French and Malian troops entered the fabled city of Timbuktu on January 27, only to find that retreating Islamist insurgents had torched a library containing thousands of priceless historic manuscripts. The city’s mayor describes that act as a “devastating blow” to world heritage. From the 1300’s to the 1600’s, Timbuktu was one of the richest commercial cities of Africa and a center of Islamic learning.
The government of French President François Hollande announced on January 12 that it was sending troops into Mali to help wrest the nation back from Islamic jihadist expansion. (Mali was once a French colony.) Some 1,900 African troops–including soldiers from Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Togo–are being deployed to Mali as part of a United Nations-backed African intervention force to drive the insurgents northwards into the desert and mountains. The United Kingdom is supplying planes to transport troops and material.
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The rebels gained control of much of the north in 2012 after a military coup in Mali’s capital, Bamako, created a power vacuum. At the core of the Islamist insurgency are the remnants of a now-defunct Algerian rebel group that was largely driven out of Algeria and into the unpoliced desert land in northern Mali sometime after the Algerian civil war was settled in 1999. A loose alliance of Algerian and Mauritanian fighters, they are believed to be connected to an al-Qa’ida offshoot known as “al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb.” (Maghreb refers to northern Africa west of Egypt). The group aims to overthrow the Algerian government and institute an Islamic state under Shar’iah law. The group operates in Algeria, Mauritania, Niger, and other ungoverned areas of the Sahel region. The insurgents are known for their extreme cruelty and barbarity. Since seizing the northern half of Mali, they have destroyed a number of historic and religious landmarks in Timbuktu, claiming the landmarks are idolatrous. Any behavior deemed an affront to their interpretation of Islam has been zealously punished. They also actively recruit children for armed conflict.