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To Encourage Malians of Burkina Faso to return, Refugee Musicians use Music to send Powerful Message of Peace and Understanding

A jihadist takeover of the north, did the unthinkable, they banned music, something Malians cannot imagine

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FILE - The Mbera refugee camp in southern Mauritania was set up for people fleeing violence in northern Mali and is home to more than 64,000 people, May 23, 2012. It was the unlikely site of a concert of Malian music. VOA
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Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), November 25, 2016: In 2012, a coup kicked off a diaspora of Malians from which the country has not yet recovered. Malians fled by the hundreds of thousands and ended up in Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania.

After a Tuareg rebellion, a coup in Bamako, and then a jihadist takeover of the north, religious extremists held sway and did the unthinkable — they banned music, something Malians cannot imagine.

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Music to unite

But some refugee musicians hope they can use music to encourage Malians to return, unite and shun the extremist groups that briefly controlled the country’s north.

Malians call them jeli — storytellers — whose work is to conserve history and make social commentary. Their existence is absolutely central to Malian identity.

This music comes from a tradition that goes back 800 years. It has been kept alive by families, in this case the Kouyatés and Diabatés.

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When the Malians fled, some arrived in the remote Mbera Camp in eastern Mauritania, where they remain.

‘Partied for two nights’

Manny Ansar, the director of the celebrated Festival in the Desert, recounts how he arrived at the camp with a group of artists from all corners of Mali. He did not quite know how the welcome would be.

“If you’re a minister or another politician,” he said, “and you show up at the camp, the refugees will throw stones at you.”

But in the end, the reception was warm and overwhelming.

“That’s the power of culture,” Ansar said.

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In Mbera Camp, an unlikely setting for a concert, people pulled together to build a stage using sandbags as support material. For 50,000 people living so far from home, this was the first time they could reconnect with their country and its music.

“We just partied for two nights,” Ansar told VOA.

Concerts on three continents

The concert in Mauritania is one of a series of concerts on three continents. It’s called the Cultural Caravan for Peace, and Ansar has been the driving force behind it.

The caravan has two main aims, he said. One is to contribute to reconciliation in Mali. And nothing can carry this message more effectively than music. Seeing singers and musicians from the northern, central and southern parts of Mali on a stage together sends a powerful message of peace and understanding.

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The other purpose of the caravan is to offer a different voice to the seductive sound of jihadist extremism, the ideology that sent so many of Mali’s musicians into exile.

This call for unity and against extremism is traveling around the world. There are stops in Morocco, where the caravan joins with the Taragalt Festival on the edge of the Sahara Desert; Ségou, on the Niger River, Burkina Faso. And next year, Malian music will dazzle crowds in Europe and the United States.

The Cultural Caravan for Peace will be in the United States, May 1 to June 7, 2017. (VOA)

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We Will make you Zero To Hero: This is how Jihadist ISIS Lures Western potential Recruits

The Chicago Project on Security and Threats has concluded that ISIS often targets Western recruits with heroic outcomes

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ISIS actively Lures Recruits from the West for its Jihadi Agenda
FILE - Fighters from the Islamic State group parade in Raqqa, north Syria, June 30, 2014. VOA

Beyond the slick, Hollywood-style cinematics, the Islamic State is targeting Western recruits with videos suggesting they, too, can be heroes like Bruce Willis’ character in Die Hard.

That’s the conclusion of The Chicago Project on Security and Threats, which analyzed some 1,400 videos released by IS between 2013 and 2016. Researchers who watched and catalogued them all said there is more to the recruitment effort than just sophisticated videography, and it’s not necessarily all about Islam.

Instead, Robert Pape, who directs the security center, said the extremist group is targeting Westerners — especially recent Muslim converts — with videos that follow, nearly step-by-step, a screenwriter’s standard blueprint for heroic storytelling.

ISIS targets Western recruits with Hollywood style heroism
Islamic State is recruiting Westerns by using Hollywood-style cinematics, like that seen in the story of “Wonder Woman,” in which a character learns his or her own powers through the course of their reluctant journey to be hero. VOA

“It’s the heroic screenplay journey, the same thing that’s in Wonder Woman, where you have someone who is learning his or her own powers through the course of their reluctant journey to be hero,” Pape said.

