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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 6: Sacred Visual Motifs in Pro-MNLA Facebook Discourse

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A GROUP OF TUAREG WOMEN marched through the streets of Kidal chanting pro-MNLA slogans, waving Azawadian flags, and carrying banners—and making sure to smile for the cameras.

One of the most fundamental ways in which social media has revolutionized communications is the way in which it has allowed the diffusion of non-text forms of communication, especially videos and images. In the pro-MNLA Facebook community, images played important roles in communications and interactions between members of the community. Images do many things words cannot, and pro-MNLA images were no exception. First and foremost, images can act as symbols, visual representations of broader ideas. This chapter argues that the most prevalent motifs found in images posted by the pro-MNLA Facebook community from 2012 to 2015 are imbued with such strong symbolic meaning that, to borrow a concept from sociologist Emile Durkheim, they attain sacred status; the thinking behind this argument is articulated first.1 Next, the chapter examines the three most prevalent such symbolic motifs and how each served to complement other key elements of pro-MNLA Facebook discourse, most notably the three frames discussed in the previous chapter. Subsequently, the chapter explores what these sacred visual motifs mean for the cohesion and construction of a would-be MNLA society. Finally, the chapter discusses how the MNLA’s notions of the sacred emanating from the three examined motifs relate to the group’s use and ←115 | 116→understanding of violence; this section is based on the “anthropological triangle” conceptualized by philosopher Mohammed Arkoun.

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