Mali: no evidence of mass looting, but only because of refugee crisis and extremists’ commitment to destruction

Despite a multidimensional crisis that has created ideal conditions for the trade in conflict antiquities from Mali, there appears to be no evidence of organised criminal, or religious or nationalist paramilitary, antiquities looting.

Unfortunately, the lack of looting may actually indicate that the humanitarian crisis is too severe to be exploited by the illicit antiquities market: the most desperate communities have become refugees unable to engage in subsistence digging; and the religious extremist paramilitaries do not need or want to profit from the smuggling and sale of cultural property, as their sole interest is in its destruction.


Malians’ cultural heritage has long been endangered by their deep poverty and chronic insecurity. Their severe economic problems have been caused or worsened by increasing environmental challenges; together, they have created resource challenges for displaced and host communities, and trapped populations; and all of those difficulties have been worsened by frequent political instability.

Since the French colonial occupation of Mali in 1891, there have been ethnic and religious communal clashes; at least one or two minor and five major Tuareg rebellions; a popular revolution; and two (or three) military coups. They comprise:

  • the (limited) KelAtaram rebellion of 1911, a revolt against French colonial rule over Ménaka;
  • the Kaocen Revolt (or Kawousan War) of 1916-1917, a struggle (an anti-fanatical Senusian Sufi jihad) against French colonial rule;
  • the Alfellaga of 1962-1964, a Tuareg secessionist insurgency against the free Malian state;
  • the 1968-1991 coup (and rule) of the Malian Military Committee of National Liberation (Comité Militaire de Libération Nationale (CMLN)) and its political party, President Lieutenant Moussa Traoré’s Democratic Union of the Malian People (Union Démocratique du Peuple Malien (UDPM));
  • possibly another (limited) Tuareg rebellion in 1985, against the “re-election” of the government of the one-party state, but possibly only dissidence, as it is absent from other timelines of Malian history;
  • the Malian Civil War of 1990-1995/1996, which comprised conflicts initiated first by Tuareg autonomists and then by the Songhoi Malian Patriotic Movement (Ganda Koi [Land-Owners]);
  • the Events (les Événements, or the March Revolution) of 22nd-26th March 1991, a popular uprising against military dictatorship, at the end of which Lieutenant Colonel Amadou Toumani Touré deposed Lt. Traoré and established the civilian Transitional Committee for the Salvation of the People (and led to the achievement of democratic government in 1992);
  • clashes between Kunta and Arab communities in October 1999;
  • clashes between Islamic sects in August 2003;
  • the (Bahanga) Tuareg Rebellion of 2006/2007-2009, an insurgency driven by the Niger-Mali-Tuareg Alliance for Change (Alliance-Touareg-Niger-Mali pour Changement (ATNMC))/North Mali Tuareg Alliance for Change (Alliance-Touaregue-Nord Mali pour Le Changement (ATNMC)), which was/is a splinter group from the 23rd May Democratic Alliance for Change (Alliance Démocratique du 23 Mai pour le Changement (ADC)), in the self-governing Tuareg-majority region of Kidal; and
  • the ongoing Azawad rebellion of 2011/2012, comprising the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (Mouvement National de Libération d’Azawad (MNLA)), (Islamist) Ansar Dine(1) and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); and, thereby
  • the 2012 coup (and indirect rule) of the National Committee for the Recovery of Democracy and the Restoration of the State (Comité National pour le Redressement de la Démocratie et la Restauration de l’État (CNRDR/CNRDRE)).

The present troubles in Mali are very complicated; every community, movement and institution is split. Basically:

  • the largest Tuareg tribes are set against each other, the Ifogha and Chamanamasse against the Imghad (who receive preferential treatment for having suppressed the Ifogha-led 2006-2009 rebellion);
  • the rebels at least partly fund their activity by smuggling, and include Gaddafi-armed and -trained Tuareg fighters/mercenaries who fled from Libya;
  • the predominantly anti-extremist, Sufi Tuareg rebels had declared northern Mali to be an independent state; then, to consolidate their position, they entered a tactical alliance with the extremist, Salafi Ansar Dine (with the support of AQIM), and declared northern Mali to be an Islamic state; but Ansar Dine and AQIM, which want all of Mali to be under Shari’a law, broke the alliance, took the major urban territories in northern Mali and started a programme of destruction of (ideologically-unacceptable, primarily) Sufi cultural heritage;
  • in response to a(n alleged) counter-coup to reinstall the democratic state, the CNRDRE effectively held another coup of its own, deposing its own civilian administration;
  • as well as all of the other movements, local youth militias emerged to protect their neighbourhoods from the larger paramilitaries;
  • subsequently, a government of national unity was established; but
  • yet another Islamist paramilitary, Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mouvement pour l’Unicité et le Jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest (MUJAO)), defeated yet another secularist militia, the Gandakoy, and took over the central Malian city of Douentza; so
  • Mali continues to slip and slide ever closer to civil war.

