On May 30, 2007, Iyad Ag Ghali, the current luxuriantly-bearded head of Ansar Dine, an al Qaeda-linked militant group, walked into the US embassy in the Malian capital of Bamako for a friendly chat with the ambassador.
US diplomats at the meeting were clearly sympathetic to the man who would go on to turn into the scourge of the breakaway region of northern Mali.
“Soft-spoken and reserved, ag Ghali [sic] showed nothing of the cold-blooded warrior persona created by the Malian press,” noted a leaked US Embassy cable.
A fearsome Tuareg fighting man who, like many of his brothers-in-arms, had fought for a motley mix of bosses and rebel groups, Ag Ghali was attempting to negotiate yet another shotgun ceasefire in the long history of conflict between the Malian government and Tuareg rebels of various stripes and allegiances.
The cable noted that a “seemingly tired” Ag Ghali told the US ambassador that then-Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure had accepted Ag Ghali’s request for a diplomatic posting in Saudi Arabia. During his “wide-ranging meeting”, Ag Ghali repeatedly requested US assistance for “targeted special operations” against al Qaeda’s North African branch, AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb).
In this stretch of the Sahel - the remote region bridging the Sahara and the African savannah where the borders of Mali, Algeria, Niger and Mauritania meet - the fortunes of men seem to change with the shifting sands.
Former, democratically-elected Malian President Toure - or ATT, as he’s known - was ousted in a March 22 military coup and is currently in exile in Senegal.
Five years after he pressed the US for targeted operations against AQIM, Ag Ghali is currently linked with al Qaeda’s North African branch, with regional and Western intelligence citing credible reports that AQIM is currently fighting alongside Ansar Dine in northern Mali.
Along with a motley mix of rebel groups, Ag Ghali’s Islamist Ansar Dine seized control of northern Mali in the chaos following ATT’s ouster, sparking a perfect storm of crises in the region.
From war-maker to peace-dealer, from national representative to rebel, from whisky-drinking Tuareg fighter to teetotaling jihadist, Ag Ghali has had an eventful, contradictory life. At each step, and with every twist and turn of his allegiances, he has succeeded in dragging along the fortunes of his unfortunate people - whether they like it or not.
The man in the middle
As the international community scrambles to respond to the current Malian situation, Ag Ghali is once again poised to position himself as a key player in whatever the outcome of the latest crisis brings.
“He put himself at the center of this rebellion, which is exactly what he wanted,” says Andrew McGregor, senior editor of the Global Terrorism Program at the US-based Jamestown Foundation. “He has become the important figure in northern Mali at the moment in determining its political future.”
From a fairly nondescript boyhood as the son of nomad cattle herders to a regional kingpin - sometimes called "the lion of the desert - Ag Ghali is a self-made man who has insolently tied his destiny with history.
“Iyad is a very complex character,” says Jeremy Keenan, a professorial research associate at the London-based School of Oriental and African Studies. “He’s clever, a brilliant negotiator, he likes being the boss and he’s a person who can never be trusted to keep his word.”
A little over a year after Ag Ghali so impressed US diplomats, the US Embassy in Bamako appeared to have learned that lesson.
An October 2008 leaked US cable questions whether Ag Ghali “is playing both sides”, and describes a man far away from home, in the Malian consulate in Jeddah, constantly on the phone, controlling the shots in the northern Mali.
“Ag Ghali continues to cast a shadow over northern Mali,” the cable notes before adding, “Like the proverbial bad penny, ag Ghali [sic] turns up whenever a cash transaction between a foreign government and Kidal Tuaregs appears forthcoming.”
All in the family: abducting and releasing hostages
The cash transactions in question are ransom payments doled out by mostly European governments for the release of their citizens captured in the Sahel, an unpoliceable zone where smuggling and kidnappings are common income sources - and very profitable ones for Ag Ghali and his AQIM friends.
According to Keenan, Ag Ghali’s cousin, Abdel Krim operates under senior AQIM leader, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, who heads one of the most violent AQIM katibas (or brigades) responsible for a spate of kidnappings over the past few years, including those of Frenchman Pierre Camatte and British tourist Edwin Dyer.
