The charismatic military leader of Salafist rebels in Mali may just be helping to found an Islamic caliphate but he is also taking apart an ancient city’s heritage.
Oumar Ould Hamaha is a one-man whirlwind of piety and fury. For more than a decade he has — by his own account and others — raided government outposts in Mauritania, Algeria and Niger; held Western hostages for extravagant ransoms, and proselytized a ferocious asceticism over the barrel of a gun. Riding with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, he crisscrossed the shadowless Sahara in the service of a god he envisioned as unforgiving as the desert itself. He invoked Koranic verses to protect himself from the “evil work of devils” and “the biting of snakes and scorpions,” learned to navigate by the sun, moon and stars, and believed that meteor showers were battles between djinns and angels. It has been a ferocious transformation for a former student of accounting.
Since April, Hamaha, a man with a flaming red tuft of a beard and an oratorical style to match, has emerged as one of the most visible figures of the Islamist takeover of Mali’s ethnic Tuareg rebellion–even though he is an ethnic Arab. Clad in a camouflage smock and turban and clutching his Kalashnikov, he has become a familiar sight on the streets of Timbuktu. Residents say he mixes his fiery sermons with small acts of kindness — and poses for photos. He is implacably bound to a 21st Century re-imagining of 7th Century Islam. “We are fighting in the name of religion,” he tells TIME by phone from Timbuktu, in one of several conversations over recent weeks that paint a rare portrait of the jihadist. “You know,” he says, “Our struggle has just begun.”
He has championed the demolition of several Muslim mausoleums that UNESCO had declared historic. He said the destruction was justified on the grounds that “those who believe” in the veneration of such shrines “are driven by Satan.” On Tuesday, the Islamists in Timbuktu reportedly destroyed two more tombs at the 14th Century Djingareyber mosque.”It’s forbidden by Islam to pray on tombs and ask for blessings,” says Hamaha, “Ansar Eddine is showing the rest of world, especially Western countries, that whether they want it or not, we will not let the younger generation believe in shrines as God, regardless of what the U.N., UNESCO, International Criminal Court or ECOWAS [the Economic Community of West African States] have to say. We do not recognize these organizations. The only thing we recognize is the court of God, shar’ia. Shar’ia is a divine obligation, people don’t get to choose whether they like it or not.” Continue reading