Destroying Timbuktu: The Jihadist Who Inspires the Demolition of the Shrines

The charismatic military leader of Salafist rebels in Mali may just be helping to found an Islamic caliphate, but he is also taking apart an ancient city's heritage

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Omar Hamaha, the military chief of Ansar Eddine, the predominantly Tuareg, Salafist rebel outfit, in Timbuktu on April 3, 2012

Omar Hamaha is a one-man whirlwind of piety and fury. For more than a decade he has been accused of raiding government outposts in Mauritania, Algeria and Niger; he has allegedly held Western hostages for extravagant ransoms, and — without any doubt — preached a ferocious asceticism through the barrel of a gun as he proselytized across the region. Riding with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), he crisscrossed the shadowless Sahara in the service of a god he envisioned as unforgiving as the desert itself. He invoked Koranic verses to protect himself from the “evil work of devils” and “the biting of snakes and scorpions,” learned to navigate by the sun, moon and stars, and believed that meteor showers were battles between jinnis and angels. It has been a ferocious transformation for a former student of accounting.

Since April, Hamaha, a man with a flaming red tuft of a beard and an oratorical style to match, has emerged as one of the most visible figures of the Islamist takeover of Mali’s ethnic Tuareg rebellion — even though he is an ethnic Arab. Clad in a camouflage smock and turban and clutching his Kalashnikov, he has become a familiar sight on the streets of Timbuktu. Residents say he mixes his fiery sermons with small acts of kindness — and poses for photos. He is implacably bound to a 21st century reimagining of 7th century Islam. “We are fighting in the name of religion,” he tells TIME by phone from Timbuktu, in one of several conversations over recent weeks that paint a rare portrait of the jihadist. “You know,” he says, “our struggle has just begun.”

(MORE: The Most Influential Places in History: Timbuktu)

He has championed the demolition of several Muslim mausoleums that UNESCO had declared historic. He said the destruction was justified on the grounds that “those who believe” in the veneration of such shrines “are driven by Satan.” On Tuesday, the Islamists in Timbuktu reportedly destroyed two more tombs at the 14th century Djingareyber mosque. “It’s forbidden by Islam to pray on tombs and ask for blessings,” says Hamaha, “Ansar Eddine is showing the rest of world, especially Western countries, that whether they want it or not, we will not let the younger generation believe in shrines as God, regardless of what the U.N., UNESCO, International Criminal Court or ECOWAS [the Economic Community of West African States] have to say. We do not recognize these organizations. The only thing we recognize is the court of God, Shari‘a. Shari‘a is a divine obligation, people don’t get to choose whether they like it or not.”

Officially, Hamaha, who is in his late 40s, is the military chief of Ansar Eddine, the predominantly Tuareg, Salafist outfit that emerged from the slipstream of a secular Tuareg rebellion before quickly supplanting it. But he has become the loudest proponent of jihad. “Our war is a holy war, not one of frontiers and limits,” he thundered in one video posted on YouTube earlier this year. “We are the mujahedin. Holy war!”

His zealotry might have remained a relatively obscure part of the Saharan underworld had Mali’s Tuareg rebellion and the subsequent military coup in Bamako, the Malian capital, not devoured the country this spring. The sudden tumult opened the door for al-Qaeda, which, in league with allies like Ansar Eddine, seized several major towns.

(MORE: Gaddafi’s Posthumous Gift to Mali: The Tuareg Seize Timbuktu)

Hamaha occupies an unusual position in Africa’s jihadist firmament. He first fell under the spell of Islamist teachers in the mid-1980s in Algeria — a connection that years later would help propel him to a privileged position in AQIM, the local franchise of the terrorist movement. By 2008 he was one of the few Malians trusted by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a powerful Algerian emir known for his Scarlet Pimpernel–like ability to avoid capture, and who for the most part surrounded himself with fellow nationals. Yet as northern Mali fell apart this spring, and Ansar Eddine muscled aside the secular Tuareg rebels of the Mouvement National pour la Liberation de l’Azawad (MNLA), Hamaha suddenly emerged as a key player among the jihadists of Ansar Eddine. He isn’t the only one. “Omar Hamaha and [Ansar Eddine spokesman] Sanda Ould Bouamama were certainly long-standing AQIM figures before the rebellion,” explains Andrew Lebovich, an analyst with the Navanti Group who focuses on Sahelian issues. “And I’m sure that there are others who fit that mold as well.”

Hamaha’s sudden shift in professional identity speaks to the complex tapestry of interests and tensions prevailing in northern Mali, and helps explain how al-Qaeda has exploited the chaos to such effect. To the extent that anyone can control a swath of desert bigger than France, Ansar Eddine, led by a veteran Tuareg troublemaker called Iyad Ag Ghali, is nominally in charge. But the specter of ethnic war weighs heavily over the region, where a previous Tuareg uprising between 1990 and ’96 led to interethnic atrocities. In Timbuktu, where Tuaregs are a minority, putting a local boy — like Hamaha, who hails from the city’s prominent Arab community — in charge makes better sense. Such expedients have allowed AQIM to inject operatives into competing jihadi outfits.

(MORE: Mali’s Crisis: Terror Stalks the Historic Treasures of Timbuktu)

The intermingling makes it hard to tell how extensive al-Qaeda’s gains have been, but in all likelihood there’s more to them than meets the eye. “We have no good sense of how many militants there are, and even in the case of Ansar Eddine, it’s hard to tell how many of them are true Ansar personnel, vs. AQIM fighters or other militants who recently joined the organization,” says Lebovich. “The standard belief is that [Iyad Ag Ghali] has ultimate control over Ansar Eddine, and much of the writing on northern Mali has treated Iyad as the ‘master’ of the region. Personally, I think the situation is more complicated than that.”

