jihadist group.

The Bamako attack also demonstrates how militancy in Mali has evolved after the French intervention in 2013 and, in particular, how it has spread into central and southern Mali. This spread has been spearheaded by some of the same jihadist actors who helped the GSPC and AQIM entrench themselves in the Sahel. This includes Belmokhtar, whose fighters conducted multiple high-profile attacks in Bamako before the Radisson Blu,[k] the AQIM-aligned Tuareg jihadist leader and longtime Malian militant and political actor Iyad Ag Ghali, and a number of close allies of the two involved in the occupation of northern Mali, such as the FLM’s reported leader Amadou Kouffa and a former lieutenant Souleymane Keïta.[46] In his interview with al-Akhbar, el-Hammam confirmed that these groups all maintain ties and coordinate with each other in staging attacks throughout Mali.[47]

This combination of local, regional, and international was also echoed in a video released by AQIM in early January 2016. In one segment, the video shows the intervention of AQIM fighters and particularly Talha al-Liby in a communal meeting in the village of Boudjbeha north of Timbuktu.[48] In the scene, in which al-Liby greets attendees warmly and speaks openly, he condemns France and its actions and policies in northern Mali, warning attendees not to aid France, while also stating that AQIM’s conflict is with France, not with local populations. This, then, is an ostensibly international discourse delivered by a longtime militant with family ties to Timbuktu and local Arab populations known to the community for his role with the city’s Islamic Police during the 2012 jihadist occupation.[49] The video also featured a lengthy speech condemning France from a militant identified as Abu Baseer al-Bumbari, whose name clearly suggests that he is of Bambara and southern Malian origin.[50]

El-Hammam’s interview may have also presaged the Ouagadougou attack. In it, he spoke directly to the states of the region, saying that AQIM would remain neutral to states that did not attack it and would target states that did. During and after the attack, AQIM also emphasized very directly its own regional and local roots. While Burkinabé officials claimed they killed four attackers, AQIM identified three in its official announcement along with photos of the fighters. The three men, all apparently young, were identified as Abu Mohammed al-Buqali al-Ansari, al-Bitar al-Ansari, and Ahmed al-Fulani al-Ansari. The statement clearly identifies them as African Muslims and “knights of Azawad,” and although the statement itself does not state their exact place of birth, the name “al-Ansari” and the Azawad appellation indicates that like the Radisson attackers, they are from the region and most likely from northern Mali.[51] Al-Akhbar also writes that the attackers were from Mali.[52] In addition to involving attackers native to the Sahel, they were certainly familiar with the area and routes into Burkina Faso where they could pass undetected or receive local help; the attackers reportedly arrived in Ouagadougou in 4x4s with Niger license plates, and prayed in the mosque behind the Splendid Hotel in the hours before the attack.[53]

The attack is also notable for the use again of a fighter identified as Fulani, a 30 million strong ethnic and linguistic group spread across the Sahel and West Africa. This shows again the strength of AQIM recruitment in the Sahel. There has been regional concern about the recruitment of Fulani populations to jihadist groups like MUJAO and al-Mourabitoun that have been able to exploit grievances. Fulani populations have increasingly sought to protect themselves in conflicts with rival communities over water access and grazing rights, while they have also suffered discrimination in some areas and repression, particularly in the Central African Republic and Mali.[54]

Looking Ahead
Moving into 2016, the jihadist environment in Mali and the broader Sahara-Sahel region remains in flux even as certain trends seem likely to continue. For several years, even as these groups have maintained a strong presence of North Africans from non-Saharan regions in their ranks, the Sahara-Sahel region’s jihadist groups have increasingly recruited and promoted fighters and commanders from across the region itself. Despite the toll exacted on these groups by Operation Serval and Operation Barkhane, which in December 2015 claimed to have killed a prominent group of al-Mourabitoun fighters near Ménaka in Mali,[55] their operations have not only increased in the last year in northern Mali but also spread increasingly to central and southern Mali.

This trend toward increased attacks across the country is likely to continue while French counterterrorism forces remain spread across the region, especially as Mali’s government struggles both to forge a peace deal with largely Tuareg and Arab rebel groups and reassert its authority over the country. Border regions, especially those with Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire, will also likely see more attacks against their security forces and symbols of state authority. These attacks are related to the more “international” attacks of a group like AQIM; indeed, on the same day as the Ouagadougou attack, AQIM claimed credit for kidnapping an Australian couple in northern Burkina Faso.[56] The challenges of security in cities like Bamako and Ouagadougou and the relatively low cost of operations there also make further attacks in regional cities and capitals against foreign targets a significant threat.

