You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

What the Islamist Takeover of Northern Mali Really Means

Until a few weeks ago, Al Farouk, the patron djinn of Timbuktu, protected the ancient city in northern Mali. For centuries, from astride a winged horse in center of the city, the stone genie kept watch over the houses so that children didn’t sneak out at night. Legend had it that if Al Farouk caught you getting up to anything naughty, he’d warn you the first two times. If he nabbed you a third time, you’d disappear forever.

Now Al Farouk has disappeared. On June 30, days after UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, placed the city of Timbuktu on its list of endangered historical sites, Al Farouk’s statue was beheaded by a man called Abu Zaar. “People thought Al Farouk was the saint protector of the city,” he told French television. Abu Zaar belongs to Ansar al Dine, Defenders of the Faith, a militant group that recently seized control of Northern Mali and has aligned itself with Al Qaeda’s main franchise in Africa, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Abu Zaar said, “There’s only one protector. That’s us.”

Over the past two weeks, men in open jeeps with fluttering black flags have rolled up on many of Timbuktu’s 333 holy sites and taken pick axes to the ancient mud-hewn shrines. Since the Taliban blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001, Timbuktu’s holy sites are the first UNESCO World Heritage Sites to be systematically destroyed. This parallel is no accident. Like their Afghan precursors who aimed at erasing Buddhism’s long history in Afghanistan, the members of Ansar al Dine claim that decimating many the holy sites of Timbuktu is a matter of religious “cleansing.” Knocking down mud walls is their way to wipe Sufi religious history off of the African continent.

Destroying rival gods is nothing new. The ancient Romans called the practice damnatio memoriae. A new emperor would lop off the heads of his divine predecessor’s statues or re-carve the nose or chin on a face to reflect his own. This was, at its roots, a turf battle over power, and that’s what’s happening in Mali right now, where Ansar al Dine is one of several rival groups that has seized control of the north. Ansar al Dine considers Sufi Islam illegitimate because it involves the veneration of saints, as well as singing and dancing. Most Sufis, who make up the majority of Africa’s nearly 500 million Muslims, see it differently. They view their ecstatic prayers as authentic in contrast to what many call “Arabized Islam,” the newly imported and militant form of the faith that has gained ground in Africa, as elsewhere, over the past several decades.

This struggle reflects the complicated bid within Islam today over who is a legitimate believer and who isn’t—a clash within that is increasingly influential in determining the religious future of the world’s nearly two billion Muslims. Yet for Ansar Dine, which currently controls a region just shy of the size of Texas in northern Mali, Sufis are really just the means to create a public relations coup. Destroying tombs, flogging inadequately veiled women, imposing an arbitrary hudud, the Islamic criminal code—all of these actions are tools in their bid to grab the world’s attention, to identify with the putative glories of other international Islamist movements (including Al Qaeda), and in so doing, prove the reach of their own global power.

Indeed, on Youtube, where Ansar Dine videos proliferate, militants address a far-flung audience. “We are fighting for Islam,” one middle-aged-looking militant named Oumar with a hennaed beard and a black ammunition belt says in French, “We dominate the villages.” But take a closer look at what’s going on in northern Mali and you’ll realize those statements are largely bluster. The militants in northern Mali are neither fighting strictly for Islam, nor do they dominate politically nearly to the degree that they claim.

UNTIL RECENTLY, AL QAEDA’S efforts at propagating their violent ideas consistently failed in this region. In terms of geography, Mali lies within the Sahel, the grassy borderland that marks Africa’s shift from a dry north to a wetter south. This is the southern edge of the Sahara desert, which also marks the southern edge Islam’s historic reach across much of inland Africa. Mali lies just north of the zone where the northern most third of Africa, which is predominantly Muslim, meets the continent’s mostly Christian south.

Along this border, for nearly two decades, Al Qaeda tried to instill in African Muslims a sense of the strategic importance: the need to defend a faith that isn’t under really threat. According to their dualistic worldview, the proclaimed this region “the southern flank” of Dar-ul-Islam, the Land of Islam; this was the border where Dar-ul-Islam meets Dar-ul-Harb, the Land of War. But African Muslims didn’t much identify with this kind of thinking and most still overwhelmingly don’t.

About seven years ago, however, groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb began to emerge out of the wreckage of other, local battles where Islamists lost their bids for religious statehood. AQIM in particular grew out of group of Algerian militants, who, after failing to win control of Algeria, took to the Kabylie Mountains and declared allegiance to Osama bin Laden in 2006. (They changed their name to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in 2007.) But it has always been unclear to most analysts whether their bid to join Al Qaeda were expressions of fundamental weakness or rather a sign of strength.

Mali’s devolution this year from corrupt democracy to a growing safe haven for Al Qaeda has tipped the scales in favor of the latter interpretation. In a matter of days this past March, a military coup overthrew the democratically elected president in the south and a group of Muslim ethnic nomads called Tuaregs seized control of the north. Many of the Tuaregs intended to establish a secular independent of their own to be named Azawad, but as soon as they controlled land, their movement was hijacked from within by religious extremists.

Almost immediately, Ansar al Dine, a militant splinter group, took control. And despite the strenuous objections of secular Tuaregs, the militants began to assert their newfound power by terrorizing local people, enforcing arbitrary social codes, and decimating symbols of indigenous heritage. Thus did Tumbuktu follow in the footsteps of Kabul and Mogadishu, in presenting itself as an international haven for Islamists.

But it would still be a mistake to conflate what’s transpiring in northern Mali too closely with Al Qaeda. While the Tuaregs are mostly focused on their agenda of creating an independent state, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has an agenda with no interest in national boundaries. AQIM’s main goal is to propagate a global ideology that claims that Islam in Africa, as elsewhere, is under threat, and will soon rise-up in response to conquer the world.

Nevertheless, there are alarming affinities among these groups: In recent days, al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda linked militants fighting for an Islamic state in Somalia, and Boko Haram, the group waging a campaign of terror against Christians and fellow Muslims in nearby Nigeria, have declared common cause with Ansar al Dine. Although Ansar al Dine is primarily made up of Tuaregs, there are reports of Pakistani, Nigerian and possibly Yemeni fighters among them.

But, in reality, it’s the distinctions between the various Islamist groups, not their connections that are more important to keep in mind. “It’s important to distinguish between the multiple players in the north of Mali. They’re not a monolithic block,” Jennifer G. Cooke, the Director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic Studies, says. “The solutions lie in these divisions and fissures.”

Unfortunately, any such solutions are still impractical. The main political party of the Tuaregs in northern Mali, the MNLA, has been so appalled by the actions of Ansar al Dine that it has declared a willingness to abandon their bid for secession and to work with a national coalition government that can restore a single, unified, and secular Mali. But there is no such functioning government in the southern capitol of Bamako. And until there is, that gesture will receive no response.

“The problem is there’s no regional consensus or national consensus on what the solutions in Mali should be,” Professor Richard Lobban at the Naval War College said. “There’s consensus that it’s absolutely unacceptable to destroy World Heritage sites, but nobody knows what to do about it.”

In the meantime, the destruction of a sacred city will continue apace. For the Islamists reaping the rewards of their newfound notoriety, such destruction has been a victory. For everyone else, it has been a terribly defeat. As one resident put it, “Timbuktu is on the verge of losing its soul.” 

Eliza Griswold is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship.