Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi: “I plead guilty”
Interview by Anissa Barrak
Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi was convicted of the war crime of having deliberately directed the attacks that, in June and July 2012, led to the destruction of ten religious and historical monuments in Timbuktu (Mali), a World Heritage site since 1988. This is the first time that the International Criminal Court (ICC) has been requested – in this case, by the State of Mali – to pass judgement on the destruction of cultural monuments, and the first time that it has categorized such acts as war crimes. On 27 September 2016, the ICC sentenced Al Mahdi, who was arrested in 2015, to nine years’ imprisonment. On 17 August 2017, the court demanded that he pay €2.7 million to the victims as compensation.
What led this Malian teacher from a Tuareg tribe in Azawad to turn against his compatriots and those who shared his own faith? After all, having moved to Timbuktu in 2006, he had become a valued member of the community. How did an educated man, who had been taught the precepts of the Sufi tradition of Islam, come to commit such a crime against this same school of Islam? What prompted this shift towards radical political Islamism and violence? Where did the rupture occur?
The UNESCO Courier visited Al Mahdi at the ICC Detention Centre in The Hague, Netherlands, and traced his journey – from his childhood in the desert of northern Mali, to his wanderings with his family in the Tuareg refugee camps of Mauritania and Algeria; his enrollment in the Libyan army, and his return to his home country, Mali. Here, he settled in Timbuktu, where he found the answer to his quest for stability and recognition – until rebellion broke out in the north of the country.
Having acknowledged the acts he was accused of, and for which he has admitted responsibility by pleading guilty, Al Mahdi goes beyond his own life story in this exclusive interview. He describes the complex social and cultural situation in northern Mali, where tensions and conflict have fermented for over fifty years. Here, radical independence movements with Islamic leanings continue to jostle alongside international jihadism.
You have acknowledged your role in the attack and destruction of nine mausoleums and part of the Sidi Yahia mosque in Timbuktu in 2012, which you yourself organized and led. In what capacity did you act and why?
At the time, I was head of Hesba, one of the four command structures of the Ansar Dine group, which was linked to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and had occupied northern Mali in 2012. It had set up its headquarters in Timbuktu in April that year, having routed fighters of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (known by its French acronym, MNLA).
It fell to Hesba – whose mission was to “promote virtue and prevent vice” – to combat all acts that, in its eyes, contravened the precepts of Islam. Hesba considered the mausoleums of Timbuktu to be the incarnation of such acts for two reasons – first, because the way that the faithful prayed was judged to be impious; and second, because of the buildings that had been constructed over the tombs. Once the leadership took the decision to destroy the mausoleums, I received the order to carry out the task, using troops placed under my command. I applied myself to the task rigorously, as with everything I do.
Who took the decision on the destruction? Did you approve of it?
It was one of my duties to combat practices considered to be contrary to the precepts of Islam. With my soldiers, I personally scrutinized the behaviour of the people. I regularly visited the mausoleums, giving explanations and advice. I also preached the teachings on local radio. The order to destroy came from high up, from the commander of Ansar Dine, Iyad Ag Ghali, who made the decision on the recommendation of his entourage, notably the AQIM advisers. The aim of these groups is to impose their ideology on the people, which is derived from Wahhabi doctrine. In strategic terms, al Qaeda seeks to increase its visibility through spectacular actions in order to attract new adherents and provide the parties that support it with proof of its zeal and efficacy.
In the discussion session that led to the decision to destroy the monuments, I openly said that I thought such an action was not appropriate, since it could cause more harm than good. I reminded them of the Sharia ruling that says that no vice may be suppressed if its suppression leads to another equal or greater vice. I warned them that the destruction could lead to greater misfortune for the people. I was thinking, in particular, that it might incite hatred among the local people. I imagined armed groups firing on them. I feared the worst.
I was convinced that the destruction of the mausoleums had no legal basis in Sharia law. It’s true that, according to a fatwa recognized by all traditions of Islam, tombs must not be erected more than one chibr (about ten centimetres) above ground. But this fatwa only applies to new tombs and not to those that already exist. I wanted to leave the mausoleums intact.
