The Islamists hijacking a rebellion in Timbuktu

Militiaman from the Ansar Dine Islamic group in northeastern Mali

Some residents have been abandoning the city of Timbuktu in Mali because of the deadly unrest hitting the West African nation, but others have stayed there despite the tension.

I was alone, and ambling through the cheerfully shambolic market in Timbuktu, swerving to avoid the donkeys, and stopping to chat to some of the traders.

For the past week everyone, from the governor to my guide and translator, Halis, had been earnestly assuring me that Timbuktu was safe. The threats of al-Qaeda, and of kidnapping, were being wildly exaggerated.

I got talking to an Arab trader in the market. Friendly enough. But when he asked me what hotel I was staying at, a small mental alarm bell rang, and I changed the subject.

A few minutes later, I found my guide Halis, and mentioned the conversation to him. His smile was chased away by something close to panic.

I know I said it is safe here, he said. But you need to be careful.


That was 2009.

Today - the worst, half-formed fears of many in Timbuktu have turned into a choking reality.

The headlines tell a story of sudden, unexpected catastrophe.

First, came the revolution in Libya. When it ended, weapons flooded south across the Sahara.

That prompted some Tuareg tribesmen - dreaming of an independent state in northern Mali - to launch an armed rebellion earlier this year.

But the rebellion was hijacked.

Islamist militants, many from neighbouring countries, charged across the sand dunes - with even more guns and more money.

And today, Timbuktu is under Sharia law.

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Timbuktu is half empty. Anyone with the money and the opportunity has fled”

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Gunmen patrol the streets, arresting men for smoking, forcing women to veil their faces.

The town's ancient Islamic shrines - the mausoleums of local Sufi saints - are being methodically torn down, and ploughed back into the Saharan sands, by militant outsiders who believe, scrupulously, that intolerance is a virtue.

Of course the roots of all this go back far beyond the last few months.

The modern world has not been kind to the tribes scraping a living from the barren fringes of the desert.

Climate change is part of it - but ships and planes and globalisation have also destroyed the need for the camel trains that used to bring legitimate goods across the Sahara.

So the smugglers took over - ferrying drugs, guns, and migrants towards Europe.

Then came the militants, hiding in the desert among the smugglers, making money from kidnapping - destroying Mali's emerging tourism industry in the process.

Now, Timbuktu is half empty. Halis has fled, so has anyone else with the money and the opportunity.

I have been speaking by phone to several people who have stayed on. All of them asked me not to use their names.

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"I am very scared," said one man who used to work in the tourism industry. "My family cannot leave the house any more. We thought these people were rebels. But they are not.

"They are al-Qaeda. They steal everything. They are not good Muslims. We eat once a day. Sometimes not at all. And now they go to our mosques and destroy all our important things. Some are 400 years old."

I have never been to a place more in touch, more enthralled, with its own history than Timbuktu. It may be a dusty backwater these days, but it was once the Oxford of Africa - a thriving 15th Century university town. People still keep boxes of ancient manuscripts in their storerooms, and garages.

The former South African President, Thabo Mbeki, helped to organise the building of a new library and research centre to save the manuscripts for future generations.

Timbuktu, he said, was a critical link to Africa's glorious past - a place that refutes the ignorant, racist, "Tarzan and savages" view of the continent's history.

Islamist militants destroying an ancient shrine Islamist fighters have used pick-axes, shovels and hammers to shatter Muslim shrines in Timbuktu

When I was there in 2009, the new library had yet to open, but workmen supervised by international experts, were stripping back layers of ancient mud from the giant Sankore mosque in the centre of town, then carefully slapping on a new, glistening coat.

This week, the town's new guardians have been hard at work, attacking shrines with pickaxes and shovels, and destroying the door of another important mosque - a door that, according to local tradition, will bring misfortune if it is opened.

There is talk now of a military offensive, led by Malian government troops and neighbouring armies, to liberate a region that many fear is becoming a new hub for militants from Nigeria to Somalia and beyond.

In theory, it should not be too hard. On a map, the region looks vast - the size of France. But it is mostly desert, with a handful of small towns, now largely abandoned by the civilian population.

