Bringing Militant Salafism to the Tuareg: A Profile of Veteran Rebel Iyad ag Ghali

Andrew McGregor

February 29, 2012

Operating alongside the long-time Tuareg rebels and heavily armed veterans of the Libyan military that fill the ranks of Mali’s Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) is a smaller Salafist group led by Iyad ag Ghali, once the most prominent of Mali’s Tuareg rebels. Today, ag Ghali is leading a new armed group in pursuit of an independent Islamist state in northern Mali, an ambition that may be barely more popular with the Muslims of northern Mali than it is in the national capital of Bamako.

Ag Ghali is a member of the noble Iriyaken clan of the Kel Ifoghas Tuareg confederation living in the Adrar des Iforas mountains of northeastern Mali. His highly independent character has been described in various ways; a Malian government minister told AFP: “Iyad is a cool customer. He never panics in the face of a difficult situation;” while a U.S. diplomat described ag Ghali as “an independent and often inscrutable leader… there is no indication of anyone either within the Tuareg hierarchy or the Malian government who holds sway over him” (AFP, August 18, 2003). [1]

The rebellion of the MNLA is the first in a long time not to be dominated by members of the noble Ifergoumessen clan of the Kel Imghad. This new leadership is composed of young rebels with new agendas, Tuareg deserters from the Malian officer corps and confident veterans of the Libyan military. The theme of the rebellion is “now or never,” and they are unlikely to be deterred by the intercession of elders or politicians. This new generation of rebels is wary of leaders with histories of compromise, such as ag Ghali. Thus forced to the sidelines just as the strongest rebel force assembled yet in northern Mali was about to take the field, ag Ghali created his own movement that would reflect his growing interest in Salafist Islam. The new movement, Ansar al-Din (Supporters of Religion), has so far taken credit for the capture of the garrison town of Aguel Hoc and appears to be operating in cooperation with the MNLA, which has no religious agenda.

Apart from the Tuareg (known locally as Kel Tamashek), northern Mali is home to the Kunta and Bérabiche Arabs and members of several African tribes, most notably the Peul (a.k.a. Fulani) and the Songhai. Like the Tuareg themselves, some of these tribesmen have joined the rebellion, while others remain loyal to Bamako. The MNLA has also tried to broaden participation in the new rebellion to other Tuareg clans besides the Ifogha.

The Rebellion of 1990

Ag Ghali led the attack on a police station in Menaka that launched a rebellion in June 1990. His rebel group, the Mouvement Populaire pour la Libération de l’ Azawad (MPLA), was composed largely of Tuareg veterans of Mu’ammar Qaddafi’s Islamic Legion who were demobilized after Qaddafi’s unsuccessful campaigns in Chad. Reflecting wide disenchantment in the north with rule from Bamako, the Tuareg were also joined by numbers of Arabs and Songhai.

When the MPLA split into four factions in 1991, ag Ghali founded the Mouvement Populaire de l’Azawad (MPA), a mainly Ifogha movement which was more inclined to a peace settlement with Bamako than the other factions. ag Ghali signed a treaty with the central government in January 1991 and the MPA folded in 1996 following a comprehensive peace agreement with most of the northern rebels.

Ag Ghali took a religious turn in 1999 under the influence of the Tablighi Jama’at, a non-violent South Asian Islamic revival group whose missionaries were active in Mali and the Sahel region at the time. The Tuareg leader even travelled to the Pakistan headquarters of the movement, but his interest in the highly conservative Tablighi movement was regarded by his Tuareg neighbors as more of a personal eccentricity than the start of a new religious trend in Kidal (Think Africa Press, February 6; Times Higher Education, December 15, 2006).

Beginning in 2003, ag Ghali assumed a new  role as the go-to intermediary with kidnapping gangs operating under the banner of the Groupe salafiste pour la prédication et le combat (GSPC), the Algerian forerunner to AQIM.

In 2006, Ag Ghali became General Secretary of the Alliance Démocratique du 23 mai pour le Changement (ADC), alongside noted Tuareg rebels Hassan ag Fagaga, Ahmed ag Bibi and the late Ibrahim ag Bahanga. In May 2006, Iyad ag Ghali led the ADCin a brief rebellion in Kidal. Most of the ADC’s demands were met in the Algiers Accord that followed, but, as in the case of pacts both earlier and later, the central government made little effort to implement any of its terms.

