DON'T MISS : Talking Africa Podcast – Mozambique's insurgency: After Palma, what comes next?

ICC: al-Mahdi asks “forgiveness” for Timbuktu destruction

By Manon Laplace
Posted on Friday, 15 October 2021 10:55

Ahmad al-Faqi at the CPI, September 2016

The Malian jihadist was seen by International Criminal Court (ICC) judges on 12 October to ask for an early release. Sentenced in 2016 to nine years in prison for destroying the world heritage site, he presented himself as "reformed"

Ahmad al-Mahdi said: “remorse has awakened [his] conscience and [his] heart”. Before the judges of the International Criminal Court (ICC), he presented himself as a “changed man”.

In case the speeches were not enough to convince the audience, the 46-year-old Malian even gave himself a physical makeover. He got rid of his long curly hair and appeared with it cut short, and wearing a grey suit. On Tuesday 12 October, he came to ask the court for an early release. He has the right to do so: this former member of the Ansar Dine terrorist group has served two-thirds of the nine years he was sentenced to for destroying the Timbuktu mausoleums.

Al-Mahdi’s sentence was a landmark judgment that for the first time recognised the annihilation of cultural heritage as a “war crime”.

Ahmad Al Faqi al-Mahdi said he has “dissociated himself entirely from the crime” and does not intend to return to it. Moreover, he assures that he wants to do everything to contribute to the fight against religious extremism “in whatever society he finds himself,” his defence pleaded.

“My conscience has now been awakened and I hope in the future to contribute to the preservation of mausoleums, manuscripts, to ease the pain of my brothers who suffered from these atrocities,” al-Mahdi said.

After “studying mathematics and computers, learning English, practising music, yoga, drawing and chess” in his Scottish prison, he said he was ready to become a good citizen.

“Forgiveness is one of the keys to paradise”

More than 5,000 kilometres away, Malians have been following this judicial saga for six years. Nearly a thousand of them have joined as civil parties. Some are the descendants of saints buried in the mausoleums of Timbuktu, others are imams, religious leaders. There are also ordinary citizens whose economic activity was based on the historical heritage of the “city of 333 saints”.

From Timbuktu to Bamako, Ahmad al-Mahdi’s repentance has been well received. “The renewed apology of al-Mahdi is a positive gesture and one that will ease the hearts of the victims of his crimes. Nevertheless, it is up to them to appreciate and possibly accept it. I know that many of them have been waiting for this moment, but these are individual feelings and a process that takes time,” said Mama Koité Doumbia, President of the ICC Trust Fund for Victims, which has compensated 800 people, after the hearing.

Harber Kounta, a Timbuktu heir to a mausoleum in the city, also sees it as a way of closing the chapter and “moving towards reconciliation”. “As Muslims, we have been taught that forgiveness is one of the keys to paradise. What Timbuktu in particular and Mali in general need is peace and reconciliation”, he explains, judging that “from the moment al-Mahdi has acknowledged his faults and we agree to forgive him, he can be released”.

Harber Kounta, a Timbuktu heir to a mausoleum in the city, also sees al-Mahdi’s apology as a way of closing the chapter and “moving towards reconciliation”. “As Muslims, we have been taught that forgiveness is one of the keys to paradise. What Timbuktu in particular and Mali in general need is peace and reconciliation”, he explains, saying that “from the moment al-Mahdi has acknowledged his faults and we agree to forgive him, he can be released”.

“Timbuktu has always risen again”

As the mausoleums have emerged from the ground, rebuilt according to a tradition inherited from the 14th century, Timbuktu people want to believe in a rebirth of the iconic monuments. “In 2012, their destruction was very painful. But our city has been coveted, plundered and occupied many times in its history. It has always risen again, and this ordeal should be no exception. The recognition of the destruction of our heritage as a “war crime” was a strong signal of international justice to the Malians. From now on, we want security to return so that tourists can return to Timbuktu,” says Harber Kounta.

Although she has never been allowed to enter these buildings reserved only for men, Hamsatou* still has “a great tear in her heart”. The descendant of Sidi Mahmoud, whose mausoleum was demolished in 2012, followed al-Mahdi’s apology from the Malian capital, where she lives. If she agrees to forgive, she wants to obtain pledges from the authorities in case of early release of the former Ansar Dine lieutenant. “If he were released, I would have reservations about his return to Timbuktu. We cannot forget these kinds of events, and there is a legitimate fear that history will repeat itself. God forgives, and we forgive too, but the images remain,” she says. Her appeal echoes that of the victims’ lawyers who, on Tuesday 12 October in The Hague, asked the Court to do everything possible to ” ease the concerns of the civil parties “.

While waiting for the ICC to decide in the coming weeks on his request for early release, Ahmad al-Mahdi is seeking to reassure the Timbuktu community. “I would like to come back to you as a son of this country […]. I would like to confirm that I will always be there, alongside the people of Timbuktu to promote security and peace.”

*this name has been changed at the request of the interviewee

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options