It is also likely that competition between the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida-linked groups will continue. Although AQIM has succeeded for the moment in blunting large-scale defections to the Islamic State, this may change in the coming year, especially if al-Baghdadi chooses to recognize al-Sahraoui’s bay`a. This competition could also increase if the continued fighting in Libya pushes Islamic State fighters south in search of refuge and more welcoming operating terrain.

What is clear is that the local security and political dynamics in Mali and beyond will remain an important factor in shaping the interaction between different transnational jihadi groups. The Sahara-Sahel region is not the “ungoverned space” that lingers in romantic imagination. It is, however, a contested space where the issues of migration, movement, and competition for resources (both licit and illicit), space, and political position are all playing out. And in 2016 these issues will be as important to understand as the jostling between al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State. 

Andrew Lebovich is a Ph.D. student in History at Columbia University and a visiting fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). He focuses on religion, politics, and society in North Africa and the Sahel. Follow @tweetsintheME

Substantive Notes

[a] Belmokhtar’s Katibat al-Mulathimeen (Brigade of the Veiled Ones) and al-Muwakoune bi-Dima (Those who Sign in Blood) joined MUJAO, which broke off from AQIM in October 2011. The group reportedly formed following anger among some Sahran AQIM cadres—especially Mauritanians—that the leadership was too Algerian. MUJAO leaders also were said to have condemned AQIM for not aggressively pursuing jihad. The group recruited Sahelian and West African fighters, although its early focus was on kidnapping for ransom and targeting the Algerian government and security services. During the occupation of northern Mali in 2012, MUJAO worked in some cases alongside AQIM and AQIM commanders such as Belmokhtar, although he may have helped form MUJAO. MUJAO was largely responsible for governing the city of Gao, where the group took a hard line in implementing sharia. On MUJAO’s history and formation, see Mohammed Mahmoud Abu al-Ma’ali, “Al-Qaeda and its Allies in the Sahel and the Sahara,” Al Jazeera Center for Studies, May 01, 2012; also see Andrew Lebovich, “Of Mergers, MUJAO, and Mokhtar Belmokhtar,” Al-WasatAugust 22, 2013.

[b] The paper contained a request for the release of al-Mourabitoun prisoners held in Mauritania and Niger, in keeping with initial reports that the attackers demanded the liberation of unspecified prisoners. “Enlèvement d’une Suissesse au Mali: la piste jihadiste se précise,” Agence France Presse, January 10, 2015; Tiemoko Diallo and Emma Farge, “Mali says note links al Qaeda splinter group to hotel siege,” Reuters, January 10, 2015.

[c] The hotel is one of the few in the city authorized and recommended to house employees of the UN Mission in Mali, MINUSMA.

[d] Some reports indicated that some hostages were asked to recite the Shahada, the Muslim profession of faith, while others reported that hostages were released if they could read a selection from the Quran. Dionne Searcey and Adam Nossiter, “Deadly Siege Ends After Assault on Hotel in Mali,” New York Times, November 20, 2015; “Attaques de Bamako: liberation d’otages qui savent lire le Coran,” Al-Akhbar(Mauritania), November 20, 2015.

[e] The Algerian delegation reportedly included a high-ranking official in the country’s intelligence service, the Direction du Renseignement et de la Sécurité. However, there is no confirmation that initial reports that the delegation was held hostage are true. See “Mali: retour sur l’attaque de l’hôtel Radisson de Bamako,” Jeune Afrique, November 20, 2015; also see Abdou Semmar, “Attaque terroriste de Bamako/Qui était ce haut responsable du DRS retenu en otage?” Algérie-Focus, November 20, 2015.

