Recent headlines from Mali about the destruction of UNESCO World Heritage sites by armed extremist groups have grabbed the world’s attention. The group, Ansar al Din destroyed shrines and graves venerating Sufi saints in the northern town of Timbuktu. Reports say that residents watched on in silent agony as about 40 heavily armed men destroyed a century-old wooden door to a mosque and took pick-axes to the outer walls.
This was just one of the sites attacked and damaged in previous weeks. On July 18, 2012, the Malian government requested that the International Criminal Court investigate potential war crimes committed by Ansar al Din in northern Mali, including the destruction of these historical sites and mass attacks on civilians. The Court has not yet confirmed whether it will take on the case.
The crisis began when Tuareg fighters, many fleeing from the violence in Libya last year, seized control of the north and demanded an independent state for the Tuareg minority population, which is spread across the Sahara’s national borders. Then, in March 2012, low ranking officers in Mali’s army overthrew the civilian government in a coup, complaining of a lack of supplies and competent leadership in the fight against the Tuareg uprising.
So far, Mali’s government in the capital Bamako has been unable to reunite the northern provinces with the rest of the country because of internal divisions and a small and insufficient fighting force. In the last month, the hardcore Ansar al Din have won the upper hand in the north, chasing the Tuareg groups from power and imposing on the population severe rules they claim conform with Islamic law.
The International Crisis Group warns that failure to find a peaceful way to reunite northern and southern Mali will allow terrorist and extremist groups to operate with impunity in Mali’s northern regions. This promises to bring not only significant hardship to the remaining civilian population in the north, but also threatens to spread violence to Mali’s neighbors and to potentially targets outside of West and North Africa. While it is clear that Mali’s military of 4,000 troops will not be capable of seriously challenging the extremist’s hold on the north, any international intervention, led by the Economic Community of West African States (ECWAS) or the United Nations seems distant and highly complicated.
It is sad that it took the destruction of Timbuktu’s historic sites to bring the world’s attention to Mali, and every indication is that this conflict is unlikely to die away soon. Muftah’s contributing Sahel Blog and The Moor Next Door offer much more detail and insight on the ongoing conflict in Mali. Be sure to follow their reporting as the situation in Mali unfolds.