Ansar Dine are on the path of destroying mausoleums in Timbuktu

Mali Islamists armed with pick-axes try to destroy history.

1. As Ansar Dine are on the path of destroying shrines in Timbuktu, I think, it will get a lot of attention. But is it also significant? What does it tell us about Ansar Dine in your opinion?

2. Talking about the attention. We will probably hear comparisons to destroying of Buddhas of Bamiyan by Taliban. What will be and what should be the reaction of international community on Ansar Dine’s acts? Would you say it will somehow influence our approach toward Mali?

Answers:

Andrew Lebovich,  Washington-based researcher focused on security issues in the Sahel

1. I think the destruction of shrines is significant in that it shows a break with how Ansar Dine has behaved previously; before, when another shrine was destroyed by an Ansar Dine member in Timbuktu, the group’s spokesman blamed the actions on a “new member” and said there would be an investigation. Now the group is actively pursuing the destruction of shrines, despite the negative reaction such actions will almost certainly engender among local populations. This demonstrates either that they are confident enough to pursue a controversial plan they’ve held all along (in keeping with hardline interpretations of religious doctrine) or that more doctrinal ideologues within Ansar Dine (or AQIM) are pushing hard for the destruction of such sites.

2. The destruction of these sites has already engendered a major reaction from the international community, though as others have pointed out, the swift reaction in condemning the destruction of UNESCO sites can be contrasted with the relative quiet of members of the international community on the grave humanitarian crisis caused by hunger and the massive displacement of local populations as a result of the rebellion in the first place. As for the approach of the international community, I think it will likely only confirm for some the need to act to dislodge these groups, despite the fact that the challenges inherent to a military response in northern Mali remain present and difficult to overcome.

Jonathan Hill, Senior Lecturer, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London

1. The destruction of these shrines / tombs is significant for religious, cultural, and international political reasons. First, their destruction is an affront to the millions of West African Sufi Muslims who venerate the lives of the saints who are remembered and honoured by these shrines. And this is a calculated insult. Ansar Dine is making clear both its loathing for Sufi Muslims and determination to avoid seeking any sort of reconciliation with them. Indeed, by doing this, it has made any such reconciliation all the harder to achieve. It is deliberately trying to drive a wedge between its supporters and the Sufis.

Second, the destruction of the shrines is a crime against culture and history. Similar to the Taliban’s blowing up of the Buddhas of Bamiyan there will be international condemnation of this wanton and wholly unnecessary vandalism. But beyond statements of condemnation I don’t imagine much else will happen. Perhaps the French and Americans will try to help the Malian armed forces better protect other such sites but I don’t think there will be any outside military intervention.

Third, the destruction of the shrines is important for political reasons. But to understand these we must look at the broader regional context. To the north in Algeria there is Al Qaeda in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb, and to the south in Nigeria there is Boko Haram. All of these groups are opposed to Sufism, want to overthrow their respective governments, establish Islamic states, and are hostile to Europe and the U.S. These attacks, taken together with Boko Haram’s escalating campaign and alleged links with Al Qaeda in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb and Al Shabaab in Somali, are a worrying sign that a serious Islamist threat is emerging in the region. This, arguably, is the most important consequence.

2. Yet it is possible that Ansar Dine’s actions might prove to be self-defeating. The U.S. is undoubtedly becoming ever more concerned with what is happening in the region (see the U.S. House of Representatives recent report Boko Haram: Emerging Threat to the U.S. Homeland and General Ham’s recent comments). Antagonising the United States is always a dangerous game. And while I don’t think we will see the sort of direct military intervention that happened in Afghanistan and Iraq, I think the U.S. will continue to increase the amount of help and support it is giving to local governments and security forces.

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