The televised scenes of Ansar Dine militants - who it seems share the ideas of the Taliban and al-Qaeda - demolishing historic shrines and mosques with great enthusiasm in the historical city of Timbuktu in northern Mali, brought to mind the scenes of Taliban extremists in the 1990s shelling the historical Buddhas of Bamiyan statues in Afghanistan. Both events provoked the entire world, which stood by aghast as it watched people destroy examples of priceless history and human civilization with their own hands, rejoicing in their own ignorance.
This story is well known in Afghanistan, which is still suffering from the impact of a radical movement that came to prominence during a period of international conflict, a “laboratory experiment” conducted by intelligence apparatus in a country forgotten by everyone and left in poverty after the former Soviet Union had been driven out. As a result, something akin to Frankenstein’s monster emerged, and could only be controlled by a war that is still ongoing.
In Afghanistan the Taliban - in alliance with al-Qaeda - took advantage of the state of chaos that prevailed after the collapse of the communist government there, and the conflicts between various Mujahedeen warlords. The same thing has happened in the north of Mali; a country that has recently witnessed a military coup against the president, sparking chaos and leaving a vacuum that is being exploited by Tuareg separatists in the north, some of whom were previously used by Gaddafi in Libya to demand independence for the north [of Mali]. From the outset, the Tuareg allied with extremist groups with ideologies similar to that of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, who then abandoned them and began to impose their own agenda and control over north Mali, seizing control of the historic city of Timbuktu, which has played an important role in Islamic history and which houses mosques dating back to the 15th century.
Who finances, trains and arms these groups? This is an open question that needs to be answered. Yet what is certain is that these movements are like locusts; invading the land and leaving it barren and ruined, only to move onto another area to spread their destruction.
The worrying thing is that this is happening on the doorstep of Arab countries, as Mali borders the Arab Maghreb. There is also a belt of these extremist groups that are being formed in the Arab countries currently experiencing changes and political instability, or in neighboring states, adding a new worrying dimension to the region’s problems.
Let us look at the map and how “terrorism gains” have been exchanged between the al-Shabab movement in Somalia and other extremist movements, most notably al-Qaeda in southern Yemen, to the extent that the Yemeni army was summoned to wage a war - with international assistance - in order to restore the seized cities in the south. Today the extremist hotspots on the map have expanded; there is now northern Mali, whilst Nigeria – another country not too far from the Arab world – suffers from the extremist group Boko Haram, which is also waging a war of terror to impose its radical ideology on the country. Extremist groups are also active in the Sahel region of Africa on the outer borders of the Maghreb in particular, taking advantage of political rivalries, forever unresolved border disputes, and the inability of the Arab Maghreb Union [AMU] to coordinate and pursue a cooperative, unified policy in the fight against terrorism. It also appears that extremist groups are exploiting the security vacuum in the Egyptian Sinai region to operate from there.
I commend the actions of the International Criminal Court [ICC], whose spokesperson threatened Ansar Dine in northern Mali with prosecution for war crimes because they have destroyed historic mosques and Islamic shrines, but this is not enough. These groups are governed by a sick ideology, and there must be coordinated international and regional work to pursue them, along the lines of what is happening now in Yemen. It would be best if the AMU states capable of doing so assumed the mantle, coordinating and delegating responsibilities to besiege these groups which will represent a real threat to them in the future, and a real source of problems if they are left unchecked. We do not want to see the day when news cameras show groups like this destroying historic monuments in an Arab capital.
The writer is the Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Asharq al-Awsat. The article was published in the London-based daily on July 3, 2012