TIMBUKTU WAS ONCE a crossroads of the African continent and the Muslim world, a vibrant center of commerce and trade, spirituality and mysticism, knowledge and learning. Since last week, however, the so-called “city of 33 saints” has been reduced to collateral damage in a brutal Islamist sect’s push for power in northern Mali.

For more than two decades, Mali has struggled with maintaining a stable democracy. Last year, in the wake of the rebellion against Moammar Gaddafi in neighboring Libya, ethnic Tuareg fighters streamed into the country with an arsenal of weapons and military supplies, declaring their own republic in the region that includes the ancient city. As we have said before, this revolt is a grave threat not just to Mali itself but to the entire Maghreb region. Ansar Dine, a radical Islamist sect with ties to al-Qaeda, has established itself in much of the rebel territory, imposed sharia law and begun to wreak sectarian havoc.

Timbuktu now endures the destruction of many of the city’s ancient monuments and religious sites. The devastation is reminiscent of the Taliban’s 2001 attacks on the towering Buddha statues of Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Four of Timbuktu’s landmarks are included on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites, but history and heritage mean nothing to the leadership of Ansar Dine, which has destroyed at least six above-ground mausoleums of religious figures regarded as saints and, on Monday, the door of one of the city’s most sacred mosques.

Timbuktu, a center of Sufi mysticism, apparently represents a broad-minded world view at odds with Ansar Dine’s radical conservatism. When asked this week whether the destruction of these cultural artifacts will continue, a spokesman for the sect told the New York Times: “Of course. What doesn’t correspond to Islam, we are going to correct.”

On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution that threatened sanctions on rebel fighters in northern Mali and decried the vandalism of cultural sites. But as worthy as this resolution is, it’s unlikely to end the destruction; the prospect of international intervention of any kind remains uncertain. In the meantime, the desecration of Timbuktu will likely continue.

In local lore, the doors of the Sidi Yahya mosque — bludgeoned open on Monday — will open only on the world’s last day. So far, the arrival of Ansar Dine in northern Mali, and its destructive wake in Timbuktu, has validated the myth. Extremists are destroying an African democracy, even as men with pickaxes hack away at a priceless global heritage.