Heroic storytelling

The project at the University of Chicago separately has assembled a database of people who have been indicted in the United States for activities related to IS. Thirty-six percent were recent converts to Islam and did not come from established Muslim communities, according to the project. Eighty-three percent watched IS videos, the project said.

Bruce Willis in movie Die Hard 4.0
FILE – U.S. actor Bruce Willis poses for the photographers during a photo call for his new movie “Die Hard 4.0” in Berlin, Germany, June 18, 2007. VOA

The group’s success in using heroic storytelling is prompting copycats, Pape said. The research shows al-Qaida’s Syria affiliate has been mimicking IS’ heroic narrative approach in its own recruitment films. “We have a pattern that’s emerging,” Pape said.

Intelligence and law enforcement officials aren’t sure the approach is all that new. They say IS has been using any method that works to recruit Westerners. Other terrorism researchers think IS’ message is still firmly rooted in religious extremism.

Rita Katz, director of SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks messaging by militant groups, agrees that IS makes strong, visual appeals resembling Hollywood movies and video games, making its media operation more successful than al-Qaida’s. And IS videos can attract hero wannabes, she said.

“However, these features of IS media are only assets to a core message it uses to recruit,” Katz said. “At the foundation of IS recruitment propaganda is not so much the promise to be a Hollywood-esque hero, but a religious hero. There is a big difference between the two.”

Promise of martyrdom

When a fighter sits in front of a camera and calls for attacks, Katz said, he will likely frame it as revenge for Muslims killed or oppressed somewhere in the world. The message is designed to depict any terror attack in that nation as justified and allow the attacker to die as a martyr, she said.

The promise of religious martyrdom is powerful to anybody regardless of whether they are rich or poor, happy or unhappy, steeped in religion or not at all, she said.

Pape said he knows he’s challenging conventional wisdom when he says Westerners are being coaxed to join IS ranks not because of religious beliefs, but because of the group’s message of personal empowerment and Western concepts of individualism.

How else can one explain Western attackers’ loose connections to Islam, or their scarce knowledge of IS’s strict, conservative Sharia law, he asked. IS is embracing, not rejecting, Western culture and ideals, to mobilize Americans, he said.

“This is a journey like Clint Eastwood,” Pape said, recalling Eastwood’s 1970s performance in High Plains Drifter about a stranger who doles out justice in a corrupt mining town. “When Clint Eastwood goes in to save the town, he’s not doing it because he loves them. He even has contempt for the people he’s saving. He’s saving it because he’s superior,” Pape said.

“That’s Bruce Willis in Die Hard. That’s Wonder Woman. … Hollywood has figured out that’s what puts hundreds of millions in theater seats,” Pape said. “IS has figured out that’s how to get Westerners.”

12-step guide

Pape said the narrative in the recruitment videos targeting westerners closely tracks Chris Vogler’s 12-step guide titled “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.” The book is based on a narrative identified by scholar Joseph Campbell that appears in drama and other storytelling.

Step No. 1 in Vogler’s guide is portraying a character in his “ordinary world.”

An example is a March 25, 2016, video released by al-Qaida’s Syria branch about a young British man with roots in the Indian community. It starts: “Let us tell you the story of a real man … Abu Basir, as we knew him, came from central London. He was a graduate of law and a teacher by profession.”

Vogler’s ninth step is about how the hero survives death, emerging from battle to begin a transformation, sometimes with a prize.

In the al-Qaida video, the Brit runs through sniper fire in battle. He then lays down his weapon and picks up a pen to start his new vocation blogging and posting Twitter messages for the cause.

‘Zero to hero’

Matthew Levitt, a terrorism expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says it doesn’t surprise him that IS would capitalize on what he dubs the “zero to hero” strategy because the organization is very pragmatic and accepts recruits regardless of their commitment to Islamic extremism.

Heroic aspirations are only one reason for joining the ranks of IS, he said. Criminals also seek the cover of IS to commit crimes. Others sign up because they want to belong to something.

“I’ve never seen a case of radicalization that was 100 percent one way or the other,” Levitt said. (VOA)