The first person to be charged with the war crime of destroying religious or historical monuments as part of an Islamist campaign against idolatry was transferred from West Africa to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague at the weekend to await arraignment.
Ahmad al-Mahdi al-Faqi – also known as Abu Tourab – is alleged to be a member of the extremist group, Ansar Dine, which has strong links to al-Qaeda and which overran most of northern Mali in 2012, until they were ousted by French military intervention.
Mr al-Faqi was surrendered into ICC custody by the neighbouring state of Niger on foot of an arrest warrant issued by the court a week ago, charging him with taking part in the destruction of ten historic buildings, including mausoleums and a mosque, in the historic city of Timbuktu.
Ansar Dine is believed to have destroyed 14 of Timbuktu’s 16 famous mausoleums – unique one-room structures believed to have housed or led to the tombs of the city’s notables. They were condemned by the jihadists as “totems of idolatry”.
At the peak of its influence in the 15th and 16th centuries, Timbuktu is said to have had as many as 180 separate specialist schools and universities, and to have been a centre of learning for students from all over the Muslim world.
ICC prosecutors also allege that al-Faqi was involved in the establishment of an Islamic court set up by Ansar Dine and its followers in Timbuktu – and that he personally took part in carrying out many of its sentences.
El-Boukhari Ben Essayouti, head of Timbuktu’s culture department, who has met al-Faqi, has welcomed his transfer to The Hague – but said he was by no means the only person responsible for the destruction of the monuments.
“There are others still in Timbuktu today who collaborated in this crime. So we see this as the beginning of accountability for all who helped to destroy this UNESCO World Heritage Site.”
Human Rights Watch said the arrest signaled that there would be “a price to pay for destroying the world’s treasures”.