No evidence of crisis-driven subsistence digging, no evidence of conflict-funding antiquities looting

Historically, dealer-employed ‘teams’ of Malian diggers would “trench” entire sites; they were paid ‘a pittance’ but, in a crisis, ‘any money was better than none‘. Making a bad situation worse, when fighting erupted between the MNLA and Ansar Dine, it erupted in Kidal. That region has the highest poverty rate in the country; (more than elsewhere) it lacks food security, water security, basic infrastructure. Now, ‘[t]here’s very little food at all and hardly any fuel or water’; there’s ‘not enough… food, water, or basic medicine‘. Yet there is no sign of a looting spree.

Humanitarian situation in Mali

Mali was already ‘in the middle of a food emergency‘ in which three million Malians were ‘at risk of hunger’. Then, during the coup, government ministries were looted, so administration of vital services was disrupted or prevented; and, during rebel groups’ takeovers of towns including Kidal, ‘hospitals, health clinics, government buildings, and most NGO and UN offices and warehouses were looted, and in some cases destroyed, leaving the bulk of humanitarian operations suspended’.

The president of the local youth association, Issa Mahamar Touré, told how in Gao, the ‘hospital… closed and doctors… fled… [There was] complete desolation, despair’. As the head of the Malian office of Norwegian Church Aid (NCA), Julia McDade, said, the rebels’ own ‘relatives are dying in the field’.

And that’s just within Mali.

Humanitarian situation in Malian refugees’ host communities

Already in the spring, when there were 300,000 Malian refugees (both within Mali and) in Algeria, Burkina Faso, (Guinea,) Mauritania and Niger (and Togo), where the locals faced ‘starvation, [and] lack of water‘, there were fears of inter-communal conflict.

By the summer, there were 440,000 internally or internationally displaced Malians. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR(2)) tried to supply both refugees and host communities with water, sanitation, shelter, ‘core-relief items’, etc.; but it could not provide ‘even the most basic assistance, such as water, sanitation, shelter‘.

In the crisis-stricken Sahel region, ‘more than 4 million children [are] at risk of acute malnutrition, including nearly 1.1 million who will face life-threatening severe acute malnutrition‘.

Looting situation

The Director of the National Museum of Mali, Dr. Samuel Sidibé, is right that the conflict ‘creates conditions favourable for all illicit activities [créent des conditions favorables à toutes les activités illicites]’, and he is right that we must be vigilant. And the Coordinator of the Africa Codicology Institute, Dr. Jacques Habib Sy, has reported that ‘drug dealers from neighbouring areas including Libya have moved in and are offering money for manuscripts…. [with which] “to launder drug money“‘.

Moreover, clearly, looting continues; illicit antiquities are still for sale. Yet, remarkably, from news reports to professional and regional blogs and tweets (in English and French), there appears to be no evidence of crisis-driven subsistence digging; and there appears to be no evidence of organised criminal, or religious or nationalist paramilitary, antiquities looting either.

Early in the conflict, ‘local libraries’ were ‘looted’, but there were ‘no significant [cultural] losses‘. In April, Ansar Dine repeatedly ransacked the Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research (Institut des Hautes Études et de Recherche Islamique – Ahmad Baba (IHÉRI-AB/IHÉRIAB)); but their attacks on IHÉRIAB appear to have been attempts to destroy rather than steal historic documents.

Explaining the lack of looting

The President of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) Disaster Relief Task Force, Dr. Thomas Schuler, has confirmed that manuscripts, libraries and museums are otherwise ‘safe’; ‘[t]hanks to’ owners’ and curators’ secret storage of cultural property and rebels’ and civilians’ protection of heritage sites, ‘there ha[ve] been no thefts reported so far‘. And all of the people involved do deserve praise.

Beyond that, though, there may be one reassuring reason, and three less comforting reasons, for the lack of illicit digging. Optimistically, aid supplies have satisfied people’s minimal requirements; however, even the aid suppliers have said that has not happened; and the aid is only for refugees and their hosts, not for people still resident in their original communities.

Alternatively, the most desperate communities have been forced to seek asylum and, thus, cannot engage in subsistence digging; the ‘kidnap economy‘ is sufficiently profitable; and/or the Salafist paramilitaries do not “only” want to cleanse Mali of its pre-Islamic and non-Salafi cultural heritage (and profit from its smuggling and sale to Western private collectors), they actively want to eradicate all supposedly sinful material from existence. The humanitarian crisis may indeed be too severe to be exploited by the illicit antiquities market.

The desecration of the City of 333 Saints, and the destruction of a history of shared life

On the 4th of May, either AQIM or Ansar Dine or both attacked the tomb of Sufi saint Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar; they ‘broke the door and window, and tore and burned the immaculate cloths around the tomb [ont brisé porte et fenêtre et déchiré et brûlé les tissus immaculés autour de la tombe]’ (via Bastien Varoutsikos). At some point, the Gina Dogon Monument in Douentza was ‘damage[d]’.

