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Conflict and Fragility

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Malian army communications after massacres

21 Dec 2022 - 13:32
Source: Reuters

In late March 2022, the Moura massacre sparked international outrage. The Malian armed forces (FAMa) and suspected Russian paramilitaries reportedly executed over 300 civilians. Initially, the FAMa argued that the security forces had merely “neutralised” some 200 “terrorist combatants”. Human Rights Watch (HRW) then revealed the extent of the violations, and the FAMa pointed at Katibat Macina.

The Moura massacre was not an isolated incident. Prior to HRW’s revelation, the UN mission MINUSMA had already attributed 248 civilian deaths to Malian forces in the first quarter of 2022 (a sharp rise compared to previous years, coinciding with the arrival of Russian paramilitaries). Using data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED)1 , this commentary identifies 12 massacres2  between 31 December 2021 and 28 May 2022.

How does the FAMa communicate concerning these massacres? And is there any observable change since the entry of Russian paramilitaries in Mali?

In a context where informational warfare is picking up in Mali and the wider sub-region, this is a pertinent question. Understanding communication strategies by the FAMa might indicate that it receives not only military but also communication support. It also helps in starting to understand how to potentially counter these (false) narratives.

We find that the FAMa relies on a two-step communication strategy: a) a narrative of success, highlighting their latest accomplishments and commitment to humanitarian law;  and b) subsequently shifting the blame to other actors – violent extremist organizations (VEOs) – and cautioning about the spread of disinformation. This communication line has gained in prominence since early 2022.

This strategy allows the FAMa not only to cast doubt on the veracity of accusations of massacres but also to drum up popular support. Indeed, in Mali there is an impression that the army is more successful than it was without outside support and fewer massacres (in order to be clear, this is not confirmed by any data).

FAMA press releases

We use 53 FAMa press releases, published between 28 October 2021 and 11 June 2022, to assess how the Malian army communicates. Twenty of these concern communications after massacres. All 53 press releases were analysed using qualitative content analysis with MaxQDA.

The reviewed press releases focus on the “Maliko plan” and “Keletigui operations”. Maliko has been in place since 2020 and covers the regions of Gao, Menaka and Kidal (Eastern) and Segou, Mopti, Tomboubtou and Taoudenit (Central). The Keletigui operation was launched in December 2021 and replaced Maliko in the centre of Mali.

Keletigui is characterised by large-scale operations pairing airstrikes to soldiers on the ground. It is this operation that is supported by “Russia-affiliated forces”. The FAMa’s press releases include detailed summaries of their most recent operations including the number of individuals arrested or killed, sometimes their names, as well as the material seized per area of intervention.

Empathy and the commitment to international legal principles

The FAMa’s communication in the 53 releases highlights the offensive aspects of the army’s CVE strategy. It points at successful operations as well as emphasising the weakness of VEOs. The press releases juxtapose this “success narrative” with that of increasingly weak VEOs which are depicted as “en debandade” (in disarray), desperate, and “using tactics to avoid clashes” with the FAMA.

Press releases after massacres consist of two parts: a commitment to international law and subsequently shifting the blame to ‘other’ actors and ‘disinformation’.

The FAMa’s communication strategy after massacres, first, underscores its commitment to the protection of civilians.3  Press releases consistently emphasise Protection of Civilians’ (PoC) values and reiterate respect for international legal principles such as routine operations of civilian protection. Similarly, closing sections often express empathy as the FAMa offer their condolences to civilian victims of VEOs and underline the ‘heroic’ values of their soldiers (over 70% of all statements express sympathy)

For example, in their first press release of 2022 (and each of the following), the FAMa stated that military operations would be pursued “with strict respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law” (published shortly after a massacre on December 31, which likely sought to refute social media accusations of abuse). At the end of March, the press releases point at FAMa’s awareness efforts likely meant to refer to three massacres in Sambaladio, Ansongo and Moura.

Shifting the blame

The second part of the communication strategy is to deflect accusations and cast doubt on the veracity of massacre claims by shifting the blame to other actors. While the disinformation narrative has been present throughout the period of study (hence before Russian paramilitaries were deployed), it escalated with the Russian presence. The change corresponds to methods used by the Wagner Group.

The FAMa started to communicate about massacres on January 4, 2022, a month after the first massacre. VEOs were said to be hiding amongst civilians at first, then escalated to using them as human shields.

On April 5, after the Moura massacre the FAMa clearly addressed certain allegations. A first press release focused on denying accusations and emphasised the ‘success’ of the military operation. In a subsequent press release, the FAMa blamed Katibat Macina for the massacre. Some 62% of the statements refer to VEO abuse of the population.

A Russian playbook: the rise of disinformation

The most common narrative put forward by the FAMa against accusations of massacres is to qualify these as disinformation. Of the 53 press releases researched, 16 involved instances of FAMa claims of disinformation.

In instances of clear accusations against the armed forces, the press releases indicate that such allegations are baseless and spread by unidentified actors wishing to tarnish the FAMa’s reputation, and by extension that of the country, as well as to divide the population.

A telling example is that by mid-April the French army had left the Gossi military base. Soon afterwards, the French were accused of killing civilians (human remains were found near the site). On social media, accusations escalated as images and videos circulated. These accusations were later found to come from  fake accounts, most likely managed by Russian trolls. The French military refuted false allegations by publishing other videos showing individuals in military uniforms: Caucasian individuals allegedly belonging to the Wagner Group and accompanied by a couple of FAMa members.

While the majority of the statements are directed against outsiders, the FAMa also accused VEOs of spreading disinformation. For example, in April 2022 the FAMa claimed that Katibat Macina was responsible for the Moura massacre. It claims that VEOs were allegedly planning to spread rumours that the FAMa is aiming to exterminate the Fulani population.4

What is interesting is that the frequency with which disinformation is mentioned starts to escalate from March onwards, which corresponds to the increase in massacres and the rise of allegations against the FAMa.  While definitive conclusions are hard to draw, it is possible that the FAMa is using the Wagner Group’s playbook.

Conclusion

When facing accusations of HR violations, the FAMa’s communication strategy relies on two steps: (a) drawing support for the FAMa by highlighting their achievements and values and expressing sympathy, and (b) casting doubts by shifting the blame towards VEOs and relying on disinformation claims to question the veracity of these accusations. While it cannot be clearly causally established, there has been a change in the FAMA communication strategy since the presence of Russian paramilitaries.

The relations between Mali and France have continued to sour in the past few months including on the international diplomatic scene (e.g. UNSC). Communication in these forums is increasingly taking a similar line as the FAMa; Foreign Minister Diop, for example, denied the alleged HR violations reported by the UN, including collaboration with Russian mercenaries, and shifted the focus on to France with accusations of espionage and destabilisation.

All of this opens up the important question: what narratives can be developed to counter (false) narratives and ensure that truth around the protection of civilians prevails?

 
  • 1The data has been filtered using interaction codes 17 and 78 as well as fatalities equal or superior to 10.
  • 2For the purpose of this commentary, a massacre is defined as “the killing of a large number of people at the same time in a violent and cruel way” resulting in 10 or more fatalities. The death tolls of identified massacres ranged from 35 to 388.
  • 3An additional element of the FAMa’s  narrative is to open ‘inquiries’ following allegations of HR violations. The investigations are carried out by the Gendarmerie, under the supervision of the military tribunal. According to the FAMa, the results are shared with the population. 
  • 4Katibat’s leader Amadou Koufa appeared in a video claiming that 30 VEO members were present in contrast to the 203 claimed by the FAMa. Koufa claimed that the  FAMa accompanied by the Wagner Group were responsible.