Last month, Ahmad Faqi Al-Mahdi pleaded guilty before the International Criminal Court (ICC) for his part in the destruction of important cultural heritage sites in Timbuktu, Mali, while a member of an Al-Qaeda affiliated militant group in 2012. A member of Ansar Dine, an extremist Tuareg terrorist group from northern Mali, Al-Mahdi facilitated the desecration of various centuries-old mausoleums in Timbuktu during Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) control of the area. Al-Mahdi was arrested in late 2015 to be tried for war crimes after the French intervention in Mali two years prior freed the region from the militants. The trial marked the first time anyone was convicted by the ICC for the crime of destruction of cultural heritage.
An important site for Islamic and African history, Timbuktu remains a city full of valuable artifacts and ancient landmarks. As a key city in the medieval trans-Saharan trade network, Timbuktu became the capital of the Mali Empire and grew to be a center of learning and Islamic scholarship. The city’s libraries, mosques, mausoleums, and collection of Islamic manuscripts bear the most historical significance, and the UNESCO World Heritage Center designated certain sites as World Heritage Sites in 1988. These selected sites were marked as World Heritage Sites in Danger during the armed conflict in Mali.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb emerged out of Algeria in 2007 and pledged their commitment to the goals of Al-Qaeda and Salafism. The terrorist organization expanded its operations across North Africa and the Sahel, primarily carrying out insurgencies in Mali, Algeria, and Niger. As an Al-Qaeda offshoot, AQIM follows the radical Salafist doctrine, which promotes the use of violence to achieve societies based on a strict interpretation of the Qu’ran. The rejection of Western influences and culture remains a major part of the terrorist network’s core ideology. Ansar Dine is a militant group committed to the formation of Azawad, an independent state for the nomadic Tuareg people. During the conflict in Northern Mali, the sites at Timbuktu were targeted due to AQIM and Ansar Dine’s opposition to the veneration of shrines and tourism. Many of the sites were also looted for the illicit antiquities trade, a key source of funding for terrorist organizations.
While there is international precedent for the protection of cultural heritage sites, the Al-Mahdi court decision is groundbreaking. Certain conventions exist to prevent the destruction of certain sites and artifacts during armed conflicts. For example, the Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage was established in 1972, and almost a decade ago, in 2003, the Declaration Concerning the Intentional Destruction of Cultural Heritage was announced. Despite these conventions, no perpetrator has been punished for the destruction of cultural heritage until this year with Al-Mahdi’s guilty plea.
As ongoing conflicts around the world also feature the desecration of ancient or religious sites, it is possible that the Al-Mahdi case can set a precedent for future instances of this form of destruction. For example, the Syrian Civil War has seen the destruction of much of Syria’s classical heritage, and the operations of the Taliban in Afghanistan have also caused the destruction of historic Buddhist sites. As the international community begins to hold non-state actors accountable for war crimes, it is possible that these crimes against world heritage can be litigated through international legal institutions.
Hersher, Rebecca. " Militant Who Destroyed Mali Cultural Sites Pleads Guilty To War Crimes." National Public Radio. N.p., 22 August 2016. Web.
"Need to know: ICC Timbuktu destruction trial." Global Justice. N.p., 19 August 2016. Web.
Image: © STRINGERimages | Dreamstime.com - The flag of the new International Criminal Court
Matt Hinson is a senior in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University studying International History with a focus on religion & violence in the modern Middle East. His research interests include civil wars, terrorism, and national security.