Al Mahdi, a former trainee teacher, has been accused of leading the 2012 attacks of a radical Islamic group, on the 15th century historic shrines. The monuments in question, currently being rebuilt, are part of a Unesco World Heritage Site. Al Mahdi is also one of the heads of Hesbah, one of the most widely used jihadist internet forums, which considers the mausoleums as blasphemous. The targets were erected as a tribute to deceased saints and were integral places of Sufi veneration and worship.
Timbuktu, in the West African nation of Mali located on the southern edge of the Sahara, was originally founded by Tuareg tribes in the 5th century. In 2012, Timbuktu was captured from the Malian military by the Tuareg rebels of MNLA and Ansar Dine; the latter, a group in which Al Mahdi was an active member of. Five days later, MNLA declared the region as the nation of Azawad, a nation entirely independent of Malian influence. Local nations and the international community refused to recognize the political entity and the regime collapsed three months later. French and Malian troops retook Timbuktu from the Islamist rebels in 2013.
In September 2015, Al Mahdi was arrested in Niger on the basis of video evidence of the crimes he committed. He is accused of planning and leading the attacks on nine separate mausoleums and a mosque. The prosecutor described it as a “callous assault on the dignity and identity of entire populations and their religion and historical roots.” The significance of this case is ever clearer when examining the recent series of cultural attacks: the razing of Palmyra in Syria by Isis, the bombing of Aleppo by Syrian combatants and Russian forces, and the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in 2001.
The case has become a particular point of interest for a number of NGOs. It throws into question the seriousness of attacks on the cultural identities of whole groups of people, as the monuments are irreplaceable. Amnesty International for example, believes the charges should have been extended to those of rape, forced marriages or torture. Open Society Justice Initiative NGO also comments that they hope the prosecution procedures will be swift as the frequency of similar attacks on historic and cultural monuments is rapidly increasing. They emphasize the importance of the prosecution going ahead, in that the crimes were a direct attack on identity and community compass; “remove identity and you further destroy hope and a sense of belonging.”