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Who Is Behind The Mali Attack?

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A state of emergency's been declared in Mali as security forces search for more than three suspects responsible for yesterday's deadly attack. Gunmen stormed the Radisson Blu hotel in the capital and took more than 170 hostages and killed at least 19 people. Two separate al-Qaida affiliates have claimed responsibility. Geoff Porter is president of North Africa Risk Consulting. He joins us from New York. Mr. Porter, thanks for being with us.

GEOFF PORTER: Hey, good morning, Scott. How are you?

SIMON: What can you tell us about these two groups who've apparently claimed responsibility?

PORTER: Well, it's a really interesting dynamic that's taking place right now. The two groups are a AQIM - al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb - and Al-Mourabitoun, which broke off from AQIM in September or October of 2012. So the fact that the two groups are claiming a credit for what they called a joint operation seems to suggest that there is some, you know, fluidity to the jihadi landscapes in the Sahara.

SIMON: Do the groups have any relationship to ISIS, even if it's just to be inspired, if I might use that word, by them?

PORTER: Interestingly, no. You know, there is a real schism in the jihadi community right now where you have groups that are either aligned with Islamic State or they align themselves with al-Qaida. And they often don't switch back and forth. So the two groups that carried out the attack in Bamako have both pledged allegiance to al-Qaida. Now, they have made, you know, comments here and there suggesting that they support the Islamic State or they support the Islamic State's efforts. But they are not allied or they haven't pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. So what - I think what we're seeing, actually, is competition amongst jihadi groups to outbid each other or to demonstrate that they are the lead jihadi organization, whether it's al-Qaida or whether it's the Islamic State.

SIMON: Let me try and underscore this. Are ISIS and al-Qaida in some kind of grisly competition to expand their reach and make their name by killing people?

PORTER: I think that's entirely right. You have two organizations - al-Qaida and Islamic State - that are embracing similar ideologies and that are competing for the support and loyalty of a finite constituency - you know, would-be jihadi sympathizers. So one of the ways that, I think you - if you are a jihadi organization, one of the ways that you demonstrate that you are the organization to join is you undertake increasingly sensationalist, increasingly deadly, increasingly grisly attacks. And it's - in terrorism studies, it's called the outbidding, where the groups try to outbid one another to the level of violence.

SIMON: Mr. Porter, I'm sorry if this sounds naive. Why do they want to extend their name beyond their own region? Why attacks in other areas of the world?

PORTER: Well, I mean, I think there's always been a jihadi element in North Africa and in the Sahara. And to a certain extent, when, you know, operations in your historic area of activity become too difficult, either because the targets have been depleted or because the targets have been hardened or because your operations are under constant surveillance, which makes it difficult for you to undertake operations, you start to move to areas that are more accommodating, where the, you know, the quote, unquote, "barriers to entry" are lower. And as we know, you know, security in Bamako is not very good. Security in other parts of North Africa and the Sahara have been intensified. So maybe you find the softer target.

SIMON: Geoff Porter is president of the North Africa Risk Consulting group. Mr. Porter, thanks so much for being with us, sir.

PORTER: My pleasure, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.