THE BLOG

Terror in the Media: Why Mali Isn't France Isn't Kenya

23/11/2015 12:36 GMT | Updated 23/11/2016 10:12 GMT

Anyone reflecting on reportage in the in the aftermath of the Paris attacks will have been struck by something of a social media backlash by people questioning the relative ignorance of deaths by terrorism happening elsewhere. The line of debate over which human tragedy gets the most human coverage and why is by now familiar, resurging in just about every episode of political violence experienced by Western Europe in recent years.

The first position offers a criticism of why Europe gains a monopoly of exposure, while atrocities elsewhere remain unseen. In this case, this line of critique was accompanied by such questions as why there was a Facebook 'safety check' for the Paris, but none such for Beirut? Or whatever happened to such and such episode of political violence we used to care about but which have dropped off the radar? Accordingly, news stories about the attack on Kenya's Garissa University by the Somali-based Islamist group Al-Shabaab last April resurfaced as if it had occurred the same weekend.

A second strand, in rebuttal to the first, suggests that the problem is not lack of coverage, but a general failing by everyone to educate themselves on the breadth and variety of atrocities happening the world over. It is not so much that this suffering is invisible, as that its audience is limited. In this scenario, it might not be news outlets lack of reporting but the consuming public who has proved itself to be more preoccupied with the deaths of people 'like them', and engaged with condemnation only when its own security comes under threat.

One of the consequences of this to-ing and fro-ing in the case of Paris has been a merging of media commentary generally, where both the pressure to highlight deaths occurring elsewhere and a desire to find a pattern between seemingly senseless violence sees the amalgamation of several new stories in to one. The result: a hollowing out of the historical dynamics at play that have shaped the outlooks and the tactics of the various militant groups themselves.

A case in point was the recent hotel siege in Mali's capital Bamako a week after Paris, in which 170 were held hostage by Islamist militants resulting in the deaths of 27 people. Press channels were quick to link the events if not by questioning the potential involvement of IS in Mali directly, then by bleeding headline updates together so that Paris, Bamako and Nairobi all became part of one unfolding news story of horror and destruction.

In one sense the blurring of actors and events is not completely counter-intuitive. IS itself was born out of al Qaeda and shares many similarities in its vision and tactics. In 2012, Al-Shabaab pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda and its commitment to international warfare. But the notion that all the attacks are inextricably linked and provide evidence of a generic 'Islamist extremism' operating internationally is misguided and dangerous. The groups given in the examples above are not only embroiled in power struggles with each other, but also operate with reference to particular histories and circumstances dependent on regional politics. Following the announcement of a merger in 2012, for example, factions of Al-Shabaab rejected the rebranding of 'Al Qaeda in East Africa' and agreed on a new policy focused on domestic issues with little mention of international struggle.

In the case of Mali, to talk in the same breath as Paris or other IS strikes might risk ignoring the country's own important and specific backstory. Since 2012, Northern Mali has been rocked by conflict stemming from complex and longstanding grievances by Tuareg separatist rebels who have called for autonomy in the northern region self-named Azawad since the country achieved independence in 1960. The conflict has long had an element of Islamist militancy about it, but the sheer number of splinter groups and factions operating in the territory and their shifting alliances precludes any easy conclusion about who is fighting for what exactly. Whether it is the identity of the Malian state itself, or more simply the control of (il)licit trading routes in the Sahara is constantly muddied, and attempts to reach a peace deal between the conflict parties fractious as a result.

The fact that the Al Qaeda-linked group al-Mourabitoun who carried out last week's attack in Bamako targeted a venue due to host the sixth meeting of the Coordinating Committee of the Algiers Accords peace deal should signify that this is an attack tied to local grievances as much as it is to an internationalized extremist movement. But in times of increased sensitivity to comprehensive coverage, mixed with a general fear of the globalisation of a "death cult", many of these important details (and with it, perhaps the key to understanding the motivations of such groups) may well have been lost altogether.