We don’t know yet what group is responsible for the taking of more than 100 hostages at a Radisson Hotel in Bamako, Mali, on Friday, though given France’s recent history in the country, the timing—exactly a week after the deadly attacks in Paris—might be significant.
Mali, which was once a French colony, is starkly divided between its denser, more developed south and the less developed, sparsely populated north. Over the past century, the country has undergone several insurgencies by rebels from the Tuareg ethnic group in the north. The latest one began in early 2012, thanks in part to weapons and fighters flooding into the country from Libya after the collapse of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime. In March of that year, the Malian military overthrew the country’s democratically elected government, citing its failure to control the rebellion. This backfired spectacularly as the rebels took advantage of the resulting chaos to seize several towns in the north and proclaim a new state they called Azawad.
While the Tuareg rebellion had been largely secular, it was quickly sidelined by a proliferation of new Islamist splinter groups, including the Ansar Dine, which imposed strict Sharia law over large swaths of northern Mali and is linked to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the terror network’s North African affiliate.
In January 2013, France launched Operation Serval, a military campaign to restore order and oust the jihadist groups. The operation, which involved 4,000 troops at its peak, succeeded in its goals of breaking the militants’ control of territory in the north and pushing them underground, though French troops remained in the country far longer than anticipated. Serval wound down last year, replaced by Operation Barkhane, a 3,000-strong French anti-terror force spread over five countries in the region.
There have been small but worrying signs of jihadist violence returning to Mali ever since. AQIM has murdered several people accused of helping French forces and launched suicide bombings and shooting attacks against the Malian military as well as French and Chadian peacekeepers. Other Islamist groups claimed responsibility for an attack in March that killed five people at a restaurant in Bamako that was populated with foreigners, and an attack on another hotel in Central Mali in August that killed 13 people, including five members of the U.N. mission in the country.
Last month, Ansar Dine leader Iyad Ag Ghaly released a recording denouncing a peace deal signed between the government and the main secular rebel groups earlier this year and calling for more attacks against France. The recording, made before last week’s events in Paris, also endorsed the attack on Charlie Hebdo, saying the magazine had “got what it deserved.”
Whether ISIS is also operating in Mali is more of an unknown, though ISIS-affiliated groups do have a presence in North Africa including Libya and neighboring Algeria. Reuters reports Friday that an ISIS militant in Syria had, last week, cited France’s intervention in Mali as another reason to attack the country. Early unconfirmed reports that the gunmen at the Radisson were speaking English could also suggest that they were foreign fighters rather than a local group. In any event, an already dizzyingly complex conflict has taken another dangerous turn.