Gunmen stalked guests through Mali hotel as staff struggled to save them
BAMAKO, Mali – The early breakfast crowd sipped coffee and picked at croissants in the Radisson Blu's dining room, swiping through emails and the morning headlines on their smartphones.
Outside the luxury hotel, the dusty, red-earth streets were coming alive with traffic, the whine of motorbikes mixed with the rumble of minibus taxis amid the bustle of one of Africa's fastest-growing cities.
Five hotel security guards were just finishing the overnight shift and about to make the handoff to their dayside colleagues. Another night, another "Rien a signaler" (French for "Nothing to report"). As one of the guards would later say, "We weren't concentrating."
That was the precise moment the attackers were waiting for on the morning of Nov. 20.
Two men with Kalashnikov assault rifles and explosives ran toward the guards at 6:50 a.m., surprising them with a burst of automatic fire that felled four of them, one fatally. The only guard to escape unhurt, Cheick Dabo, took cover by diving under a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
It was the beginning of the bloodiest jihadi attack ever in Mali's capital, and the latest high-profile one in Africa, which has been hit by extremist violence in countries like Somalia, Nigeria, Niger, Algeria and Kenya.
Within the next few hours, the two attackers and 20 victims would be dead. Coming just a week after the Paris massacre, it was a shocking reminder that extremist violence haunts not only the Middle East but also Europe, Africa, Asia, North America and other lands.
The gunfire outside the hotel struck instant terror among the nearly 150 guests and staff members at the Radisson, considered one of Bamako's best-guarded hotels. The guests included not only Malians but Chinese, Belgians, Indians, Turks and Russians who were there for another day of meetings — some about Mali's fragile peace process, others on multibillion-dollar railway projects.
The attackers stormed the main entrance with weapons blazing. Just past the glass doors, staff and guests in the marble-floored lobby were overrun. With the attackers firing wildly, the body count mounted quickly.
Tambacouye "Tamba" Diarra, a maître d' in the restaurant, saw a gunman coming toward him and ran. As he fled, he grabbed a guest returning from his morning jog and dragged him to safety outside.
One attacker rushed the rapidly emptying breakfast dining area, while his partner stormed into the kitchen. A waitress there screamed, sparking a panic.
"They are attacking us! They are attacking us!" she wailed, remembered hotel cook Mohammed Coulibaly.
The cook began to shepherd as many people as he could out of the kitchen and down a hallway. As they ran, they could hear gunshots behind them.
The gunfire echoed upstairs, the sound bouncing off the circular staircase and interior balconies facing the building's central atrium. Terrified guests cowered in many of the seven-story hotel's 190 rooms.
Back outside, the first news alerts were flashing across TVs worldwide: a possible new slaughter, one week after the Paris attacks that killed 130 people.
Terrified guests packed into an elevator in a bid to flee, but their weight was too much, and the doors wouldn't close. The gunmen fired mercilessly on those huddled inside.
"I knelt down covering my face, then I crawled like a snake to a corner" of the elevators, Leon Aharrh Gnama, a Togo native and guest, told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. "One by one the others were falling on top of me. They were soaking me with their blood. I heard them struggle to breathe, in agony, say some words, shout. They were dying and saving my life" at the same time.
At 7:45 a.m., Wu Zhiqi was hurrying downstairs for breakfast to join the three Chinese executives he worked for as a translator on a railway project, but when the doors to the elevator he was in opened, he spotted a man carrying an assault rifle and bodies on the ground.
Alone in the elevator, he managed to close the doors, then scrambled back to his room and locked himself in the bathroom, where he tried via text message to reach his bosses, probably already dead in the dining room. He was rescued hours later.
Local police arrived first, between 7:30 and 7:45 a.m. Lightly armed and not trained for counterterrorism operations, they rushed into the hotel but were no match for the killers. Police tossed several flash-bang grenades to try to stun the attackers but were forced to retreat. More police arrived, advancing slowly on the hotel behind the cover of a blue armored vehicle.
A group of six U.S. military personnel arrived shortly afterward, and by 8 a.m. they were seen entering the hotel. Meanwhile, Malian special forces wearing full battle gear and armed with Kalashnikovs sealed off the hotel and readied an assault.
Guests dashed for the exits, one by one or in small groups. Little by little, the number trapped inside dwindled. A group of about 20 made a mass escape just before 9 a.m. Others trapped higher in the building began a torturous hours-long wait in their rooms as the attackers methodically hunted victims floor by floor.
France, Mali's former colonial overlord, dispatched about 40 of its special forces based in neighboring Burkina Faso. They arrived at 2 p.m., descending in a helicopter close to the hotel.
The international involvement in the operation underscored how many countries have troops in Mali to help contain the jihadi threat, including the Netherlands and Germany. Despite those efforts, Mali remains a weak state with porous borders, uncontrolled spaces and a variety of extremist groups that seem to be competing to carry out spectacular attacks.
The 20 dead came from seven countries and included a 41-year-old American development worker and three officials from a Chinese railway company, suggesting the wide range of roles foreigners are playing in Mali as the country attempts to recover from a 2012 coup and the temporary seizure of northern Mali by jihadis over two years ago.
The other victims were six Russian employees of a cargo company; six Malians, including several hotel employees; two Belgians; one Israeli; and one Senegalese, said Mali's interior ministry.
Around 3:30 p.m., Malian commandos launched an assault to capture or kill the gunmen and rescue those inside. As the commandos advanced quickly to the third floor, some with attack dogs straining at their leashes, frightened guests relied on a password — the maître d's nickname — confided to them by the front desk, Diarra said.
"We told guests who called the reception that if the person at the door said the word 'Tamba,' they can open it," he said.
The attackers' last stand came at 4 p.m. on the third floor. French commandos and Malian troops combined forces and managed to kill both gunmen. Then the troops ascended to the upper floors in a painstaking, room-to-room clearing operation.
Wearing a bulletproof vest supplied by police, Diarra helped police distinguish guests from possible attackers trying to escape.
Gnama, the guest from Togo who survived under a pile of bodies in the elevator, said he emerged from his gory hiding spot only after the soldiers arrived. When he saw so many corpses in front of the check-in area, he said, "I believe I fainted."
Robbie Corey-Boulet in Abidjan, Ivory Coast; Sylvie Corbet in Paris; Yu Bing in Beijing; and Frances d'Emilio in Rome contributed to this report.