TIMBUKTU WAS ONCE a crossroads of the African continent and the Muslim world, a vibrant center of commerce and trade, spirituality and mysticism, knowledge and learning. Since last week, however, the so-called “city of 33 saints” has been reduced to collateral damage in a brutal Islamist sect’s push for power in northern Mali.
For more than two decades, Mali has struggled with maintaining a stable democracy. Last year, in the wake of the rebellion against Moammar Gaddafi in neighboring Libya, ethnic Tuareg fighters streamed into the country with an arsenal of weapons and military supplies, declaring their own republic in the region that includes the ancient city. As we have said before, this revolt is a grave threat not just to Mali itself but to the entire Maghreb region. Ansar Dine, a radical Islamist sect with ties to al-Qaeda, has established itself in much of the rebel territory, imposed sharia law and begun to wreak sectarian havoc.