Stratfor has produced this supplemental edition of the Security Weekly to amplify readers' understanding of the Nov. 20 terrorist attack in Mali. The Security Weekly publishes regularly each Thursday.
The Nov. 20 attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali, that killed at least 22 people has been claimed as a joint operation by a group known as al-Mourabitoun, led by prominent jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Another group, the Macina Liberation Front, also claimed responsibility on Nov. 22. The Macina Liberation Front is a relatively new group that emerged in January, but the jihadist milieu in Mali is fluid: Groups frequently cooperate (or fight) with one another, and militants can drift from group to group. In this type of environment, it would not be unusual for gunmen from multiple groups to work together on a large operation.
The tactics used by the attackers before and during the operation — along with those of security forces responding to the scene — highlight a number of narratives that Stratfor has observed across the militant landscape over the past several years.
First, it serves as a reminder that hotels are popular targets for militant organizations. When striking an international hotel in a major city, militants can make the same kind of statement against the West as when striking an embassy. The hotels typically targeted are often full of Western business travelers, journalists, diplomats and intelligence officers — rich environments for militants seeking to kill Westerners and gain international media attention without having to penetrate the extreme security of a hardened target like a modern embassy.
In response, major hotels have done a commendable job increasing security, and today it is harder to attack them than it was a decade ago. These enhanced security measures have saved lives on several occasions in recent years, such as in the massive vehicle bomb attack against the Marriott in Islamabad in September 2008.
However, as Stratfor has long noted, security measures and personnel alone can never provide absolute protection for a target. Quite simply, if proficient attackers are allowed to conduct preoperational surveillance at will, they will be able to assess security measures, observe patterns and identify ways to either exploit gaps in security coverage or launch an attack powerful enough to defeat the protective measures in place. It appears that the Bamako attackers observed that vehicles with diplomatic license plates were given preferential treatment at the Radisson's security checkpoints. They reportedly took advantage of that fact to tailgate a car with diplomatic license plates passing through security to penetrate the hotel's outer ring of security.
The lesson is not only that security checks should be applied uniformly, but also that measures should be taken to deny attackers the freedom to identify such deficiencies in the first place.
Another trend highlighted in the Bamako attack was the use of an armed assault to penetrate a target and kill people inside rather than the use of a vehicle bomb to attack the outside of a building. For several years now, hotels and similar targets such as shopping malls have increasingly hardened their outer perimeter security to render large vehicle bombs less deadly. Consequently, attackers have increasingly turned to smaller suicide bombs and armed assaults, both of which also require fewer resources than a large vehicle bomb, to circumvent or penetrate hotel security and create higher body counts among their intended victims.
From a security angle, the case in Mali also exemplifies certain best practices employed by those responding to attacks. First, the Malian security forces and their French partners did not merely sit back and establish a perimeter to wait out the attackers, as security forces did in past attacks such as the 2008 hotel attacks in Mumbai. In Bamako, security forces recognized that the goal of the attackers was to create maximum carnage rather than, say, hold hostages for ransom. The authorities quickly moved on the hotel and engaged the attackers rather than permitting them the freedom to move from room to room to find and execute guests. This undoubtedly saved lives, as have similar responses in past attacks against targets such as the Serena hotel in Kabul, which has been targeted multiple times. The rapid reaction and the lack of looting by security forces at the hotel indicate that training provided by French and U.S. advisers is bearing some fruit.
Finally, many of the guests in the hotel are alive today because they took appropriate action in the face of danger. Several guests quickly fled the hotel, while others barricaded themselves in their rooms and hid from the attackers — two steps of the "run, hide, fight" mantra we encourage people to employ in active shooter situations. Sadly, attacks like the one in Bamako will continue to overcome protective measures, for the reasons we've outlined above. But when security forces take timely and decisive action, and when victims respond appropriately, the carnage inflicted during an attack can be considerably reduced.