On Maps

Below are four maps of North Africa intended to illustrate issues related to terrorism. Maps compress information as all other forms of communication do. Maps express what the written word cannot not easily but are not without their limitations. Recent maps of North Africa’s geopolitics in relation to AQIM illustrate this well, as well as broader problems in Anglophone perceptions of the region.

The maps below are recent and the comments that follow them are not intended to be exhaustive evaluations, but quick impressions and thoughts. Following these are additional, general thoughts.

A regional map from a 2009 Wall Street Journal article, “Islamic Rebells Gain Strength in the Sahara“.

A map of Algeria (Kabylia), from a 2010 Stratfor report on AQIM.

A regional map from recent AFP article on a kidnapping and execution of a Malian tour guide by AQIM, “Al-Qaeda executes Mali guide: security source, relative“.

A map from an American Enterprise Institute “Critical Threats” report, “The al Qaeda Threat from West Africa and the Maghreb: French Hostage Execution and Beyond“.

A map of Africa and southwest Asia from a New York Times article on terrorism in Asia and Africa, “Secret Assault on Terrorism Widens on Two Continents“.

Maps are powerful in creating and propagating narratives and constructs. The presentation of physical space influences audiences’ perceptions and thinking about political problems and concepts. With regards to each of the above:

  1. WSJ: The first map is reasonable. It’s intent is to show the breadth of AQIM attacks and kidnappings in the Maghreb and Sahel. Compared to the other maps above it is minimalist and even leaves out some previous activities. It uses the Peters projection, as more and more maps do.
  2. Stratfor: The Stratfor map is the most basically troubling of all the above. Here, the presentation of Kabylia is out of relation to practically all of the facts. Kidney-shaped Boumerdes is not immediately south of Algiers as shown; rather, it is to the immediate east of the capital and to the west of Tizi Ouzou (as here). In fact, on Stratfor’s map, Boumerdes is labeled as “Tizi Ouzou” while Blida is labeled as “Boumerdes.” Bouira and Bourdj Bou Arreidj are labeled correctly, but are disproportionate to their actual size. In fact, the entire area highlighted as “Kabylia” is enormous and confusing, extending from about mid-way through what would be Skikda, south through apparently all of Constantine (not ever considered a part of Kabylia), with its border close to one of the two eastern Chotts. Because there are large Chotts in M’Sila (Chott el Hodna in the north) and to the southeast of Biskra and the northwest of El Oued (Chott Melrhir in the south) one must assume that in Stratfor’s map Chott el Hodna is represented in the detail of “Kabylia.” The map is thoroughly distorted. The point of the report is that AQIM is losing strength, which it substantiates with numerical data, while noting that in northern Algeria, the group’s activities are restricted to Kabylia. This is either the result of carelessness or an effort to exaggerate Kabylia’s actual size (which, physically is quite small, though really chock full of people) or AQIM’s presence in northern Algeria. Whatever the intention, the map is thoroughly inaccurate.
  3. AFP: The third map shows areas of the Sahel “controlled” by or with an AQIM “presence”. The red area, where the recent raid(s?) took place along the Algeria-Mali border is an area under AQIM “control” and is surrounded by an area with AQIM presence (including northern Nigeria). The trouble here is that in public terms “control” is highly charged and ambiguous; does that mean the Malian, Algerian or Mauritanian governments cannot assert sovereignty in those areas? Does it mean that these areas have parallel governments run by AQIM? Is this an area like Pakistan’s FATA region, or Yemen’s tribal zones? This a mostly empty desert region peopled largely by nomads and dotted with small but important oases. Who occupies and controls oases  — where there is water and fuel — and the best travel routes between them may be said to be in “control”. People loyal to the local governments appear to “control” these spots far more often than AQIM does. The group may have married into local clans and tribes, but they do not have dominant positions in the human geography of the place. “Control” is a misleading term.  The area highlighted in red includes, much of Azaouad (northern Timbuktu), with its Moorish and Tuareg peoples most of whom are certainly not controlled by AQIM at all; the reverse may in fact be true in some instances. Meanwhile, the article discusses Kidal, a region to the east of the highlighted area (with an AQIM presence, according to the map). What exactly does AQIM control in these areas? the map gives no indication — though this is understandable because it displays no cities or towns or roads.
  4. AEI‘s map is intended to draw North Americans’ attention to the region and portray AQIM as a “critical threat” to US interests. It displays places involved in the Germaneau operations. Where other maps compartmentalize the AQIM’s Algerian and Sahelian activities, this one aims to portray as much information about the group as possible all in one go, emphasizing the links between northern Algeria and the Sahel. The more information, the more threatening and dangerous AQIM appears in support of the report’s conclusions. Not only is most of north-eastern Algeria depicted, in a blanket way, as being a “high activity” zone for AQIM, but the area where the recent Franco-Mauritanian raid(s) took place is labeled as being a “save haven” for the organization. The map’s subtitled notes that AQIM “coordinates over vast distances,” which is certainly true. A more studious map would show more of the region, outside of Algeria, and highlight more areas in Mali and Niger and Mauritania where AQIM’s southern branches have been in operation. The report’s purpose is to inspire North Americans to view the group as a greater threat to their own security and interests than they do now. (“Be afraid, be very afraid!”) The map makes a mistake similar to the last map (see below), in that it focuses too much attention on (northern) Algeria and not enough on the rest of the region where AQIM is a more serious problem. (The report itself concentrates on recent activities in the Sahara. The map is interesting for what it omits as well; it shows none of the important American “interests” in Algeria, such as the Saharan oil fields.)
  5. The New York Times‘s map is intended to put terrorism in north-west Africa into a more global perspective. Here it fails by committing the same mistake as AEI’s “Critical Threats” piece in leaving out any mention of Mali, Niger or Mauritania. These are the countries where AQIM is a growing threat. Northern Algeria, though not done with terrorism, is winding down, at least of late while the Sahel is seeing more and more problems with the group (and with other political tensions exacerbated by its activities). The map includes Morocco and Algeria, problematic for these reasons and others. In the first place, Morocco is hardly at risk for the sort of terrorism the Times article or the map address. Compared to Algeria or the rest of the Sahel, Morocco is quite pacific, though it hopes to gain in prestige and foreign aid from the perception that it can contribute to counter and anti-terrorism efforts or requires assistance towards those ends. And Morocco has been marginal in regional counter-terrorism activities related to AQIM (its activities with the United States go on separately  from other American initiatives; and it might be fair to say that these warrant the Times‘s labeling reasonable indeed). The countries most “at risk” are not mentioned at all by name. One must consider, that if it were to include the other affected countries some might complain about exaggeration or hyperbole or the like. But here it ought to have included Algeria, Mauritania and Mali (give or take). But the effect is there, to show the breadth of the “terrorist” problem as the United States sees it.

