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Azawad’s Facebook Warriors

The MNLA, Social Media, and the Malian Civil War

Series:

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 3: The MNLA on Facebook: Social Media Outreach by the Numbers

Extract

We, the MNLA, are one of the movements that has best utilized social networks … to lend visibility to [our] political project.

—Mossa Ag Attaher, MNLA Chargé for Communication1

FROM ITS INCEPTION in late 2011, the MNLA was determined to make use of new electronic means of communicating with the world. The MNLA leadership understood that a primary reason behind the failure of previous Tuareg rebellions, starting with the first uprising in 1963, was a lack of public outreach and mobilization, and they were determined that their movement would be different.2 Unlike in 1963, when the only reliable and accessible means of communication in northern Mali was person-to-person, by 2011, cellular and satellite phones were common, if not universal, in northern Mali, and the Internet offered unprecedented platforms for outreach and mobilization.3 Accordingly, the MNLA’s leadership began formulating plans for media outreach well before the onset of the armed rebellion in January 2012. In 2011, almost immediately after its founding, the group created an official website (www.mnlamov.net) and press service (Toumast Press). Access to Toumast Press was quickly censored in Mali.4 In addition, the MNLA sought to grow its presence in European media. Many of its spokesmen, including Mossa Ag Attaher, Moussa Ag Assarid, and Hama Ag Sid’Ahmed, were already based in Europe and were relatively well known, especially but not exclusively within ←53 | 54→the Tuareg diaspora community.5 They subsequently got many interviews aired on French and other European media outlets. From northern Mali/Azawad, designated, official...

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