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After Mali Attacks, Counterterrorism Efforts Need to Kick Into High Gear

On November 20, Mali was shaken by a hostage taking that targeted the Radisson Blu hotel in downtown Bamako, leaving at least 19 dead. The standoff ended after Malian commandos stormed the building, freeing the 170 hostages and killing two attackers. Unlike the coordinated attacks that struck Paris a week before, Daesh (otherwise known as the Islamic State) did not carry out the attacks in Bamako. Both Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Al Mourabitoun, a group that emerged from the 1990s era Algerian insurgency, claimed responsibility.

Since then, a third group, the Macina Liberation Front, also joined in, saying that three of its members had successfully fled the hotel after the rifle assault. Mali’s President, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, announced a ten-day state-of-emergency while authorities search for suspects and gather information about the two attackers killed at the scene. Separatist groups in northern Mali stated that the attacks were an attempt to derail the peace process signed between Bamako and the Tuaregs – negotiations were to be held at the Radisson. Beyond its particularities, the Bamako attack is rather unique through its coalition of attackers and points towards a much wider and more versatile arena of militancy and terrorism expanding across North-West Africa.

The Middle East has been the primary focus of Western powers in their “war against terror,” but terrorist groups based in Africa have been on the rise over the last five years.

It is not the first time that attacks were carried out in hotels or tourist areas, as these spaces guarantee international media coverage without requiring the same resources as attacks carried out abroad.

Unlike Nigerian extremist group Boko Haram, who pledged its allegiance to Daesh (IS) in March, the groups involved in Bamako’s tragedy last Friday are not in cahoots with the self-proclaimed Caliphate. Instead, the smaller groups in the Maghreb and Sahel seem to be forming a network to contest Daesh’s market dominance in despicability and media coverage.

Malian Tuareg rebels in 2013. (Jerome Dealy/AP)
Malian Tuareg rebels in 2013. (Jerome Dealy/AP)

Some of the organizations claim seniority over ISIS – the Al Mourabitoun group was already active in 2013 when its one-eyed leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar led militants to storm a gas plant in the Algerian desert, killing 40 people. The same year, France came to the aid of its former colonies by sending 3,000 French troops to northern Mali in an attempt to fight militant control in the region. The attack in Bamako, carried out by Al Mourabitoun, occurs just two years after President Hollande confidently told a crowd in Mali, “We have won this war; we have chased out the terrorists; we have secured the north.” France’s strategies against terrorism are clearly being challenged both at home and abroad. However, France should not stand alone in its disappointment – Mokhtar Belmokhtar has been on the wanted list for a number of years and intelligence services have already declared him dead twice.

The sense of insecurity in Mali and neighboring countries is growing, despite the presence of some 10,000 UN peacekeepers in the region. The simultaneous operation of small networks of insurgent groups is making it almost impossible to target terrorism at its source. The bonds between different extremist groups are never clear, as various allegiances are continually being claimed and refuted. In some cases, extremism and banditry are no longer the defining characteristics of a group – ethnic ties and tribal ancestry are also entering into the equation. For instance, before the military take-over in Northern Mali, the group, Ansar Dine, was gaining power in the region. Ansar Dine is primarily comprised of nomadic Touareg people, taking on the form of a clan lead by none other than a former Malian diplomat turned jihadist, Iyad Ag Ghaly. In response to the unsettling tensions surrounding Mali, Western countries have been apt in offering their support. Francois Hollande formally condemned Bamako’s attacks on Friday, while Vladimir Putin used the opportunity to reiterate his call for global cooperation.

Just like in the Middle East, terrorism in Africa is a cross-border regional phenomenon that needs regional solutions. Even if Mali has been in the spotlight recently thanks to the plethora of initiatives unfolding there, it’s actually neighboring Mauritania that can claim the title of the West’s principal line of defense. After 9/11, the quiet country shot up the list of potential breeding grounds for the next attack on the West.

American involvement in the area dates back to the early 2000s, when it became clear that there was a Mauritanian connection in Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The alliance between Mauritania and the US was only truly cemented when president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz replaced a pro-Islamic government in 2008. Since, internal anti-terrorism has also been a huge focus. In June 2014, the United States reportedly gave Mauritania $21 million worth of aircraft equipment and has since provided great amounts of military support alongside France, who maintained more regular relations with Mauritania ever since its former colony gained independence.

The US government supported a national deradicalization process, out of which emerged the strict anti-terror laws of 2010 and 2011 and helped deter an attempted suicide bombing in the capital Nouakchott. The Mauritanian government’s American-style war-on-terror has received a lot of criticism from human rights groups, but in the light of the ongoing attacks targeting civilians in the region, it has become a model worth following.

The recent coordinated attacks in Bamako are an omen that northwest Africa might rise to rival Syria in the amount of interventions and attention received throughout the global war on terror. If such groups decide to mount a credible alternative to ISIS’ African affiliates, more attacks can be expected in what could turn into a turf war where shock value and blood spilled are the main currencies. Policymakers would be wise to pre-empt this race by multiplying the tools at their disposal in Africa.