Hotel Attack in Mali Is a Setback in Fight Against Extremism

New York Times
NOV. 21, 2015

BAMAKO, Mali — The terrorists chose carefully: There are nearly always French, Russian and even a few American visitors to be found in the hotel restaurant, around the pool, in the health club or on the thin black-leather sofas of the glass-fronted lobby, now shattered by gunfire.

With its marble floors, open atrium and lipstick-red lounge, the Radisson Blu Hotel served as a lifeline to the world, a gathering place where diplomats, contractors and others doing business in Mali, one of the poorest countries on earth, could all be found.

Now, bullet holes pockmark the walls and blood is pooled on stairs. The hotel, once a symbol of the international presence in a country trying to emerge from years of upheaval, is the site of a massacre in which terrorists killed 19 people, storming in at breakfast on Friday as terrified diners sprinted into an elevator whose doors did not close in time to save them.

The brutal attacks in Paris this month were a strike against France’s joie de vivre. The siege of Kenya’s gleaming Westgate mall two years ago was an assault on that country’s rising prosperity, modernity and stability. The terrifying attack on the Radisson Blu here in Mali’s capital was a strike on this nation’s fragile efforts to restore peace after years of fighting.

But in all of these places, the same fundamental question applies: How does a democratic society protect itself from a few determined extremists who can upend an entire nation with a single devastating strike?

“Nobody has found the way to really kick-start a multidimensional approach to countering radicalism,” said Jean-Herve Jezequel, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.

Even in Iraq and Afghanistan, where thousands of lives and billions of dollars have been spent trying to wrest those countries from chaos, extremist forces are flourishing.

It is a lesson that Mali knows only too well.

Before the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, swept across wide stretches of Syria and Iraq, establishing a self-proclaimed caliphate, black flags flew in Mali.

After a rebellion and military coup plunged the country into disarray, jihadists from across the Sahel charged through northern Mali. They abducted girls and raped them, imposed their harsh version of Islam on the towns they took over, carried out summary executions and destroyed ancient Sufi shrines. They drove out tens of thousands of Malians from their homes, and ruled the northern half of the country for months in 2012 while the rest of the country could do little more than watch.

Unlike in Syria, the West did not sit on the sidelines while the country disintegrated. France, the former colonial power, put hundreds of boots on the ground, chasing out the extremists from the towns they controlled, scattering them to the desert and killing some of their top leaders, while the United Nations took on the job of working out a peace deal between the government and the rebels.

There are close to 10,000 peacekeepers still in Mali, along with drones that hover over the region. And yet, even after elections and a peace deal to set the country on a new course, extremists have carried out multiple terrorist attacks this year against civilian targets like a restaurant and another hotel, shaking the nation’s faith.

“It means that we’re not over it yet,” said Karim Keïta, the president’s son and the head of Mali’s commission of national defense. “We had a terrorist past, but we’re not over it.”

Witnesses described how easy it was for the gunmen to carry out the attack on the Radisson Blu on Friday, for which militants linked with Al Qaeda claimed responsibility.

Across the street from the hotel, Ibrahim Maiga was in his apartment over his small corner store when he noticed something odd outside his window: a man fishing a few things out of a suitcase that he had opened on the ground.

The man pulled out a grenade, a gun and some other items that Mr. Maiga could not make out. The man then picked up the gun and fired it into the air before walking toward two security guards outside the hotel. He shot one, crossed the road, then shot the other. Both of the men collapsed, Mr. Maiga said. One of them, a friend of Mr. Maiga’s, later died.

Hotel guests were at breakfast around 7 a.m. on the mezzanine level of the hotel when the shots first rang out.

“We heard shooting, pa-pa-pa, from Kalashnikov,” said Ali Yazbeck, 30, the assistant patisserie chef on duty. The head chef shouted that there was an attack, he said. Guests and staff members fled together from the dining room through the kitchen, to a staff elevator at the back of the building.

“The lift takes eight, but there were many more than that,” Mr. Yazbeck recounted from his hospital bed. “The doors would not close.”

A gunman appeared and opened fire. Mr. Yazbeck, a slim man with glasses, was the first to fall, shot in the neck. He prayed silently as the gunman turned to the open elevator and gunned down everyone inside. They were hotel guests, Mr. Yazbeck said: French, Chinese, among others.

Within minutes, the killer returned. For a second time, Mr. Yazbeck feigned death. “I felt shots brushing by my head,” he said. The gunman leaned close and lightly brushed Mr. Yazbeck’s lips with his hand, apparently checking to see if he were still alive. Then he left.

Mr. Yazbeck said he stayed frozen in fear in his hiding place for hours, listening to gunfire and explosions reverberate through the hotel, until security forces eventually rescued him and others around 3 p.m.

The gunmen — Mr. Yazbeck said he saw two in all — were young, 20 or 21, he estimated, and appeared calm. They wore baseball caps. The first was dark-skinned and had a black turban around his neck, he said. The second was lighter skinned. They made no comment or explanation for what they were doing.

The first gunman was laughing when he opened fire on the foreign guests, Mr. Yazbeck said. At one point, the second gunman came into the kitchen and calmly took some meat from the fridge, grilled it and ate it during a break in the killing.

They targeted foreigners and Malians equally, Mr. Yazbeck said, and did not hesitate to open fire on fellow Muslims (a statement that was at odds with other accounts). “When he saw me, he just fired,” he said. Three of the five hotel staff members on breakfast duty were killed, he said.

During coups and countercoups, violent demonstrations and rebel incursions in the north, the Radisson Blu continued to operate, even when the guest count dwindled to a few rooms.

The tally of those who died hereon Friday is a testament to the global hub the hotel had become: Among them were one American, two Belgians, six Russians and three Chinese. They included a development specialist, railroad construction executives, air cargo employees bringing in machinery, and a foreign government worker in the country for a conference on training Mali’s civil servants.

Still, even with hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and continued international engagement — Mr. Keïta, Mali’s president, was recently received with great pomp in Paris by the French president, with Malian flags adorning the Champs-Élysées — Mali is as troubled as ever, according to analysts.

A political solution for the fractured nation remains elusive, with jihadists rejecting it outright. “Large swaths of territory” remain “devoid of state authority,” leaving armed groups free to commit “abuses with impunity,” Human Rights Watch warned this year.

“There are a lot of actors who continue to threaten,” said Pierre Englebert, an expert on African politics at Pomona College. “We are not far from where we were in 2012 in terms of state weakness.”

For some, the attacks show the limitations of a military-driven approach to fighting terrorism, and how hard it is to find a solution that actually works.

“It’s been 3 years that French are eliminating some extremist leaders, with some success by the way,” said Mr. Jezequel of the crisis group. “But it does not solve the problem.”

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