[f] Although U.S. officials said publicly only that Belmokhtar was targeted in the airstrike, anonymous reports at the time of the airstrike strongly suggested that he had been killed, and the Tobruk-based Libyan government announced that he had been killed as well. Geoff D. Porter, an expert on security and politics in North Africa, has stated unequivocally that Belmokhtar was killed in the airstrike. However, French officials have said both publicly and privately that they either believe Belmokhtar is alive or cannot confirm his death, and AQIM officially denied his death soon after the airstrike. Still, it is interesting to note that the announcements from al-Mourabitoun and AQIM on their reunion do not mention Belmokhtar, nor does a recent interview with AQIM Saharan emir Yahya Abou el-Hammam. Geoff D. Porter, “NARCO Analysis: What Paris Means for the Maghreb,” North Africa Risk Consulting Inc., November 18, 2015; Thomas Joscelyn, “Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb says Mokhtar Belmokhtar is ‘alive and well,’” Long War Journal, June 19, 2015; “Hotêl Radisson au Mali: Mokhtar Belmokhtar ‘sans doute à l’origine de l’attentat’ (Le Drian),” Le Figaro, November 20, 2015; conversations with French diplomatic and defense officials, Paris, December 2015.

[g] Also referred to as al-Muhajir in reference to his origins outside of the region.

[h] It is not clear if al-Tilemsi took over with Belmokhtar’s blessing or took advantage of Belmokhtar’s travels outside of northern Mali to take over the top position.

[i] See https://twitter.com/RomainCaillet/status/684852159830224896; while these propaganda cues may be an attempt at intimating support to the Islamic State in advance of an eventual pledge of allegiance, they may also show an attempt to adopt the trappings of a successful propaganda campaign. Additionally, it is difficult to imagine a video featuring open imitation of Islamic State propaganda passing unnoticed by AQIM’s other leaders. After all, the video was released through AQIM’s official media foundation, al-Andalus, and was tweeted from several prominent AQIM-linked Twitter accounts. This could indicate an impending large-scale defection from AQIM, but such official approval of these messages could just as easily indicate a conscious decision to shift the organization’s media focus.

[j] In the release, the two are identified as Abdul Hakim and Mu’adh al-Fulani, without reference to their place of origin. However, in the first statement to al-Akhbar naming the attackers, an unidentified al-Mourabitoun member referred to them by the name al-Ansari, which suggests local origin. See “Seules deux personnes ont mené la prise d’otages à Bamako (Al-Mourabitoune),” Al-Akhbar, November 22, 2015; In French, members of the Fulani ethno-linguistic group are generally identified as Peul or Peulh. This group is believed to comprise as many as 30 million people across West and Central Africa. Although the Peul are known as nomadic herders, they in fact comprise a heterogeneous group whose ranks included traders and sedentary populations that for centuries have developed and cultivated a reputation for scholarship, including Islamic scholarship. See for instance Roman Loimeier, Muslim Societies in Africa: A Historical Anthropology (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2013) pp. 4-5.

[k] These include the March attack on the popular bar and restaurant La Terrace in Bamako’s Hippodrome neighborhood as well as shootings at UN vehicles and property in the city. Al-Mourabitoun also claimed responsibility for the August 2015 attack on the Byblos Hotel in Sévaré, which killed 13 people, including four Malian soldiers and five MINUSMA contractors. The FLM was believed to be responsible for the Sévaré attack, though it appears instead that the operation involved fighters linked to both groups in a fluid arrangement. See Rémi Carayol, “Mali: Keïta et Koufa, l’inquiétant duo terroriste du sud,” Jeune Afrique, December 3, 2015; also see Baba Ahmed and Claire Rainfroy, “Mali: Ce qu’on sait de l’attaque de Sévaré,” Jeune Afrique, August 10, 2015.


[1] French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced soon after the attack began that he was sending 40 members of France’s elite Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale (GIGN) to Mali to help with the attack response. The well-regarded French defense journalist Jean-Dominique Merchet reported that the GIGN detachment arrived an hour after the assault to retake the hotel had ended, and that the response involved members of France’s Commandement des Opérations Spéciales (COS) dispatched from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Jean-Dominique Merchet, “Comment les forces spéciales françaises sont intervenues à Bamako,” L’Opinion, November 23, 2015.

[2] “Attaque du Radisson à Bamako: trois suspects activements recherchés,” RFI, November 21, 2015.

[3] “‘Al-Murabitun’ wa al-Qa’ida yatabuneyan ‘amliyat radisun b’bamaku,” al-Akhbar (Mauritania), November 20, 2015; “Qatala b’amliyat bamaku wa al-muhajimun yatahasanun b’al-funduq,” Al-Jazeera, November 20, 2015.

