Azawad’s Facebook Warriors

The MNLA, Social Media, and the Malian Civil War

by Michael Keen (Author)
©2021 Monographs XIV, 182 Pages


In January 2012, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a group dominated by members of the Tuareg ethnic group, launched a military uprising seeking the independence of Mali’s vast but sparsely populated north as the democratic, secular nation-state of Azawad. Azawad’s Facebook Warriors tells the extraordinary story of a small group of social media activists who sought to broadcast the MNLA’s cause to the world. Azawad’s Facebook Warriors offers a groundbreaking new study of the MNLA’s use of social media through the original analysis of more than 8,000 pro-MNLA Facebook posts published over a four-year period and interviews with key architects of the MNLA’s media strategy. The book further places the MNLA’s social media activism in context through a nuanced treatment of northern Mali’s history and an unparalleled blow-by-blow account of the MNLA’s role in the Malian civil war from 2012 through 2015. More broadly, through the case study of the MNLA, the book argues that studying rebel social media communications, a field that has until now unfortunately received scant scholarly attention, will prove an increasingly important tool in understanding rebel groups in coming years and decades.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Key Acronyms
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Repression, Rebellion, and Nationalism: Northern Mali/Azawad Through 2011
  • From French Sudan to Mali
  • The Tuaregs and the Keita Regime: Rebellion and Repression
  • The Ishumar Generation: Drought, Emigration, and Territoriality
  • The 1990s: Revolution, Democracy, and Illusory Peace
  • The ATT Years: Simmering Rebellion and Institutional Decay
  • Chapter 2: War and Peace in Northern Mali/Azawad: The MNLA, October 2011–December 2015
  • The Nascent MNLA
  • War and Government Collapse: The MNLA’s High Tide
  • Jihadist Takeover
  • International Intervention
  • The Start of the Political Process
  • One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: Resurgence of Fighting
  • Renewed Push to a Peace Agreement
  • Enduring Conflict
  • Chapter 3: The MNLA on Facebook: Social Media Outreach by the Numbers
  • The MNLA on Social Media
  • The Pro-MNLA Facebook Community: Quantitative Methodology
  • Defining the Dataset: Accounts
  • Defining the Dataset: Posts
  • Posts Over Time: Results and Discussion
  • General Discussion and Conclusions
  • Chapter 4: A Comparative Look at the MNLA’s Use of Social Media
  • The 2011 Egyptian Revolution
  • The Islamic State
  • Parsing Structure and Agency in Social Media Use
  • Chapter 5: Dominant Pro-MNLA Discourse Frames and Identity on Facebook
  • Micro Discourse Analysis of Groups in the Middle East and Africa
  • Frames and Framing
  • The Genocidal State Frame: Construction
  • The Genocidal State Frame: Activation
  • The Anti-Jihadist Frame: Construction
  • The Anti-Jihadist Frame: Activation
  • The Long Struggle Frame: Construction
  • The Long Struggle Frame: Activation
  • Frames, Community, and Identity
  • Chapter 6: Sacred Visual Motifs in Pro-MNLA Facebook Discourse
  • Durkheim, the Sacred, and Symbolism
  • The Azawadian Flag
  • The Azawadian Woman
  • The Nomadic Lifestyle
  • The MNLA, Symbolic Motifs, Violence, and the Construction of a Society
  • Chapter 7: Mali Since 2015: A Failing Peace Process and the Death of the MNLA’s Ideology
  • The Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation
  • Implementing the Agreement: Comprehensive Failure, Payroll Peace
  • The Agreement as a Payroll Peace: Set Up to Fail
  • Post-Agreement Mali and the Death of the MNLA’s Political Ideology
  • Conclusion: Change Without Resolution
  • Appendix 1: Full Texts of Official Social Media Posts Referenced in Chapter 5
  • Appendix 2: Links to Selected Images Posted or Shared by Official Accounts Referenced in Chapter 6
  • Select Bibliography
  • Index


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This book has been well over two years in the making, and it would not have been possible without the contributions of a large number of people. First, I would like to thank Dr. Sam Cherribi and other faculty at Emory University for guiding me through the process of moving from hypothetical ideas to completed chapters; this work could not have been completed without you. Second, I owe a great deal to the members of the Carter Center’s Independent Observer team for introducing me to the ongoing conflict and peace process in Mali, and especially to Dr. John Goodman, who encouraged me to “wander off into the weeds” in my search to better understand events in Mali. My wandering eventually brought me to this book. Also at the Carter Center, Dr. Frédéric Deycard pointed me toward excellent scholarship on northern Mali’s Tuareg community. Finally, I want to thank my father for his Excel wizardry, my mother for reading through the entire manuscript, and all of my family for listening as I talked about the MNLA and Mali for hours on end. I could not have done it without you.


