Wanting to do as much damage to the world as possible, al-Qaeda militants retreating from French troops in conflict-ridden Mali torched a number of buildings housing priceless manuscripts and other artefacts, some dating back to the 13th century.
Timbuktu, the city storing the manuscripts, is a place synonymous with remoteness and adventure. The town itself has been under militant control for over 10 months and only in the past week has it been returned to implicit Malian government control.
|AFP PHOTO / HO / UN PHOTO / Evan Schneider|
The wanton destruction and callous disregard for human history is simply the latest example of a poisonous ideology still managing to attract dutiful followers. As in Afghanistan, when the new Taliban rulers, drunk on power and enacting a similarly pious assignment, blew up beautiful statues of Buddha in the Bamyan province, so too are Islamists in Mali attempting to eviscerate history in their new holy war-front.
When the Islamists barrelled in to Timbuktu last year they quickly set about enacting the extremely conservative view of Islam known as Sharia. The local women were made to cover their faces and bodies, female images were obscured on billboards, and the city’s iconic music scene was forced to lay down their instruments.
Caught on mobile camera in a bizarre synthesis of high technology and ancient ideology, tombs were desecrated as a supposed act of holy fervour, even though the mausoleums host the remains of long-dead Muslim holy men.
The groups took pickaxes and shovels, levelling mausoleums dating back to 900AD. Apparently, in the warped thinking of the al-Qaeda zealots, any veneration of the holy men, including the tombs themselves, count as idolatry. The heretical crime is obviously disciplined through total destruction.
The destruction was proudly described as, “a divine order” according to a spokesman for the Islamist group Ansar Dine. The group is affiliated with the deeply unpopular al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which explains much of the pathetic motivation for such barbarian callousness.
Speaking to the Daily Mail, Timbuktu city mayor Ousmane Halle said: “They torched all the important ancient manuscripts. The ancient books of geography and science. It is the history of Timbuktu, of its people.”
UNESCO, the U.N.’s cultural agency, tragically reports that as many as half of Timbuktu’s shrines “have been destroyed in a display of fanaticism.” The sites belong to a unique set of World Heritage treasures, the destruction of which has been called a war crime by the International Criminal Court’s new chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda.
Members of Ansar Dine threw down the doors of the 15th century Sidi Yahya mosque. It might not seem like much but local tradition believes the doors would only open at the end of the world. For the quiet desert crossroads of Timbuktu, the militant desolation is the closest they must have felt to the end times.
And yet, some good news appears on the horizon. The Islamist groups torched the artefacts and raised the tombs when they realised French and African troops were impending on the city. French forces quickly took Timbuktu using air assaults and parachute jumps on February 2.
France has now achieved full control of the territory it wanted to secure during Operation Serval. Special operations forces supported by airstrikes pushed the militant groups out of southern Mali, clearing out rebel positions in the top half of the hourglass-shaped country.
Having completed the assault phase of the intervention, the Malian conflict appears to be transitioning into a second phase. African troops are being readied for deployment into northern Mali to take over stability operations and act as security during a return to normalcy as the locals try to pick up the pieces of a somewhat broken country.
French and other NATO forces were able to make strong, fast headway in the Malian conflict due to overwhelming firepower and highly-trained troops. However, al-Qaeda militants were not caught unawares by the international forces.
It is likely these groups have melted into the background of the local population in classic guerrilla-style tactics, waiting for the inevitable departure of the bulk of French forces. Engaging a superior military force would be folly for the militants, so living to fight another day is prudent.
The militants have time on their side, whereas the French will not wish to commit large stabilising forces in a massive, sparsely-populated, desert country any longer than necessary.
Protection of the World Heritage sites is part of the security package for NATO and African intervention forces. Some will say the military engagement was too long delayed, given that first serious signs of instability were spotted more than 10 months ago. It may have been possible to prevent some of the more rampant devastation had western forces acted earlier.
But the international teams are in-country now. They are fighting against the militants, and appear to have won the first round. Some special operations forces and around 5000 African troops will remain in Mali for the foreseeable future to prevent any large scale return of militants.
Elections will be held in Bamako, the country’s capital, in due time. Getting the country back on its feet is essential if the militants are to be successfully quelled in the long term. But stability will be a complex goal and not one likely to be reached in the short term.