[4] “Un deuxième groupe djihadiste revendique l’attaque à Bamako,” Le Monde, November 23, 2015.

[5] “AQIM Leader Announces Joining of al-Murabitoon, Radisson Blu Attack in Bamako as First Joint Act,” SITE Intelligence Group, December 4, 2015.

[6] For a detailed reconstruction of how the attack unfolded, see Greg Keller and Baba Ahmed, “Gunmen mercilessly mowed down guests in Mali hotel siege,” Associated Press, November 27, 2015.

[7] See “Mali: retour sur l’attaque de l’hôtel Radisson de Bamako,” Jeune Afrique, November 20, 2015; also see Abdou Semmar, “Attaque terroriste de Bamako/Qui était ce haut responsable du DRS retenu en otage?” Algérie-Focus, November 20, 2015.

[8] Colin Freeman, “Mali gunmen were hunting Air France staff at Radisson Hotel,” Telegraph, November 22, 2015.

[9] See, for example, Hal Arkowitz and Scott O. Lillienfield, “Why Science Tells Us Not to Rely on Eyewitness Accounts,” Scientific American, January 1, 2010.

[10] The attackers, a combination of fighters from al-Muwakoune bi-Dima and the Mouvement des Fils du Sahara pour la Justice, separated Muslims from non-Muslims soon after the attack began and eventually released the Muslim captives. Marie-Pierre Gröndahl and Alfred de Montesquoi with Lemine Ould Salem and Zineb Ben Zita, “In Amenas. Heure Par Heure, le Récit d’un Bain de Sang,” Paris Match, January 24, 2013.

[11] Anne Barnard and Neil MacFarquhar, “Paris and Mali Attacks Expose Lethal Qaeda-ISIS Rivalry,” New York Times, November 20, 2015.

[12] Most reports have indicated the presence of between four and six attackers, and Burkinabé and French security forces killed four attackers in the Splendid Hotel and a neighboring hotel, and three have subsequently been identified. “Après l’attaque terroriste de Ouagadougou, le deuil et les questions,” RFI, January 17, 2016; Dionne Searcey, “Deadly Standoff Leaves Burkina Faso Stunned,” New York Times, January 16, 2016; “Attaque jihadiste à Ouagadougou: un air de déjà vu,” RFI, January 16, 2016.

[13] The BBC initially reported that the assault included at least two car bombs, while Buzzfeed journalist Monica Mark reports that the attackers threw grenades in cars. Monica Mark, “Witnesses Say Burkina Faso Attackers Were Targeting Foreigners,” Buzzfeed, January 16, 2016; “Burkina Faso Attack: Foreigners killed at luxury hotel,” BBC, January 16, 2016.

[14] “Deux français tués dans l’attaque terroriste à Ouagadougou,” Le Figaro, January 16, 2016.

[15] On where the attackers were killed see, Benjamin Roger, “Le Burkina sous le choc après avoir été frappé par la terreur jihadiste,” Jeune Afrique, January 16, 2016.. On the video, see Al-Andalus Foundation for Media Production, “Statement About ‘Burkina Faso Attack,’ When Muslim Africa Avenges its Victims,” January 17, 2016. The video only identified three attackers, as opposed to the four fighters Burkinabé officials claim were killed in Ouagadougou.

[16] “Al-Qaida group claims responsibility for hotel siege in Burkina Faso Capital,” Guardian, January 15, 2016.

[17] These forces intervened from Ouagadougou in an attempt to rescue two young French men kidnapped by fighters under Mokhtar Belmokhtar in Niamey, Niger, in January 2011. See Jean-Dominique Merchet, “Mali: le COS est bien présent au Sahel…contrairement à ce que dit Laurent Fabius,” Secret Defense, September 25, 2012.

[18] On the political tumult in Burkina Faso, see Daniel Eizenga, “Burkina Faso elections mark turning point in country’s recent political turmoil,”  Washington Post, December 6, 2015;  Dr. Salif Diallo, “‘Des attaques commandées par les connexions entre le MUJAO et l’ancien régime?’ s’interroge le MPP,” Le Faso, January 16, 2016.

[19] On these relationships, see Christopher S. Chivvis, The French War on Al Qa’ida in Africa, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016, p. 30.

