Creative Responses to the Rebellion in Mali: A Look at the Forum Poetry

While West African countries weigh a military solution to the Mali crisis, Islamist group Ansar al-Din has turned to the internet to muster support.

The group’s media official, Sanda Ould Bouamama, recently held a series of discussions on global jihadist forums, including the “Ansar Al-Mujahideen Network”.

The Touareg Islamist group affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) called on “brothers and members” of the network to submit questions about the organisation’s ideology and the situation in the Azawad region.

Bouamama stressed the group’s salafist background and intent to implement Sharia.

Analysts say that the move has to do with the death of Abu Yahya al-Libi, who was responsible for recruiting fighters using modern technologies. His demise caused the organisation to look for alternatives to preserve its narrowing support base, observers say.

Ansar al-Din turns to jihadist forums,’ Magharebia, 02 July 2012.

The International Criminal Court’s prosecutor on Sunday warned Islamist rebels to stop destroying ancient Islamic shrines in northern Mali’s Timbuktu, saying it amounted to a war crime.

“My message to those involved in these criminal acts is clear: stop the destruction of the religious buildings now. This is a war crime which my office has authority to fully investigate,” Fatou Bensouda told AFP in an interview.

She said that Mali was signatory to the Rome Statute which established the ICC, which states in Article 8 that deliberate attacks against undefended civilian buildings which are not military objectives are a war crime.

“This includes attacks against historical monuments as well as destruction of buildings dedicated to religion,” said Bensouda.

Destruction of ancient Timbuktu shrines a ‘war crime’: ICC prosecutor,’ al-Arabiyya English, 01 July 2012.

The rebellion in Mali has inspired particular forum users to rejoice at the victories of AQIM, Ansar Ed-Dine and MUJWA over the Malian Army and the MNLA through poetry. Members of the Ansar al-Mujahideen forum have posted at least three poems including praise or reference to the Salafi-jihadi effort in Mali. Two of these are focused specifically on events in Mali; one posted in April 2012 praises the ‘conquest’ of Mali by Islamist forces and another posted on 02 July 2012, after Ansar Ed-Dine and its allies in Timbuktu took to their second attempt to destroy the city’s fabled Sufi shrines, widely condemned in north and west Africa (especially among Muslims) and in the rest of the world as an assault of the city’s religious and cultural heritage. These poems are reviewed here because their content and context and responses to them can be taken as indicative of political and ideological sentiment among forum members and a kind of constituency to which groups like those currently carrying on in norther Mali have sought to appeal to beyond the physical areas they control.

They also illustrate one kind of worldview that is interpreting events in northern Mali in a manner sympathetic to the jihadist groups there, largely from afar, as the majority of people in northern Mali, especially places like Gao and Timbuktu, generally lack the time,  access or spirits to churn out poems on Internet forums (this is part of why northern Mali’s jihadist groups, including AQIM and Ansar Ed-Dine have tended to make their key announcements to regional and international (‘kafir‘) news agencies such AFP, ANI, RFI and the like as this is where their target audiences get their news). So this is a way at getting a specific kind of reaction to what is generally called the ‘crisis’ in northern Mali.

The ‘quality’ of these poems as ‘art’ or whatever else is not discussed here; given that the Salafi-jihadi movement is a modern political trend they are taken as acts of political expression first and foremost, and a kind of fan letter to jihadi fighters in Mali and their content as part of political narratives is privileged over their form (it is worth noting, though that the authors of these poems tend to display knowledge of varied poetic stylings but often use more than one and the effect lyrically often leaves something to be desired. Nonetheless, poetry is often used on jihadist web forums to aid in the dissemination of propaganda and praise the mujahideen and demonize enemies. Because the authors are anonymous, whether they fancy themselves ‘poets’ or ‘artists’ in the world beyond the forums is unknown and so it would be unfair to judge them as inspired artists rather than online activists acting as poets. Forum poetry typically depicts the emergence of new jihadist movements as validation of the jihadi cause; it celebrates or mourns the victories of and defeats of jihadi causes and draws on a variety of Arabic poetical forms but generally relies on Islamic allusions and references. It can be an individualistic genre and thus produces a wide range of styles and tendencies and levels of complexity.

The first poem deals specifically with the Azawad. Posted by forum member ‘Gharib al-Ikhwan’ and titled Qahertini ‘ayunak …Azawad (‘Your eyes overwhelm me … Azawad’)[1], the poem describes the rise of Salafi-jihadis in Azawad in triumphant terms while mourning the death of Usama Bin Laden. References are also made to uprisings and protests in the Arab world as a backdrop to the conflict in Mali. The conflict is portrayed as an Islamic conquest, sweeping through Mali (as with Ansar al-Din’s political objectives, the poem does not limit its scope to Azawad, but to all of Mali; the Tuareg appear as agents of Salafi-jihadism in the poem). The poem frames the rebellion as an extension the Islamic conquest of North Africa and the global jihadist movement, linking the struggle in Mali to jihadist efforts in Libya, Somalia and Afghanistan.

