BAMAKO, Mali – He's a former diplomat whose armed Islamist group now controls much of northern Mali. He has links to an al-Qaida franchise and was expelled from Saudi Arabia for ties to yet another fundamentalist movement. U.S. officials call him a master manipulator.
Iyad Ag Ghali's group and Tuareg rebels took northern Mali a month ago in the wake of a military coup in Mali's capital that left government soldiers stationed in the north in disarray. His group, Ansar Dine, now seems to be muscling out the Tuareg rebels for control over an area that's roughly the size of Texas.
He is quickly becoming the most powerful person in northern Mali and, most worrisome for regional security, he is showing signs that he's willing to let militants of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb operate freely. Before, leaders of AQIM, as the group is known, did not dare show their faces in major northern Mali towns. But now diplomats are reporting privately that several have been spotted.
Ag Ghali's heavily armed men, with black flags fluttering from their pickup trucks, are attacking bars that sell alcohol, smashing non religious artwork and banning men and women from socializing in the streets. The Taliban did the same when they gained control of most of Afghanistan and its capital in the mid-1990s and imposed strict Islamic law. Arab militants used Afghanistan as a haven and al-Qaida took root, building terrorist training camps.
Similarly, al-Qaida militants and other Islamist fighters are descending on northern Mali, as reported earlier by The Associated Press. Residents of the region's major towns say Ansar Dine fighters are much more visible than the Tuareg separatists of the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad.
"I think Iyad wants a zone where he can impose discipline, where he can punish people by whipping them and cutting off their hands," said Tiegoum Boubeye Maiga, a Malian journalist from the north of the country who runs the newspaper La Nouvelle Republique.
While some wonder whether Ag Ghali is motivated more by religion or by personal ambition, he has taken on at least the appearance of a fundamentalist.
Gone is the large mustache that he used to sport. On a video released by Ansar Dine — which in Arabic means Supporters of Islam — he has a full, graying beard.
Colleagues say he became more religiously active in the 1990s when Tabligh Jamaat, a fundamentalist but nonviolent Islamic movement from Pakistan and India, started preaching in northern Mali. Tabligh Jamaat, founded early in the last century, is an offshoot of the Deobandi school of Islam which is very hardline. Most of the Taliban leadership is Deobandi.
After Ag Ghali was assigned in 2007 to Mali's consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the Saudis became concerned about the amount of time he spent on his satellite phone and his ties to Tabligh Jamaat. The Saudis considered his activities incompatible with his status as a diplomat, according to a colleague who worked with Ag Ghali at the time and who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the press.
He had been appointed to Saudi Arabia after he helped negotiate a peace accord that ended a brief Tuareg rebellion. "Some Tuareg rebels are irked at what they view as Ag Ghali's self-centered decision to abandon northern Mali during a time of crisis, leaving his Tuareg rebel colleagues in the lurch," a leaked U.S. Embassy cable noted in 2008.
Today, the doubts about Ag Ghali's motivations are resurfacing.
"One of the key questions that needs to be answered now is to what extent does Ag Ghali believe the Islamist rhetoric of Ansar Dine or to what extent is he just using it to legitimize his quest for power," said Andrew Lebovich, a senior analyst at The Navanti Group, a Virginia-based analytical firm.
Ag Ghali's family is part of a group of Tuaregs who have traditionally ruled the region around the town of Kidal, and he has been active in the rebellions there for years. Other leaked U.S. diplomatic cables describe Ag Ghali as a master manipulator, especially when there is the chance to make money.
"Ag Ghali is so adept at playing all sides of the Tuareg conflict to maximize his personal gain," notes a cable from October 2008 that was released by WikiLeaks. "Like the proverbial bad penny, Ag Ghali turns up whenever a cash transaction between a foreign government and Kidal Tuaregs appears forthcoming."
Ag Ghali is known to be an intermediary between hostage-paying European governments and kidnappers belonging to AQIM. A senior U.S. diplomat told AP there are credible reports that AQIM is fighting alongside Ansar Dine. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because she is not authorized to speak to the press.
Ag Ghali has had contact for many years with AQIM, according to Lebovich.
"He interacted with AQIM's predecessor ... as a hostage negotiator as far back as 2003," says Lebovich. "And it's also been widely reported that one of his cousins leads an AQIM unit."
Ag Ghali's age isn't clear. He was born in Abeibara in northern Mali in the late 1950s. In the 1970s, like many other young Tuareg men, he left to join Moammar Gadhafi's Islamic Legion in Libya, according to a longtime friend who did not want to be named.
The friend said Ag Ghali was sent to fight against Chad in the 1980s, and fought in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. By the early 1990s, Ag Ghali returned to Mali to take part in a Tuareg rebellion in which he was a senior commander and then helped negotiate a peace deal with the government.
The leaked cables show that Ag Ghali spoke with staff at the U.S. Embassy in Bamako several times between April 2006 and January 2010 about events in Mali.
"Soft-spoken and reserved, Ag Ghali showed nothing of the cold-blooded warrior persona created by the Malian press," according to a May 2007 cable that was written after a meeting at the embassy.
That reserved nature may have masked the warrior persona.
Western powers are closely watching developments, especially now that gun-wielding members of Ansar Dine are trying to impose Shariah in an area where most people practice a moderate form of Islam.
France and the United States have said they are willing to offer logistical help to the Malian armed forces, though Mali has made no move yet to reclaim the north. Without any outside assistance, Malian government forces may be outgunned .
French President Nicolas Sarkozy recently said that "everything needs to be done to prevent the creation of an Islamic or a terrorist state in the heart of the Sahel."
The total number of troops making up Ansar Dine, AQIM and the Tuareg rebels is probably less than 2,000, but their extensive experience fighting in the tough desert conditions of northern Mali give them an advantage over the troops from southern Mali. They're also armed with weapons, including heavy weapons, pillaged from Libyan stockpiles.
Associated Press writer Baba Ahmed contributed to this report.