For centuries, Timbuktu was a mythical city of the imagination, too remote for explorers to reach, its very name a symbol of exotic mystery.
Even recently, a survey by a travel agency found that a majority of Britons were convinced that Timbuktu did not exist.
But it does exist. And today the 1,000-year-old city on the edge of the Sahara is on the frontlines of a suddenly escalating war against Islamist radicals in West Africa. It’s a war that the radicals seem to be winning.
Two days ago, Mali’s soldiers fled from Timbuktu, and the city fell to a rebel alliance. Then on Monday an Islamist faction seized control of the city, raising their black flag over the city, imposing sharia law and ordering women to wear veils.
Today there are reports that the Islamists in Timbuktu now include several leaders of the notorious terrorist group, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has kidnapped dozens of foreigners across West Africa – including Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay.
One of the AQIM leaders who has reportedly gained a share of power in Timbuktu is Mokhtar Belmokhtar, commander of the terrorist gang that held Mr. Fowler and Mr. Guay hostage in Mali’s northern desert for more than four months.
Mr. Belmokhtar, sometimes known as “The Uncatchable” or “The Emir of the Masked Battalion,” entered Timbuktu on Monday with the Islamist faction that evicted the Tuareg rebels, according to a report today by AFP.
If true, it means a substantial rise in power for AQIM, giving it a role in the new ruling elite in northern Mali, even though the Tuareg rebels have denied any official links to AQIM.
When I visited Timbuktu in 2009, a few months after the Fowler kidnapping, the town was peaceful and dusty. There were a handful of intrepid tourists among the ancient mud-brick mosques and the sand dunes. There were libraries filled with thousands of historic Arabic manuscripts. There was a bar where a Malian band was blasting out American blues mixed with African rhythms.
Today the tourists are long gone, the bars are closed, the Islamists are in charge, and the historic buildings are in danger. The United Nations cultural agency, UNESCO, warned today the rebels must respect Mali’s heritage. “Timbuktu’s outstanding earthen architectural wonders … are essential to the preservation of the identity of the people of Mali and our universal heritage,” a UNESCO statement said.
In my 2009 visit, I saw evidence that Timbuktu was considered crucial to the emerging battle between AQIM and the Western-backed Malian forces. Residents of Timbuktu pointed out a large modern building on a central road, surrounded by a fence and bristling with security cameras. They said the building had been occupied by U.S. soldiers who were training Mali’s army to fight against AQIM.
Canadian troops have also been involved in training Mali’s military in anti-terrorism tactics.
In 2009, just a few months before my visit, a convoy of AQIM vehicles drove into Timbuktu at night, infiltrated the house of the local intelligence chief, and shot him dead.
After that, Mali’s army boosted its presence in Timbuktu and managed to keep AQIM out of the city. But last November three tourists in Timbuktu were kidnapped and another tourist was killed in an operation that had all the hallmarks of AQIM, which has abducted more than 50 Europeans and Canadians since 2003.
The Tuareg rebels and Islamist factions have exploited Mali’s power vacuum in the aftermath of a military coup last month. The coup was led by Captain Amadou Sanogo, a graduate of the U.S. anti-terrorism training program, who was disgruntled over Mali’s failure to defeat the rebels.
The coup leaders have pledged to restore the constitution and hold elections, but they gave no details of how or when. In response to the coup, West African nations have imposed sanctions on Mali this week, including a trade embargo.
The sanctions have already sparked fears of food and petrol shortages in Mali’s capital, Bamako. There were long queues at gas stations in Bamako today.
Meanwhile, the rebels appear to be advancing southward, not content with their victory in the north. Today they were reported to be approaching the central town of Mopti, where hundreds of residents were fleeing in panic.