[. . . ] Along came the period of the conquest of Mali and the conquest of the Azawad,

Overwhelmed by the descendants of Tariq ibn Ziyad,

Their path hearing the neighing horses of glorious Tuareg Murabiteen [Almoravids]

Where did you come from and how did you appear from the far extreme of the land?

Fluttering banners [. . .] Followed by banners [. . .] Followed by banners

[. . .]

Harassing the enemy and greeting the dead from Khorasan and Aden to Mogadishu and Sirte [. . .] And even to Azawad,

Followed by waves and waves of blessings,

And God the conquest of the Azawad is in your eyes,

How can we not rejoice in your death O son of the glorious One,

As seeds were nourished in your desert O Azawad [. . .]

The references to Tariq ibn Ziyad and the Almoravids point to common themes in jihadi framing of conflict in northwest Africa (for instance, AQIM make habitual reference to both, naming one of its katiba after Tariq ibn Ziyad, for example). Tariq ibn Ziyad, who led the conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in the seven century is an obvious reference to a victorious Muslim movement in the Maghreb, victorious against non-Muslim (Christian) enemies. The Almoravids are an especially interesting reference, and one can find them mentioned in AQIM propaganda on a regular basis. The Almoravids were an eleventh century Muslim dynasty that emerged from the Senhaja Berbers (Amazigh) in the Sahara-Sahel space near what is now southern Morocco to conquer large parts of northwest Africa from what is now Senegal and Mauritania up through western Algeria, as well as large parts of al-Andalus. They were a key factor in avoiding the total and precipitous collapse of Muslim rule in Iberia in the face of the Reconquista. In the 2010 statement from AQIM, titled ‘Letter to the Varmint Mauritanian President,’ in the wake of a suicide attack at the garrison town of Nema in south-eastern Mauritania, the bomber, Idriss Ould Yarba (alias Abu Issahaq al-Shanqiti) is described as ‘One of the lions of Islam, a grand-child of Yusuf Ibn Tashfin’. Yusuf Ibn Tashfin  was a famous military leader of the Almoravids, reputedly disgusted by the decadence of the Muslim princes of al-Andalus and more at home in the Sahara, whose successes included the famous Battle of Zallaqa, where he defeated King Alfonso VI of Castile in 1086 and was the leader who brought the petty Muslim dominions in al-Andalus under Almoravid control, preventing them from bickering among themselves and being destroyed by the Christian kingdoms. The reference calls to mind the emergence of a zealous and austere Muslim army coming to the aid of a weakened Islamic frontier, as well as the advancement of Islam in absolute terms. The Almoravids were a major driver in the expansion of Islam in what is now west Africa and the of ‘Tuareg Murabiteen’ moving across the desert amid ‘fluttering banners’ calls this history to mind when put beside other lines praising the success of Ansar Ed-Dine and AQIM.

While ‘Qahertini ‘ayunak …Azawad’ produced seven pages of comments praising its verse and themes, this poem is nevertheless an outlier. Northern Mali appears principally in passing as an example in forums posts and poems. For example, a second poem to be found the Ansar al-Mujahideen forum dealing with Mali is titled Risalla shukr ila li-yuth al-Islam fi al-Yeman wa Khorasan wa-Rafidayn wa al-Somal wa Mali (‘A letter of thanks to the lions of Islam in Yemen, Khorasan, Mesopotamia, Somalia and Mali’) by member ‘Irhabi li-Nasr al-Din’.[2] Primarily this poem shows the writer’s belief that events in Mali validate his worldview. The poem praises the advance of Salafi-jihadi groups in various parts of the Muslim world and the application of shari’ah law in Mali. It refers to Mali only twice, and notably does not use the term ‘Azawad’, as in a rhyming verse which beings ‘from the grieving people of Gaza’ and concludes with ‘to the brave heroes of Somalia and lions Mali’. [The term used here is an obscure synonym for lion: الضيغم from the verb ضغم that literally means to "bite hard", the ism al-faʿil becomes ضغام which is a grammatical aberration, the correct form becomes ضيغم; the term is used to describe lions because they bite very hard. See a list of synonyms for lion here. The more common term for 'lion' is used twice elsewhere in the poem, in the plural [أسود], referring to ‘the lions of monotheism [tawhid] and the ‘lions of Islam’]. That ‘Mali’ is preferred to ‘Azawad’ is unsurprising. This is likely due to a lack of familiarity with the region or a seemingly deliberate choice, which can be observed among some forum members in other contexts. Essays posted the Ansar forum tended to refer to territory occupied by Islamists in northern Mali as ‘Azawad’ before Ansar Ed-Dine’s opposition to northern separatism became well known show an eventual shift toward ‘northern Mali’  or ‘Mali’ versus ‘Azawad’ in user generated content. There appears to be for some members an association between the supposedly ‘secular’ views of the MNLA (or ‘nationalists’ as they are some times referred to) and the use of the term ‘Azawad’ though this is not universal and the term continues to appear in longer, polemical posts.

