WhatsApp becomes battleground in Mali's jihad conflict
BAMAKO, Mali – A digital war is unfolding in Mali alongside a jihadist conflict that has claimed thousands of lives: the battle to sway young minds is being waged on the mobile phone.
"Jihadists today are recruiting on WhatsApp. We have to stop the bloodshed," said Hama Cisse, a moderate imam.
He says fiery sermons relayed through the mobile phone application by jihadist leader Amadou Koufa are luring young men from the Fulani ethnic community to join his ranks.
"Our children are leaving and getting themselves killed with Koufa, and there's more and more of them every day," Cisse said.
In the 1980s, then a Koranic student, Koufa was a roving storyteller – a deep-rooted oral tradition in Mali – reciting love poems in exchange for a few coins.
Much later, after completing his religious education abroad, Koufa re-invented himself as radical, preaching a hardline form of Islam.
Using his honed oratorical skills and stirring ancient resentments against elites, his message went straight to the heart of many young Fulani, also called Peuls, whose herding community has long battled poverty and stigma.
His means for channelling this message have kept in lockstep with technology.
Sermons that were once broadcast on the radio and then distributed by audiocassette are now transmitted by WhatsApp – the messaging app of choice in a country that currently boasts 150 cell phone subscriptions per 100 inhabitants, but little internet coverage.
Many in the Fulani community have direct knowledge of a young man drawn into the ranks of the Katiba Macina, the biggest of the militias wreaking carnage in central Mali and stirring up fighting between ethnic groups.
In addition to the mounting death toll, hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes and hundreds of schools have closed as teachers flee the jihadists.
In other communities, many point the finger of blame at the Fulani people as a whole, for there are longstanding frictions between this herder group and sedentary farmers. Today, tit-for-tat violence has become a tragic, near-daily act.
The jihadists' strategy of division and provocation is timeless – but the tactics are relentlessly modern.
Digital technology is being used as a recruiting sergeant. Pictures of butchered corpses or torched villages or footage of clashes with the army are the weapons, aimed at both enraging and persuading.
Moderates fight back
But the radicals are not the only voice.
Moderates, too, are taking their message of Islamic tolerance to young Fulani, seeking to counter distortion and propaganda.
One of them is Cisse, who said he "closely knew" Koufa in the 1980s when he too was a religious student.
Cisse, 55, regularly makes radio broadcasts from the capital Bamako, on the Fulani radio station Tabital Pulaaku, which are immediately retransmitted via WhatsApp.
In one notable intervention this year, during Ramadan, Cisse directly targeted Koufa and those who "lap up his words".
"He said that before he came, the Macina (a region in central Mali) wasn't Islamic, that before he came along, it was dark. I told him he didn't bring Islam to the Macina, he brought the Wahhabis, and it's not the same," Cisse said, referring to the Saudi-inspired puritanical strand of Islam.
"A few days later, Koufa gave a nasty reply – he was angry."
Cisse is from the Mopti region, but he has been unable to go back since he started receiving death threats in 2016.
Others who have joined the fight do not claim to have a religious rank, but simply wish to end a taboo of silence that swelled as the jihadists ascended.
One of them is Ousmane Bocoum, 36, who sells cloth skirts at a market in Mopti.
The flamboyantly dressed trader spends his spare moments combing the internet for sermons that distort Islam, and pointing them out to his contacts who then counter the propaganda on their WhatsApp and Facebook groups.
"I explain what the Koran really says," Bocoum said. "Every person is in at least a dozen different WhatsApp groups, people forward the messages and usually I have a reaction within half an hour."
Many of those reactions are insults or threats, but there are often useful exchanges.
"It's my faith which prompted me to act," said Bocoum, who met with US lawmakers during a visit to Washington in July.
"I don't fight them, I simply want to bring them back to reason."
Last year, he said, he set up a "debate" with Koufa's men in Mopti.
"They accepted but then at the last moment, Koufa issued a message forbidding them to come. He was worried about their safety."
That failure illustrates one of the problems of finding common ground through dialogue – an approach espoused in June by the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank but rejected by the government in Bamako.
Back to the plough?
Bocoum is also exploring an innovative path aimed at "deconstructing" the rhetoric of the jihadists to make it less alluring to the young.
In March he set up a group in Mopti called the Association of Preachers for the Preservation of Unity and Social Peace.
The goal is to draw on traditional doctors or teachers in villages who are not tempted by the idea of collaborating with Koufa and are willing to give children an enlightened Koranic education.
In exchange, the association would provide agricultural help for the poor and for Koranic schools – each participating village would set aside five hectares (12 acres) of land for this purpose.
This way, families living in rural areas that have been abandoned de facto by the state would regain trust in their future, and a vicious circle would become a virtuous one, Bocoum hopes.
Thanks to word of mouth, recruits to the jihad would return home.
"Fathers would speak to their sons, uncles would speak to their nephews, persuading them to come home and cultivate their fields," he said. – Rappler.com