Indeed, concern that northern Mali is rapidly becoming al-Qaeda’s most successful effort at establishing a caliphate to date has regional players scrambling for a response. Nigeria, Niger and Senegal have pledged to provide the core of a 3,270-member peacekeeping force to stabilize Mali’s politically fraught south and then tackle the militants. The announcement was promptly met with threats of retaliatory terrorist attacks. Even if such a campaign isn’t the jihadists’ priority, a suicide bombing deep inside Algeria by an AQIM ally called the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa on June 29 showed that it is certainly within their means.

And the fact is any military intervention would be hard-pressed to defeat the jihadists, who are highly motivated, flush with weaponry looted from the arsenal of the fallen regime of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and have an intimate knowledge of the terrain. Hamaha claims that the jihadists also have a powerful card up their sleeves — surface-to-air missiles seized in Tripoli last year. “We have Russia-made SAM 7A and SAM 7B [missiles] and U.S.-made stingers,” he boasts. “We made more than 20 trips … between Libya, Niger and Mali [last year] with at least 17 vehicles carrying weapons coming from Libya … Western countries are not going to take military action against us in northern Mali, because they know we have the missiles to shoot down airplanes, and it is complicated to deploy troops in the desert. It’s why they say the Malian crisis should be resolved though dialogue.” Although thousands of shoulder-launched missiles disappeared from Gaddafi’s armories, there have been no confirmed sightings of them in northern Mali to date, and Hamaha refused to furnish TIME with pictures of the missiles or their serial numbers. His point about the impregnability of the jihadists’ position, however, rings, for the immediate term at any rate, eerily true.

MORE: Escape from Timbuktu: Foreigners Flee as Mali’s Rebels Declare Independence
MORE: Timbuktu’s Destruction: Why Islamists Are Wrecking Mali’s Cultural Heritage

12 comments
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Critic
Critic

Egyptian pyramids... stay safe! 

Snowild
Snowild

As other news resources said they are also destroying mosgues and related architecture as.well. Where is islam beyond this? They cant be muslim and you keep singing the same song "islamist terrorists". Bear in mind muslims cannot be terrorists or terrorists cannot be muslim.

arvay
arvay

We're now in a race between the blowback from decades of failed foreign policy and the ability of various poples to think and act their way through the misery and confusion they've experienced.

I'm not asserting that US policy is the only factor responsible -- but it certainly has played a large and in some instances, a decisive role. Starting with our role in making the Mideast and other aras part of the Cold War and putting oil company interests ahead of our national interest -- we derailed important, good starting points and made Islamist victories practically inevitable. 

Leading the blunder list -- removing the freely elected government of Iran and installing the ridiculous Shah -- leading directly to the present theocratic government there.We made the secular Nasser government our enemy and then -- to help protect our poisonous relationship with Israel -- backed the Mubarak dictatorship for 30 years. Now, the Egyptians have voted in an Islamist government -- and we have to keep our fiingers crossed that they will moderate their positions on women and even the pyramids. 

Libya and Syria are sending opposing messages -- one hopeful and one trending toward chaos and possibly portending a fanatical regime. 

I don't think the situation in Mali is the direct result of our blunders, but it's an exemple of how bad things could get. It's increasingly clear that after 60 or so years of failure -- we need a new approach. And threatening war with Iran for a non-existent nuclear weapons program while ignoring some 200 Israeli nukes -- some of which could be aimed at Europe at any time  -- is not the right path. 

If we haven't seen that our display of "might" has been turned into a bad joke in both Iraq and Afghanistan -- then we're really hopeless. Or that our continued support for Israel will continue to encourage extreme responses -- we're just plain dumb. 

Sidney Baxter
Sidney Baxter

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Christopher Kidwell
Christopher Kidwell

No, what this man is fighting for is insanity masquerading as religion. People like this jackwad are the reason why I say that it is well past time to get rid of religion totally on this planet.

It's just a smokescreen for forcing personal viewpoints on other people through violence.

Sidney Baxter
Sidney Baxter

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Paul Hanson
Paul Hanson

I hope and pray that these savages don't get their dirty hands near any of the 700,000+ manuscripts that made Timbuktu famous. Monuments, no matter how desecrated, can be rebuilt, but paper and ink is impossible to restore when turned to ash.

Formerly @akaTito
Formerly @akaTito

 It's quite dismissive to call anyone a savage. I believe the burning of books and defacing of monuments is/was quite popular in the West amongst the disillusioned "true believers." 

Omar H. is narrow-minded with the unfortunate luxury of power, charisma and Western made firearms.  Someone just needs to sit this guy down and give him a broader view of life. But, I'm sure you sophisticated savages would prefer to see him and his companions murder with some sort of high-tech instrument of mass destruction.

Christopher Kidwell
Christopher Kidwell

Might be time to think of moving the manuscripts to someplace more...... secure.

Paul Hanson
Paul Hanson

Easier said than done unfortunately. Most of these caches are handed down generation to generation in Timbuktu's most noteworthy households, many of them descending from the city's original scholars and leaders back to medieval days. Understandably, they can't afford to trust outsiders.

There have been attempts to preserve some of these documents via charitable organizations in the city itself, and because of the Black and Grey Market, a good number of these manuscripts do end up in capable hands though they're not open for study.

Laura
Laura

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