Twenty-seven bodies have been found in the Radisson Blu hotel, as a hostage situation has officially ended in Mali’s capital Bamako. Here’s the breakdown of what you need to know to understand the recent Mali Attacks.
Al-Mourabitoun claimed responsibility for the Mali Attacks. They are an Islamist militia group associated with Al-Qaeda. They have made sure to point out that they are not in alignment with ISIS, and some analysts are interpreting the timing of this attack as an attempt to get some of the attention back to Al-Qaeda and away from ISIS.
You can actually trace Al-Mourabitoun’s roots back to a civil war not in Mali but in neighbouring Algeria in the 1990s.
To cut a really complicated story short, France used to control both Algeria and Mali, along with a bunch of other countries. These two enormous countries neighbour each other across North and West Africa, and both countries are majority Muslim in religion. Mali got independence in 1960, but France was much more reluctant to let go of Algeria because it saw the North African country as being literally part of France, a bit like how England sees Scotland or Northern Ireland. Independence movements were in full swing across the world in the 1950s. Campaigns for independence from Algerian groups led to the Algerian War of Independence against France 1954-1962, which saw terrible violence and torture used by both sides. This war ended with Algerian independence, but not everyone was satisfied.
As early as 1964 militant Islamic movements were demanding that the newly independent Algerian state incorporate Islam even further into its laws, even though Islam was already a central part of Algeria’s constitution. Throughout the 1970s, this militant form of Islamism spread throughout universities, where students were also frustrated by the privileging of French-speaking over Arabic-speaking graduates in terms of scarce jobs. What we saw then, was a continuing resentment of France, whose colonialism and violence in the war was blamed for the bad state things were in, which included for some a wish for stricter Islamic rule. The Algerian government actually encouraged fundamentalist Islam for a time as a counter to left-wing views amongst students, but either way the situation escalated and turned into an all-out extremely violent civil war between Islamist groups and the Algerian government in the 1990s.
The most hard-line of these groups was the Armed Islamic Group (GIA being the French acronym). Their ambitions involved totally overthrowing the Algerian government to establish a full-blown Islamic state, and terror tactics targeting civilians to try to get what they wanted. Fast forward to 1999, and we see the Islamist rebels lose their popular support after years of violence, particularly when the newly Algerian president offered amnesty and forgiveness for those who laid down their weapons.
Most did lay down their weapons, with the exception of a splinter group from the hard-line GIA, because some people just don’t quit. This group was known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC).
GSPC maintained their presence in the North African region known as the Maghreb, and in 2003 became Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), pledging their allegiance to Al-Qaeda to fight their joint enemy: former coloniser France.
This is a story about militant Islamic groups splintering off from one another and basically taking all the opportunities they can get.
In 2011, a group separated off from Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and became known as the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa. The goal was to focus on spreading their violent interpretation of the normally peaceful Muslim notion of jihad further into West Africa. The group still shared an affinity with leading figures in Al-Qaeda like Osama bin Laden, despite their split from AQIM.
Both AQIM and Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) were involved in the armed conflict in Mali that began in 2012, and which continues sporadically to the present day.
In 2012, a rebel group led by Tuareg people began fighting the Malian government for independent control of northern parts of Mali.
Tuareg people traditionally lived and moved around the Sahara desert in North Africa, crossing back and forth through international boundaries including northern Mali with their herds. Like many people in Mali, the Tuareg mostly have Muslim beliefs mixed with traditional religions. When Mali and neighbouring African countries became independent around 1960, the land the Tuareg people were used to moving through with their livestock, was divided among the newly independent nations of Nigeria, Mali, Algeria, Libya and Burkina Faso, disrupting their mobile way of life.
Rebellions from certain Tuareg groups had been violently suppressed by the Malian army in the past. However, as more weapons flowed into the region as a consequence of the Libyan civil war in 2012, a Tuareg rebel group was able to lead a military campaign to occupy northern parts of Mali which they wanted independent control over.
This armed Tuareg insurgency was backed by a number of Islamist militant groups, including AQIM and MOJWA. Another important Islamist militant group was Ansar Dine, headed by a Tuareg leader who had been active in earlier unsuccessful Tuareg uprisings, and who is suspected of having links with Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb. MOJWA is also reported to be led by a Tuareg man from Mauritania.
Each of these groups is linked through individuals who are associated with more than one group, but each group tends to have its own ambitions. We can see this in what happened next. These groups worked together to take over northern parts of Mali, and then to successfully drive back the Malian government’s armed forces. After this, however, the Islamist militia groups set about imposing strict Sharia law in the towns they had captured. Sharia law is drawn from Islamic texts. While the Malian constitution draws heavily on Sharia law for its own legal system, the Sharia law imposed by the Islamic militia groups included banning football, music and bars and imposing the wearing of headscarves for all women.
This is not what the Tuareg had in mind for their newly independent country. The Tuareg now began fighting against the Islamic militant groups who had backed the Tuareg insurgency. Eventually, it was a combination of the Islamic militant groups who had control of the northern Mali territories, and not the Tuareg rebels.
