The scene shortly after a violent attack that left at least 134 people dead and dozens more wounded, which according to witnesses was carried out by the ethnic Dogon militia who descended on Ogossogou village, Mali, early Saturday March 23, 2019.  François Delattre, the president of the U.N. Security Council who spoke in Mali's capital on Saturday, condemned the massacre as an "unspeakable attack." (Tabital Pulaaku via AP)
Hundreds killed in attack on Fulani villagers in Mali
01:17 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

The massacre left the village in smoldering ruins.

In shaky cell phone video seen by CNN, a witness stepped gingerly over ruined homes and around still-burning vehicles in Ogossagou, central Mali. Towards the end of the clip, a small body laid lifeless in the dirt.

All told, 134 people were killed in Saturday’s brutal assault targeting the Fulani ethnic minority, which has been accused of having ties to jihadist organizations in the area.

Many of the victims, according to the United Nations, were women and children.

The UN said armed men, reportedly dressed as hunters, came before dawn and attacked the villagers with guns and machetes.

The French ambassador to the United Nations called it an “unspeakable act.”

The scale of the attack is horrifying, but the escalation of violence in central Mali shouldn’t be a surprise.

Ethnic tensions and jihad insurgency

A jihadist insurgency spread into the north and center of Mali in 2012, and foreign troops and the government have been unable to fully regain control over large regions of the landlocked West African country.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) says that groups affiliated with al Qaeda and ISIS have moved deeper into central Mali, exploiting existing ethnic divisions and sowing chaos.

Due to the lack of government security, so-called self-defense units of Dogon or Bambara ethnic groups – such as the Dogon Dan Na Ambassagou, whose name means “Hunters who trust in God” – have sprung up.

Troops from the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali

Saturday’s massacre is the latest, and most serious, in a series of attacks possibly linked to self-defense groups.

In December, HRW released a report that collated more than 200 civilian deaths in 2018 in Mali’s Mopti region and warned that communal violence was rapidly increasing there.

Much of the violence is between the so-called self-defense units – from communities who traditionally depend on agriculture – and the Fulani herding population. The Fulani are a key pool of recruitment for the jihadi groups, according to the UN and HRW.

Last year HRW accused Dan Na Ambassagou of targeting members of the Fulani group in attacks that “led to dozens of civilian deaths and injuries.”

Dan Na Ambassagou was disbanded on Sunday by Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar and the Council of Ministers, according to a government communique, which did not note whether this group was to blame for the attack in Ogossagou.

The council made the accusation that Dan Na Ambassagou had “departed from its initial objectives, despite repeated warnings from local administrative authorities.”

Corinne Dufka, HRW’s West Africa Associate Director, told CNN that the violence in Mali was underscored by “ongoing tension over land and water between herders and cultivators but also by the growing presence of armed Islamist groups who … have committed very serious atrocities and targeted members of the Dogon group.”

Dufka said that Dan Na Ambassagou “has been attacked by armed Islamists and then they engage in lethal reprisals, including the one that occurred yesterday.”

Saturday’s attack is the latest escalation of a cycle of violence that has spiraled out of control.

Peace-keeping efforts

Last week, several Malian soldiers were killed in a coordinated attack in Dioura village. Earlier this month the UN says a booby-trapped corpse killed 10 mourners at a Dogon funeral.

A delegation from the UN Security Council was in the country meeting with leaders when Saturday’s massacre happened – trying to implement a 2015 peace accord.

The UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA, is its most dangerous operation globally; 191 troops from the mission have been killed since it was formed in 2013. Their bases are routinely attacked, their soldiers frequently hit by IEDs.

But insecurity is by no means isolated to Mali. Large swaths of the Sahel region are destabilized by inter-community conflict and terror groups.

The United States has significant boots on the ground in the region, primarily in Niger, where the US operates a significant drone base in Agadez.

The ground presence, particularly of Special Operations Forces, came to the attention of the public when four US servicemen were killed in a deadly ambush in Niger in late 2017.

There are around 1,200 troops under Special Operations Command Africa in around a dozen countries – usually in an advisory role to African militaries combating terrorist groups.

But the Pentagon announced late last year that it planned on drawing down its troop presence on the continent.

That reduction and the ongoing violence in the Sahel has led many experts to speculate that the threat to civilians and to the wider world will get worse, not better.