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 for diplomats, contractors and others doing business in Mali, one of the poorest countries on earth.
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. “For those people who did this, they have no sense of the value of life,” President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said at the foot of the ransacked hotel Saturday afternoon.
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 in Mali’s capital was a strike on this nation’s fragile efforts to restore peace after years of fighting.
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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, jihadis 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 Keita, 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-Qaida claimed responsibility.
“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,” Yazbeck recounted from his hospital bed. “The doors would not close.”
A gunman appeared and opened fire. 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, Yazbeck said: French, Chinese, among others.
Within minutes, the killer returned. For a second time, Yazbeck feigned death. “I felt shots brushing by my head,” he said. The gunman leaned close and lightly brushed Yazbeck’s lips with his hand, apparently checking to see if he were still alive. Then he left.
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 –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, 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, 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.
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 three years that French are eliminating some extremist leaders, with some success by the way,” said Jezequel of the crisis group. “But it does not solve the problem.”
Developments in Mali on Saturday
Investigation: Mali tightened security in the capital as investigators searched for al-Qaeda-linked militants suspected of carrying out an attack on a luxury hotel that killed 22 people, many of them foreigners. Officials confirmed that two assailants were killed on Friday after a siege that lasted more than seven hours. Security forces are now hunting “more than three” suspects who may also have been involved.
Reaction in Mali: Mali President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita has ordered a 10-day state of emergency and three days of national mourning.
American victim: Anita Datar, 41, was remembered for her passionate commitment to her work in international development, her love for her young son and her gift for laughter. She was in Mali with two co-workers, both of whom survived. “The world is a darker place without your light,” one stunned friend wrote on Datar’s Facebook page. “I am praying for your little boy.” The U.S. ambassador to Mali called Datar’s family to inform them of her death, Datar’s mother, Sunanda Datar, said.
Russian victims: A Russian governor said the six Russians killed in Mali were part of the plane crew for the Russian cargo company Volga-Dnepr, which operates across the African continent.
Chinese losses: Three executives of a Chinese state-owned rail construction company were killed. The men were described as negotiators seasoned in building infrastructure in the toughest parts of the world.
From wire reports