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Mali Hotel Terror Attack: What to Know About Ex-French Colony

Mali is a former French colony that has wrestled with Islamist insurgents in recent years.
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The hotel hostage crisis in Mali took place 2,600 miles from Paris but the former French colony has already been targeted by terrorists angry at France for its campaigns against Islamic militant groups including ISIS.

France still has troops in the African state after it launched a military operations against Islamic extremists in the north of the country in 2013.

Here's what to know about Mali — and why some believe France and its Western allies were the wider target of Friday's hotel assault.

Who is behind the latest attack?

A collection of militant groups are based in Mali, mainly the north. Alex Kassirer, of terrorism analysts Flashpoint Intelligence, said there was chatter indicating that an al Qaeda-affiliated group in Mali, Al-Murabitoune, has claimed credit for storming the hotel but there has been no official declaration of responsibility.

Al-Mourabitoune, headed by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, was responsible for a 2013 attack on a natural gas plant in neighboring Algeria that it said was in response to French military intervention.

Friday's attack comes just days after the Iyad Ag Ghaly, the leader of another al Qaeda-linked militant group Ansar Dine, called for attacks on France and its interests in Mali. It also comes less than one week after the French government declared it was "at war" with terrorism in the wake of the Paris massacre.

There is nothing to suggest the hotel attack was directly connected to the Paris atrocities, for which ISIS claimed responsibility. However, as ISIS steps up its attacks around the world other terror groups will be feeling the pressure to pull of their own attacks in order not to lose potential recruits and funding to ISIS, according to Josh Meservey, an Africa analyst at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.

Why is France still involved in Mali?

Following a military coup in 2012, Islamic extremists took control of the country's north, prompting a French-led military intervention in early 2013.

With the help of the French military, the extremists were forced from northern towns and cities, but the region remains insecure and militant attacks have extended farther south this year. Ethnic Tuareg secessionists are now in an uncertain shaky peace process with the government but Islamists have been resurgent in last couple of years, according to Heritage's Meservey, frequently attacking the Malian army and U.N. mission.

In response to Friday's hostage crisis, France dispatched 50 elite counter-terrorism police to the country. About 1,000 French troops remain stationed in Mali.

The Netherlands also has troops working with the UN mission in Mali. According to the Dutch defense ministry, some 450 Dutch military personnel are taking part in the mission along with four Apache and three Chinook helicopters.

How secure is Mali?

Advice to Americans from the State Department indicates the perilous security situation in Mali.

Terrorists have increased their rhetoric calling for more attacks or kidnappings on westerners and others, “particularly those linked to support for international military intervention,” in recent months, it warns. On March 7, an armed attack on a nightclub led to the death of a French citizen, a Belgian, and three Malians, it added.

Britain’s Foreign Office is even more blunt. “There is a high threat from terrorism. Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places frequented by expatriates and foreign travelers,” it says.

While the worsening security situation puts foreigners at risk it endangers locals most of all, said Andrew Lebovich, a fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations focusing on North Africa and the Sahel.

"Malian civilians are paying a high price for the general instability and jihadist attacks," he said. "This matters because innocent people suffer from these problems and innocent people continue to suffer."

Where is Mali?

Covering around 480,000 square miles, the West African nation is the eighth largest country on the continent, although its population is just 14.5 million.

The landlocked country, which shares borders with seven countries including Algeria and Nigeria, is made up eight regions. The north of the country reaches into the Sahara Desert.

Bamako is the capital and the largest, with a population of 1.8 million.

According to the World Bank 43.6 per cent of the population live below the poverty line and life expectancy is just 55 years.

What is Mali’s history?

The area now constituting Mali was once part of “three famed West African empires that controlled the trans-Saharan trade in gold, salt, and other precious commodities,” according to the Library of Congress, Federal Research Division.

“The earliest of these empires was the Ghana Empire,” they said, adding that it was later controlled by Soninke Kings, before Malinke ruler Sundiata Keita led a Mande revolt and unified a vast region of Western Sudan into the Mali empire.

Mande rulers adopted Islam fairly early and under the Mali empire the ancient cities of Djenne and Timbuktu became major centers of trade and Islamic learning.

When did French influence begin in Mali?

In the late 19th-century France seized control of what is now modern day Mali and made it part of French Sudan, according to Marie Rodet, a senior lecturer and expert on Mali at SOAS, a London-based university which specializes in studies on Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Related: U.S. Military Personnel Assisting Mali Hostage Rescue

From then on “there was a French civil administration functioning in Mali,” she said. Mali — then known as French Sudan — united with Senegal to become the Mali Federation in the late 1950s. In June 1960 they declared their independence from France.

Just two months later Senegal withdrew from the federation and the independent republic of Mali was born, Rodet added.

What happened after the country secured its independence?

Modibo Keita was elected as the country’s first president and he quickly established a one-party state with a socialist orientation, implementing extensive nationalization and driving the country away from their former French rulers towards Soviet Union influence, said Rodet.

“In November 1968, a group of junior army officers led by Lieutenant Moussa Traoré overthrew the Keïta regime in a bloodless coup and established a 14-member Military Committee for National Liberation with Traoré as president,” according to Library of Congress.

He would lead the country until 1991 when pro-democracy movements gathered strength and he was overthrown and arrested.

Shortly afterwards new constitution was drawn up, legalizing opposition parties and the country has had three democratically elected presidents until a military coup saw its current leader Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, installed.