[20] For a discussion of the complicated relationship between AQIM factions, see Al-Ma’ali, “Al-Qaeda and its allies.”

[21] Ibid; also see Andrew Lebovich, “Trying to Understand MUJWA,” al-Wasat, August 22, 2012.

[22] Rukmini Callimachi, “AP Exclusive: Rise of Al-Qaida Saharan Terrorist,” Associated Press, May 29, 2013.

[23] For instance see “Jihad: Belmokhtar réaffirme sa fidélité à al-Zawahiri, le chef d’Al-Qaïda,” Agence France Presse, May 1, 2014.

[24] Aaron Y. Zelin, “The Islamic State’s Archipelago of Provinces,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, November 14, 2014.

[25] Edith M. Lederer, “UN experts: Up to 3,000 Islamic State Fighters in Libya,” Associated Press, December 1, 2015; also see David D. Kirkpatrick, Ben Hubbard, and Eric Schmitt, “ISIS’ Grip on Libyan City Gives it a Fallback Option,” New York Times, November 28, 2015; Aaron Y. Zelin, “The Islamic State’s Burgeoning Capital in Sirte, Libya,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, August 6, 2015.

[26] Jacob Zenn, “Wilayat West Africa Reboots For the Caliphate,” CTC Sentinel 8:8 (August 2015).

[27] Adem Arroudj, “Nouveau Ralliements à Daech en Algérie,” Le Figaro, July 26, 2015.

[28] See, for instance, Imene Brahimi, “Les terroristes abattus à Tizi Ouzou étaient soupçonnés de vouloir rallier Daech,” Tout sur l’Algérie, December 4, 2015; Fayçal Hamdani, “Daech: un ancien du GSPC nommé à la tête de Jund Al Khalifa,” Tout sur l’Algérie, July 24, 2015.

[29] “Daech blesse quatre soldats algériens près de Constantine,” Ennahar, December 18, 2015; Yousra Salem, “Constantine: deux militaires blessés à Djebel Ouahch,” El Watan, April 17, 2015.

[30] Interviews with European diplomats and Algerian security journalists in Algiers and Constantine, Algeria, July-August 2015. For more on competition between AQIM and the Islamic State in Algeria, see Nathaniel Barr, “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try Deception: The Islamic State’s Expansion Efforts in Algeria,” Jamestown Terrorism Monitor Vol. 13:22, November 13, 2015.

[31] See Carlotta Gall, “Jihadists Deepen Collaboration in North Africa,” New York Times, January 1, 2016; on the Bardo attack, see Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “Did the Islamic State Exaggerate Its Role in the Bardo Museum Attack?” Foundation for Defense of Democracies, March 30, 2015; on the complex interplay between the Islamic State and AQIM in Tunisia, see Aaron Y. Zelin, “ICSR Insight: Between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in Tunisia,” ICSR Insight, May 11, 2015.

[32] On these negotiations, see Aziz M., “AQMI veut unifier ses rangs,” El Watan, June 21, 2015; also see Mohamed Mahmoud Abu al-Ma’ali, “Tandhim ‘al-Murabitun’ beyna al-Baghdadi wa al-Dhawahiri…qisat tanafus muhammun,” Al Jazeera, June 1, 2015.

[33] “Le jihadiste algérien Belmokhtar dement l’allégeance de son groupe à l’EI,” Agence France Presse, May 16, 2015.

[34] For a detailed discussion of the leadership issues and tensions within al-Mourabitoun, see Rida Lyammouri, “Key Events That Led to Tensions Between Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi Before Splitting,” Maghreb and Sahel, December 7, 2015.

[35] Belmokhtar also helped found MUJAO. Jade Haméon, “Au Mali, dans la maison de Mokhtar Belmokhtar,” L’Express, February 9, 2013.

[36] Al-Ma’li, “Tandhim al-Murabitun;” for a description of these conflicts in English based in part on al-Ma’ali’s account, see Lyammouri, “Key Events.”

[37] Aziz M., “Info El Watan. Mali: L’émir d’al-Mourabitoune gravement blessé dans des affrontements,” El Watan, June 17, 2015.

[38] Marie Desnos, “Un Haut Chef Jihadiste Tué au Mali,” Paris Match, December 11, 2014.

