It was just half an hour past sunrise on a Friday in Bamako, Mali. The two men who had been lounging on some suitcases at a curb across the street from the Radisson Blu Hotel stood up, pulled AK-47s out of their luggage, and started shooting people.
The acting Regional Security Officer (RSO) for the U.S. Embassy — a Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) Special Agent — was just getting up when his phone rang a few minutes later. His Local Guard Force coordinator was calling with news that the popular hotel downtown had been invaded by terrorists. Before the morning of November 20, 2015, was over, the DSS agent would rally four other Americans and they would fight through smoke, bullets, hand grenades, and indecision to bring as many as 18 people out alive and unharmed.
The second bit of news the DSS agent got that morning was especially worrisome. A State Department contractor was inside the hotel, pinned down in an area that was filling with acrid smoke. The terrorists had spotted him outside and gave chase as he fled back into the hotel and up to a second-floor restaurant. He hid beneath the breakfast buffet with only a tablecloth between him and the killers. The terrorists loosed bursts of bullets all around the dining room, then began piling furniture and anything that would burn in the center. They set the pile ablaze with Sterno cans taken from the buffet table and charged out, torching draperies as they left. In the kitchen area, the gunmen murdered people huddled in offices. One group fled into a service elevator. The gunmen found them there and fired bursts into the crowd until everyone seemed dead. Fleeing the dining room a few minutes later, the contractor hid himself in the kitchen, where smoke was so dense that he could not see the bodies.
“I SAID, ‘GUYS, WE’RE READY TO GO.’ THE FIVE OF US STACKED UP OUTSIDE THE DOOR. NO ONE ELSE HAD GONE INSIDE THAT HOTEL WHEN WE WENT IN THE FIRST TIME. YOU COULD SMELL SMOKE.”
Outside the hotel, fire alarms wailed and bursts of automatic weapons fire could be heard. The acting RSO had grabbed his gear and assembled an ad-hoc team of five responders — himself, another Assistant Regional Security Officer (ARSO) from the embassy, and three U.S. Department of Defense personnel. While local police on the outside considered what to do and waited for reinforcements, the embassy responders went in. They crossed an open atrium that left them exposed to attack from above, then climbed the smoke-shrouded spiral staircase and pushed into the restaurant.
One member of the RSO’s team recalled what happened next: A team member flashed the light attached to his rifle into the smoke, hoping to signal to the hidden staffer. “We were yelling and couldn’t hear him. Smoke was too thick and we didn’t have emergency breathers with us. ‘Can you see the light? Can you see the light?’” No answer. “I called the embassy and said, ‘Can you patch me through to him?’ They did.”
“Where are you?”
“‘I’m in the office of the kitchen and my legs don’t work.’”
“He’d been crunched in a position, hiding so long that his legs were asleep. ‘Need you to come out to where we are. Come towards me.’ He saw the light. We grabbed him, got him out, sat him down. ‘Gotta be ready to go. Hold on to the guy in front of you.’”
Moments later they were outside again and safe, but not done. Although the streets were crowded with more local police and Malian soldiers, only the DS/Department of Defense team had actually entered the building. Now came word that more Americans were still trapped. Embassy staffers had been working the phones furiously and had talked to many of them in their rooms. One of the agents used a pen from the Radisson to write their room numbers on his arm. Then the responders regrouped and went in for the second time. This time the team had to make their way to the fifth floor.
They were searching by room number. At first, they kicked in doors, then they used a ram borrowed from a Malian policeman, and finally were given a master key. A U.S. Defense Department employee was hiding in one room, two African women in another. Then, in a stairwell, the team ran into sustained automatic fire pouring down from above. They fired back, and the gunman above responded with two grenades lobbed down the stairwell. The potentially lethal stalemate ended for the Americans when Malian police were convinced to take over the position on the stair landing so the Americans could resume the search.
The team brought out everyone they found, including another American, a Turkish Airlines flight attendant, and a Russian. But they could not rescue all. Behind that door, wedged in tight in the spot where he fell, was the body of a foreign parliamentarian who had been shot point blank in the face.
The crisis ultimately was resolved late that afternoon when French special forces arrived and, along with Malian anti-terrorism units, killed the two terrorists in a final firefight on an upper floor.
One American development worker was among those who died when the gunmen opened fire in the kitchen. As many as 11 more Americans, both embassy staff and others, escaped that morning with the help of the DS-organized response team. An estimated five to seven foreign citizens were helped to safety, as well.