The majority of the population of Timbuktu was obliged to deal with these groups in order to survive. And I was more zealous than the others.
When carrying out the destruction, were you ever overcome by doubt? What was going through your mind?
I saw myself as a link in the chain of command and felt that the consequences should be the responsibility of those who made the decision and gave the orders. I knew all too well that if I did not carry out the orders, I would be dismissed. I didn’t receive any pay, but the group provided for all the needs of my family.
At the same time, I was aware of what the people were feeling. I knew the sites were historic and sacred. I visited the mausoleums just like the other residents of Timbuktu, but for my own reasons. In general, I feel that we have a duty to visit cemeteries – whether the graves are ordinary or have a mausoleum over them – because all the dead are equal in my eyes. I know the history of most of the saints who have given their names to the mausoleums, having read about it in the scriptures. These were wise and good men, whose good deeds shine wherever they are, even after their death. The Prophet recommended putting graves together in cemeteries so as not to abandon the dead in solitude and isolation.
Then there is the question of supplications. I reject the idea of asking a dead person to intercede with God on my behalf. Many rumours were going around about this: some claimed that the graves in these mausoleums were empty, while others insisted that Hassan and Hussein, the Prophet’s grandsons, were buried there, which is completely untrue. I believed that the mausoleums were built to take advantage of people’s naïveté. So, while I knew that the destruction of the mausoleums had no basis in Sharia law, I did not see any objection to putting an end to these myths and destroying the buildings. However, I was totally opposed to any interventions in the interior of the mosque.
How did you gain the knowledge of Muslim theology that would qualify you to interpret the scriptures?
I have an eclectic background. As a child, I studied in the Koranic schools in my region, Agouni, near Timbuktu. My father taught me the Maliki Sufi doctrine, and then I continued by reading the books that the sheikhs gave me. By the time I was 12, I had learned the Koran and the exegesis – I had acquired a level of knowledge that allowed me to become an imam.
During my meanderings with my family from 1993 onwards – between the Tuareg refugee camps in Mauritania, and our exile in Libya and Algeria, with occasional returns to Mali – I read all the books I could find and struggled very hard to obtain qualifications recognized by the state, so that I could get a steady job. My ambition was to become a teacher. During our exile in Libya between 1996 and 2001, after the beginning of ethnic tensions and the quashing of the armed Tuareg uprisings, I studied for and obtained the certificate of primary education, but under a borrowed name, as I was never officially registered. It was with this certificate and under a false name that I enlisted in the Libyan army, where I served for four years and rose to the rank of officer. I had to earn a living and provide for my family, because my father had chosen to stay in the camps in Mauritania. During this entire time, I never stopped reading and learning on my own.
Seeing that there could be no future for me if I stayed where I was, I decided to return to Mali and settled in Timbuktu in 2006, where I started preaching in the mosques. I also set up a private educational organization to build the capacities of teachers of the Koran, which I directed for six years. I was actively involved in several religious and cultural youth associations, which performed a range of activities like cleaning the streets, and donating blood. This was a period of relative stability.
I couldn’t advance in my career because of this diploma, which was not in my name. So I had to start again from scratch, to obtain the certificate. This enabled me to attend the Pedagogical Institute in Timbuktu, where I received a diploma in educational psychology and was then able to pass the civil service exam. I finally obtained a position as head teacher in the east of Timbuktu. This was in 2010. I was working there when the rebels occupied the north in 2012.
Under what circumstances did you join the ranks of the rebels?
When the rebel troops invaded northern Mali, the people started to flee and seek refuge in Mauritania. They were afraid of abuse by the Malian army, which had happened with every rebel uprising. It was terror. I was considering asking to be sent somewhere in the interior of the country, when I learned that members of my tribe had been victims of abuse by the people of Bamako. They had been threatened and attacked and their pharmacy burned down, even though they had never lived in the north of the country. They were born and raised in the capital and were loyal and well-integrated.
