Imagine, if you will, that your town has been taken over by religious extremists. They’ve looted almost every establishment in your area; you know that this is only the beginning of their violence. Imagine that like Abdel Kadar Haidara—the heart of journalist Joshua Hammer’s The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu—you are in charge of the safekeeping of over 300,000 manuscripts, none of which the jihadists want you or anyone else to read. Then the insurgents make an announcement over the only radio station they’ve left operational, “we know the value of the manuscripts, and we vow to protect them,” a statement of intended reassurance that in reality made it crystal clear to everyone the terrorists’ real intentions. Hammer’s gripping book conveys the incredibly high level of regard that the people of Mali and North Africa have for their own history.
When Haidara’s father passed away and the care of these documents—a biography of Islamic saints dated 1593, for example, and a twelfth-century Koran written on sheepskin and hidden in a family chest—fell into his hands, he had no idea the lengths he would one day have to go to protect them. Gathering a team of trusted family and friends, Haidara mapped a course for the heist that would take the manuscripts out of Timbuktu, down the Niger River, require two days’ travel to a government safe zone, and finally 332 more miles to their destination in Bamako.
Hammer talks below about the difficulty that comes with reporting a story set in this tumultuous part of the world and about the danger and horror exhibited by the radical Islamists who overtook Timbuktu.
How did you decide, once you learned about this story, that it was going to be a book and not a long form article?
I didn’t know what [the book] was going to be but the first draft was going to involve several main characters and Abdel Kader Haidara was only one of three. It was [my editor] Priscilla who said, “We can make an entire book about Haidara, he can be your main character. Focus on him and follow him throughout the course of this entire narrative and you’ll have a much cleaner story line and a real hero that we can root for and not dilute it.”
Were there any details in the various timelines that were hard to come by or that you found were difficult to clear up and match together with the other timelines?
Yes. The narrative of the heist was confusing: there are very different versions. Haidara would say one thing and then his nephew would say another and then the American woman [with whom they worked] would say another version. The nephew would claim that there were never any, absolutely no boat lifts, that there was never a single boat sent down the river. I mean, what?! There were other stories that Haidara and his American counterpart were giving me with great details about these boat lifts and all that stuff has been substantiated in other articles. It was hard to make a decision when you have diametrically opposed stories. How do you reconcile these things? Plus, it was really hard to get ahold of these people once you’re out of Mali. They never wanted to write back, the nephew particularly was incredibly elusive. I went back and forth with him for months just trying to get him on the phone and clear things up. It was really hard but reporting in Africa is often like that. There are just some facts that you can never nail down.
Is there a point in that experience when you think, “well what am I going to do now?” when you can’t reconcile?
Yeah, of course. Then you just kind of have to take it on instinct and if two people say one thing and one guy says something else and there are written accounts of the particular experience that the third says never happened…two people and a written account pretty much negate the third’s saying this never happened. Maybe he was ill informed or didn’t know about that particular part of it, I don’t know, but there were a few things like that. It’s the fog of war.
Often times we don’t think of extremists as being super disciplined or organized people but at times you showed what a well-oiled machine they are. When you first started learning about the jihadists did that surprise you?
No because I am somewhat familiar with Al Qaeda and radical Islam and that region. I think that in general they have been a pretty well-oiled machine. If you look at the Islamic state and Al Qaeda historically they certainly know what they’re doing. These guys might have been a little more chaotic than their counterparts in say Syria and Iraq but they certainly carried out that conquest with discipline.
Was there anything that you found out during your research in various parts of the world that you were surprised to learn?
I want to say just the nuts and bolts of the cruelty of the jihadists. I would say that when you actually confront some of the victims who have had their hands chopped off, that hits you with a force that hearing these stories or reading about them on Human Rights Watch doesn’t. That was pretty powerful; I ran into a couple of guys like that.
In having done this as long as you have, have you stopped being shocked by the amount of darkness that some people are able to put forth?
No. It’s predictable but it’s never less than shocking. Terrorist attacks, whether it is in Mali or Brussels, who can take that stuff casually? It’s horrific; it haunts my dreams. It’s horrible. I’ve been close to this stuff for a long time and it doesn’t get any easier to digest.
I have bookmarked a passage that talks about the jihadi’s actions in Timbuktu and those surrounding areas that says, “the jihadis’ brutality drew the disapproval of even Abdelmalek Droukdel, the Algerian-based supreme emir of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.” Someone at the top of their organization is being shocked by their brutality…that blew my mind.
The degrees of jihadism. You’re right to point that out. Even in the jihadi universe not everybody was on the same page.
Cassidy Kinnett is a staff member of Kirkus Reviews.