Mali: fleeing jihadists burn Islamic manuscripts

French-led forces have now apparently taken Timbuktu, a day after seizing its airport in a lightning advance against the jihadist militias that held northern Mail. Gao is also under the control of French and Malian troops, leaving only Kidal still in rebel hands among the major towns in Mali's desert north. The West African regional bloc ECOWAS has agreed to boost its troop committment for Mali to 5,700—now that (unless an insurgency is to follow) France has already done the bulk of the fighting. In very sad news, the jihadist forces upon fleeing Timbuktu for the desert, apparently torched the Ahmed Baba Institutea library housing a priceless collection of centuries-old Islamic manuscripts. "They burned the Ahmed Baba Institute," Timbuktu's exiled Mayor Halle Ousmane Cisse said from Bamako. "It's a catastrophe—for Timbuktu and all humanity." (Middle East OnlineDPA, NYT, Jan. 28)

Is there anyone else out there who still thinks the jihadists have been "demonized" by an "Islamophobic" Western media? As these hoodlums destroy one of Islam's proudest cultural legacies because it fails to conform to their ultra-fundamentalist interpretations?

Just asking.

Meanwhile, the secular Tuareg separatist rebels of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) issued a statement claiming responsibility for the liberation of areas of northern Mali from the jihadists:  "Today, January 28, 2013, the MNLA drove the terrorists from several cities in Azawad… The MNLA is fully integrated in the fight against the terrorist organizations present in Azawad…" The only recognition of French leadership of the military drive is a line stating that the MNLA has asked France "to implement coordination measures to conduct the fight against terrorism." The statement calls for negotiations "to find a definitive solution to the conflict between the Azawad at central state of Mali."

Later that day, Reuters reported claims by the MNLA to have taken Kidal, after driving out the Ansar Dine jihadist faciton that was in control there. "Now it is us who are in control," Col. Mohamed Ag Najim, the MNLA's military commander, told a reporter by satellite phone. If this is true and the MNLA really do control Kidal, it will be interesting to see if they surrender the town to French and Malian forces, or are allowed to build their own reduced autonomous state there—or if a new war will now open, pitting the French against Tuareg rebels.

On a lighter note, ABC News finds that many Twitter users are apparently astounded to find that Timbuktu actually exists. Reads one clueless tweet: "I was really surprised to find Timbuktu was a real place. I thought it was a made up place like Narnia." Reminds us of the ignorant media blather after the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 about how Kafiristan was a fictional creation of Rudyard Kipling.


  1. Did Timbuktu manuscripts survive?
    South Africa’s Daily Maverick Jan. 30 runs a story questioning reports that thousands of historic Islamic manuscripts were destroyed as the jihadists torched the Ahmed Baba library on the way out of town. It is true that the accounts of the arson all seemed to quote Timbuktu’s exiled mayor, speaking from Bamako—although he presumably had his information from locals still in the beseiged city. Without citing a source, the Maverick asserts that when French and Malian forces arrived in the city, “the library was still standing. On this point, at least, the mayor’s information appeared to be incorrect. The library had certainly not been set alight to the point of total destruction.”

    The Maverick also links to a Jan. 28 account in Time to the effect that local “preservationists,” in anticipation of a jihadist attack, had sequestered most of the manuscripts off-site. According to Time, “preservationists said that in a large-scale rescue operation early last year, shortly before the militants seized control of Timbuktu, thousands of manuscripts were hauled out of the Ahmed Baba Institute to a safe house elsewhere.”

    We certainly hope this information is accurate. We will continue to monitor.

  2. African intellectuals speak on Timbuktu manuscript destruction
    Received via e-mail:

    We, intellectuals of the African continent and its diaspora and our colleagues from the Americas, Asia, and Europe, reunited in Dakar for the Symposium Afrika Nko, protest the destruction and vandalizing of ancient manuscripts kept in the Ahmed Baba Institute of Timbuktu.

    This act of destruction, which comes after the significant loss of life and many other forms of brutality in Mali, has targeted priceless intellectual resources accumulated through centuries and safeguarded by generations. It is an attack against memory, against the human spirit, against African being, and against the whole of humanity.

    This act of destruction recalls the long history of the destruction of libraries that is far from exclusive to the African continent. We are witnessing manifestations of nihilism and anti-intellectualism elsewhere in the world—product of a systematic will to erase culture that has expressed itself in Mali via the destruction of Islamist mausoleums and historical sites. It also exemplifies a geopolitical reality in which Africa has become the site of new forms of looting, new forms of predation, and new wars against its peoples.

    We condemn this act and lament our loss. As we have gathered here to discuss “the colonial library” and “the African library,” the destruction of these manuscripts reminds us that protecting and transmitting knowledge is a priority and a right, and any violation of this right is a crime.

    We demand urgently that the African governments no longer make empty promises but enforce concrete acts to ensure the protection of libraries, manuscripts, and other creations of the human spirit before it is too late and nothing remains aside from hypocritical laments. War targets people, yes, but it is also a deadly assault against books, libraries, and culture.

    Dakar, 29 January, 2013

    Dr. Ebrima Sall                                                                    
    Prof. Mamadou Diawara

    Vide footage from the Africa NKO symposium can be seen at the website of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA).

  3. Timbuktu: manuscripts survived, library didn’t
    Well, reporters have had some time on the ground in Timbuktu now, and a Feb. 5 AP report makes clear that the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research was indeed put to the torch and some 2,000 manuscripts there intentionally committed to the flames. But this was but a fraction of the library’s 30,000 manuscripts, mostly dating to the 13th century. The rest had been smuggled out of Timbuktu over the past months in anticipation of such an attack, and sent down the Niger River to Mopti for safekeeping.

    And even the 2,000 that were destroyed (certainly a grave crime in any case) seem to have been digitzed. The library had been in the process of digitizing its collection when the jihadists arrived. 

    “These manuscripts are our identity,” said Abdoulaye Cisse, the library’s acting director. “It’s through these manuscripts that we have been able to reconstruct our own history, the history of Africa. People think that our history is only oral, not written. What proves that we had a written history are these documents.”

    Some good news, although the loss of the 2,000, even if digitized, must be painful.