Inside the Islamic Emirate of Timbuktu

An exclusive trove of al Qaeda documents found in this fabled city shows a theocracy in the making in Mali.

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.

The documents also show clear evidence of the international nature of the extremist takeover of northern Mali. The top Islamic judge, Muhammad bin al-Hussain, used a mobile phone with a Libyan number. In other notebooks, two more Libyan telephone numbers were found next to names of, presumably, commanders. Two telephone numbers from Algeria also appear among the notes.

Each case gives a unique view of how strict Islamic law was applied during al Qaeda's short-lived Islamic state. While the rulers of the "emirate of Timbuktu" were certainly brutal and repressive, they also took care to establish a government built to last -- one with functioning institutions that at times even protected residents against their own loyalists.

In one court session, titled Case Number 8, the judges consider the fate of a man named Abu Bakr Burkina. He is one of their own fighters who stands accused of having raped a girl in Timbuktu. The court paper, dated Aug. 27, 2012, reads: "After listening to his saying he [Abu Bakr Burkina] admitted that he committed adultery with the girl after having threatened to take her to the police headquarters late at night. He carried his gun. And all this evidence confirmed what the girl has said earlier."

On the same document the punishment is written down: "Based on everything, we sentence Abu Bakr Burkina to the following: a. 100 lashes because he is not married but single. b. Banishment for one year (that will take place in prison). c. The girl is not to be punished as she was forced."

Another court case, on Aug. 16, 2012, details harsh punishment against someone discovered drinking alcohol. "The judges sentence Ibrahim bin al-Hussain to 40 lashes and paying of 50.000 CFA [$100] after he admitted to drinking wine and selling it in his shop. Also his shop will be closed temporarily by the Islamic police."

Women were also lashed, as Case Number 29, on Oct. 15, 2012, suggests. "Assia bint Omar came in front of us," states the document, "And we sentenced her to 60 lashes due to her mixing with men and the usage of foul words. She however denied that she committed any crime."

Many cases deal with marriage problems and matters of divorce. Not surprisingly, in most cases the judge tended to agree with the man, not the woman.

"In front of us stood Daham Ould el Radi who lives in Timbuktu," reads one sentencing, "He could not continue with his wife, who is called Bibi bint Osman. So we decided to separate them and the wife pays 100.000 CFA [$200]."

In cases where a woman wanted a divorce, the court was much more hesitant to act -- even when the female was a minor.

"Ahmad bin Mido is asking us to make it possible for him to consume his rights [that is, to have sex] with his wife Fatima bint Abdu who he married when she was still young," reads one document, "During the secular regime of Mali, he was punished with imprisonment and with paying a fine. The wife mentions now to us that she hates him due to his bad treatment of her."

Although the wife -- who is a minor -- hates the husband, the court decides in favor of him. "a. The man above can consummate with his wife. She should obey him and give him his [sexual] rights," reads the sentence. But there is a small compromise: "Due to the fear of the wife for her husband and her hatred for him we have decided to keep the wife at her parents' house. He can visit her there and try to build bridges and gain her back."

The court's ruling wasn't an outlier -- rather, it was an expression of the Islamist radicals' view of women as second-class citizens. Another document found at the Timbuktu police headquarters laid out the required dress code for women: The leaflet featured a picture of a faceless woman dressed in a black Islamic dress. This is the dress code for women, the text in Arabic and French explains. According to the document, the dark clothes must cover the full body. It may not be transparent. It must be large enough to avoid showing body shapes. It must not be colorful. It cannot be modern. The clothes must not look like those of a man, nor like those of unbelievers. And, lastly, it is forbidden to use perfume.

Al Qaeda and its allies were not only establishing their version of a Taliban state in northern Mali -- they were doing so systematically, transforming daily life to conform to their harsh interpretation of Islamic law. If they had not been driven out by military force, there is every reason to believe they would have succeeded.



Scotch This Plan

Scotland’s decaying capital city shows why this country is not ready for independence.

EDINBURGH, Scotland — Sometime in the fall of 2014, Scotland will hold a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom. The outcome is far from certain, but whatever happens, Scotland will certainly gain further powers of self-determination. Its capital city, Edinburgh (population 500,000), has been the site of the Scottish Parliament since 1999 and has been, most think, the chief beneficiary of the ongoing devolution of power from London. Its future, unlike that of any other Scottish city, seems assured. And by most objective measures it's an exceedingly fortunate place. It hosts the world's largest arts festival, it's rightly celebrated for its culture, and it scores consistently well on quality-of-life indices. Its employment levels have even held up well after the 2008 financial-services crash, to which the city was well exposed. Yet Edinburgh suffers a weird urban malaise. Rather than a city whose time has finally come, it can feel more like Venice, a once-great city now in abject decline. If the city is a glimpse of Scotland's future as an independent -- or somewhat more independent -- nation, Scots may have some cause for alarm.

Deplaning at Edinburgh's airport, you pass a series of new mural-scale photographs celebrating one of the world's most dramatic urban landscapes. They're emblazoned with quotations from celebrated Edinburgh writers -- David Hume, Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson. What the panels extol are achievements of the now-distant past, and the visual image of the city presented in the photographs is dominated by the castle, a largely 18th-century creation.

Leaving the airport, you do wonder whether the city isn't actually reverting to its 18th-century condition. The spectacularly potholed roads, the decay of buildings in the central area, and the remarkable absence of new construction suggest the city council wishes to return to the era of Hume and Stevenson.

I took American urban sociologist Sharon Zukin around Edinburgh in the summer of 2012. She found it a hard city to read. The UNESCO-listed central area looked run-down, she thought; the upscale neighborhood of Stockbridge seemed "poor." I had to agree, looking at all the thrift stores and shabby street frontage.

