Who was behind the Bamako hotel attack?

JUDY WOODRUFF: The siege today in the capital city of Mali lasted all day before ending this evening. Islamist gunmen burst into a hotel and seized up to 170 hostages, many of them foreigners. In the end, scores of hostages were rescued or escaped, but the estimates of the dead ranged from 19 to at least 27, plus two attackers.

And the State Department said one American was among those killed.

The attack on the Radisson Blu brought security forces on the run early this morning. Mali's Defense Ministry said extremists armed with guns and grenades stormed the luxury hotel in Bamako just as guests were beginning their day.

MAN (through interpreter): At this moment, this morning around 7:30, individuals not yet identified, about three or four, we believe, so far, attacked the Radisson Blu hotel. Sadly, there are deaths. People must remain calm.

JUDY WOODRUFF: By some accounts, the attackers carjacked a diplomatic vehicle, drove up to the hotel, and stormed inside. Witnesses said they shouted Islamist slogans and went room by room, asking guests if they could recite verses of the Koran. Those who could were let go.

Early on, the owner of the hotel said the assailants locked in as many as 140 guests and 30 employees. Hours later, Malian special forces stormed the hotel themselves, freeing hostages one floor at a time.

MAN (through interpreter): The soldiers were very professional. They took good care of us. They came to us. They knocked. They said: "It's the security forces." And then I looked. It was them. I left the room. They cleared the whole floor.

MAN (through interpreter): I heard gunshots very early in the morning. I thought it was firecrackers and didn't realize it was a hostage situation. At one point, the Malian forces came to get us. They knocked on our doors and evacuated us in small groups. Thank God we're safe.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At least six Americans were evacuated during the operation, with U.S. and French special forces assisting the Malians.

A jihadist group previously affiliated with al-Qaida, al-Murabitun, claimed responsibility for the attack.

In Paris, French President Francois Hollande vowed to help the former French colony.

PRESIDENT FRANCOIS HOLLANDE, France (through interpreter): Terrorists entered a hotel in Bamako and have taken hostages. Once again, terrorists want to make their barbaric presence felt everywhere, where they can kill, where they can massacre. So, we should once again show our solidarity with our ally, Mali.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Back in Mali, officials announced this evening that the siege of the Radisson Blu had finally ended.

For more on the attack in Mali, we turn to retired Lieutenant Colonel Rudolph Atallah. He served as Africa counterterrorism director at the Defense Department. He's currently a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a nonprofit think tank. He is also chief executive officer of a security consulting firm.

Rudolph Atallah, welcome to the program.

So, based on what you have learned so far, who do you think was behind this?

RUDOLPH ATALLAH, Atlantic Council: Well, it's still unclear. It's going to take time to really reveal that, but some news agencies are claiming it's Al-Murabitun.

Al-Murabitun is — was headed by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an individual that was targeted by U.S. operations back in June, presumably killed, but certain contacts say that he is still alive. Nobody really knows for sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And who is this group? What is — connected to al-Qaida?

RUDOLPH ATALLAH: This group is an offshoot of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

And Mokhtar Belmokhtar has been trying to very hard to link directly to al-Qaida central and break away from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and try to run things himself. In August, he was — the Shura Council made him emir of the group.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Shura Council being?

RUDOLPH ATALLAH: For the Murabitun.

And then shortly after, a couple of days later, the group rebranded itself to al-Qaida of the Jihad. Instead of A.Q. in West Africa, they call themselves the al-Qaida of Jihad.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And why would he be trying to get closer to al-Qaida central?

RUDOLPH ATALLAH: Because he believes that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has not been doing a very good job in going after key targets.

This is the man that was responsible for the attack in Algeria January 2013 on the gas plants, in which we saw 699 people released and 37 Western hostages killed. And this attack looks eerily similar in a way where they come in and ask people to recite the Shahada. And if they can recite it, then they let them go.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meaning part of the Koran.

RUDOLPH ATALLAH: Correct.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What's the motivation here? What does he, what does this group want?

RUDOLPH ATALLAH: Well, in one part, this group initially was trying to bring people to themselves, because they're fearful that many of these young jihadis would be — would branch away and go to ISIS or Da'esh.

So they made a push for that and also want to show themselves capable of, you know, reinstating what Mali lost in the north. Remember that Northern Mali was under Islamist rule until the French intervened in January 2013, so they're looking for that state.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just quickly, Rudolph Atallah, a competition with ISIS going on here?

RUDOLPH ATALLAH: Well, that's — it's yet to be determined.

Of course, both groups are opposite of each other in terms of — well, in part, some of the ideology is different, but their motivation is — what they want is similar, essentially having that caliphate. But there may be some competition happening there, but it's yet to be determined.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, they certainly have gotten our attention in a very bad way today.

Rudolph Atallah of the Atlantic Council, we thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you.

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