Nouakchott, Asharq Al-Awsat—In early January at the Battle of Konna in northern Mali, Iyad Ag Ghali, the leader of Ansar Dine, laid waste to scores of Malian soldiers trained by French and European military officials. In a matter of days, French Special Forces had touched down in Malian territory to prevent the collapse of the state of Mali, and to hunt down the man French Special Forces now consider their top target in North Africa.
Iyad Ag Ghali, accompanied by his colleague Abdul Hamid Abu Zeid (leader of the Tariq Ibn Ziyad Battalion), also led the fighting in the town of Diabaly. Eventually the Malian army was forced to withdraw which in turn expanded the scope of the conflict between Ag Ghali, his counterparts, and the French. Then Ag Ghali disappeared into the desert, holing up in the Taghar Gharat Mountains near the town of Kidal on Mali’s north-eastern border with Algeria.
Despite the many controversies that have surrounded Ag Ghali throughout his life, his countrymen are in agreement that he is the rightful leader of the Azawad territory. They claim that he helped spark the rebellion of June, 28, 1990 by attacking the city of Ménaka in Mali’s northeast and spearheading the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, which was founded in 1984.
This short, stocky man of fifty-plus years wears the traditional turban of the Saharan Tuareg people. Clad in his conspicuously expensive African clothes, he wields great influence at meetings and local gatherings, despite the fact that he rarely speaks and has a penchant for discretion.
Ag Ghali was an active member of a Pakistani branch of the non-violent Tablighi Jamaat operating in North Africa, which avoids sensitive sectarian issues and instead calls for the unification of the Islamic nation. While Ag Ghali was still with Tablighi Jamaat, a Mauritanian analyst who specializes in jihadist groups operating in the Sahel region of Africa met with the future militia commander. Describing Ag Ghali, the analyst said he was “Amiable, courteous, and extremely pious. He had a strong presence during meetings, but was tight-lipped and rarely-spoke.”
Ag Ghali began his long and arduous journey in the mountains near the city of Kidal in Mali’s far north. There he was born to an influential family of the Ifogas Tuareg tribe, which itself holds sway over much of Azawad (the Tuareg term for northern Mali). Some who knew Ag Ghali during his youth say that he led a libertine life filled with music, poetry, and late nights which focused on talk of politics.
Then the drought came and decimated the Sahel-Sahara region, ending the carefree lifestyle of many Tuaregs. Fate forced many Tuareg men and boys to leave their homeland for neighboring countries. At some point in the 1980s, Ag Ghali’s journey landed him in Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya.
In Libya Ag Ghali received military training and joined the ranks of Gaddafi’s Green Brigade which was comprised mainly of Tuareg tribesmen. Having excelled in training, he earned a place in the Libyan mission sent to Lebanon to fight alongside Palestinians against the Israelis and various Lebanese militias.
Those close to Ag Ghali say that the Lebanon mission was his first true taste of military combat. He returned to North Africa on board a French steamship in the company of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, and thus began the game of cat and mouse between the elusive Tuareg leader and the French military: a game which still continues to this day.
Several years after returning from Lebanon, Iyad Ag Ghali led missions in Chadian territory at the behest of Colonel Gaddafi, where he aided the rebels there in their quest to overthrow the regime of former President Hissène Habré. However the French anticipated the coup and quelled it.
Following these military expeditions, Ag Ghali returned to northern Mali in the early 1990s to form a rebel militia which opposed the Malian central government based in Bamako. This rebellion persisted for more than twenty years, fighting countless battles and signing various truces, all the while with Ag Ghali at the helm. Last year Ag Ghali founded Ansar Dine, which outwardly seeks the establishment of an Islamic emirate the likes of which Azawad has never seen.
