(A man walks at the Sidi Jubran shrine, which was destroyed by Salafists, in Zlitan city, about 160 km (90 miles) west of Tripoli March 13, 2012. The shrine's caretaker Faraj al-Shimi, saw 16 bearded Salafis carrying Kalashnikovs who broke into the tomb using a Caterpillar tractor. REUTERS/Anis Mili)

The grim sacking of Sufi shrines in Timbuktu is the latest chapter in an assault on prized religious heritage across the Muslim world that has picked up over the past decade with the spread of radical Islamism.

The world got a first taste of this iconoclasm in 2001, when Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban blew up two huge 6th-century statues of Buddha despite an international outcry.

Since then, radical Islamists have also struck holy sites of other faiths, especially Christian churches. But their most frequent targets have been mosques and shrines of other Muslims loyal to a version of Islam less puritanical than their own.

This violence has spread through Pakistan, starting near the Afghan border and fanning out to strike famous Sufi shrines as far away as Lahore and southern Punjab.