Leader: Nihilism in Timbuktu

On 28 January, French and Malian troops liberated Timbuktu, bringing to an end a nine-month occupation of the Malian city by the Tuareg secessionist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad and Ansar Dine, an Islamist group with ties to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the most active outfit in the global jihadist franchise operation.

The Islamists’ parting gift to Timbuktu was an act of wanton destruction. Before their final retreat, they set fire to the Ahmad Babu Institute, which housed an extensive collection of cultural artefacts, including manuscripts dating back to the 14th century. According to one employee of the centre, “The wealth which has been burned will be impossible to replace. These manuscripts were the source of life for this city.”

There was understandable revulsion at this act of vandalism but not surprise. In June last year, two months after the black flag of jihad was raised over Timbuktu, Unesco placed the city on its list of World Heritage Sites in danger. The previous month, Ansar Dine cadres had burned the tomb of a Sufi saint and subsequently caused severe damage to the shrine of the Muslim scholar Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar. In Ansar Dine’s corrupted version of Islamic theology, shrines are idolatrous and must therefore be destroyed. One was reminded of the Taliban’s destruction of the ancient sandstone statues of the Buddha in the Hindu Kush mountains of central Afghanistan in March 2001. The Islamists’ indifference to Mali’s rich cultural heritage is a function of the logic of transnational jihad.

As the French scholar Olivier Roy argues in our cover story on page 22, none of al-Qaeda’s affiliates – in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen or elsewhere – has had deep social or cultural roots in the places in which they operate. Its strategy, Roy points out, is “global and deterritorialised” and its foot soldiers alienated and deracinated.

Al-Qaeda invariably acts as a parasite on local groups with specific grievances – and the situation in Mali is no different. The success of the French operation in that country depends on persuading the Tuareg rebels that they have nothing to gain from continuing to protect these nihilistic incomers.