The War Nerd: How to write an Islamist scare story
Not all violence is equal.
Like that tree in the PHIL 1A koan, a lot of humans fall without anyone noticing. Most of those people are black Africans, for reasons too obvious and disgusting to go into here.
But occasionally, you see a very strange phenomenon: violent deaths of black Africans that actually get over-hyped. This only happens when the death slots nicely into an in-progress media frenzy. And those only come in two flavors at the moment: shark and jihadi. You can get flattened by a car any day of the week and you won’t get more than a paragraph in a company newsletter (I’m not making that up; I saw that happen to a friend of mine in Saudi). But if you happen to get maimed or exsanguinated while surfing by a three-metre beartrap with fins, you’re Brangelina for a day. This is true even if you’re a black African. You won’t get as much coverage as a blonde Hawaiian gets for losing an arm to those munching machines, but a lot more than you’d get if you were, oh let’s say one of the two million Dinka and Nuer massacred by the Sudanese Army.
But what can you do if you’re an inland black African, with limited opportunity for shark stories? Well, you have to hope that you get killed by an Islamist. Because Sahel Islamist militias, no matter how trivial they are in real military terms, are big news right now.
And that’s why Reuters, a respectable British news service, printed a story on August 18, 2015, headlined “Mali’s Islamist Conflict Spreads as New Militant Group Emerges.”
Mali is weak on shark stories—landlocked, no chance—but strong on material for Islamist hysteria.
The problem, for a hype-committed team of reporters and editors, is that Mali’s big spurt of Islamist rebellion came years ago, in 2012-13. By September 2012, the Islamist Alliance controlled two-thirds of the country (though most of that territory was Saharan desert).
Most people saw only those control maps, with the big northern triangle of Mali turning red, meaning “rebel-controlled,” without realizing that the only part of that big empty that mattered at all was the river towns like Gao and the road leading to Kidal, the only northern town of any size. North of Kidal doesn’t matter, in Mali terms, any more than NWT does in Canadian elections.
But it was a big chunk of map, and good enough to scare people with. Mitt Romney, of all the white-bread ice-folk ever born, was the first to spring Mali-hype on an unsuspecting world. In one of the 2012 Republican debates, he raised the spectre of trouble a-brewin’ in Mali. Here’s a transcript of Mitt’s deathless eloquence:
“Mali has been taken over, the northern part of Mali by al-Qaeda type individuals. We have in -- in Egypt, a Muslim Brotherhood president. And so what we’re seeing is a pretty dramatic reversal in the kind of hopes we had for that region.”
American oratory—we—you just can’t—you have to—it’s great!
My favorite Mitt-phrase would have to be “Al Qaeda type individuals.” Imagine Brandt from Big Lebowski on a Chadian vacation, confronted by a dozen sweaty brigands waving AKs: “I’m sorry, are you gentlemen—excuse me, that’s private property—please don’t touch that!—are you, ah, Al Qaeda type individuals?”
You could tell how little the audience knew about Mali by this typical first paragraph from one of the follow-up stories after Mitt’s debate bombshell:
“Mali is a landlocked nation located in the west of Africa which has been making geopolitical waves for those interested in the region.”
When they have to explain that Mali is a country, not the name of my great-aunt from Yonkers, you know it’s a new item on the hype-agenda. Imagine having to tell Trump’s frothing fans, “Mexico is a country to the south of America.”
America’s ignorance on the Mali Crisis was handy, because the less you knew about Mali, the scarier those “Al Qaeda type individuals” could seem. Once the French sent in a couple of regiments, it became very clear that these “individuals” were a weak alliance of Tuareg ethnic insurgents and Sahel freelance jihadis looking for easy pickings among the Bambara, the riverine black people of Southern Mali, who never had the warlike habits of their Sahel neighbors.
The French Army did a quick, light-touch intervention. It was over in six weeks, with the Tuareg zooming north to the deep sands, like Fremen, and the ethnically mixed fighters of Ansar ad-Dine hiding wherever they could. By late February 2013, Francoise Hollande announced that it was in the “final phase” of the war. And unlike a certain bomber-jacketed cheerleader who chirped, a decade-odd earlier, “Mission Accomplished,” Hollande was telling the truth; it was over.
That French victory annoyed all kinds of Anglos, from willfully ignorant anti-interventionists to the Grauniad’s Francophobes, who pounced on every Salafist pamphlet or shootout to hint that the “Jihadists [were] return[ing]” to Northern Mali.