While his cousin has been part of AQIM’s kidnapping operations, Ag Ghali for a while positioned himself as the hostage negotiator, a task he fulfilled admirably. “He’s understood to make a lot of money for this; he doesn’t do it for free,” notes McGregor.
Giving peace – and Islam – a chance
Born in the northern Malian town of Kidal into the elite, noble Iforas clan that claims sharif status - or ancestral links to the Prophet Muhammed - Ag Ghali’s exact age is not known. Experts believe he was born in the 1950s.
As a young man, Ag Ghali, like many Tuareg men his age, left northern Mali to serve as a mercenary for Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.
In the early 1990s, he returned to Mali to take part in a Tuareg rebellion as a rebel senior commander before he abandoned the fight to help negotiate a peace deal with the government.
It was around this time that he encountered a handful of preachers from Tablighi Jamaat, a controversial Pakistan-based spiritual reformation movement, attempting to proselytize in the Sahel.
The fundamentalist preachers were having little success in a region with a strong Sufi tradition and little patience for hardline Islam when they landed in Kidal and encountered Ag Ghali.
His subsequent religious conversion is a matter of much debate within his community, with some Tuaregs insisting it was an expedient move for an ambitious Iforas leader to boost his religious credentials. Others, however, say it could well have been a genuine religious awakening.
It was during his stint as consul general in the Saudi city of Jeddah that Ag Ghali made the transition from pacifist fundamentalist to hardline Islamist, a move that alarmed his hosts and resulted in his expulsion from Saudi Arabia.
Two rejections and another rebellion
Back home in northern Mali, Ag Ghali helped negotiate an end to the 2007-2008 rebellion, which did not win him many friends among his Tuareg rebel colleagues, who accused him of abandoning his men by taking off for Saudi Arabia, then compromising their cause with the August 2008 Algerian-negotiated peace deal.
His poor standing was evident when he lost his leadership bid for the amenokal - or traditional chief - of his Kel Iforas clan last year.
“The MNLA was not interested in having him as their leader because he had close ties with the Malian government and is basically viewed as a collaborator,” says McGregor.
Undaunted by his failed MNLA leasdership bid, Ag Ghali formed his own militant group, the Islamist Ansar Dine. “He was able to establish Ansar Dine in a pretty short amount of time, which speaks for his organizational skills and probably his charisma,” says McGergor.
According to McGregor, Ag Ghali’s reputation as a collaborator could possibly explain the ruthlessness displayed by Ansar Dine fighters in the current rebellion, which has been recorded in reports by groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Over the past few weeks, a tenuous alliance between Ansar Dine and the secular Tuareg MNLA appears to be unraveling as clashes between the two broke out last week in Ag Ghali’s hometown of Kidal.
Cultivating an aura of mystique
Since northern Mali fell from government control following the March 22 coup, Ag Ghali appears to have maintained a low public profile.
But in sharp contrast to the MNLA’s well-oiled publicity machine, Ag Ghali has been noticeable by his absence on the regional and international airwaves.
“I’ve been monitoring the jihadist sites and what struck me was the complete absence of communiqués from his movement or even messages of supports by the jihadist community,” said McGregor. “It seems that even the jihadist community seems unsure of him – it speaks for his mercurial nature.”
According to Keenan, Ag Ghali’s recent reclusiveness only adds to his mystery.
“Unlike the MNLA, which has launched a propaganda war with spokesmen – many of them based in Paris – putting out statements, Iyad doesn’t have that facility,” says Keenan. “In many ways, it’s part of his strategy not to play the media game. It’s an effective one because it adds to an almost mystical air about him.”
But mystique alone does not make for military or political success. “To be successful in northern Mali requires large-scale support,” says McGregor. It’s not clear if Ag Ghali has that, but if his track record is anything to go by, he will certainly try for that.
“Whatever he decides,” notes McGregor, “it will probably be the most important determining factor in northern Mali.”