Mali’s First Suicide Bomber

11 Feb

On Friday the BBC ran a headline that reads Mali conflict: ‘First suicide bombing’ in Gao (note the inverted commas: they’re important).

The article went on to explain that this was actually the first known suicide attack since the French intervention in Mali began last month. Further into article came news that there had also been fighting between factions of the Malian army (red berets vs. green berets).

What galls me is the focus on a ‘historic’, histrionic suicide attack as the most important, and highly symbolic development in Mali. The description of the attack contains all of the usual tropes evoked by the ‘western media’: the sudden, furious strike of a lone assailant (in this case on a motorbike, with a belt of explosives); the reference to a mysterious, Orientalish extremist group (The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa – note that J-bomb) with a genealogy to a familiar, reviled group (“an offshoot of al-Qaeda”); a quote from the extremist group, demonstrating the depth of their irrational, West-exploding hatred, and their determination to inflict more harm (“against the Malian soldiers who chose the side of the miscreants, the enemies of Islam”); and of course, the connection somewhere in there between the bomber, the irrational violence, and Islam.

The suicide bomber, in this article and in other accounts, is a deranged lunatic, indoctrinated by shrewder lunatics who exist in the shadows of underdeveloped places plotting and preaching the downfall of the West in the burniest, bloodiest ways possible. In these accounts, the suicide bomber is inevitably a product of Islam. Only Islam, it is implied, can produce this degree of fanaticism and violence, this desire to kill, even to the point of destroying the self.

Prof. Banu Bargu (at the New School) offers a very different account of the suicide attack. Bargu argues that the suicide attack is part of a larger phenomenon that she calls the weaponisation of life, or perhaps more simply human weapons, a category that covers kamikaze attacks, hunger strikes, suicide bombings, self-immolations, and a range of other forms of sacrificial violence. Beyond this, Bargu argues that the suicide attack is part of the standard repertoire of modern warfare and violence. The suicide attack is the product not of rabid ideology, but of a calculation, the same calculation that every act of violence involves: how to achieve a suitable effect given the resources available and the factors in play. For some groups such calculations lead to the conclusion that drone strikes are the most efficient form of violence, giving the most bang for your buck. For other groups – state and non-state, religious and secular – the suicide bombing or other human weapon is the most effective, efficient option. Religious indoctrination is thus one variable among many within the calculus of violence.

Casting the Malian suicide bomber as exceptional, as the first (and by implication the vanguard of a wave of such attacks) suggests that there is a difference between this violence and all others. It also conveniently keeps the focus on the extremist threat (whether real or imagined) while sidelining what to me seems a far more urgent issue: infighting and bloodshed within Mali’s military.

Treating the ‘Mali conflict’ as the product of outside insurgents trying to topple a state plays into some very convenient rhetoric about this intervention. It also overlooks the fact that there are deeper fractures in the Malian state. A coup in capital precipitated the conflict that followed. Intervening against the outsiders, and chasing them to the borders of the state may make for a rapid victory, but it does nothing to address one of the root issues of the conflict, nor to acknowledge the full range of violence at work.

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2 Responses to “Mali’s First Suicide Bomber”

  1. Devin February 11, 2013 at 11:25 am #

    I think this piece speaks volumes to the role of media and news coverage as a commodity. The ongoing coverage of the Mali intervention has fit perfectly into a very marketable narrative: clear bad guys, clear good guys (ignoring the countless nuances on each side), a mission to defeat the bad guys in the name of freedom, and of course, a reminder that the hardest part is yet to come: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/10/world/africa/new-focus-in-mali-is-finding-militants-who-have-fled-into-mountains.html?emc=tnt&tntemail1=y&_r=0

    Like the end of every episode of any good television series, the above NYTimes piece and the BBC piece on the ‘first suicide bomber’ both leave the narrative open for whatever may come next – whether it’s more suicide bombers or another ostensibly boundless search through mountains and caves to flush the enemy out. These same stories provided media outlets with filler through the entire hunt for Osama Bin Laden – whenever international news was deemed slow, focus could return to the ongoing process of tracking down the “evil-doers” who perpetrated the September 2001 attacks on American soil.

    Coupled with the “deranged lunatic, indoctrinated by shrewder lunatics who exist in the shadows of underdeveloped places plotting and preaching the downfall of the West in the burniest, bloodiest ways possible”, we have a sub-narrative wherein the unnamed would-be assailants “have learned to hide where the French can’t find them.” This maintains the image of an elusive enemy, one that cannot be predicted, one that cannot be seen, and one that in the grand scheme of the ongoing “war on terror” (whether it is still referred to as such or not) cannot be stopped.

    I completely agree with you Phil. Once again we are seeing a vastly complex issue being watered down to its most base and melodramatic narrative form in order to package for global distribution in the form of news. Unfortunately, root issues don’t attract the eyeballs for which advertisers pay top dollar.

    All that being said, as a lifetime consumer of media, I too hope they catch all the bad guys…

  2. Devin February 12, 2013 at 10:32 am #

    I like to keep these conversations updated with the daily headlines: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/12/world/africa/gao-mali-conflict-french-troops.html?emc=tnt&tntemail1=y

    Note the sexy rhetoric: “since the French ended over six months of brutal Islamist occupation.” Also note how the ‘suicide bomber’ has now been demoted from the first in a series of ‘human weapons’ to “merely a ruse to allow an Islamist commando unit to enter the city,” and the infighting that continues to stymie efforts of the Malian army to take control is reduced to “squabbles.”

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