Bamako: 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 maÃ®tre 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.