Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi: Mali jihadist facing war crimes trial in The Hague over Timbuktu mausoleum desecration

The International Criminal Court is the first ever to charge an individual for war crimes against a historic and cultural monument

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The Independent Online

It was, the prosecutor said, “a callous assault on the dignity and identity of entire populations and their religion and historical roots”, as she laid out war crime charges against Mali jihadist Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi. Yet this was not about taking lives or physically torturing victims, but something unprecedented in international law: the desecration of cultural heritage.

The hearing at the International Criminal Court in The Hague is the first ever to charge an individual for war crimes against a historic and cultural monument – in this case, the mausoleums of Timbuktu. 

Mr al-Faqi, a former trainee teacher, is accused of leading the 2012 attack by al-Qaeda affiliate Ansar Dine against the 15th century historic shrines. An ethnic Tuareg, known as Abu Tourab, he sat impassively in court, wearing a collarless white tunic and rimless spectacles, with his headphones barely visible under his straggly black curly hair. He only responded once, when the court’s president, Judge Joyce Aluoch, addressed him directly. “Yes, I have understood the charges well,” he said, in Arabic.

Mr al-Faqi was among Tuareg rebels that seized Timbuktu for a few months in 2012, before French and Malian troops ousted them the following year. He was arrested in neighbouring Niger and transferred to the court last September.

As leader of the so-called “manners brigade”, Mr al-Faqi is accused of planning and leading the attacks on nine mausoleums and a mosque with pick-axes and iron bars. The prosecution showed video clips of him being interviewed at the time, explaining the Islamic jurisprudence behind his actions. 

Founded by Tuareg tribes in the 5th century, Timbuktu has near mythical status as “the city of 333 saints” and the “Pearl of the Desert”. 

Prosecutors noted that its destruction was among a series of recent cultural desecrations, including the razing of Palmyra in Syria by Isis; the bombing of Aleppo by Syrian combatants and Russia forces; and the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in 2001.