In a ransacked room on the third floor, a television set eerily broadcasted the France 24 news channel, where images of the attack were playing. In a room on the fourth floor, a half-eaten chicken sandwich sat next to a Turkish man’s passport on a bedside table. In an adjacent hallway, French troops serving with the United Nations stepped around drapes soaked with blood.
When gunmen stormed the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali’s capital, Bamako, Friday morning and killed at least 19 people (reportedly now as many as 27), they struck at the heart of West Africa’s engagement with the rest of the world. The Radisson was Bamako’s best hotel and the identities of the victims represent a snapshot of who has stakes in the region’s fight against terrorism.
Three Chinese railway executives on a business trip concerning a $1.5 billion plan to upgrade colonial-era train tracks that connect landlocked Mali with a seaport in neighboring Dakar, Senegal, were killed. Among the dead were also six Russian employees of a freight airline company that services the French military and United Nations mission in Mali, an American development consultant, Anita Datar, and a Belgian parliamentary official, Geoffrey Dieudonné, as well as citizens of Israel, Mali and Senegal.
Businesspeople from India, along with Turkish Airlines and Air France staff were holed up for hours before Malian special forces came to their rescue. Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote, took to Twitter to deny initial reports that he, too, had been among the hostages.
Mali, which was just recovering from traumatic years that saw a coup d’etat, a jihadist occupation, a French military intervention and a massive United Nations mission, has much to lose if international investors and diplomats stay away. The Radisson was considered a secure place for to stay; now, there are no safe havens.
“The railway deal with the Chinese will be put on hold. Investors are likely to back off Mali,” said Mamadou Coulibaly, who heads a Malian employers’ organization.
Because of the attack’s international nature, it brought swift and unanimous condemnations from President Obama, as well as the presidents of France, Russia and China: François Hollande, Vladimir V. Putin and Xi Jinping. Mali is no stranger to jihadist militancy, but no other attack has ever hit so directly at the country’s power center.
Offshoots of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb occupied the north of the country for nine months in 2012, implanting themselves in local communities and creating ties that have not yet been cut. French troops dislodged the jihadists in 2013, but since then the security situation has deteriorated, with terrorist attacks occurring further south, in areas once considered safe.
Over Mali’s northern border, the power vacuum that followed the NATO intervention in Libya has allowed arms to circulate freely. Jihadist groups have won back greater influence in the region.
A group named Al Mourabitoun, led by the veteran one-eyed Algerian jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, claimed responsibility for the attack. In August, the Qaeda-aligned group attacked a hotel in Sévaré, in central Mali, killing 17. A United Nations security analyst, who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to talk to the press, said that the munitions and tactics were similar in both assaults.
Jihadists who’d been involved in the 2012 occupation, before melting away when the French intervened, he said, “are reappearing, with new recruits.” This attack on civilians at Bamako’s most prestigious hotel could be a response to the Islamic State — a bid by Qaeda loyalists to remain relevant in a global jihadi scene that has evolved.
What is certain is that this type of assault — led by a small group of militants armed with AK-47s and grenades, and ready to die — is becoming the universal modus operandi of terrorism. The threat of similar attacks in Belgium have forced the government there to virtually shut down Brussels, at the heart of Europe.
In Mali, where the government’s grip is more tenuous, such an option is hardly feasible. The easy availability of assault weapons in Mali means that “as long as there are people willing to go on suicide missions,” the security analyst said, “this type of attack will be difficult to stop.”
By the end of Friday, a curious crowd had gathered across the street from the Radisson, filming with their smartphones the comings and goings of soldiers and rescue workers. When the unit of Malian special forces that had led the rescue mission emerged from the hotel late in the day, the crowd cheered and broke into a chant of “Mali! Mali! Mali!”
The mood changed from gloom and horror to joy and pride: If it weren’t for the brave efforts of the Malian soldiers, things could have been much worse. One man shouted, “we’re proud of our army” — words not often heard in a country that was forced to call on the former colonial power, France, to come to its aid in 2013.
“Attacks like this are almost impossible to prevent,” said Mr. Coulibaly. “What is important is how we manage the fallout.”
Like their European counterparts, West African governments are struggling to deal with the threat posed by jihadist groups. Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al Qaeda and its offshoots in Mali have killed indiscriminately for years and consistently thwart Western and African efforts to eliminate them. Mali’s security forces and the spirited crowd who gathered to show them support have their work cut out for them.
Joe Penney is the co-founder of the West African news website Sahelien.com.