At the beginning of July, Ansar Al-Dine (Volunteers of Faith), a Wahhabi Islamist group previously allied with Tuareg (a Berber group) rebels in Timbuktu, Mali, began systematically demolishing centuries-old Sufi shrines and mosques.
Timbuktu is known as the "City of 333 Muslim Saints," and has been the depository of hundreds of thousands of manuscripts and documents in libraries and private collections.
In 1988, the United Nations added the three main mosques in the city, and 16 cemeteries and mausoleums, to its World Heritage registry.
Wahhabi ideology, however – the official interpretation of Islam in Saudi Arabia – is destructive of Islamic heritage. Wahhabi doctrine holds that the preservation of sacred funeral monuments and prayers at them are a dilution of Islamic monotheism and a prohibited form of idol worship.
In Saudi Arabia, Islamic heritage, including houses and mosques associated with the prophet Muhammad, have been destroyed or damaged.
Elsewhere, Wahhabi devastation was mainly seen in raids on Shia holy sites in Iraq during eighteenth and nineteenth-century Wahhabi forays into that country, as well as in the recent Iraq war. Fundamentalist assaults on Sufi sanctuaries then spread in Pakistan. Wahhabi violence against Sufi installations also appeared in the Muslim Balkans. With the political changes in Egypt and Libya, Sufi shrines have been targeted by so-called "Salafis" (a cover term for Wahhabis).
Now the extremist rage has reached sub-Saharan Africa.
In March, in reaction to mishandling of a Tuareg rebellion in the country's north, the Malian government was overthrown by a military clique. With the recent Libyan overthrow and the spread of weapons throughout the region, Tuareg inhabitants, whose culture is non-Arab and whose Islam is mainly conventional and Sufi, rose up and attempted to establish their own independent state in northern Mali. Their struggle has been overtaken by Wahhabi aggression, in the form of Ansar Al-Dine.
"Ansar Al-Dine is aligned with Al-Qa'eda and with the so-called "Boko Haram" fundamentalist terrorists in Nigeria. "Boko Haram" is translated usually as "Western education is forbidden" but is officially titled the "Sunni Group for Preaching and Jihad." Ansar Al-Dine is led by a Tuareg figure, Iyad Ag Ghaly, who went to Saudi Arabia in 2008 as a Malian diplomat and there adopted Wahhabism.
Mali was left with three competing armed forces. One represents the "revolutionary" government, led by a soldier, Captain Amadou Sanogo, who overthrew president Amadou Toumani Toure. The post-coup regime is unrecognized by the rest of the African states. A second armed force is the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), composed of Tuareg rebels. The third is Ansar Al-Dine. While MNLA favors Tuareg independence from Mali, Ansar Al-Dine supports the establishment of a strict Wahhabi state throughout Mali. William Wallis of the London Financial Times warned on July 6 that radical Islamists in sub-Saharan Africa have developed links with the global trade in drugs and high-ransom hostages.
Ansar Al-Dine is said to command a small number of troops compared to those of the MNLA. But when Ansar Al-Dine entered the MNLA "liberated zone," local and foreign residents of Timbuktu fled the city.
In April, word came of arson and other destruction by Ansar Al-Dine at the fifteenth-century C.E. Sufi complex of Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar in Timbuktu. The Baba Ahmed library in the city was closed by Ansar Al-Dine to the public.
After a brief alliance with the Tuareg MNLA, the Wahhabis split from the coalition and began to realize their main intent: to eliminate the Islamic architectural legacy of Timbuktu.
Ansar Al-Dine's recent orgy of demolition began with complete leveling of the shrine of Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar, and the obliteration of at least six more tombs, including those of Alfa Moya Lamtouni and Cheikh Sidi El Mokhtar Ben Sidi Mohammed. The Wahhabis also descended on the Sidi Yahya mosque, built more than six hundred years ago, and about which it was said that its gate to the Sidi Yahya mosque graveyard would be opened only at the end of time. The Wahhabis tore the door off the structure.
The terrorist group may have sought by its actions to defy a declaration by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in May warning that Timbuktu was endangered.
The Wahhabis in Timbuktu have also been told by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in Brussels that armed attacks on undefended civilian structures that have no military purpose is a violation of the rules of war.
Ansar Al-Dine apparently seeks to express its contempt to UNESCO and the ICC, just as a similar disregard for international agencies and world opinion motivated Al-Qa'eda and the Taliban to destroy the Bamiyan Buddhist statues in Afghanistan in 2001.
International organizations may protest against the Wahhabi rampage in Mali, but similar foreign challenges failed to prevent the loss of hundreds of historic mosques during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, and have had little effect in ending the bloodshed in Syria.
Timbuktu, as a target of sectarian violence, is even more disadvantaged than were Sarajevo and the Syrian city of Homs. Timbuktu has long symbolized, for Westerners, the remote and exotic. Its Muslim heritage is too far away, it seems, to justify foreign intervention to preserve it. The effort to save Timbuktu must be undertaken by Malian traditional Muslims, Sufis, and other people of conscience.