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Azawad’s Facebook Warriors

The MNLA, Social Media, and the Malian Civil War

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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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Chapter 1: Repression, Rebellion, and Nationalism: Northern Mali/Azawad Through 2011

Extract

We have behaved like madmen in Africa.

—French president Félix Faure, 18981

FÉLIX FAURE WAS REFERRING to a confrontation with British colonial forces in modern-day South Sudan that nearly brought France and Britain to war. However, that event was simply the culmination of years of an uncertain French colonial policy that saw French armies marching across the African interior with few clear orders and goals beyond obtaining combat experience for ambitious young officers at the expense of the people living in their paths.2 Nevertheless, the arrival of French armies in what is today northern Mali disrupted traditional society, organized and mobilized based on ethnic, tribal, and racial identities and classifications, and by the time France left Mali in 1960, a new mobilizing force had emerged: nationalism.

The rise of nationalism in Mali spawned new contentions, and over the course of the half-century between 1960 and the formation of the MNLA in late 2011, northern Mali experienced three serious uprisings against the Malian state. Each uprising was distinguished by the actors involved, the goals of the rebels, and the results of the rebellion. However, each, combined with two cataclysmic droughts, contributed to the development of a strain of northern Malian nationalism that sought the national independence of northern Mali in the name of all the peoples of the north, to be achieved by armed struggle against the Malian state in northern ←9 | 10→Mali. However, this strain of nationalism could neither eradicate nor...

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