In the past week, Islamists have destroyed and desecrated the tombs of Muslim saints in the fabled town of Timbuktu in northern Mali, recalling the Taliban’s 2001 destruction of two giant Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan.
In defiance of the West and many local Muslims, Islamists in northern Mali are prohibiting people from worshiping at tombs and erecting structures on graves. Although both practices are widespread throughout the Muslim world, religious extremists consider them un-Islamic and are seeking to stamp them out.
Long a darling of Western donors and hailed as one of the few democracies in the Muslim world, the poor, landlocked country of Mali has descended into chaos since low-ranking military officers seized power from President Amadou Toumani Touré in March, just weeks before scheduled elections. Arms flowing in from postwar Libya have made the situation worse and American and European policy makers have so far been much too timid in responding to the crisis.
Western donors have indulged Mali, as its governing elites enriched themselves and levels of corruption skyrocketed. In recent years, the north became a safe haven for extremist Salafi Muslims pushed out of neighboring Algeria after its civil war ended in 2002. After rebranding themselves as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Salafis were able to operate fairly freely in northern Mali and attract recruits eager to engage in jihad.
In Mali, such jihad has frequently been mixed with kidnapping Europeans and seeking ransoms, drug trafficking and other criminal activities. Indeed, Mali has become an important node in the drug trade as Latin American cocaine passes through the Sahara en route to Europe and the Middle East. This lucrative trade has tempted many Malians, including government officials, who have profited handsomely from it.
However, it was the NATO-supported collapse of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s government in Libya that had the most serious consequences for Mali. Many Malian members of the Tuareg ethnic group, who had long lived in Libya, returned home, heavily armed with weaponry from Qaddafi’s arsenals. Some joined the ranks of the secular National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, known by the French initials M.N.L.A.
In the wake of the March coup, various armed groups filled the power vacuum in the north: the M.N.L.A.; Islamists known as Ansar Dine, who are intent on applying Shariah across Mali; and fighters affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. These militants easily took over the northern half of the country, including Timbuktu, after facing little resistance from a Malian army that had almost completely evaporated.
The M.N.L.A.’s sympathizers have long thought the secularist group could be used to fight against Al Qaeda and Islamists; France, Algeria and Mauritania have therefore supported them. But the M.N.L.A. seriously miscalculated in April, when it declared the independence of Azawad, the territory it claims in northern Mali, and then received no international backing. Ansar Dine and its Al Qaeda allies soon outmaneuvered the M.N.L.A. and its backers, and Islamists now seem to be in control of most of the north and quite likely have a grip on the criminal networks that run through the region. There is also a looming humanitarian disaster: Mali’s economy has ground to a halt, many displaced persons have fled the north, and there are indications that famine could affect the country in the coming months.
Meanwhile, the Malian government and the coup plotters have been completely ineffectual. Thus far, they have done nothing to improve the security situation in the north, nor have they provided any humanitarian assistance.
Many Malians are now openly calling for war to retake control of the north. Citizens are forming militias to liberate their towns from the rebels and the Islamists. The destruction of tombs in Timbuktu will anger only more people, encouraging them to join or support these militias. And any concessions by the government to northern rebels or Islamists could lead to another coup or even civil war.
Mali’s citizens are looking to the Economic Community of West African States, the United Nations, the United States and even the much-mistrusted former colonial power, France, to take the lead. And they must. A United Nations mandate allowing regional organizations like Ecowas and the African Union to send an armed stabilization force and peacekeepers could stop the situation from deteriorating further.
Despite considerable investment in counterterrorism in the region, Mali remains relatively marginal to American foreign policy. But it would be a huge mistake for the United States and Europe to let the problems in Mali fester any longer or idly sit by while Islamists become entrenched in the north, attract even more recruits, and possibly threaten the stability of the entire region.
Benjamin F. Soares, a senior researcher at the African Studies Centre in Leiden, the Netherlands, is a co-editor of Islam and Muslim Politics in Africa.