The red wooden door of the 15th-century Sidi Yahya Mosque in Timbuktu—10 feet high and 12 feet long and, due to its age, held together by bits of wire—was decorated in the Morrocan style with metal stars and moons embedded in the wood. The legend went that, if it was ever opened, it would signal the end of the world.
Last week, Islamist separatists affiliated with al Qaeda tore down the door and demolished the tombs of several revered Muslim saints.
And for many in the West African nation of Mali, it felt like the world had come to an end.
The destruction by the group known as Ansar Dine is eerily reminiscent to the events in Afghanistan in 2001, when the Taliban blew up the revered Buddhas of Bamiyan.
“The two events are very similar,” UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Culture, Francesco Bandarin, told The Daily Beast. “They are the cultural destruction and desecration by armed extreme Islamic groups that have seized power.”
In January, the secular Tuareg separatist group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), started a revolt against the Bamako-based government and by March had control over the country’s entire northern territory. But in April, after a military coup in Bamako, Islamist groups—most notably, Ansar Dine, which has aligned itself with al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb—took over most areas held by the MNLA. Unlike the MNLA, Ansar Dine wants to institute Sharia.
The Islamist group comprises a small foreign group of fighters, who, according to former deputy assistant secretary for Africa at the State Department Todd Moss, number “in the hundreds, not the thousands,” though they are well trained and well funded.
And in a few short months, they have wreaked havoc in Mali.
Since the April coup, 230,000 people are reported to have fled the country while more than 155,000 have become internally displaced. In the past, Mali, like Afghanistan, has been ignored by the West, presenting an opening for al Qaeda strategists who see opportunity in places of poverty, chaos, and weak governance. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé has been warning of the “expanding terrorism threat” in the area.
The presence of Ansar Dine in Mali won’t be tolerated by either the West or the African Union, predicted Bandarin of UNESCO. “This is a sign of things to come. I can’t predict anything but…a military intervention is very possible.”
Moss, now the vice president for programs at the Center for Global Development, agrees that the situation is “extremely fluid” and that the international community won’t allow al Qaeda–affiliated groups to establish a safe haven in Mali. “If that means war from the air, that’s what it means,” he said. (The United States has already dispatched a small number of special forces. But Moss said he didn’t believe that the U.S. or France would put a significant number of troops on the ground.)
While the West and Africa try to figure out what is to be done, the treasures of Timbuktu continue to be destroyed—and many fear the historic libraries full of ancient manuscripts will be destroyed or pillaged next. “Malian Islamic scholars have worked for years protect them, with foreign backing,” Bandarin said. “I have no idea what has happened with the manuscripts so far, but the situation can change very rapidly. These are valuable goods and can be pillaged. We have warned all surrounding countries to watch for stolen goods, but the borders [of Mali] are huge, in the middle of nowhere and not patrolled. The manuscripts are at high risk of being of lost.”
People in Mali—both in the north and in the south—are appalled at the foreign fighters and their (few) local converts, whom many consider thugs.
“The al Qaeda presence has destroyed the economy and made it unsafe for tourists,” said Guy Lankester, an African blogger, who has organized tours in Mali for years via his West African travel company, From Here 2 Timbuktu. “All the big hotels in Mali are closing down…and everyone’s getting laid off. Businesses are closing and people are selling off whatever they can to survive.”
Lankester said that many of his Tuareg employees have left Timbuktu, Gao, and the surrounding cities. “Anyone who has the means has left northern Mali.”
One employee, a Tuareg named Mamiti, was kidnapped and beaten by Islamists after trying to protect the Hounde Hotel, a women’s cooperative, owned by a French partnership. “The MNLA freed him,” Lankester said. “But he had to leave Timbuktu very shortly afterwards. All the men in the area were being press ganged and conscripted into joining the MNLA or Ansar Dine. Unfortunately, Ansar Dine’s ranks have grown because they are offering payment to people while the MNLA is not.”
Ansar Dine and al Qaeda in the Mahgreb, he said, are basically “contraband bandits who got in with the Salafists—they are controlled by the big drug smugglers in the region. It’s basically a load of hooligans awash in arms.”
Still, some worry that an intervention might bring more trouble.
“It would create even bigger risks for heritage,” Bandarin said. “I’m worried there could be fights that endanger even more. We can’t do anything here. We see this important place going into rubble at the hands of these crazy people.”