So I decided to leave the country for Algeria, as I saw no other way to escape the inter-tribal racism. In fact, this racism was not an aspect of Malian state policy, but came from the people themselves, who believed that fair-skinned people were intruders from Arab countries. Historically, this is true – people from Arab countries did settle in Mali, but that was 400 years ago! That is why I was in Algeria when the rebels invaded Timbuktu in April 2012. I then decided to go back and take up my old job and help to manage the region.
Was this your first contact with Ansar Dine and al Qaeda? Why did you feel closer to them than to the people of Mali?
At first, it was the MNLA rebels who occupied the region around Timbuktu. I had always supported this movement in its efforts to find justice for the Azawad tribe, to which I belong. But when I arrived in Timbuktu, Ansar Dine had already chased out the MNLA fighters. I knew Iyad Ag Ghali, the leader of Ansar Dine, from the time when he was commander of the Azawad rebellion. I admired him.
A few days later, Ag Ghali invited me to a meeting with imams from the mosques and other prominent city figures. He arrived, accompanied by a group from al Qaeda. I was impressed by his speech and convinced by his ideas. I joined his movement right away. I was already aware of the Wahhabi teachings through the Saudi charities that were active in Timbuktu. One of them invited me on a pilgrimage to Mecca in 2006, after which I adopted the Wahhabi doctrine.
You have apologized to the inhabitants of Timbuktu, the citizens of Mali, and the descendants of the Saints. Do you think that acknowledging your deeds and conveying your regrets have been enough to gain their forgiveness?
Certainly not. My repentance is something personal, coming from the bottom of my heart. But I can only prove my sincerity by carrying out acts of reparation, when I get out of prison. UNESCO has ensured the reconstruction of the mausoleums, which is a remarkable achievement. But restoring trust will take longer than rebuilding the mausoleums. I have caused injury to the entire population, in all its diversity – whether Fula, Songhai, Tuareg or Arab. I hope that they will accept the hand that I am offering them to follow the path towards reconciliation. I want to write a memoir for them, which can restore their dignity and at the same time help protect the mausoleums.
When I have finished my sentence, I want to return to society and work towards restoring national harmony. The situation is even more urgent today, after the damage created by Ansar Dine and al Qaeda and the accumulated failures of the Azawad rebellion. It pains me to see the refugees confined in camps in Mauritania, Algeria, Libya and Burkina Faso. They will not be able to return to their homes unless there is national reconciliation.
Radical ideologies using Islam are attracting a lot of young people, as was the case for you. Based on what you have learned from this episode in your life, what can you do to protect them from these influences?
I think that Muslim countries should be governed according to the precepts of Islam, which have both a religious and a political dimension. Sharia has defined general values that are valid for all time, everywhere. These general values, which are derived from the sacred texts of the Koran and the words of the Prophet, make it possible to pass laws that are adapted to new contexts. Sharia has never called on the faithful to stick rigidly to rules that were made in ancient times, or to transpose them to the letter, to another time and place.
Islam demands a very high level of mastery of Sharia before a person can hold political office. I was very saddened and disappointed to discover that there was no one in the groups I joined who had a greater understanding of Sharia than I had, even though I was just a simple and modest student of the subject. How could I believe in the capacity of these organizations to found a stable and strong state?
Having said this, I advise young people to concentrate on themselves, their ambitions, their country and their religion. Religion is a personal practice. Faith, trust and hope are the mainstays of a healthy and responsible youth, which is able to see for itself that there is no point in joining radical Islamic groups.
It does young people no justice to view them as a flock of ignorant sheep that need to be led. It is up to me to see in them a human treasure that is potentially mature and full of wisdom. If I present my vision to them, they will be able to decide which parts they find useful. This – with respect – is how I intend to behave with them, and with all others. Just as I reserve the right to criticize them, and others.
Building blocks of international justice, The UNESCO Courier, 1999-12