From the instant that news emerged that Ahmad Al Mahdi Al Faqi had been surrendered to the International Criminal Court (ICC) on allegations that he was responsible for the war crime of destroying shrines in Timbuktu, Mali, the circumstances around how Al Faqi got to the ICC have been shrouded in mystery. The Office of the Prosecutor’s press release, issued at an ungodly hour last Saturday, was rather short on details. But more and more is becoming clear. Here is what we know about the first-ever Islamic extremist to be shipped off to The Hague to face war crimes charges.
Al Faqi, also known by his nom de guerre Abou Tourab is, by his own admission, approximately 40 years old. Allegedly a member of the radical Islamic group Ansar Dine, he is well educated and, in fact, perhaps once of the most clever individuals ever to come into the custody of the ICC. According to some, only Callixte Mbarushimana may have been more intelligent. In an op-ed in The Guardian, one of Al Mahdi’s teachers described her former pupil as a decent student but as “the wrong man” for the ICC to target in the grand scheme of injustice in Mali:
He gained a passable mark because he did his homework and he learned. He was courteous and respectful, but he had sly eyes and the same beard he must now wear in the corridors of the Dutch court…
…So the masters student was in fact a fundamentalist who was quickly radicalised when the jihadists arrived. But is this man who was handed over to the ICC by the authorities in Niger deserving of the role in which he is being cast – as a major player in the occupation? No, there are many more deserving of justice…
Al Faqi is just a little fish. But in Mali it is the little fish who are caught.
But the observation that Al Faqi is a “little fish” may not be as relevant as first meets the eye. The most recent prosecutorial strategy report from the Office of the Prosecutor has stated that prosecutors will seek, where appropriate, to go after lower- and mid-level perpetrators – and not just those “most responsible” like heads of states or rebel leaders. Moreover, in the coming days and weeks, as suggested below, we may find that Al Faqi was more involved in the perpetration of atrocities than has been suggested to date.
Still, it begs asking: how was this “little fish” caught and brought to The Hague in the first place?
Details remain murky, but what is evident is that Al Faqi had been in custody – first in the hands of the French military and then forces in Niger – since September 2014. After being caught on camera taking pride in the wanton destruction of shrines in Timbuktu, prosecutors at the ICC had Al Faqi in their cross-hairs. However, they practised patience with their request for an arrest warrant. For reasons that, again, remain unclear, a few weeks ago those prosecutors became concerned that Al Faqi would be released or forcefully freed from jail in Niger. They thus moved quickly to request ICC Judges to issue a sealed arrest warrant against Al Faqi. While Niger is an ICC-member-state, prosecutors felt the need to move expeditiously and, with remarkable speed, got the approval of relevant judicial and political figures in the country for Al Faqi’s release. Some time in the wee hours of Saturday morning, the first-ever Islamic extremist to face war crimes charges for the destruction of historical and cultural monuments was sharing hallways with the likes of former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo and former warlord rebel Bosco Ntaganda in a Scheveningen prison cell.
So what comes next? Some believe that Al Faqi is the most likely suspect ever brought to the ICC to plead guilty – at least to some of the charges against him. For Al Faqi, one could see the value in doing so and using the Court as a pulpit to celebrate rather than defend his actions. And with former rebel commander Thomas Dyilo Lubanga getting fourteen years for his role in the conscription and use of child soldiers, one has to wonder what kind of a sentence Al Faqi would get for destroying cultural sites. Surely his lawyers will be discussing this issue with him. After all, if the sentence handed down by judges is about ten years then Al Faqi would be a free man by the time he turned 50.
Undoubtedly, a quick-and-dirty trial would be in the interest of the the cash-strapped ICC. It would also demonstrates that the Court could deliver expeditious justice. But there are already indications that prosecutors will face pressure to expand the charges against Al Faqi. One human rights NGO, for example, has already insisted that the prosecution also include charges of sexual and gender based violence against Al Faqi. This puts the Office of the Prosecutor in a tough spot. Expanding the charges may make a guilty plea less likely but, in line with its own reports on sexual and gender based crimes, the Office has said it will focus on such crimes whenever possible – or at least explain why it won’t when it decides not to.
As I wrote last week, the surrender of Al Faqi to the ICC is a win for the institution. But the time for celebration will be short. The more information about him comes to light, the more complex the case against Al Faqi becomes.