TIMBUKTU, Mali — The Islamic court of Timbuktu referred to it as Case Number 25. The date written on the court document is Oct. 10, 2012. "In front of us stands a man, Muhamad bin Moussa, who is accused of practicing magic," reads the document. "During investigation he admitted to have used talismans, magical tables, and magical seals, and to writing [Quranic] verses and tearing them, which makes him a magician."
The court, led by judge Muhammad bin al-Hussain, asked the culprit to publically repent. This, of course, he did immediately. According to the court paper, Muhamad uttered the shahada -- the Muslim declaration of belief in the oneness of God. He then promised the Islamic court he would study the Quran. "This is why we did not spill his blood," reads the document. Instead of the death sentence, Muhamad the Magician was sentenced to "three days in jail so other people can take it as an example."
From April 2012 until January 2013, al Qaeda and its local ally, Ansar Dine, attempted to establish an Islamist theocracy in the northern Mali city of Timbuktu. Hundreds of documents found in the hastily abandoned offices of the Islamic police and the sharia court show how the radicals meticulously created institutions meant to implement their harsh version of Islamic law, which included destroying historic shrines and ancient manuscripts in the ancient city. The Islamists only fled after a French military intervention helped the Malian army wrest Timbuktu from their grasp.
The extremists commandeered a local establishment named La Maison -- a fancy, French-owned hotel designed to resemble a traditional Malian home, made of brown clay -- as the headquarters for their Islamic court. In one of the upper rooms of the hotel, stacks of papers detailed the punishments to be meted out. In the same room, a rope lay on the floor. According to a local man, who did not want to be identified, the rope was used for floggings -- a common sentence delivered by the Islamic court.
Recovered copybooks suggest that the Islamic court was divided into three sections, with a total of nine judges sitting on the bench. The first section was responsible for transgressions such as "murder, robbery, adultery, alcohol, smoking, swearing, and magic." The second section dealt with social issues, such as marriage and divorce; the third was devoted to financial matters, notably "money and land disputes."
The extremists used a bank in the center of town as their police station. On a wall inside the building is written the Arabic text: "Tanzeem al Qaeda fi al-Maghreb" -- Organization of al Qaeda in North Africa. A pickaxe had been left in one of the rooms. "The religious police used this pickaxe to destroy the mausoleums in the graveyards," explained Malik Diko, a former tour guide who stayed in Timbuktu during the period of extremist rule.
Hidden away in the makeshift police station was a two-page letter from one of the main leaders of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Abdul Hamid Abu Zayd. The memorandum, dated Oct. 15, 2012, and titled "Obligatory guidelines for the general police, moral police, and the rest of the soldiers," provides a blueprint for how the local security forces should implement religious law in Timbuktu.
While some of the instructions -- such as the prohibition on magic, smoking cigarettes, or women wearing makeup -- may seem bizarre to a Western audience, other recommendations are clear attempts to put a limit on the powers of the religious police. The 14-point memorandum, for instance, states that citizens' houses cannot be entered without the explicit permission of the "emir of Timbuktu," that punishment can only take place at the police station, and that police are not allowed to examine the contents of citizens' mobile phones without just cause. Even in the event that a Timbuktu resident is sentenced to lashings, the document advises, "our brothers should not use excessive force."
The Islamists didn't just organize the city's legal system, they developed a military plan to control and defend the city -- albeit one that collapsed in the face of the French-assisted military offensive in January. Various Islamist commanders were in charge of the defense of different strategic locations throughout Timbuktu. The airport, for instance, was guarded by commander Abdul Haq and his men. The Ahmed Baba Center -- where hundreds of old manuscripts were burned hours before al Qaeda and its allies fled the city -- was controlled by a commander named Abu Moussa. And commander Abu Sayaf was in charge of securing the power station of Timbuktu.