ON JANUARY 17, 2012, fighters affiliated with a group called the Mouvement national de libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) attacked army outposts around the city of Ménaka* in northeastern Mali. The MNLA, founded several months previously, was dominated by ethnic Tuaregs, a traditionally nomadic people found across a wide swath of the Sahara and Sahel regions of northwestern Africa. In Mali, various Tuareg groups had launched three previous armed rebellions against the Malian government since Mali won independence from France in 1960. ←1 | 2→However, the MNLA’s rebellion was radically different from its predecessors in at least two main respects. First, it was the first Tuareg-led rebellion to insist on the outright independence of Mali’s vast but sparsely populated northern region (as the state of Azawad), and the MNLA claimed to advocate on behalf of not just Tuaregs but of all allegedly marginalized populations in northern Mali/Azawad.§ Second, and perhaps more importantly, it was the first Tuareg-led rebellion in which the rebels attempted to carry their messages to national, regional, and international audiences via the Internet. In their media campaigns, MNLA officials and supporters utilized both traditional and social media; on social media, Facebook was the MNLA’s platform of choice.

At the onset of the armed rebellion in January 2012, the task before the MNLA was daunting. To have any hope of realizing its goal of a recognized, sovereign nation-state of Azawad, the MNLA would have to achieve military dominance at least over the territory it claimed as part of its state-to-be, an area larger than France. That would be just the beginning, though. Mali was an ally of the United States and France, and Western powers, then and now, do not have a track record of supporting secessionist movements against allies—South Sudan and Eritrea, two African states that managed to achieve independence through force of arms, were carved out of distinctly anti-Western states.1 To have any hope of achieving sufficient military dominance to make Azawad a de facto reality and achieving sufficient international acceptance to make Azawad a de jure state, the MNLA would have to do something even more challenging. The MNLA’s ideology represented something that had never been seen in the territory before, seeking to cut across traditional ethnic and tribal linkages to forge the disparate peoples of the territory into a modern nation-state. To borrow a concept from Benedict Anderson, to have any chance of succeeding in its struggle, the MNLA needed to successfully create a new imagined political community—one in which members were not tied to each other through traditional ethnic and tribal linkages but felt a sense of shared identity and solidarity nonetheless.2 To add another layer of complexity, this enterprise of community construction could not be limited to the physical territory the MNLA claimed for the state of Azawad. Instead, even before the MNLA’s ←2 | 3→formal founding, the movement was transnational: almost all of the MNLA’s top echelon of leaders and thinkers had spent significant amounts of time outside the territory claimed as Azawad, and the MNLA made conscious efforts to root itself among various diaspora communities in Africa, Europe, and throughout the rest of the world. This book focuses on a sub-section of the transnational community constituted by its members’ support for the MNLA and its struggle for an independent Azawadian nation-state, the pro-MNLA Facebook community.

Ultimately, the MNLA largely failed to accomplish each of these three necessary steps. On the ground in Azawad, the MNLA was militarily defeated by Al Qaeda-linked Islamist forces in May 2012 and would never again regain its military preeminence after the Islamists were chased underground by a French and Chadian-led military intervention in January 2013. Internationally, no other state recognized the state of Azawad following the MNLA’s declaration of independence in April 2012, and in the years since, even the MNLA has formally agreed to work within a political framework underlined by the territorial integrity of Mali. Finally, although it has attracted less international and scholarly attention than the previous two aspects, the MNLA failed in its enterprise to create a new imagined political community in Azawad. Traditional ethnic and tribal ties, never absent, reasserted themselves with a vengeance and once again dominate not just the nexus of guns, money, and political power in northern Mali/Azawad but also rhetoric on the part of an increasing number of local leaders.