[39] This is the form taken in the most recent video. Al-Andalus Media, “From the depths of the Desert #1 [min ‘amq al-Sahara],” assessed via jihadology.net, January 6, 2015.

[40] For the complete interview in Arabic, see “Abu al-Hamam fi owal muqabilah lihi ba’ad al-tadkhul al-faransi bi mali,” Al-Akhbar, January 10, 2016.

[41] Ibid.

[42] On how this governance was prepared and functioned, see Morten Bøås, “Guns, Money and Prayers: AQIM’s Blueprint for Securing Control of Northern Mali,” CTC Sentinel, (8:4) April 2014.

[43] Caitriona Dowd, “Grievances, governance, and Islamist violence in sub-Saharan Africa,” The Journal of Modern African Studies Vol. 53:4 (December 2015), pp. 505-531.

[44] Scholars such as Isabelle Werenfels, Jean-Luc Marret, and Jean-Pierre Filiu have used this concept in various ways to describe AQIM and affiliated jihadist groups in northern Algeria and Tunisia, but the concept applies just as well to the Sahara and Sahel. See Isabelle Werenfels, “Going ‘Glocal’: Jihadism in Algeria and Tunisia,” in Guido Steinberg and Annette Weber, eds, Jihadism in Africa: Local Causes, Regional Expansion, International Alliances (Berlin: SWP Research Paper, June 2015); Jean-Luc Marret, “Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb: A ‘Glocal’ Organization,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism Vol. 31:6 (2008), pp. 541-552; Jean-Pierre Filiu, “The Local and Global Jihad of Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb,” Middle East Journal Vol. 63:2 (Spring 2009), pp. 213-226.

[45] M.A., “Situation au Mali: Guerre de Positionnement entre Al Qaïda et Daech,” Le Temps d’Algérie, November 30, 2015; Jared Malsin, “What to Know About the Deadly ISIS vs. al-Qaeda Rivalry,” Time, November 24, 2015; Anne Barnard and Neil MacFarquhar, “Paris and Mali Attacks Expose Lethal Qaeda-ISIS Rivalry.”

[46] On these connections and the spread of militancy to central and southern Mali, see Carayol, “Mali: Keïta et Koufa, l’inquiétant duo terroriste du sud.”

[47] “Abu al-Hamam fi owal muqabilah

[48] Al-Akhbar first reported the intervention, identifying the meeting as one of the Arab Oulad ‘Ich tribe and posting much grainier footage of al-Liby’s discourse. “Nord Mali: Aqmi surgit en pleine réunione tribale et s’en prend à la France,” Al-Akhbar, December 1, 2015.

[49] “Aqmi: Des nouveaux chefs assez ordinaires pour Taregh et Al Fourghane Analyse,” Agence Nouakchott d’Information, September 24, 2013.

[50] According to the video, Bumbari was freed from Malian prison in 2014 in exchange for the French hostage Serge Lazarevic. Emma Farge, “Veteran jihadist seeks return of sharia law in north Mali – Video,” Reuters, January 7, 2016.

[51] “Beyan howwul ‘ghazwat burkinafasu’ ‘anduma tathar ifriqiyya al-muslima lidhahayaha,” Al-Andalus, January 17, 2016.

[52] “tandhim al-Qa’ida: ‘amliyat waghadoughou nafidhuha thalathat maliyiin,” Al-Akhbar, January 17, 2016

[53] Laure Cometti, “Attaque à Ouagadougou: Comment les forces djihadistes se recomposent dans le Sahel,” 20 Minutes, January 17, 2015; “Attaque de Ouagadougou: les questions sur l’identité des assailants,” RFI, January 17, 2016

[54] For more, see “Central African Republic: ‘They Must All Leave or Die,’” FIDH Investigative Report, June 2014; Afua Hirsch, “Mali’s army suspected of abuses and unlawful killings as war rages,” Guardian, January 19, 2013; Jack Watling and Paul Raymond, “Don’t Call it a Jihadist Insurgency—Yet,” Foreign Policy, December 16, 2015.

[55] Michel Cabirol, “La France ‘neutralise’ une dizaine de terroristes d’Al Mourabitoun au Mali,” La Tribune, December 23, 2015.

[56] “Burkina Faso: Un couple d’australiens enlevé,” Agence France Presse, January 16, 2016.

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