Despite the support and loyalty of his fellow tribesmen, disputes have divided the rebellion’s ranks. After the signing of the Tamanrasset Accords with the Malian government in 1991, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Azawad fractured into three separate movements, with Iyad Ag Ghali assuming control of one of these splinter groups, dubbed the Popular Movement of Azawad (MPA). The MPA became the forerunner of Ansar Dine, but differed in that it carried a distinct ethnic component, with thousands of Ag Ghali’s fellow Ifogas tribesmen forming the core of the organization.
Iyad Ag Ghali was the only rebel to support the 1992 National Pact. The Popular Movement of Azawad was finally dissolved in 1996 and weapons were ceremonially burned in Timbuktu as a symbolic conclusion to the conflict in what was known as the Flamme de la Paix. Ag Ghali reverted to open rebellion through the Democratic Alliance for Change, of which he became secretary-general. However, in 2007 he returned to the negotiating table to oversee the signing of the Algiers Agreement.
During this period Ag Ghali became close with the central authorities in Bamako, and in November, 2007, he was appointed as an adviser at the Malian consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. However he was deported in 2010 on charges of “suspicious relations with al-Qaeda.”
Two years later Ag Ghali resurfaced with Ansar Dine, which he described as “A popular jihadist movement seeking to implement sharia law in Mali.”
Iyad Ag Ghali has always been a figure shrouded in mystery, and his opponents claim that this enigmatic quality is what has allowed him to persevere time and again as the leader of the Azawad rebellion, both as a nationalist on a patriotic mission, and as a jihadist seeking to establish an Islamic emirate. His opponents also stress that Ag Ghali has had to stave off many rivals to maintain his position of prominence in Azawad, and the fact that he hails from one of the largest and most influential tribes in northern Mali has little to do with his success.
Abu Bakr Al-Ansari, a Tuareg writer and intellectual, revealed to Asharq Al-Awsat that, “Iyad Ag Ghali’s designs to gain control of Azawad began in Algeria in 1992 with the signing of the Tamanrasset Accords. After the agreement was signed, Algerian generals created a rift between the peoples of Kidal and Timbuktu by promoting junior officers and by marginalizing the political leader of the 1992 revolution, Mohammed Ali al-Ansari.
Mr. Ansari, who resides in Nouakchott, added that, “After the Tamanrasset Accords, Ag Ghali entered into a tepid alliance with the authorities in Bamako, with whom he conspired to undermine the Accords’ detractors. He waged a war against the Arab Islamic Front of Azawad killing thousands from the Arab Barabish tribe. This sowed distrust between the Arabs residing in Timbuktu and their Tuareg neighbors; fearing the wrath of Iyad Ag Ghali, the Arabs too entered into an alliance with Bamako.
Mr. Ansari continued, saying, “Ag Ghali also waged a targeted war against the Tuareg Amghad tribe, the cause of which some believe can be traced back to his personal rivalry with Hadj Ag Gamo, an officer in the Malian Army. This conflict ignited clashes between Ag Ghali’s Popular Movement for the Liberation of Azawad and the Revolutionary Liberation Army of Azawad led by Abdul Rahman Ghala. Ag Ghali emerged victorious but only after the two rival clans had lost many fighters.
Mr. Ansari shed light on the other events which elevated Iyad Ag Ghali to prominence alongside his military exploits: “Regional actors opened doors for Ag Ghali and removing his competitors: Mano Dayak, who had grappled with Ag Ghali for leadership of Azawad, was killed in 1995; Ibrahim Ag Bahanga was killed in a suspicious car accident in 2011; and Rhissa Ag Sidi Mohamed, head of the Popular Liberation Front of Azawad, was marginalized.”
In the latter stages of his life, Ag Ghali changed from the young exuberant man he once was to a reserved man deeply devout in his Islamic teachings. His new Salafist lifestyle first became apparent when he began to refuse to shake hands with women, made his wife wear the veil, and used sharia law to govern his family affairs. He became an ardent activist in the Pakistani branch of Tablighi Jamaat, and accompanied them on missionary trips to a number of neighboring countries, including Mauritania. However, his time with Tablighi Jamaat did not quell his Salafist jihadist vision of establishing a sharia-governed Islamic emirate in Azawad under the banner of Ansar Dine.