Mali’s government had been destabilised by its own army who mutinied over the president’s handling of the crisis in the north. The government now requested France’s help in light of the radical Islamist takeover. France responded by sending in troops in January 2013, earning Hollande great popularity among much of the Malian population. The French-led operation was largely a success and much of the territory was regained within a month. Some analysts are holding up the successful French operation against radical Islamists as a model for how to combat ISIS.
Explore: 7 suggested ways to combat ISIS.
It was also in 2013 that Al-Moubaritoun – the Islamist militant group taking responsibility for the recent Mali attacks – was formed. Instead of a split, this came from a merger between Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), and another group called the Masked Men Brigade. It was announced in a statement that the merger would “unify the ranks of Muslims around the same goal” and would “rout” France and its allies. This group is mainly made up of Tuareg people.
Mali was able to hold peaceful elections in 2013, and Malian governance resumed a normal state of affairs with the swearing in of current president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta.
Peace deals were signed in 2013 and then again in February 2015. However, sporadic fighting and terror attacks continued to take place, mainly from the hobbled but still present Islamist groups in the region and associated Tuareg groups who remain poorly integrated in the country.
All in all, between 1,000 and 1,500 people were killed in Mali between 2012 and the present day as part of the conflict started by the Tuareg insurgency. Most casualties being on the side of Islamist militias, and around 500,000 people were displaced.
On 20th November 2015, 170 were taken hostage in the Radisson Blu hotel in the capital of Bamako. Two gunmen have been killed, and twenty-seven bodies have been found.
Al-Mourabitoun, an al-Qaida-affiliated group whose members are mostly Tuaregs and Arabs, has claimed responsibility for the attack. If this turns out to be true, according to the Guardian it will be the “first high-profile such attack by al-Qaeda for some time. The group is trying to steal back some of the limelight and news agenda again, as it once did so effectively.”
ISIS is a breakaway group from Al-Qaeda, and if this is indeed an attempt to upstage IS in light of recent events in Paris, it will be evidence of how the deep rivalry between the group is “responsible for a wave of violence across much of the Islamic world and, as we found out, last week, beyond.”
I skipped to the end, why did these Mali attacks happen?: Violent groups who want to see a stricter version of Islamic rule in North and West Africa and who follow Al-Qaeda’s cause of violent jihad have joined with nationalist causes when the opportunity has arisen. This has do with France’s involvement in countries like Algeria and Mali – where some see France as a continuing Western colonial interference, and others see it as a handy powerful ally. That explains the violence over the years. Some people explain the violence now as an attempt to upstage ISIS who broke away from Al-Qaeda to wage a more violent and more ambitious version of jihad.
Hostages are people that have been kidnapped and taken prisoner. Their safe return is then offered in exchange for ransom money. Pay up, and the hostage is returned in one piece. Refuse and… well, then it gets really nasty.
Hostage taking is big business for terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and Islamic State. The New York Times reported that Al-Qaeda have made $125 million from hostage taking.
More worryingly; this article in The Telegraph suggests that recent ransom demands from IS are part of a battle with Al-Qaeda to outperform one another.
The question is; should we pay up to get our loved ones home?
Both the UK and USA governments are clear; no ransom will be paid to terrorists. Their view is that paying ransoms just encourages the groups.
Some European countries take a different stance. Despite all major western countries agreeing to a G8 commitment not to pay terrorists, countries like France and Germany have not stuck to the bargain. The more that gets paid; the higher the ransoms go. C’mon guys, get with the programme.
When US journalist James Foley was murdered by Islamic State a few months after his European co-worker was freed people asked; why didn’t the US government just pay up? The amount demanded for Foley’s release was $132 million. The average amount asked for a Western hostage is £6 million. The amount asked for Foley was higher because as a US journalist, he had immense political value. As well as being illegal, hostage ransoms are just really unfair.
For years the US were also pretty tough on members of the public paying off ransoms. People paying to get loved ones home could face prosecution. Even discussing a ransom with a terrorist could be seen as a “concession”.
In the UK the Terrorism Act 2000 made funding terrorists illegal. “It’s a criminal offence to provide, use or possess funds or property where an individual intends or has reasonable cause to suspect that such funds/property will be used for the purposes of terrorism”
And in 2014 Home Secretary Teresa May made further changes; insurance companies would no longer be able to reimburse people if they had sent ransom money to terrorist groups.
So far, so tough. However, President Obama recently made an announcement that may change things.
President Obama says families will no longer be prosecuted if they send money to hostage takers.
The US government’s official policy is the same; no deals for terrorists. But the White House now also says this “does not mean ‘no communication'”.
So they won’t pay up, but they will communicate with terrorists sometimes on behalf of the families.
Does Obama’s U-turn mean the UK government will also reconsider?
We decided to ask the Home Office that very question;
“The UK’s position on payment of terrorist ransoms is very clear: we do not pay, on the basis that providing money or property to a terrorist group fuels terrorist activity; and encourages further kidnaps.”
That’s a no then.
It’s impossible to tell if Obama’s changes will lead to a rise in kidnappings across America. What is certain is that the price of hostages is being pushed up. This leads to a difficult situation. All ransom demands are different, and are calculated on the financial and political worth of the hostage. We are reaching a situation where some families will be able to afford ransom demands, whilst others may not.