The latest on the Mali hotel attack

MEGAN THOMPSON, PBS NEWSHOUR: Authorities in the West African nation of Mali say armed Islamic terrorists killed 19 people in yesterday's attack on a Radisson Hotel in the capital city of Bamako.

Among the victims were hotel guests from Russia, China, Belgium, Israel, and one American: 41-year-old Anita Datar, a mother of a seven-year-old boy, from Maryland. She was a global health worker who previously volunteered for the Peace Corps.

After a seven hour standoff, Malian soldiers killed both attackers, who had been holding 170 people as hostages. A group linked to al Qaeda has claimed responsibility.

Joining me now via Skype to discuss this is Wall Street Journal reporter Drew Hinshaw, who is in Ghana, just south of Mali.

Drew, can you tell us, what's the latest on the investigation into this attack?

DREW HINSHAW, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: Well, two groups that were both aligned with al Qaeda but competed amongst themselves have taken credit for it. One is al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which is sort of a decades old group based in northern Mali.

The other is a group that is commanded by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who most Americans will remember as the Algerian jihadist who engineered the raid at a gas plant, a BP gas plant, in Algeria in 2013.

Those two groups have taken credit for it. It seems credible. A flag from one of the groups is found on the premises. Al Qaeda leaders in the country have been threatening attacks on France for weeks if not months.

So, that seems to be legitimate. I know a lot of people kind of right after the fact thought — is this related to Paris?

But the al Qaeda war against France has been going on for quite some time and it seems to really stem closely from that.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Can you just tell us a little bit more about that?

DREW HINSHAW: Sure. For roughly a decade, al Qaeda made its money in this part of the world by kidnapping European hostages, and the French were a big part of that. In 2010, al Qaeda beheaded a French aid worker in a way that kind of foretold ISIS.

Nicolas Sarkozy at the time was president of France. He lashed out and said we're at war with al Qaeda, and al Qaeda responded that, "we're going to take you to the gates of hell", and there was some kind of propaganda back and forth.

In 2012, al Qaeda conquered the north of Mali, which is a huge, vast terrain. And in January, 2013, France intervened to try to stop that and try to rescue small towns like Timbuktu from the control of al Qaeda militants.

Ever since then, the French have been tracking jihadists and killing quite a lot of them with airstrikes. And jihadists have been striking back.

They kidnapped — Boko Haram kidnapped a French family. And north of Cameroon, al Qaeda struck a French uranium mine in Niger. There's been a lot of kidnappings.

MEGAN THOMPSON: There was also a Boko Haram suicide attack in Cameroon today. So, what does all of this tell us about how complex the fight is against Islamic extremism in Africa?

DREW HINSHAW: It's sort of an old trope in counterterrorism. It's a bit of whack-a-mole here.

French troops are in Central Africa Republican. They're in Niger. They're in Cameroon. They're in Chad. They're still in the Ivory Coast.

There's a longstanding base in Senegal. They're all over the north of Mali, which is the size of France. The country as a whole is twice the size of France.

This is a huge, vast distance, and it's really hard for me to see how France or even a small number of Western countries can police the world's largest desert.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Drew Hinshaw of The Wall Street Journal, thank you so much for joining us.

DREW HINSHAW: Thank you, too.

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