Noukchott, Asharq Al-Awsat-Last week, residents of the city of Timbuktu in northern Mali awoke to the sound of a huge explosion, followed by a massive fire, in the building known as the Gaddafi Palace, which in recent times has served as an operations command center for armed Islamist groups.
This was the second round of French aircraft bombardments on Timbuktu, specifically targeting a palace built by the late Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Reports in recent months have confirmed that this building is now the private residence of Abdul Hamid Abu Zayd, emir of the Tariq ibn Ziyad brigade. Abu Zayd is one of the most notorious leaders of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), and one of its most competent hostage-takers, often eliciting ransoms from European pockets.
The French pursuit of Abu Zayd and his brigade has brought them to the Gaddafi Palace. Construction on this building began in 2006 when the former Libyan leader visited Timbuktu to mark the birthday of the prophet Mohammed, pronouncing it his favorite city and pledging that he would support the Tuareg and not abandon them. Through this palace, Gaddafi wanted to symbolize the stature he enjoyed in Timbuktu when he served as imam of the Friday prayers; a service that was attended by a number of African heads of state, scholars and religious leaders who came from various African countries on board Libyan aircraft and stayed in the city at the expense of the Libyan state.
The palace is situated on elevated heights in the southeast side of Timbuktu, on the road leading to the city’s airport. Its grounds span several hectares surrounded by a concrete wall, surmounted by a steel fence, concealing the palace’s architectural style-a blend Islamic and African themes.
Vast pillars and columns devoid of inscriptions tower over an asphalt floor. The rest of the palace is pale yellow in color, in order to blend into its desert surroundings, with huge oblong windows patterned with Islamic designs and green borders. Meanwhile, huge concrete triangles adorn the roof, giving the place an African feel.
The gateway to the palace is made out of stone while the front doors are painted green. In the courtyard hundreds of palm trees have been planted, having been transferred from Libya aboard private jets, in addition to several other types of tree that were unable to withstand the harsh desert air. Since the outbreak of the Libyan revolution the features of the palace have changed somewhat. The building quickly became neglected and sand dunes began to creep up around its outer walls after the three Libyans who were supervising it left the city immediately in the wake of the Libyan uprising.
Gaddafi had also sent a special envoy to oversee the completion of the palace, which cost tens of millions of dollars to build, but when NATO intervened in Libya the envoy only had time to collect his bags and return home. He left the palace and it soon became a refuge for some of Timbuktu’s poorest families.
This palace is not the only remnant of Gaddafi in Timbuktu. In 2007 he built a water canal in the city with the aim of transporting water from the Niger River across a distance of more than 14 km. However, it did not take long before the canal dried up and became submerged in sand.
As Gaddafi’s loyalists left Malian territory and the projects they had undertaken there in the wake of the Libyan revolution, hundreds of Malian fighters from the Tuareg and the Islamists left Libya in possession of large quantities of arms, money, and vehicles, using these resources to launch an insurgency in northern Mali that still burns to this day.
Timbuktu fell into the hands of armed Islamist groups in early April 2012. These groups found Gaddafi’s palace to be a comfortable location to stabilize and conduct operations, due to its strategic location and vast area, and an ideal place to accommodate hundreds of fighters and store fuel, weapons and vehicles.
The armed Islamic groups soon set about altering the appearance of the palace; they raised black flags and stripped it of everything relating to Gaddafi. Nevertheless, the locals still know it as the Gaddafi Palace, despite all the significant events it has since experienced. Most recently of course it has become the target of French fighter jet bombardments, and as a result dozens of barrels of fuel that were being stored by the Islamists caught fire, in addition to the vehicles parked in the palace courtyard, although the palace itself did not sustain much damage. The French aircraft bombed the building early evening on Monday, causing a massive fire that continued throughout the night, terrifying the locals. The majority of them fled outside the city, getting as far away as possible from the Gaddafi Palace which has clearly become a target for the French.
The French targeting of the Gaddafi palace has been justified based on reports that it is now the headquarters of France’s number one enemy, Abu Zayd. Two years ago, Abu Zayd held four French nationals hostage, having kidnapped them from the city of Arlit in northern Niger. Previously, he killed two French hostages after a failed attempt by French Special Forces, in collaboration with some of the region’s armed forces, to free them.