Which would be like saying that rednecks were returning to Texas if the UN actually did what Alex Jones’ loon fan-base is afraid of, and came in to do a blue-helmet cleanse of the Lone Star State. No matter how well those Finnish and Ghanian stormtroopers did their job (and personally, I’d watch every episode, popcorn by my side), it’s kinda inevitable there’d be a few rednecks left. Because that’s their turf, and unless you go the genocide route, a few of them will act up now and then.
That’s pretty much the case with “jihadists” in Northern Mali. It’s a Sahel tradition that all grievances, all mobilizations, are phrased in the language of jihad. A “jihadist” in Northern Mali is anyone who wants religious sanction for organized violence.
But there’s a huge difference between the kind of real threat to Mali’s government in late 2012, before the French intervention, and the occasional shoot-outs after the French cleaned the place up in 2013.
The problem for any hack assigned the Mali desk after that was, basically, peace. Peace is not a good story. So every time you get some small-time violence, you apply the Islamist-Hype kit and come up with a story like the one Reuters ran.
Look at the headline and you’ll see a big component of this kit, the ominous verb. “Mali’s Islamist Insurgency *Spreads* as New Militant Group *Emerges.*”
The first key verb is “spreads.” Spreads from where (and when)? And what does it mean for an insurgent group to “emerge,” like a bunch of cicadas with small arms and an acronym-heavy logo?
What that story turned out to be about was the murder of a local imam, supposedly by Islamists, in the village of Barkerou. Now, if you take Google Maps’ closeup of Barkerou, you’ll see that it’s just SE of the corner where Mauritania meets Mali north of the big river.
And if you take Google Maps’ image and slot it next to that control map of rebel-held areas from late 2012, you’ll see that Barkerou was firmly in rebel control back then.
So it’s kinda fake to say that a single Islamist murder in a town that was controlled outright by Islamists a few years ago constitutes a “spread.” More like a spluttering, sulky bushwhacking by a defeated force.
How do you make a single killing like that seem bigger than it is? With a classic human-interest introduction:
Imam Elhadji Sekou Ba was one of the few people in his village of Barkerou who dared to speak out against the rise of Islamist militants in central Mali, denouncing in his sermons the young men taking up arms in the name of religion.
Last Thursday, shortly after dinner, he was gunned down on his doorstep.
First you make the deceased into a classic loner-hero, “one of the few people in his village…who dared to speak out…” Then you make his killers seem hugely powerful with “…the rise of Islamist militants in central Mali…”—which is about like saying, “…the rise of annoying pedants in Berkeley cafes”—as if the bastards weren’t swarming there all along.
If you start the timeline from 2012, there’s been no “rise.” Just the opposite; back then all the north was in Islamist hands, now they don’t control a single village. If you start the timeline from, say, 300 years ago, you still couldn’t call this Imam’s murder a “rise” in jihadist violence in central Mali.
The gimmick in this Reuters story is the ethic angle: the “rise” of jihad among the Fulani, who dominate the area around Barkerou and make up about 10% of Mali’s population. The new jihadist group that murdered this imam is called Massina Liberation Front (MLF), run by and for Fulanis. Yeah, except that’s nonsense. Fulani have been making jihad right in the neighborhood of Barkerou for centuries. There was a jihad by the Fulani back in 1725:
In 1725, the cattle-herding Fulanis of Fouta Djallon launched the first major reformist jihad of the region, overthrowing the local animist, Mande-speaking elites and attempting to somewhat democratise their society.
Exactly the same people involved: Fulani from north of the big river using “jihad” as a mobilizing device to push back against the more advanced but less warlike black people south of the river. So when Reuters says that “…the MLF has introduced a volatile new ethnic element to the Islamist conflict in a nation riddled with tribal tensions…” they’re talking what us techies call “total crap.”
You could pick any decade in the past millennium and find the same push, back and forth, along that fault-line that pretty much follows the Niger in this part of Africa.
The only evidence that Reuters can find for anything like a “rise” in militancy among the Fulani is the career of an obscure preacher, Amadou Koufa.
But if you read the fine print, which for most media is “anything past the headline,” you come across this paragraph:
“Residents [of Fulani-dominated central Mali areas] say there are few outwards signs of support for Koufa, whose whereabouts are unknown, although one local said cassettes of his sermons sell well in the market.”
Did you get that? “There are few outward signs of support.” So that’s what it comes down to: The occasional spite murder of a heretic peacenik preacher, a few bushwhackings, and some irredentist cassettes sold under the table in the markets.
In other words, nothing much is happening in central Mali. But certain Reuters employees have a living to make, and story quotas to file to their editors far from Mali — and the jihadi-hype kit is here to make sure they file on time.