The poem’s second mention of Mali comes in a similar formulation,’from the victories of Ansar al-Shari’ah in beloved Yemen, to arbitration of shar’iah in the Mali of strangers’. The formulation ‘Mali of strangers’ or ‘Mali of foreigners’ (Mali al-ghuraba’) appears to be an allusion to a hadith (a saying attributed to the Prophet Mohamed) which speaks of the original Muslims as ‘strangers,’ in the sense of a minority community, shunned and resisted by the mainstream society. This hadith goes (according to Sahih Ahmad ibn Hibban) ‘”Islam began as something strange and it will revert to how it began, as something strange. So glad tidings of Paradise to the strangers” The people asked, “Who are they, O Messenger of God?” He answered, “Those who are pious and righteous when the people have become evil.”‘ Ghuraba, strangers are those in the path of ‘true’ Muslims, lonely in the short term but on the right path  in the end; in this context refers to the jihadist trend as a minority one that rises to success, and the writer is clearly convinced his set will triumph in the end. (One can find this kind of reference in numerous places, among many Muslims, not just jihadis. Nonetheless jihadis are fond of this framing, the names of the Ghuraba al-Sham, a Syrian jihadist group is an example.) The scope of the poem is global, and its interest is the global jihad as such, not Mali’s conflict.

Qahertini ‘ayunak …Azawad’ was the only poem dedicated specifically to Mali on the forum until the week of 02 July 2012, when member ‘Shaybat al-Hamad’ posted a poem titled ‘Maarid at-tawhid uyaqadh maaridi …. Bimanaasibah hadum al-adhrahah wa ash-shirk fi Timbuktu’ (The Giant of Tawhid [Monotheism] Awakens … On the Occasion of the Demolition of Shrines and Shirk [polytheism] in Timbuktu).[3] The seventy-two line (thirty-six couplets) poem is triumphantalist and confident in tone. As its title suggest, this poem is a celebratory reaction to the destruction of shrines by Ansar Ed-Dine at Timbuktu during late June and early July 2012; these shrines are an enormous component of northwest Africa’s Islamic heritage and are designated as USECO World Heritage Sites. The destruction of these holy sites provoked regional as well as international condemnation of the armed groups in northern Mali, and among international journalists and commentators appear to have stoked more outrage than 300,000 refugees and what Amnesty International has called ‘Mali’s worst human rights situation in 50 years,’ to include well documented instances of rape, looting, pillaging and public lashings by the various groups (including the secular MNLA in addition to the Islamist armed groups) since the beginning of the rebellion (view the Amnesty report (May 2012), ‘Mali: Five Months of Crisis, Armed Rebellion and Military Coup‘ and Human Right Watch’s report (April 2012), ‘Mali: War Crimes by Northern Rebels‘). The poem boasts of an achievement in Timbuktu, a victory over shirk [idolatry, polytheism], of religion over apostasy. It includes such lines [not in order] as:

The flame of tawhid irradiates the sky, evacuating bygone disbelievers overnight;

God bless the fevered men, God guided them happily as his own hand;

May they be fed up enough to see that this idol leaves people without marriage compacts; how many years of accommodation have passed depressed between the idols and polytheism?

The poem is preoccupied with ‘conquering ignorance [jahil]’ images of ‘demolitions’ of idols, a celebration of putting ideas into practice and establishing domination over the city. The contemptuous language used in reference to Timbuktu’s traditional architecture and religious practice is complemented by righteous constructions of rebirth and purification. ‘God bless those who have renewed the axe of Ibrahim despite jealousy,’ proclaiming ‘Timbuktu, this is your joyous day, humble yourself before the Lord, the One God.’ The verse ‘Timbuktu, this is your day’ is repeated multiple times amid vicious lines that have the city being ‘smacked’ by ‘purification’ as it ‘does not hesitate to move ahead, stronger being led by the influence of monotheism’ (this is a particularly popular line among members commenting on the poem), the embodiment of ‘our pride … our victory’. Timbuktu’s refugees in Mauritania, Algeria and elsewhere are not mentioned; this is a poem about glory, of might proving who is right. The power of forces, not the experience of individuals, of men or women or their children in Timbuktu.

The conflict in Mali is thus placed into the context of the global jihad and a national movement for shar’iah and Islamic governance as opposed to a struggle for autonomy, independence or an expression of Tuareg or minority grievances. Most victories even in the long term are basically temporary, especially during armed rebellion; AQIM, Ansar Ed-Dine, MUJWA and the MNLA — as well as any external force that attempts to enter the fray — is fighting an irregular war, and local actors and local dynamics are driving events more than almost any other factor — the Battle of Gao and subsequent developments there make this clear. What is the rule today may easily be forbidden the next. Though the lines say the armed conquest of Mali has brought the region ‘its day,’ it is more likely that for the time being, ‘the day,’ such as it is, belongs to the armed groups and their partisans, until it is not.

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