AFTER armed groups occupied the northern half of Mali and officers in the capital staged a coup in 2012, the country accepted generous international security assistance. A thousand French soldiers now monitor the jihadist plotters who lurk in the desert and the brush; over 12,000 United Nations peacekeepers are at bases in the capital, Bamako, or patrolling the north; and Mali’s own forces are being improved. All of these forces (plus a few American commandos) were deployed after two young gunmen burst into the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako on November 20th. Their collaboration was swift and co-ordinated, which undoubtedly prevented more killing, but the death toll was over 20.
In the days that followed, the Radisson remained closed to outsiders as French investigators gathered evidence before handing the process back to the Malians. It was grim inside, with blood stains and the smell of burning plastic. At other hotels, sweeps were under way as the government launched a manhunt for two or three suspects who may have aided the attackers.
The attack was claimed by an al-Qaeda-affiliated group al-Mourabitoun, led by the infamous Mokhtar Belmoktar, who attacked a vast gas plant in Algeria from across the border in Mali in 2013. Intriguingly, many witnesses said the attackers spoke English, or at least something that was neither Arabic nor local. Then a second group, the new Macina Liberation Front (MLF) from the Mopti region in the north-west, claimed responsibility for the attack, which Mali’s president said was plausible. But the details of the investigation remain opaque.
This is the second time that Bamako has been attacked in the past year. The roots of the violence lie in the troubled centre and north of the country, where armed bandits and jihadists vie for control. The MLF in particular has shown its capacity for bloodshed by murdering imams who do not support it and attacking hotels popular with foreigners.
Yet there are some hopeful signs. This week, Germany announced that it was sending 650 troops to beef up the UN operation, a welcome move that will take some of the pressure off the French. And Malians are tired of the conflict. Villagers have started calling government forces after they are robbed by bandits, and helping soldiers find the aggressors. In Kidal, a northern desert region once thought lost, former rebels now run police operations against new violent actors. In Mopti, Malian forces are tracking down the MLF themselves. And development will continue; neither America nor Britain has any intention of cutting back aid in the wake of the attack. “We should honour them by continuing,” said Gary Juste, the mission director for USAID.
The Bamako attack struck at one of the most trusted hotels in the capital, requiring an international response and revealing the fragility of government systems. But it also showed emerging strengths and a willingness to collaborate among the Malian authorities. More help, and a willingness to accept it, will be needed in the years ahead.