Prosecution picture of Malian ICC suspect Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi preaching to the crowd at the destruction of a Timbuktu shrine (Photo: Janet Anderson)

Is the Malian Islamist now at the ICC really such a big fish?

01 March 2016 by Janet H. Anderson, The Hague (The Netherlands)

If you listen to the prosecution’s presentation at the ICC today, Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, an Islamist from Timbuktu, was not only an expert in Islamic law – and recognised as such by his peers – a recruiter and an active member of the Islamic group Ansaredinne, but, most importantly, the ringleader behind the destruction of nine shrines in 2012.

He set up the Hisbah, says the prosecution – the morality brigade in the town – which was part of the regime set up by two Islamist groups which took over Timbuktu in April 2012. They “significantly restricted the rights and freedom” of the local population said prosecutor Fatou Bensouda. Later one of her team described how, for example, “The Hisbah organised patrols to ensure that women conformed to the dress code”. They also showed pictures of the command structure of the groups that ruled Timbuktu, before the French launched operation Serval and kicked the Islamists out.

The proceedings in The Hague are pre-trial - the procedure to decide whether indeed the prosecutor has really managed to “do its work” as presiding judge Joyce Aluoch told the court. Although she also reminded the court that the “defence always has the last word”.

The main drama was in the symbolic nature of the crimes Al Faqi Al Mahdi [IJT-187] is accused of: Bensouda quoted a resident saying “Timbuktu is about to lose its soul” during the destruction of the nine saints’ mausoleums and one mosque door. These shrines, said the prosecutor, were “the most emblematic buildings” in the “city of 333 saints”. The structures where places that people would visit, where they would go on pilgrimage and many were recognised under Malian law and by UNESCO as World Heritage sites.

They “did not constitute military objectives,” said Bensouda. By razing them the Islamists inflicted “irreparable damage” to the soul and spirit of the people living there, she said. And she referred to the Syrian towns of Aleppo and Palmyra too to make it clear how “humanity’s collective conscience was shocked” by this crime and by the copycatted cultural destruction under Islamic State rule in Syria and Iraq.

The rest of her team have focused on the law, the significance of the crimes and the role the accused himself is alleged to have played. Pictures of him in charge, talking on a megaphone to assembled crowds to explain the destruction were shown. It may be Al Faqi Al Mahdi’s bad luck to have escaped the French re-take of Timbuktu, but then to have been caught in Niger and transferred to The Hague. He’s “one of the few who is still alive”, said Bensouda, of the group alleged to have been part of the alleged common plan to destroy Timbuktu's monuments. His bosses, the leaders of the Islamists AQIM and Ansaredinne won't be facing charges any time soon. So, the one case so far in the Malian situation, is against one zealous local preacher.