Mali’s Porous Borders

Alexandra Reza

On Friday, Bamako flashed into the European media’s consciousness. In the early morning, men with automatic weapons had arrived at the Malian capital’s Radisson Blu hotel. Shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’, they killed two security guards and took 170 staff and guests hostage. It was the third attack of its kind this year. The first was at La Terrasse restaurant in Bamako on 7 March, where five people died; the second, on 7 August, was at the Hotel Byblos in central Mali. Thirteen people died.

The Radisson is in Bamako’s business district, to the north of the Niger River. It is a luxury hotel with almost 200 rooms. The building is long and large, and the gunmen were not able to control it all. By mid-morning people could be seen escaping. By the end of the day, however, when Malian and French forces retook the building, UN peacekeepers counted at least 27 corpses. A receptionist told the New York Times that he had seen a man’s throat cut. Two of the gunmen died too.

Aliou Hasseye, a Malian journalist, arrived at the Radisson at around 8 a.m., an hour after the gunmen. Police were surrounding the building and journalists were not allowed close, he told me. The mood on the streets was tense but controlled. Passers-by were worried, though ‘the people inside were not their families’. The attack happened in the centre of town, but the Radisson Blu is not somewhere that many ordinary Malians go. Like La Terrasse and Hotel Byblos, it’s a place where you ‘find foreigners’, Hasseye said.

But Madame Keita, the editor-in-chief of Journal du Mali, told me that the attack was aimed at Malians too. ‘Each time, we forget, we return to normal life, and then something happens again and we realise: jihad has not forgotten us,’ she said. Since the Tuareg separatist insurgency in the north swept south towards Bamako in 2012, there have been peace talks and elections. ‘But they want to tell us they are still here,’ Hasseye said.

Who ‘they’ are is not yet entirely settled. Al-Mourabitoun, an African jihadist group affiliated with al-Qaida, claimed responsibility on Twitter. But not everyone is convinced. ‘I interviewed an escapee yesterday,’ Keita told me, ‘who said the attackers were speaking English, with a Nigerian accent, and wore a green Boko Haram scarf.’ The Guinean singer Sékouba Bambino, one of the initial hostages, also said he heard the gunmen speaking English.

Either way, this is a problem of regional instability that comes to Mali though what Keita calls ‘porous borders’. Borders explain something of the political difficulties that Mali is facing. The right angles and straight lines of the frontiers of the Sahel are visibly freighted with the violent colonial history of their arbitrary making.

Bamako is much closer to Guinea than to Timbuktu, more than 1000 km drive away. The UN Security Council hasn’t held a minute’s silence for Mali, but in Conakry, President Alpha Condé has announced three days of mourning. ‘Guinea and Mali are the same country,’ he said, and personally telephoned Bambino to offer his support. This solidarity came with not a little hardtalk. At his party headquarters on Saturday, Condé said that Guineans must be wary of strangers. ‘Everyone must play the policeman,’ he told supporters, to applause. He said that he would move to close Quranic schools where pupils wore ‘le voile integrale’: burqas and niqabs. ‘I don’t want this in our country,’ he said. Condé, a Muslim, has been publically critical of ‘le voile integrale’ for many months.

‘There is no talk of that here,’ Keita said, ‘and it is not banning le voile that will save us from terrorism.’ Ninety-five per cent of Malians are Muslim. ‘Here is not the same as in France, where there are problems with immigration, stigmatisation of communities,’ Keita said. ‘We don’t call them Muslims, we call them armed bandits.’

A state of national emergency has been declared as the search for the bandits continues.

‘On Saturday I passed back in front of the Radisson,’ Keita said. ‘There were policemen, sitting in chairs, relaxed, a day later… there was even the woman who sells fruit. She was just sitting there, like nothing had happened.’


  • 25 November 2015 at 7:59am
    cufflink says:
    This cool fine piece of reportage cannot be passed by without comment; it is worthy of Hemingway. Even so, never in these important accounts do we give any expression to the political purposes of the terrorists not so much in justification as in the ultimate purposes of such barbarity.
    We can surely say that these deadly ISIL like actions of horrid slaughter are projected not so much as theocratic mayhem but as an attempt to overthrow the objectionable and wicked capitalist appropriation of a way of life. It is a moral resistance to the conquest of an allied people by the hegemonic socio/economic mind.
    There is one particular account in our close well written history that strikes relevance, and that is in the genocide of the North American Indian community.
    This account now goes forward written as a mixture of savagery and nobility, eventuating in the Reservation ethic. It even has a backdrop of romance.
    We must find the active leaders of the Jihad and give them platform to speak, and only then will the barbarity be, amongst themselves, directed to a more productive solution.
    The IRA, through terrorism or shall we say 'vital civil unrest' came to sit at the table of governance.
    The capitalist West in its own way, in its heedless appropriations, commits financial terrorism every day.

  • 25 November 2015 at 1:46pm
    Alan Benfield says:
    A 'cool fine piece of reportage' which you apparently did not read very closely.

