3 Jul 2012

Militant attacks threaten Timbuktu’s Islam heritage

International outrage grows at the destruction of Timbuktu’s cherished mosques and mausoleums – but it time running out for Mali’s historic landmarks?

On the third day of attacks, Ansar Dine, a movement with links to al-Qaeda, has continued destroying sites it deems to be “idolatrous”.

Governments across the globe, including the United States, Russia and France, have called on Ansar Dine to stop the destruction.

A spokesperson for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office told Channel 4 News the government “strongly condemns the desecration and destruction of holy, historic and cultural sites” in the area.

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon has called the attacks “totally unjustified” and called on “all parties to exercise their responsibility to preserve the cultural heritage of Mali”.

The end of the world

The destruction has included smashing open the main gates of the Sidi Yahya mosque, doors which the local imam said were not meant to be opened until the last day of the world. It is believed that opening this door will bring around great misfortune.

Ansar Dine will today destroy every mausoleum in the city. All of them, without exception. Ansar Dine spokesman

At least eight of 16 protected mausoleums have also been destroyed. Timbuktu is called the “city of 333 saints”, and the mausoleums being destroyed contain saints who have been revered for hundreds of years.

Last week Unesco placed Timbuktu on its list of world heritage in danger over fears of increased violence in the area and pillaging of ancient manuscripts. The tomb of Askia in Gao, which is now also under the control of al-Qaeda linked Islamists, was also placed on the list.

Male Dioum, an entrepreneur who comes from Timbuktu, said: “These saints buried there, these Timbuktu saints, when you hear people talking about the saints of Timbuktu, it’s the saints that protect the town, who protect even the whole of Mali, the whole country.”

“Today old women, old people in Timbuktu say that maybe this is the end of the world. Because if they got as far as destroying mausoleums, it’s not going to stop there, it can’t stop there. It’s such an important thing.”

See a gallery of the Timbuktu’s cultural landmarks, and the damage being inflicted.

Why is it happening?

Ansar Dine is saying its attacks are religiously motivated, and that the Sufi Islam mausoleums are “idolatrous”.

A spokesman for Ansar Dine, Sanda Ould Boumama, told the AFP news agency: “Ansar Dine will today destroy every mausoleum in the city. All of them, without exception.”

The organisation wants to institute sharia law in northern Mali, an area which is now largely run by Tuareg rebel groups and al-Qaeda’s allies.

According to Susanna Wing, an associate professor in political science who specialises in Mali, it is “haram” (forbidden) to have mausoleums or to believe that a door is sacred.

Just religion?

But it could be argued the actions are not just religiously motivated, but are in fact a PR stunt to promote what could be the next African haven for terrorist groups.

Professor Wing told Channel 4 News: “It would seem entirely against the interest of Ansar Dine to act in such a fashion, at least in so far as local political dynamics are concerned. This will not win the hearts and minds of locals and will galvanize those opposed to them.

“That being said, they may be seeking to prove their strength and commitment to fundamentalist Islamism and the purification of Islam.

“They may hope to gain foreign attention and recruits who see the Sahel as a new sanctuary for jihad.”

Tourism to terror

Timbuktu has promoted itself as a tourist hotspot, both because of its historic landmarks and because of desert tourism. However, this changed at the start of 2012 when a group of Tuareg rebels rose up against the government in the north of Mali.

This led to the ousting of new leader Amadou Toumani Touré in a military coup over fears he was not handling the military uprising.

Following the coup, rebels under the banner of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad continued to seize territory in the north alongside Islamist, al-Qaeda linked allies.

However, this uneasy alliance collapsed last week when the Islamist groups, including Ansar Dine, turned on the NMLA and forced them out of Northern Mali’s major cities.

International condemnation

A number of countries have condemned the action by Ansar Dine:

United States: “The United States strongly condemns the destruction of the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Timbuktu by Islamists militants, including Ansar al-Dine.

“We call on all parties to protect Mali’s cultural heritage. And more broadly, we condemn the renewed fighting in the north and call on all groups to cease fire and engage with the mediators.

Russia: “Moscow strongly condemns acts of vandalism in Timbuktu and fully shares UNESCO’s alarm. We believe that this is one more reason to consolidate international efforts to restore Mali’s territorial integrity and secure law and order throughout the country.”

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said: “A new resolution is being discussed at the United Nations and we are hopeful that it will be adopted.

“That would enable our African friends to take a series of decisions and base themselves on international legality.”