Islamists controlling most of the north have imposed a stricter form of Islamic law, or sharia.
"We don't have to answer to anyone over the application of sharia," Islamist commissioner Aliou Toure said last year.
Locals are not receptive to the extreme interpretations; they practice a much more relaxed form of Islam. Some have taken to the streets in protest.
As part of their new laws, radical groups banned music, a major setback for a country known for "Festival au Desert," where acts like Robert Plant and Bono have performed. They've also said no to smoking, drinking and watching sports on television.
At least four times in 2012, the militants have destroyed Timbuktu's historic tombs and shrines, claiming the relics are idolatrous. The picturesque city was once an important destination for Islamic scholars for its ancient and prominent burial sites.
Public executions, amputations, floggings and other inhumane punishments are becoming common, the United Nations says.