A still from a video shows Islamist militants destroying an ancient shrine in Timbuktu. Photograph: (Getty)
Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi is the first extremist charged by the war crimes court and the first to face solo charges of cultural destruction
History is set to be made on Monday at the world's only permanent war crimes court when an alleged Malian jihadist is due to plead guilty to attacking the fabled city of Timbuktu.
Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, aged about 40, is the first Islamic extremist charged by the International Criminal Court and the first person to face a solo allegation of cultural destruction.
He is also likely to become the first to admit his guilt in the ICC's dock, in a trial which archaeologists hope will send a stern warning that the plundering and pillaging of the planet's ancient artifacts and sites will not go unpunished.
Plucked from the edges of the Sahara to a courtroom on the sand dunes of The Hague, the bespectacled Mahdi is accused of "intentionally directing attacks" against nine of Timbuktu's famous mausoleums as well as the Sidi Yahia mosque between June 30 and July 11, 2012.
Founded between the 5th and the 12th centuries by Tuareg tribes, Timbuktu's very name evokes centuries of history and has been dubbed "the city of 333 saints" for the number of Muslim sages buried there.
Revered as a centre of Islamic learning during its golden age in the 15th and 16th centuries, the site also known as the "Pearl of the Desert" was however condemned as idolatrous by the jihadists.
'Robbing future generations'
ICC prosecutors allege that Mahdi was a member of Ansar Dine, a mainly Tuareg movement that in 2012 took control of Timbuktu some 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) northeast of Bamako, along with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
As the head of the "Hisbah" or the "Manners Brigade" he ordered the attacks on the shrines, ICC prosecutors say.
Such cultural destruction "is tantamount to an assault on people's history. It robs future generations of their landmarks and their heritage," ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda told AFP.
"No one who destroys that which embodies the very soul and the roots of a people through such crimes should be allowed to escape justice."
Mahdi's trial will formally get underway at 9:00 am (0700 GMT) on Monday, when he will be asked if he understands the charges against him and how he pleads.
If, as his defence team has indicated, he pleads guilty, the prosecution will start to lay out its case, calling three witnesses.
The defence and the legal team for the victims will also address the three-judge bench during the five days set aside for the trial. A verdict and judgement will follow later.
If Mahdi denies the charge, then the hearing will be postponed and a new trial date set. Mahdi is also the first person to be charged with war crimes arising out of the conflict in Mali.
Handed over to the ICC by Niger in late 2015, Mahdi plans to plead guilty, as he is "a Muslim who believes in justice," defence lawyer Mohamed Aouini told a June hearing.
"He wants to be truthful to himself and he wants to admit the acts that he has committed," Aouini said, adding he also sought "pardon" for his acts.
Pickaxes and chisels
Mahdi has been described as a quiet Koranic scholar who turned ruthless jihadist enforcer, fiercely imposing the strictest interpretation of Sharia law.
Frustrated when local people refused to stop worshipping at the ancient shrines, with such rites as praying for rain, or a good marriage, Mahdi ordered the attacks with pickaxes, chisels and pick-up trucks.
UNESCO chief Irina Bokova said recently the case was close to her heart and that she "would never forget" the scenes of ransacked and damaged shrines she saw on a visit to Timbuktu in January 2013 shortly after the jihadists had been driven out by a French-led operation.
But Malian rights activists who have travelled to The Hague for the trial called on the ICC to continue its investigations into other crimes committed in the Mali conflict.
"The women of the north have suffered forced marriages and rape perpetrated by the jihadists," Bakary Camara, an official with the Malian association for human rights, said.