Iyad Ag Ghali established relations with militant Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). When AQIM kidnapped fourteen European tourists in 2003, Ag Ghali played a major mediating role. He used his tribal and military leverage in addition to his complex network of contacts within militant Islamist groups, which had absorbed many local tribes, to ultimately win the release of the hostages.
However on the flip side, Ag Ghali’s mediations between AQIM and Western countries afforded him significant kickbacks. This income flow added to his already substantial wealth, making him one of the richest individuals in a severely impoverished region where smuggling is rampant.
All the while Iyad Ag Ghali’s fundamentalism grew in parallel with his strengthening relations with jihadist Salafist organizations, until ultimately he completed his transformation from a nationalist rebel championing the rights of a marginalized region to a jihadist championing the establishment of an Islamic emirate.
Islem Walad Salehi, a researcher specialised in jihadist groups based in the Sahel region, told Asharq Al-Awsat that, “Iyad Ag Ghali holds significant sway in Azawad where he first began as a nationalist leader during the Tuareg uprising of 1991. He then brokered and signed a number of peace agreements and believed that Azawad’s woes could be resolved politically. However he unfortunately became disillusioned after the signing of the Algiers Agreement in 2007; the political, economic, and social aspects of the agreement were never enforced whereas the Tuareg’s fulfilled their pledge to disarm. For him, this agreement was merely an attempt to neutralise the Tuareg and their national aspirations. Thus his hopes were crushed and he was severely dejected.
“Iyad Ag Ghali’s disenchantment coincided with a personal religious awakening. It is widely known that ten years ago he joined the Tablighi Jamaat and accompanied them on a mission in 2002 to the city of Nouadhibou in Mauritania’s far north. Fed by his blighted hopes, Ag Ghali’s religiosity grew in its fervency, until ultimately he abandoned his nationalist aspirations and shifted his focus to religious matters. He then founded Ansar Dine which has since imposed sharia law across the vast Azawad lands which fall under his control.”
Mr. Ansari told Asharq Al-Awsat, that, “Iyad Ag Ghali had led the revolution in Azawad, but he betrayed his homeland’s nationalist endeavors and became a puppet of neighboring countries, particularly Algeria, which sought to undermine Azawad’s nationalist aspirations.”
Mr. Ansari explained the reasons why hundreds of Tuareg fighters subscribed to Iyad Ag Ghali’s new vision of establishing an Islamic emirate in Azawad: “The Azawad region is experiencing difficult economic times. The people there suffer from severe poverty, unemployment, famine, and illiteracy. Thus it is easy for someone as wealthy as Iyad Ag Ghali to buy the loyalty of the locals and turn them into compliant warriors, and the fact that he hails from an influential and long-established tribe only adds to his recruiting powers.”
Mr. Ansari holds Ag Ghali responsible for the French intervention in northern Mali and claims that his recent actions directly caused the French deployment. According to him this intervention is unacceptable because it favors the interests of the central state and neglects Azawad’s nationalist aspirations.
For both his critics and apologists, Iyad Ag Ghali’s remains the most controversial Tuareg leader. He is the decision-making authority in an Islamic emirate based in the Azawad region which has persisted for more than ten months. Mr. Salehi feels that Ag Ghali has succeeded in frustrating Western analysts during this time period by evading their attempts to label him a terrorist.
Mr. Salehi concluded: “Iyad Ag Ghali has embarrassed Western analysts due to the fact that no Westerners have been abducted in the areas under his control. In fact he returned a Swiss-national and Spaniard to the authorities in Ouagadougou and Bamako after they had been abducted. He has also not targeted Western interests, and thus far he has not committed any transgressions that would allow these analysts to categorise him as a terrorist.”