Responding to UNESCO’s 28th of June listing of the city of Timbuktu and the Tomb of Askia as World Heritage in Danger, on the 30th of June, Ansar Dine spokesman Sanda Ould Boumama declared:

Today [i.e. now] Ansar Dine will destroy all of the shrines in the city. All of the shrines without exception. There is only one God. All that [non-Salafi Islamic cultural heritage] is “haram” [forbidden in Islam]. Us, we are Muslims. Unesco, what is it?

[Ansar Dine va détruire aujourd’hui tous les mausolées de la ville. Tous les mausolées sans exception. Dieu, il est unique. Tout ça, c’est ‘haram’ [interdit en islam]. Nous, nous sommes musulmans. L’Unesco, c’est quoi?]

Nominally in retaliation against the UNESCO listing, they decapitated the independence monument of Mali, the patron djinn of Timbuktu, al-Farouk. Using ‘pickaxes, hoes and shovels [de pioches, de houes et de burins]’, thirty Ansar Dine fighters destroyed the mausoleums of Sidi Mahmoud, Sidi Moctar (or Sidi el Moctar) and Alpha Moya.

However, since they had attacked shrines before the UNESCO decision and are ideologically committed to the eradication of anything that violates the Salafi interpretation of Islamic law, it seems that the UNESCO listing was an excuse for the intensification of the destruction rather than the cause of the destruction.(3)

Indeed, Boumama told Radio France Internationale (RFI) that ‘[w]hen the Prophet entered Mecca, he said that all the mausoleums should be destroyed. And that’s what we’re repeating.’ Thus, Ansar Dine will not be influenced by International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda’s warning that the destruction of civilian buildings/cultural property is a prosecutable war crime.

Still, teacher/eyewitness Amar Maiga has told how local men and youths have successfully guarded the Tomb of Askia and the mosque in Gao; on the 25th of June, a ‘human chain of residents‘ saved the Tomb of Askia. Two Arab Malian ‘vigilance brigade[s]’ protect mausoleums in Araouane and Gasser-Cheick. So, remarkably, even now, there is some small cause for optimism. It can only be hoped that their presence continues to deter attacks, that they are not forced to prevent attacks through a violent clash. Nevertheless, inevitably, this cannot suffice for protection.

On the 1st of July, Ansar Dine attacked four more shrines, including two in the cemetery of Djingareyber Mosque, one of which was the mausoleum of Sheikh el-Kebir (see also Tahir Shah, via Derek Fincham). On the 2nd of July, in order to challenge a Sufi legend that Sidi Yahya Mosque should not be opened until the end of the world, Salafists ‘smashed down the door‘. Over the course of the month, ‘several’ – more? – ‘tombs of Sufi saints were pick-axed and pounded to rubble by al Qaeda-linked Islamist groups’.

On 15th of September, the mausoleum of Sheikh el-Kebir (Cheik El Kébir), which is especially sacred to the Kunta community, was finally, completely demolished by MUJAO.

On the 29th of September, Ansar Dine destroyed the mausoleum of Alfa Mobo in Goundam. [Update, 20th October 2012.]

Local Garba Maiga recounted how, on the 19th of October, a convoy of ‘heavily-armed’ Ansar Dine drove out of Timbuktu to the tombs of saints Sheikh Nouh, Sheikh Ousmane el Kabir, and Sheikh Mohamed Foulani Macina, and ‘flattened everything with a bulldozer and pulled up the skeletal remains’. [Update, 20th October 2012.]

More than 200 Sufi saints’ tombs and mausoleums are at risk of destruction. Up to 700,000 ancient manuscripts are at risk of theft(4) for sale to private antiquities collectors or, more simply, destruction by Salafist extremists.

The mausoleum of the Al Hassan and Al Houseyni twins was destroyed in the attacks on the 23rd of December.

Islamist retreat: burning of Ahmed Baba Institute, ancient manuscript archive, town hall and governor’s office


1: Ansar Dine means “Defenders of the Faith”; it is also transliterated as Ançar Deen, Ançar Din, Ançar Dine, Ansar ad-Din, Ansar al-Din, Ansar Eddine and Ansar ul-Din.

2: also known as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

3: Obviously, UNESCO (which has established a fund) and its World Heritage Committee (WHC) are not alone in their concern. The programme of destruction in Mali has been condemned by the School for African Heritage (l’École du Patrimoine Africain (ÉPA)) and allied agencies and cultural heritage professionals (like the Toumbouctou Manuscripts Project); (the International Committee of) the Blue Shield (comprising the International Council on Archives (ICA), the International Council of Museums (ICOM), the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) and the Co‐ordinating Council of Audiovisual Archives Associations (CCAAA)); the United Nations Security Council; the World Archaeological Congress (WAC); countries from Russia to Turkey; everyone from the UK Libraries and Archives Group on Africa (SCOLMA) to African American Evangelical Christian movements; and Ansar Dine’s momentary allies, the MNLA

4: Grimly ironically, alongside its programme of destruction, Ansar Dine has also imposed Shari’a law, including ‘the punitive mutilation of thieves‘, the chopping off of their hands.

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