These quibbles with recent North Africa maps, and others not included (there are others for sure and some may disagree with the ones mentioned here specifically), lead to the following considerations regarding popular depictions of Saharan and North African terrorism:

  1. The above maps give the reader a limited appreciation for AQIM’s desert activities. The kind of desert cruising AQIM does is a peculiar sport, easily compared in some ways to space travel in science fiction novels. Think of oases as space stations, with provisions and fuel — or outpost planets with their own inter-stellar relations and distinct peoples, as in Star Trek. The space in between outposts and oases is critical — control of provisions at the oases determines how far and how happily travelers can move. No diesel, no mobility. No water, no life. That said, the tribes, clans and armed groups (militaries, militia, terrorists) running around there are defined as much by their relationships with the each other as they are by their relationships with the oases. The local people deal with other more than anyone else, the antagonistic factions vying for control over their oases and trading routes are frequently more reliant on them than vis-versa. This needs to be reflected in analysis and graphical depictions; i.e., where AQIM has relationships with local lineages, who is really in “control” and of what? Perhaps as important: what defines “control” in this environment?
  2. Reliance on second-hand or wire service reports (based in Cairo, Paris, London or where ever else; the affect of reliance on wire services) creates a somewhat muddled description of the area. Writers who have been to or who are in the region often write stories with more reasonable maps. It is often difficult for newsgroups to support reporting directly from the region, especially in the current economic environment. Some of this is because writers are often generalists or specialists in other areas (i.e., the Middle East, east Africa, Central Asia, et al) applying outside experience to what is sometimes uncharted territory. This is a problem in practically all circumstances. It lends toward exaggeration, downplaying  and other problems of distance or specialization bias. And of course, even where there is deep understanding, simplification for general consumption reduces complexity and This blog is often guilty of similar errors (such as writing lengthy posts on minor errors in newspaper maps and in Newsweek articles on obscure regions).
  3. The above maps reflect various prioritizations and perspectives on the region. There is a tendency for mapmakers and writers to project onto the region outside priorities that may diminish existing or “objective” concerns. This relates to point two; a map on the “geography of counterterrorism” in Africa and Asia will tend to generalize in order to make a point; a map attempting to show increasing terrorist activity in an area unfamiliar to most readers will attempt to make it more accessible by using terminology similar to that used in other such regions. A map supporting a document hoping to inspire more spirited attention among policy makers and others will be prone to exaggeration. Maps are made to influence, if not create, perception. Maps are made for emphasis. Thus, if the news-cycle or  a particular analyst intends to direct the audience’s thoughts and emotions in one direction the map will be crafted just for this purpose, perhaps crudely at first. The trouble is, though, that this can create unhelpful impressions and stimulate unnecessary or inappropriate mental set ups and narratives. The maps above focus on terrorism; other maps considering the areas geopolitics (to be scanned and posted here soon) sometimes include points of attack, areas affected by famine or drought, economic activity and so on. These give a fuller and more informative take than ink blots about the presence of terrorist groups or sites of kidnappings — even for general readers. The consensus here seems to be that the area is a growing but still marginal “front” in the American confrontation with terrorism. But beyond that there is either little knowledge or interest (or both).

5 thoughts on “On Maps

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