Suspected jihadists have killed one police officer and wounded two army officers in the southern Malian town of Misséni, near the border with Ivory Coast.
Around 30 jihadists arrived in Misséni at approxomately 2:00am Wednesday, attacking the small town's police headquarters and killing police chief Bassiaka Koné. After setting fire to the police base, insurgents briefly occupied the local army camp, forcing soldiers to flee.
The attack lasted three hours, and insurgents left the town around 5am, after torching two army vehicles and hoisting their black flag over the camp. According to reports, the army sent back-up from the region's capital Sikasso, and peace had returned to the area by midday.
This is the first attack of its kind this far south, and much of the unrest has so far been confined to the north and center of the country.
"Jihadists launch these attacks to make their presence known and to create a buzz," explained Pierre Boilley, director of the Institute of the African Worlds (Institut des Mondes Africains — IMAF). Speaking to VICE News Thursday, Boilley described the attack as a "communications" exercise. Insurgents, he said, "want to show that they can strike anywhere, North or South."
There are several violent extremist Islamist groups active in Mali, and it is not yet clear which group the gunmen are associated with. Reuters reported that the insurgents had arrived in Misséni on motorbikes, armed with Kalashnikovs and shouting "Allahu Akbar." A source quoted by AFP said the men could have entered Mali from neighboring Ivory Coast, traveling first by car, then on motorcycles and on foot.
According to a local resident, the insurgents retreated around 5am, leaving behind a Koran and a piece of paper on which they had written "Ansar Deen" — a jihadist group active in northern Mali, under the command of Tuareg militant Iyad Ag Ghali. Le Républicain reported that the note read "Ansar Deen South," implying the existence of a southern branch of the rebel group.
But for Boilley, Ansar Dine is not the only suspect in the attack.
"For now, no one knows who it was, especially since no one has claimed the attack," he said. Boilley's contacts in Mali told him that, "The attackers weren't "red," [a word sometimes used to describe white people in Mali]. And most members of Ansar Dine are Tuareg ["red"]." Boilley said MUJAO or Boko Haram could be to blame for the early morning raid.
Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) is an al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) splinter group that is active in northern Mali. MUJAO formed in 2011 and took control of Gao, northern Mali's largest city, the following year.
In January 2013, France launched operation Serval, a military operation whose goal was to rid northern Mali of jihadist militants and take back control of Gao, an Islamist stronghold. In July 2014, Serval was replaced with operation Barkhane, an anti-Islamist campaign across Africa's Sahel region, including Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso.
Since the start of 2015, insurgents have widened their field of operation and the unrest has spread to the South.
"Jihadist groups have not yet been pushed out of the north, and continue to strike here," said Boilley.
In early January, insurgent raids against an army base in Nampala, in central Mali, killed eight Malian troops. The attack — the first one south of Timbuktu since the start of the unrest — was eventually claimed by AQIM.
In March, al-Mourabitoun, an al Qaeda-linked group formed by AQIM chief Mokhtar Belmokhtar — claimed responsibility for a deadly attack on a restaurant in Mali's capital, Bamako, in the southwest of the country. A masked gunmen entered La Terrasse and opened fire on the crowd, killing five people, including three Malians, a Frenchman and a Belgian man.
In April, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report noting that violent crime was on the rise in both northern and central Mali, where a new Islamist armed group — the Macina Liberation Movement — has been carrying out a wave of deadly attacks since January 2015.
Macina, a region in central Mali, also refers to a 19th-century theocratic Muslim Fulani state in the Inner Niger Delta area, today known as Mali's Mopti and Ségou regions. According to experts and local media outlets, Ansar Dine chief Iyad Ag Ghali could also be heading up the new movement.
Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter @PLongeray