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Azawad’s Facebook Warriors

The MNLA, Social Media, and the Malian Civil War


Michael Keen

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.
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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...

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