In 2012 radical, jihadist Islamist groups overran northern Mali with Taureg allies. Before they were defeated by French and Malian troops in 2013, the al-Qaeda linked rebels governed the territories they controlled according to what they represented as the principles of Salafist Islam. One prominent group was Ansar Dine, which continues to be active in northern Mali. While the group occupied Timbuktu its governance resembled that of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
One of the similarities was the destruction of ancient monuments associated with other religions or varieties of Islam. The Islamic State’s destruction of ancient monuments in Palmyra, Syria, and Mosul, Iraq, are notorious. So, too, has been Islamic State looting and selling of ancient artifacts. Similarly, Ansar Dine radicals destroyed ancient tombs of local Muslim saints and a number of mosques in Mali. They also destroyed (or sold) ancient manuscripts.
Individuals involved in such looting and destruction may be held personally accountable. The International Criminal court (ICC) has determined that the destruction of cultural heritage is a war crime. On September 18, 2015 the ICC issued a warrant for the arrest of Ahmad al-Mahdi al-Faqi, charging him with ordering the destruction of ten buildings of cultural, historical, and religious importance in Timbuktu between June 30, 2012 and July 10, 2012. The Niger authorities arrested al-Faqi and delivered him to the custody of the ICC on September 26. His first hearing was today. ICC prosecutors say that as a member of the radical group Ansar Dine, he played an active role when it occupied Timbuktu. Al-Faqi, a Malian, fled to Niger when the French and Malians drove Ansar Dine out of Timbuktu.
The ICC’s chief prosecutor is Fatou Bensouda, herself an African. A citizen of The Gambia, she received her legal training in Nigeria. In a September 28 statement from the ICC, Bensouda said, “intentional attacks against historic monuments and buildings dedicated to religion are grave crimes.” She is quoted by the Financial Times as saying that the destruction was “a callous assault on the dignity and identity of entire populations, and their religious and historical roots.”
Mali and Niger are parties to the Rome Statute of the ICC. In 2013, Mali asked the court to investigate possible war crimes associated with the radical occupation of the north. That investigation resulted in the indictment of al-Faqi. Niger as a signatory of the Rome Statute was legally obligated to apprehend al-Faqi if it could and hand him over to the custody of the ICC. It did so.
Al-Faqi’s arrest and trial is a welcome step forward to holding accountable those who destroy cultural heritage. However, with respect to the Islamic State, neither Syria nor Iraq is a party to the Rome Statute, which limits any ICC role if and when the Islamic State is destroyed.