    If you're looking for motives for, say ISIS, try these:

    "We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now you begin to understand me.”

    "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever."

    ― George Orwell, 1984 (O'Brien to Winston Smith, in room 101)

    But so much for ISIS. As the article said: in this case, they're just bandits. Jihad is just a handy peg to hang their banditry on. I must say, I find it hard to see any 'nobility' or 'romance' in that.

    One should also not forget that, the political motivations of armed groups in Northern Ireland notwithstanding, much activity was often just a smokescreen for criminality (on both sides) and to an extent still is among the remnants of such groups.

  • 25 November 2015 at 3:59pm
    cufflink says:
    Alan Benfield cites Orwell in his fiction and not from his journalism. Orwell served courageously in the International Brigade and brought back a classic memory of that conflict. The recruits to ISIL from the developed Western Islamic discontent are no different from the many brave recruits to that Brigade in so far as they place their lives on line in sacrifice, come what may. It is true Orwell would kill but not murder. He shot elephants.
    The so called criminality of the antagonists in Northern Ireland was predominantly to obtain funds for the parlous aquisition of arms.
    If I have to quote anyone to mention in this theatre of conflict it would be Franz Fanon lauded by Sartre as the voice of anti-colonialism. These countries may not now be colonies on the coloured map, but economically their many corrupt leaders follow the dictates of a personal aggrandisement - almost without exception. It is they that put the boot to the face.
    I abhor much of the cultural repression of this manifeststion of Islam, nevertheless I also identify with the view that the Western capitalist way of life at the level of distribution of reward is fundamentally skewed to enrich the few.
    The fact is that our way of life is trashy and these young men and women who don the belt of sacrifice in the most inhuman ways cannot nor should not merely be demonised and dismissed - nor should they be praised and succoured up to; and of course prevented. We must try to understand and divert the deadly animus into productive change.
    The accumulation of capital and the purposes it is put to calls for some measure of governance beyond the aquisitiveness of any individual or vested group.
    In church recently, a visiting priest homilied on the Spanish Civil War and the murder of the many clergy by the Republicans and slurred the brave fighters of the Brigade. That is in England now. I did not shake his hand on leaving but raised my right arm saying 'No pasarant'.
    The whole point of the excellent blog was missed by Alan Benfield in so far as he doesn't seem to have followed in feeling the drift of the well placed reportage that gave reality, in all its complexity, to the problem.
    Of course there was no mention of the indifferent collateral damage made by the Caspian Cruise missiles to the wider region infrastructure, because it was out of theatre and such Milgram concerns it seems only apply to the kamikaze, yet they are pertinent.
    This is just an essay of my position.

    • 26 November 2015 at 10:55am
      Alan Benfield says: @ cufflink
      I am not sure what my citing Orwell's fiction rather than his journalism has to do with anything, but allusion to 'Homage to Catalonia' (we also have a nod to 'Burmese Days') as a starting point from which to compare the Spanish Civil War to the present conflict in Iraq and Syria and those who joined the International Brigade to Western jihadists who join ISIS is certainly a breathtakingly bold departure. I am not sure, however, that you will find any support in Orwell for the indiscriminate murder of civilians by what Madame Keita of the Journal du Mali is quoted above as describing as 'armed bandits'. Mali is not involved in a civil war. I think it is you, sir, who has failed to understand the article.

      You also then use this forum to put forward a somewhat garbled defence of the many and varied differing groups engaged in insurgency and slaughter (mostly of fellow Muslims, by the way) across the Muslim world, seemingly oblivious to the kidnapping, murder and rape committed by Boko Haram (in the name of what, exactly? - the noble aim of preventing girls from going to school?) as well as the kidnapping, murder, rape, extortion and forced religious conversion perpetrated by ISIS. Given that it is often the case that one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist, are these really freedom fighters? Let me draw a line here: no.

      As for the rest, before your next essay you might take into consideration the wise words of Orwell himself:

      "A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:
      1. What am I trying to say?
      2. What words will express it?
      3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
      4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?"

      "Political language -- and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists -- is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."

      George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language", 1946

    • 26 November 2015 at 4:02pm
      Alan Benfield says: @ Alan Benfield
      Correcting myself, Cufflink was obviously referring to the essay 'Shooting an Elephant', not the novel 'Burmese days'.

    • 3 December 2015 at 1:12pm
      John Cowan says: @ cufflink
      First of all, "Shooting an Elephant" is unlikely to be journalism rather than fiction. Second, it is an anti-imperialist parable, whether true or fictional: its theme is how the conqueror winds up being trapped between his individual conscience and the pressure of public opinion.

  • 30 November 2015 at 3:14pm
    stockwelljonny says:
    Cufflink said "Orwell served courageously in the International Brigade and brought back a classic memory of that conflict. The recruits to ISIL from the developed Western Islamic discontent are no different from the many brave recruits to that Brigade.."

    Dear oh dear.

    • 1 December 2015 at 7:52am
      Alan Benfield says: @ stockwelljonny
      My point exactly, but more succinctly put...

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