In an age of violent jihadists trying to spread fear, it is worth noting when one turns away from them and shows unusual contrition. On Aug. 22 at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, a former leader of an Al Qaeda affiliate pleaded guilty to destroying historic cultural and religious sites four years ago in the ancient city of Timbuktu in Mali.
The admission of guilt by Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi and his coming prison sentence might alone send a message to violent jihadists, many of whom have wrecked ancient artifacts from Afghanistan to Libya. This was the first time an Islamist fighter has stood trial before the ICC, and it is also the first time any person has been charged by the court with a war crime for destroying cultural heritage. In 2012, Mr. Mahdi led the “Manners Brigade” of the militant group Ansar Dine that destroyed priceless medieval manuscripts and sacred mausoleums during an armed takeover of Timbuktu, once a major center of Islamic learning.
But Mahdi also used his court appearance to do more than admit he ran afoul of international law aimed at the protection of cultural heritage. He advised Muslims not to commit similar acts because it would not do “any good for humanity.”
In that comment he seemed to acknowledge the universal value of historic art and ancient cultural objects. His Islamic group had sought to eradicate artifacts they deemed pagan or heretical. Instead, he now suggests their purpose in uplifting people.
Much of the world’s cherished cultural and religious sites represent a common desire for self-reflection and an understanding of eternity. Certainly the 15th- and 16th-century works at Timbuktu fit this purpose. So did the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, which were destroyed by the Taliban. And so did the Temple of Baalshamin in Palmyra, Syria, which was torn down by Islamic State.
“We live in a time when a 20-year-old can destroy a 2,000-year-old temple in the blink of an eye and distribute videos of the destruction worldwide,” says Karima Bennoune, the United Nations Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights. Yet now with this guilty plea at a world tribunal by a contrite former jihadist, perhaps that era may be near an end.