If the MNLA failed to achieve its goals, why is it worthy of extended study? First, in the short term, the MNLA remains crucial for the future of northern Mali/Azawad. Azawad may not be becoming an independent state, but the MNLA retains significant political and military power in the territory and, as a major member of the peace process since 2015, retains, at the very least, de facto veto power over peace and development in the area. Understanding the MNLA and its ideology in its own words, a key goal of this book, is thus vital to restoring peace to the region. Second, in the long term, the MNLA’s political ideas and, more broadly, aspirations for the peoples of northern Mali/Azawad will endure even if the MNLA has not managed to weave the social fabric of Azawad into a new imagined community. As will be explored in subsequent chapters, previous armed rebellions in northern Mali influenced future generations of activists and fighters, and the rebellion spearheaded by the MNLA has already had an impact far greater than any previous rebellion. Many in northern Mali/Azawad are old enough to remember Mali’s independence in 1960 and the first northern rebellion in 1963. Many more will remember the MNLA, its leaders, and its ideas, for decades. Whatever the future has in store for northern Mali/Azawad, the MNLA, its ideas, and its aspirations will be present through popular memory. Third and ←3 | 4→most importantly for this book, the MNLA’s social media outreach campaign far beyond the borders of northern Mali/Azawad makes the movement worthy of scholarly attention. The idea that social media has changed the ways in which politics are and will be practiced is widely accepted. Until now, however, almost all scholarly studies of the use of social media by political movements have focused on nonviolent movements, mass mobilizing movements, or borderless terrorist groups. The MNLA, as a centrally organized, non-mass mobilizing, non-terrorist, territorially focused yet not territorially restricted (in participation or audience) group that made extensive, conscious use of social media, represents a unique species in the political aquarium.3 Studying the MNLA thus contributes to scholarly understanding of the ever-more diverse ways in which social media is harnessed by political movements.

The Book’s Timeframe of Study

The period with which this book is concerned is from the beginning of 2012 through the end of 2015. Although the MNLA’s military rebellion started on January 17, 2012, it does not have a neat endpoint. By April 2012, the MNLA had defeated the Malian army in northern Mali/Azawad to the point that the MNLA formally declared Azawad’s independence on April 6. However, in June, the MNLA was in turn militarily defeated by a collection of Islamist groups with ties to Al Qaeda, who took effective control of Azawad. The threat posed by these groups to central and southern Mali eventually prompted a French-led international military intervention in January 2013, forcing the Islamist groups underground and allowing the MNLA to make a partial resurgence. However, the international intervention, which resulted in a lasting French and United Nations troop presence on the ground in northern Mali/Azawad, was quickly followed by the start of a formal peace process between the MNLA and the Malian government. After two years of negotiations and sporadic fighting, in June 2015, the MNLA (by now part of an umbrella organization of pro-Azawadian secession groups), the Malian government, and a collection of anti-secession groups signed the Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation. In the Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation, the MNLA formally agreed to respect the territorial integrity of the state of Mali, meaning that the MNLA’s goal of Azawadian independence was, on paper at least, no more. However, the MNLA openly continued to harbor separatist aspirations. Furthermore, the Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation did not spell the end of fighting between the signatory groups in northern Mali/Azawad or any kind of improvement in the security climate of the area. Thus, the ←4 | 5→Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation is not entirely suitable as an end point for the MNLA’s rebellion. At time of writing, the peace process, now focused on implementing the Agreement, continues at a slow and inconsistent pace, and the MNLA remains a crucial player, both politically and militarily, in northern Mali/Azawad. As a result, any end point chosen for a study of the MNLA will inevitably be arbitrary. Choosing the close of 2015 as the endpoint of this book’s survey of the pro-MNLA Facebook community attempts to acknowledge that the Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation did represent a major shift in the military and political conflict in northern Mali/Azawad while at the same time capturing the fact that many of the conflict’s chief points of contention were not settled with the Agreement.

The Book’s Layout

This book aims to examine how MNLA communications officials and other MNLA supporters used Facebook as a public-facing platform during the period from January 2012 through December 2015. It takes both quantitative and qualitative approaches. Quantitatively, it draws on a newly created dataset of Facebook posts by both MNLA communications officials and other MNLA supporters to explore types of content posted by public MNLA-linked Facebook accounts and how their patterns of posting responded to offline events of relevance to the MNLA. Qualitatively, it draws on textual analysis of select Facebook posts to examine the predominant narrative frames constructed and activated by pro-MNLA Facebook posters during this period, as well as key symbolic visual motifs in images and videos posted by pro-MNLA Facebook users.


XIV, 182
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (July)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. XIV, 182 pp., 14 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Michael Keen (Author)

Michael Keen (BA, Emory University; MLitt, University of St. Andrews) is an analyst whose work focuses on security issues in the Sahel. He has published work on Mali’s recent conflicts in numerous outlets, including Small Wars Journal and Afkar.


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