Still, these things take time. Who knows what will be left of Timbuktu's heritage?

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  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    The phrase YOU REAP WHAT YOU SOW has finally come back to haunt Mali.The corrupt MADINKA hegemony in Bamako has done everything in its power to deprive the TUAREG of even the basic necessities needed for survival.It was only a matter of time before the TUAREG took up arms.Fifty years of corruption and nepotism won't go unchallenged forever

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    ''Timbuktu, [Thabo Mbeki] said, was a critical link to Africa's glorious past - a place that refutes the ignorant, racist "Tarzan and savages" view of the continent's history.''

    Looks like the savages have taken over!

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    Just now...Mali militants recruit children.

    If there is a hell on earth, we may have found it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    Has anyone read the Quran, it is a hogpodge of religious ideas, social mores and civil law. And anyone can interpret any part of it anyway they want to. How can someone expect anything other than chaos from this?

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    I have listened to: From Our Own Correspondent: BBC Radio 4.
    Nothing I heard changed my basic opinion - some may dream of a military take-back of the north. Dream on. It is the size of France & very few know how to navigate it. Only way forward I can see is to help locals take back their own cities. Otherwise, there will be no Festival in the Desert in 2013.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Mali cannot retake North militarily. Security forces never controlled North. ECOWAS cannot retake North either. Regional troops could support police or peacekeeping in South, but are not suited to fighting either National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) or Islamists. ECOWAS has no capacity to hunt AQIM or defeat Tuareg rebels.

  • Comment number 44.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 43.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Islamic fighters...pathetic pieces of humanity. Cruel, ignorant males who have nothing and seem 'hell' bent that no one else does either.

  • Comment number 41.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    Strangely, there are no mobs of righteously enraged Muslims marching in the streets to defend the 'holy sites' .... unlike when US destroyed unwanted Qurans. So apparently when its inter Muslim violence, then mosque and Quran destruction is OK? ... Hypocrites?

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    All these extremists are ultimately prompted by the same creed as that of Salafists elsewhere i.e. the intolerant Wahabism of Saudi Arabia, which has been exported abroad in the form of 'aid' for the last 50 yrs. The painted mosques of Bosnia, are all white now after Saudi aid was turned into mosques.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Maometto - 'Why is this ugly destructive version of Islam coming to the surface in particular in the last 2 decades?'

    Coincidentally they have existed since advances in technology such as the internet which gave the world the ability to see how the other half lives. I guess this type of uneducated behaviour is essentially born out of anger and frustration at their fortune.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    The Buddha Statues destruction in Bamiyan, by zealous islamists, the destruction of SO many places of worship everywhere islam conquered by zealous islamists over the centuries to the current pathetic destruction of their own oldest history by zealous islamists to the constant inter muslim savagery and blood lust we see in the islamic world are the products of islam & the legacy of the prophet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    The world's hunger for fossil fuels has pumped Saudi Arabia full of money allowing their home brand of Wahhabists (so called Salafist!) to spread influence and power over many Muslim communities across the globe, especially in impoverished nations. Tightly protected by the US and western powers, SA is one of the most backwards, intolerant, undemocratic societies on the planet - and our ally.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    Islam is not peaceful, neither are most religions. As for following a God, as opposed to Buddha etc, well at least Buddha may well have existed rather than a Bible/Quran-God, that no one can actually prove does exist alongside a fairytale book. Moderate religions is fine and i fully agree that the media have an agenda with Islam, that said, Islam is not tolerant and is hypocritical.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Why is this not surprising. As long as they keep it among themselves let them fight each other

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    call them as u want (shrines/mosques), these places have existed for centuries and muslims lived around them and took care of them. Why is this ugly destructive version of Islam coming to the surface in particular in the last 2 decades? why these salafist extremists didn't exist before? Before pointing to the evils of Islam, can anyone answer that?

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    The shrine are Sufi, which is a branch of Islam. Presumably the invaders are Shi'ites or Sunnis - as far as I can see Moslems fight amongst themselves far more than against the West. Fine by me

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    @Ian post 27: just a slight correction - Islam actually means and translates as subservience or obedience. Stop peddling the notion that it is or means the religion of peace.


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