And the problems were more than surface impressions. Consider Princes Street, Edinburgh's Fifth Avenue, a straight mile of retail set below the great volcanic plug of the Castle Rock. It would be hard to find a more spectacular place to shop, and it ought to be one of the world's great avenues. But nearly 30 percent of the units are vacant here, and many of the occupied units are short-term lets selling tourist knickknacks. Lift your eyes upward, and many buildings at the second-floor level and above are empty.

Princes Street has been subjected to numerous partial regeneration schemes over the years, each of which has left a mark (look up, for example, and you see the remnants of a 1960s scheme to put the sidewalk up in the sky, overlooking a six-lane freeway). These failures pale by comparison with the chaos wrought by the Edinburgh Trams project, which is intended to bring street-running light rail to the city, but is already six times over budget at $1.5 billion three years late. Originally a three-line, 20-mile network, the project has been cut to a single line from the center to the airport, duplicating an already efficient and much-liked bus service. Nobody much wants the trams now, least of all Princes Street merchants who have seen business decline markedly over the five years of the scheme's construction. The Liberal Democrat party, which as leader of the City of Edinburgh Council initiated the project, saw its share of the vote cut to just 5 percent in 2012 city elections.

Perhaps it was a blip? Think again. Due north of Princes Street, along the Firth of Forth, is Edinburgh Waterfront, a project to rebuild the city's industrial ocean frontage. It starts promisingly enough in Leith with warehouse conversions and funky bars, but head a quarter-mile east and you find yourself in a dystopian wasteland of vacant lots worthy of a J.G. Ballard novel. The waterfront reaches its peak of despair at Granton Harbour where a handful of shoddy buildings emerge from a giant mud pool, the inadvertent result of stalled construction. Wrecked bicycles and shopping carts litter the scene. So poor are these buildings, they're already -- after five years -- falling down. The owners paid up to $600,000 for apartments here at the height of the boom; they would be worth barely half that now.

It all adds up to one inescapable conclusion: Edinburgh has some of Europe's shoddiest attempts at urban regeneration. Regeneration is risky, but for mistakes like these to occur in such a wealthy place at the height of an economic boom is, as British architectural critic Owen Hatherley put it, simply a scandal.

Perhaps Edinburgh just doesn't do modern anymore? It's easy to reach that conclusion. The city had a collective nervous breakdown over development in the mid-1960s. The University of Edinburgh's attempted demolition of 18th-century George Square met ferocious, and ultimately successful, resistance from the Cockburn Association and the Georgian Group of Edinburgh, conservation groups with the support of the city's indomitable middle class. The city has been terrified of modernization ever since.

But Edinburgh has its difficulties with historical buildings too. In the middle of 2012, a corruption scandal emerged involving council officials colluding with local builders to impose unnecessary repair orders on buildings. Edinburgh's power to impose such orders was unparalleled in Britain as a result of the city's desire to protect its UNESCO World Heritage status. The statutory notice system that resulted was a license to abuse, however. The council could, and did, impose repairs where none were needed. The system was rightly feared by residents, who had no control over costs once the council was involved. Those costs could run into hundreds of thousands of dollars. The council's entire historical-property department was suspended in 2012, and at the time of this writing, 17 members of the department are expected to face criminal charges.

Edinburgh struggles with the past as much as it struggles with the future. The result is a curious paralysis and a paradoxical sense of decline. That's fine for aesthetes in search of photogenic ruins, less so for the majority population who regard the city as a living entity, not a museum. How has it come to this, at a moment when conceivably from 2014 Edinburgh might regain its status as capital of an independent nation?

Malcolm Fraser, a highly regarded local architect, was outspoken on the question when I interviewed him at the end of 2012. It's a failure of leadership, he thinks. The city government lacks both a plan and the ability to stick to it. In one looks at the city council's website, it's hard to disagree. The council's priorities for development are extremely hard to discern, apart from limiting human activity wherever possible. Its plan, "Sustainable Edinburgh 2020," is shot through with anxieties about the heritage lobby and middle-class opinion -- a NIMBY's charter.

Edinburgh's uncertainties are in some ways a representation of its political turmoil. Since May 2012, it has been led by an uneasy coalition of leftist (Labour Party) and nationalist (Scottish National Party -- SNP) interests, whose primary concern has been to restore stability and trust after a febrile period under the previous centrist (Liberal Democrat) administration. The city has an uneasy relationship with the SNP-led Scottish government, which is single-mindedly focused on independence -- Edinburgh's Labour majority is staunchly pro-United Kingdom. This is no context for grand urban visions.

Still, there is a sense of opportunity lost. So what would Fraser do differently? He speaks passionately about infrastructure, lots of it, including -- unfashionably -- completing and extending the tram project, as well as large-scale projects to improve walking, cycling, and the public realm. His model would be Copenhagen, which routinely invites foreign architects to collaborate on urban projects. Fraser's vision is unusual, and infectious, and he has enough friends in government to have been named as chair of a task force on the future of urban streets. That is a good sign. Fraser also thinks the city has clients who understand the value of good buildings. The University of Edinburgh has become one of them, lately being much bolder with its estate. It's rightly proud of its airy new informatics facility and its refurbished library, the latter designed by Basil Spence in 1968. Once hated, Spence's building has become one of the sights of the city, like a great ocean liner moored in picturesque 18th-century George Square. Each August, these buildings form one of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe's main backdrops, and for a brief period they help give the impression of a city at ease with its future.

But for the other 11 months, Edinburgh's urban stagnation is real. It seems unable to move forward, yet its stewardship of the past has led to corruption on a grand scale. And the city's difficulties are perhaps in microcosm those of a nation uncertain about its future. Before Scotland can be a country, its capital needs to get its house in order.

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