Nouakchott — Islamist militant groups in northern Mali demolished the last mausoleums in Timbuktu on Sunday (December 23rd).
The attacks came just three days after the UN Security Council unanimously approved a resolution authorising an international military intervention to oust terrorists and other armed Islamists occupying northern Mali.
The demolition of the last Timbuktu shrines by al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Din was a direct and desperate reaction to the UN resolution, according to analysts. The group had already explicitly rejected the resolution on the day it was released, Touareg analyst Abdul Hamid Ansari told Magharebia.
"It is not the first time that these extremists have acted out in a showy and absurd manner; this happens whenever their actions against the local population are criticised or condemned by regional or international institutions," Ansari said.
"This act will only increase the local population's indignation and their sympathy for the decision, particularly as the decision is anticipated to relieve them from the rule of these groups that do not have constructive plans for the future," he added.
Ansar al-Din, the dominant movement in Timbuktu, demolished about 333 mausoleums, including 18 mausoleums classified as part of UNESCO's World Heritage Site, according to Sahara Media.
The world heritage body condemned the attacks on Tuesday, with UNESCO chief Irina Bokova saying she was "profoundly shocked".
For his part, Attay Ag Elweli, a youth from Timbuktu, told Magharebia that the demolition was carried out by the person nicknamed Abu al-Walid, who commands the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice group, known historically as al-Hisbah.
Ag Elweli added in a sad tone, "Abu al-Walid and his group targeted the last two mausoleums in the neighbourhood of Sankore, and a third tomb near the big market, and a fourth located in the garrison of Sheikh Sayed Ahmed Bakaa."
In response to a question by Magharebia about the relationship between the demolition of shrines and the UN resolution, Ag Elwelli said, "The local population sensed the relationship already when Abu al-Walid repeated while demolishing the shrines that no one would rule the city of Timbuktu but God."
Yet al-Walid himself tried to justify the shrine's destruction by declaring to the Sahara Media that his Islamist group was previously unaware of the mausoleums.
"These shrines are a manifestation of unbelief and sorcery, a place of prayers and blessing without God. They are also too high above the ground, at a height which we are ordered to eliminate," he said.
According to his justification, his group "confirmed the presence of the domes and the effects of unbelief, and they decided to flatten them in order to make them similar to the rest of the graves of Muslims in response to the command of the Prophet, peace be upon Him."
However, Mauritanian researcher Yahya Ould Sidi Ahmed, a specialist in the history and literature of the Sahara and the Western Sudan, said all previous demolitions took place either on the eve of a decision or a planned military intervention in northern Mali.
"The previous demolitions that occurred last October took place on the eve of the adoption in Bamako of the military intervention," he said.
"Destruction is again implemented now just three days after the adoption by the Security Council of this plan. This means that the issue is primarily political, such as what happened last Friday in Gao. There, the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa [MUJAO] amputated the hands of some residents," he added.
The researcher explained that the graves dated back to the days of the Malian Empire, which ruled the area in the 14th century. "People just ask for their souls to be blessed... this does not justify demolishing the graves or assaulting them," he added.
As for the religious position on this issue, scholar Ahmed Ould Ehel Daoud told Magharebia that the destruction of the graves was "unacceptable".
"We as scientists and scholars reject these acts and declare that they are not legitimate in the religious sense, because these are graves of renowned scholars and we consider them to be martyrs to God," he added.
Ould Ehel Daoud, a former advisor to the Mauritanian religious affairs minister and an expert in the fight against radical Islam, added, "The tomb of the average person cannot be dug up because respect is required. Graves of men of science are respected by all Muslims and should be made known by highlighting their deeds."