In one short week, terrorists gunned down civilians in spectacular attacks in the heart of Paris and in a chic neighborhood of Bamako. Perhaps inevitably, writers and scholars alike have begun to ask questions about how the two events may be related, whether in operational planning or as some sort of escalating battle for attention between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Fielding questions from journalists about “the new normal” of global insecurity — all the while checking on loved ones and friends — we experienced these events as both far away and painfully close to home. We have lived and worked in both cities, and we know these neighborhoods well. Having endured the one-two punch of these murderous attacks both vicariously and intimately, it is natural to compare them to each other. But we might learn more from how they differ than from what they share.
Two different interpretations contrast rather than liken the attacks. One holds that while the attacks in Paris targeted France itself, Bamako was simply the unfortunate site of a crime directed beyond Mali’s borders. The other argues that the mass killing in Mali had specific, strategic and, above, local political goals.
Little more than a week ago, dual sets of attacks traumatized Paris. One set was aimed at the cosmopolitan and vibrant Oberkampf/Republique area, where scores of people out for a drink or at a concert were killed indiscriminately by gunmen. Another struck at the Stade de France, a symbol of national pride and (uneven) integration that squats ostentatiously over a dilapidated neighborhood, where a trio of suicide bombers inflicted relatively few casualties. French politicians were quick — maybe too quick — to proclaim that the republic itself was in danger.
On Friday in Bamako, gunmen fatally shot 21 people and briefly held scores of hostages in the Radisson Blu hotel, which could hardly be farther away, in distance and appearance, from the sites of the French attacks. The neighborhood in which the Radisson Blu is located boasts luxury buildings, embassies and the offices of international aid organizations. Relatively few Malians live there, and even fewer frequent the hotel.
It may be that the real target was not Bamako or even Malians, although some fell victim to the crossfire while others freed the hostages. Rather, the target was Mali’s vital yet troubled links to the world beyond West Africa. Terrorists did not attack the Malian state as such. Instead, they specifically targeted what French political scientist Jean-François Bayart would call its “extraversion,” the ties to external circuits of capital and political influence that allow the country’s elite to flourish.
The evidence is clear. A famous musician from neighboring Guinea walked out of the Radisson unscathed; Chinese railroad executives and Russian airline employees did not survive. According to some reports, the attackers even sought to spare Muslims by forcing hostages to recite the shahada, the Muslim declaration of faith, or demonstrate that they could read the Koran; in contrast, in Paris, one of the many Muslim victims was a Moroccan architect who wrote his thesis on the hajj.
What happened in Bamako is not merely a sideshow to what happened in Paris. Whether in Mali or in France, such events occur in a global context of mounting violence and asymmetrical attacks in which civilians — more often than not Muslims — are the principal victims. That said, we cannot understand what happened in Mali if we see it as just another chapter in a “long war” narrative.
The Bamako attack may yet prove to be linked to that in Paris, but it takes place against the backdrop of a history of increasingly bitter political contestation, growing corruption and degradation of state structures in Mali, and the rise of political militancy (both separatist and jihadist) in the country’s north.
Mali’s internal conflicts may, in fact, be part of the reason behind the Bamako attack. Always popular with foreign officials, the Radisson Blu was particularly full this week because of an upcoming meeting of the committee charged with overseeing the implementation of a peace accord between northern rebel groups, the national government, and its allies. The accord came almost 2½ years after France intervened to push back jihadist fighters in central Mali, and only came about through diplomats’ concerted efforts to bring Mali’s different armed groups and the government — but not the jihadists — to the table.
Few in Mali were actually happy with the peace deal, which makes grand promises but leaves many questions unanswered. Indeed, vicious fighting between pro-government militias and the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) followed the signing of the accord, until a series of local truces took hold in mid-October. Hold-outs remain, most prominently Iyad Ag Ghali, a longtime Tuareg rebel turned Salafi-jihadi commander. Days before the Bamako attacks, Iyad released an audiotape denouncing the accord and its signatories for abandoning separatist claims to northern Mali, while also condemning France.
Seen against that backdrop, the timing of the attacks suggests that the peace accord might have been as much of a target in Bamako as anything else. For now, it is too early to say; the one claim of responsibility for the attack has reportedly come from veteran jihadi Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s al-Mourabitoun, working in conjunction with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The attackers’ purported demands related to the release of extremists held in Malian prisons and an end to “aggression” committed against Muslims in north and central Mali. No mention for the moment of the Islamic State, Paris, or the separatist cause.
Ultimately, we may never have an irrefutable explanation of the strategy behind the attacks in Bamako and in Paris. We might never even be sure whether and how they are related. Journalists want clear-cut answers, but historians are used to the idea that evidence is partial and incomplete, or that what evidence we do have may be intentionally misleading. This is all the more true in the Sahara, where reliable information is hard to come by, and where every narrative has a counter-narrative. As analysts, we have to be able to accommodate such uncertainty. As citizens of the world, we have to live with it.
Andrew Lebovich is a PhD student at Columbia University and a visiting fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations. He is also a History in Action research assistant with the Social Science Research Council for fall 2015.
Gregory Mann is professor of history at Columbia University. He is also the author of “From Empires to NGOs in the West African Sahel: The Road to Nongovernmentality.”