Belmont Club

When the Saints Go Marching In

Most of us will have doubtless heard of Timbuktu. Its fame since ancient times has rested on tales of a fabled city which few had seen. Founded by at the junction of trade routes from the interior and the coast (“where the canoe met the camel”) it was closed to the infidel.

In 1824, the Paris-based Société de Géographie offered a 10,000 franc prize to the first non-Muslim to reach the town and return with information about it. The Scotsman Gordon Laing arrived in August 1826 but was killed the following month by local Muslims who were fearful of European intervention. The Frenchman René Caillié arrived in 1828 travelling alone, disguised as a Muslim; he was able to safely return and claim the prize.

The less literate among may be unaware that Timbuktu is also the graveyard of the 333 venerated Muslim saints, whose tombs alas are not accorded much respect by al-Qaeda.  So it is to the infidel, ironically, that the Muslim world looks to save these mausoleums from demolition by the Islamists.

“Not a single mausoleum will remain in Timbuktu, Allah doesn’t like it,” Abou Dardar, leader of the Islamist Ansar Dine group, told AFP. “We are in the process of smashing all the hidden mausoleums in the area.”

Witnesses confirmed the claims. …

The vandalism of the Muslim saints’ tombs in the UNESCO World Heritage site came a day after other Islamists in the northern city of Gao announced they had amputated two people’s hands.

The continued strict application of sharia law is seen as a sign that the armed Islamist groups are unfazed by the UN’s green light for the African-led military operation.

Their unfazedness is understandable. It has been a long time since anyone was fazed by the UN. But now the UN has powerful help: the EU. They have issued a statement.

Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, condemned the Islamists.

A statement from her office said she was “deeply shocked by the brutal destruction of mausoleums and holy shrines in Timbuktu…

“Their destruction is a tragedy not only for the people of Mali, but for the whole world.”

Ansar Dine began destroying the cultural treasures in July.

But it is more than the tombs of the Muslim Saints are at risk. So is the honor of France and the safety of the Western world.  Mali is now the biggest single territory in the world controlled by al-Qaeda. Its descent into chaos began with the influx of arms generated by the fall of Khadaffy in Libya.

Now it is a problem that no one can ignore. Drat. And there we were thinking that Osama bin Laden was dead and General Motors was alive.

Many in the West fear that northeast Mali and the arid Sahel region could become the new Afghanistan, a no-man’s-land where extremists can train, impose hardline Islamic law and plot terror attacks abroad. And France, former colonial ruler to countries across the Sahel, is a prime target.

“This is actually a major threat – to French interests in the region, and to France itself,” said Francois Heisbourg, an expert at the Foundation for Strategic Research, a partially state-funded think tank in Paris. “This is like Afghanistan 1996. This is like when Bin Laden found a place that was larger than France in which he could organize training camps, in which he could provide stable preparations for organizing far-flung terror attacks.”

Naturally the UN has deputized the United States to help out. The US for its part insists that Africans lead the way under a democratic regime in Mali.  Washington Post reports that “the U.N. Security Council on Thursday voted unanimously to establish a U.S.- and European-backed African force to rebuild Mali’s troubled military and to begin preparing it for a possible military offensive to retake control of sections of the country from separatists and Islamic extremists.”

The resolution does not specify what role the United States would play in the military campaign against extremists. But it provides wide legal scope for foreign governments to “take all necessary measures” — including the use of lethal force — and to provide “any necessary assistance” in support of the Malian fight.

The resolution does not specify what role the United States would play in the military campaign against extremists. But it provides wide legal scope for foreign governments to “take all necessary measures” — including the use of lethal force — and to provide “any necessary assistance” in support of the Malian fight.

The Obama administration has harbored deep misgivings about the ability of a Malian-led force to prevail in combat with Islamic radicals in the region, including those aligned with al-Qaeda. But Thursday’s vote ended weeks of tense negotiations between France, which was determined to authorize a new force before the year’s end, and the United States, which wanted to wait until the country had elected a new civilian president … U.S. law restricts U.S. financial assistance to Mali, because its democratic government was ousted in a coup in March.

But Deutsche Welle has expressed some doubts about whether the operation will succeed without a serious American involvement. They have a sneaking suspicion — as do the West Africans themselves — that without US power behind it the intervention may be ill-omened. “West African States are keen to liberate northern Mali from the grip of Islamists. France has voiced support for military intervention, but there are doubts about the depth of commitment from the UN and US.”

One fear is that the African intervention force will have to be rescued by the US if it gets into a tight military spot fighting al-Qaeda.  It’s happened before.

The proposed force would be provided by the 15 member states of regional bloc ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) and would be stationed outside the capital Bamako. Their target would be a coalition of hard-line Islamist militants, some linked to Al Qaeda, which seized control of the north of the country soon after the March coup …

West African officials have said that an ECOWAS deployment will require funding and support from the UN. Previous ECOWAS military deployments in Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 1990s had patchy success and were marred by corruption and abuses.

During Liberia’s civil war the Nigeria-led force, known as ECOMOG, was nicknamed ‘Every Car Or Moving Object Gone’ for some officers’ indulgence in corrupt business dealings, including providing weapons to the armed factions it was there to stop.

In Sierra Leone ECOMOG had to be rescued from defeat by a UN and British force.

After all, how does a force so disparate achieve the cohesion so necessary to beat al-Qaeda? And so, as the UNESCO writhes in outrage over the desecration of yet another world heritage site, the planet can take comfort in the auspicious numerology. There are 333 saints (“Are there really 333? Why that number exactly? Who are they? These are not easy questions to answer.” asks one blog) set to be rescued by a group of 15 West African nations guided by the wisdom of a US Secretary of State whose fortune is based on 57 varieties of food products.

If the saints won’t go marching in, then the world will at least march in for the saints.

And when the sun refuse (begins) to shine
And when the sun refuse (begins) to shine
Oh lord I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in

Oh when the saints go marching in
When the saints go marching in
Oh lord I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in

The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99

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