The jihadists’ frightening new front

The Economist

Extreme Islamists are threatening the region—and an ancient African heritage

LEGEND held that the main gate of Timbuktu’s Sidi Yahya mosque, a wood-panelled affair with metalwork cast in the shape of crescent moons, would open only at the end of time. In a metaphorical sense that is what Islamist militants linked to al-Qaeda who control the ancient trading-post in northern Mali have now unleashed. On July 2nd they battered down the ancient entrance with picks and shovels to “destroy its mystery” as part of a city-wide programme of cultural vandalism inspired by religious zeal that has left inhabitants aghast with horror. Destroyed, too, are eight mausoleums and a number of saints’ tombs. More wreckage is feared.

“Everyone is furious with the Islamists,” says Assane Traore, a tour guide in happier times. “It’s as if they are hacking off parts of our bodies.” Some residents say they want to demonstrate against “the bearded ones”, says Mr Traore, but many are too fearful. In its heyday Timbuktu was a hub of learning that grew rich on duties from the trans-Saharan trade in gold, ivory, salt and slaves. When the mysticism of wandering Sufis fused with pre-Islamic beliefs, it became known as the “City of 333 Saints”.

Two armed groups that dominate the town—Ansar Eddine and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, known in security circles as AQIM—reckon such reverence is unIslamic idolatry. “All of this is haram (forbidden),” scolded a militant spokesman, who threatened to destroy every tomb in the city “without exception”. Irina Bokova, head of UNESCO, the UN’s cultural agency, has called the demolition “an attack against the physical evidence that peace and dialogue are possible.” Scholars fear that tens of thousands of brittle manuscripts collected in the city in its zenith, arguably Africa’s greatest ancient literary heritage, are at risk too.

But like Afghanistan’s Taliban, who turned their tanks on two colossal statues of the Buddha in 2001, the Malian jihadists’ iconoclasm may serve an ulterior purpose. They may want the world to know that Timbuktu is now theirs—and that no one can stop them. For they have routed the Tuareg separatists whose rebellion they hijacked, driving their fighters into the desert and their leaders into exile following a bloody battle at the end of June.

Mali’s capital, Bamako, some 700km (430 miles) to the south, is still in disarray, following a military coup in March. The 15-country Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the most influential regional club, talks of military intervention. But any effective peacekeeping force would need UN or French military co-operation that is not yet in the offing. Meanwhile AQIM and its allies threaten to attack any capital whose government sends troops. The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, an AQIM splinter, claimed responsibility for a suicide-bombing in Algeria on June 29th that seemed to underline the threat.

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