The International Criminal Court (ICC) has been used in the past to condemn some of the worst criminals in the world since 2005. Muammar Gaddafi, Joseph Kony, Omar al-Bashir, et cetera. Every one of the people indicted has been accused of genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes. But just last week, the definition of a war crime was slightly changed when the trial of Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi got underway. Al-Mahdi, a citizen of Mali and alleged member of the Islamist extremist group Ansar Dine, was indicted by the ICC last year for the destruction of historical and religious monuments and buildings in the Malian city of Timbuktu. It was the first time ever in the history of the court that the destruction of cultural sites and artifacts was being counted as a war crime. Not only has the ICC attempted to charge someone with cultural destruction, but al-Mahdi pled guilty to the charge on August 22nd, making him the first individual to plead guilty at the Hague. His guilty plea will surely lead to his conviction, making him the first individual to be convicted of destruction of cultural heritage at the Hague.
From 2012 to 2015, al-Mahdi worked with the Ansar Dine and branches of al-Qaeda in western Africa, and was the leader of what was known as a ‘morality brigade’. In Timbuktu, he led his morality brigade in the destruction and desecration of numerous mausoleums and mosques. During the conflict in northern Mali when al-Mahdi was active, about 4,000 manuscripts and documents in Timbuktu dating to the Fifteenth Century were destroyed as well. At the ICC, al-Mahdi made a statement expressing regret about the destruction of the sites, and encouraged others to refrain from such acts. Al-Mahdi faces up to thirty years in prison if he is convicted. However, he has said that “my time in prison will be a source of purging the evil spirits that have taken over me.” This one case is so much more than a single extremist being punished for his crimes. Al-Mahdi’s case, the first of its kind, will definitely set a precedent in the ICC to indict members of other extremist groups, including the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL/Daesh), who have been destroying cultural heritage sites and artifacts for the past few years across North Africa and the Middle East. The ICC may even have the power to indict the members of the Islamic State who are responsible for the destruction of the ruins of the Roman city of Palmyra in Syria.