By Benjamin Dürr*
The International Criminal Court (ICC) is set to open the confirmation of charges hearings in its first Mali case on 1 March. The accused, Ahmad al Faqi al Mahdi, is still relatively unknown. A profile.
Before Ahmad al Mahdi appeared in court for the first time in September, few knew him. There was no photo of him to be found, and only a few details
of his life had been revealed.
With the ICC set to open the confirmation of charges hearing, official court documents reveal more details about his person.
Al Mahdi, a quite tall, Arab man with black, curly hair and full beard, is the first alleged Islamist to appear at the ICC. As a member of the militant group Ansar Dine, he is allegedly responsible for the destruction of cultural heritage in Mali.
While his exact age is unknown, the ICC says al Mahdi was born approximately in 1975 in Agoune, some 100 kilometres west of Timbuktu. He is the son of a marbout, a religious leader, and himself a respected person within his Ansar Tuareg tribe, in which he enjoys a certain influence, the prosecution says.
Al Mahdi has a background in Islamic law and worked as a teacher at an Islamic school in Timbuktu before he was appointed school director of an institution some 40 kilometres outside the city.
Al Mahdi joins Ansar Dine
When Islamist militants overran Timbuktu in early 2012, he returned. It was only a few days after the takeover that al Mahdi joined Ansar Dine.
The prosecution alleges al Mahdi became part of a common plan in which the Islamists imposed their will on the population. He is said to have attended meetings at the Bouctou Hotel in Timbuktu, where the leaders met. Moreover, the prosecution alleges that al Mahdi was one of the locals who helped to put in place control structures, among them an Islamic tribunal, a morality brigade called Hisbah, a media council and a religious police force.
In April 2012, al Mahdi was allegedly appointed as the head of the Hisbah, and as such he was in charge of controlling the population and regulating its morality. The prosecution collected videos showing al Mahdi in a blue vest with the slogan “Comité Al-Hisbah, Timbuktu” and driving through town in a Hisbah car on his mission to enforce Islamic rules.
Providing legal opinions
Al Mahdi is said to have talked about Islamic law issues on the radio and provided legal opinions to the tribunal. While he was not an official judge, he reportedly read out and explained the sentence in at least two of the tribunal’s cases – a public flagellation and an execution.
In late June 2012, al Mahdi was tasked with organising the destruction of nine mausoleums of Muslim saints and the door of the Sidi Yahia mosque. The prosecution claims he did research on the way the buildings were constructed and which means needed to be employed to destroy them. He wrote a sermon on the destruction, which was later read out at the Friday prayer.
Al Mahdi allegedly organised the tools, the prosecution says in its documents. He was allegedly present at all the sites and participated personally in the destruction of at least five sites. Al Mahdi, carrying a Kalashnikov, explained on camera to journalists why the destruction of the buildings was necessary.
Within a period of about ten days, ten of Timbuktu’s cultural heritage sites were destroyed. According to the prosecution, al Mahdi’s deeds amount to the war crime of directing an attack against buildings dedicated to religion and historic monuments.
Al Mahdi’s capture
When France intervened in Mali in early 2013, al Mahdi left Timbuktu together with the city’s Islamist “governor,” Abou Zeid. One and a half years later, in the night of 10 October 2014, he was captured in an international anti-terrorist operation called “Barkhane” near the Algerian-Nigerien border.
Al Mahdi was part of a six-vehicle convoy, which transported more than a tonne of weapons and was heading from Libya to Mali. A local court in Niger charged him with terrorism, but after the ICC issued its arrest warrant in September 2015, he was transferred to the Netherlands.
In the confirmation of charges hearing, judges now have to decide whether al Mahdi will face trial in The Hague.
Benjamin Dürr is a legal analyst in The Hague with a focus on the ICC and Africa.
Lead image: Ahmad al Mahdi at the International Criminal Court (Photo: Robin van Lonkhuijsen/EPA