The ADC was more representative of the Tuareg clans in northern Mali than Ibrahim ag Bahanga’s breakaway movement, the Alliance Touaregue Nord Mali Pour Le Changement (ATNMC), which was largely based on the Ifergoumessen clan of the Kel Ifoghas (a.k.a. Kel Adagh). Nonetheless, the ADC had split along clan lines by the end of 2006, primarily over dissatisfaction with ag Ghali’s leadership.

In 2007, ag Ghali was in Bamako, advocating for the creation of the joint Tuareg/Malian Army units called for in the 2006 Algiers Accords and indicating a readiness to accept a larger Malian military presence in the north. [2]

Ag Ghali – Diplomat

In November 2007, ag Ghali was appointed to the Malian consulate in the Saudi city of Jeddah. ag Ghali visited the U.S. Embassy for confidential discussions in May, 2007, just prior to his departure for a diplomatic appointment to Saudi Arabia. Embassy officials appeared surprised by the man who presented himself: “Soft-spoken and reserved, ag Ghali showed nothing of the cold-blooded warrior persona created by the Malian press.” The rebel leader said he was “tired of the problems in the north and tired of being blamed for them each time they arose.” [3]

Ag Ghali’s career as a diplomat appears to have ended abruptly with his expulsion from Saudi Arabia for association with “doubtful Islamist circles” (22 Septembre [Bamako], January 12).  Informants told the U.S. embassy in Bamako that some Tuareg rebels were “irked at what they view as ag Ghali’s self-centered decision to abandon northern Mali during a time of crisis.” [4]

In December, 2008, ag Ghali was being used by Bamako as a mediator in negotiations with rebel leader Ibrahim ag Bahanga for the release of Malian soldiers and officers held prisoner by ag Bahanga’s group. [5] Ag Ghali gradually became the government’s main intermediary with AQIM kidnappers Tuareg renegades in the region, allegedly pocketing a substantial percentage of the ransoms worked out through his efforts. 

Massacre at Aghuel Hoc

The northern garrison town of Aguel Hoc was first taken by the Tuareg on February 18 after a column of armed 4X4 vehicles attacked the town with mortars and machine-guns, destroying infrastructure and communications equipment. Though the Tuareg were driven off by Malian counter-attacks with heavy artillery and helicopter gunships (likely piloted by Ukrainian mercenaries), they returned a week later and Aguel Hoc surrendered on January 26 after a relief force led by Arab militia leader Colonel Meidou was unable to reach the town (Le Combat [Bamako], January 26). [6] Malian intelligence sources indicated the attack was led by Colonel Moussa ag M’Bam (a.k.a. Bamoussa), a deserter from the Malian Army (Afriqinfos, January 27; Le Courrier d’Algérie, January 31). Ag Ghali claimed it was Ansar al-Din that initially took control of Aguel Hoc, promising that this was “merely a start” (Sahara Media [Nouakchott], January 19). A Malian soldier told reporters that the Tuareg rebels were more numerous, better armed and possessed better communications equipment, including satellite phones (Reuters, February 10). 

Massacred Members of the Aguel Hoc Garrison

After the Malian Army reoccupied Aguel Hoc following the evacuation of the MNLA and Ansar al-Din, they reported the discovery of the remains of some 82 to 97 soldiers outside the military camp, many of them displaying the marks of execution by point-blank gunfire or throat-slitting (Jeune Afrique, January 26; AFP, February 13). Among the dead was the garrison’s commander, Captain Sékou Traoré.  A Malian army spokesman said that such an act could only have been carried out by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an assertion that was later supported by French Development Minister Henri de Raincourt, who said the massacre was a tactic resembling those “used by al-Qaeda,” though French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe was more guarded, saying “it’s not very clear what role al-Qaeda or AQIM played in these attacks…” (AFP, February 13). An official statement from the Malian government decried the “criminal behavior of these assailants,” consisting of “elements of AQIM, the MNLA and a group linked to religious fundamentalists [i.e. Ansar al-Din]” (L’Essor [Bamako], January 30). Government claims of al-Qaeda involvement rest largely on the claims of unidentified witnesses that among the assailants were “bearded men wearing baggy Afghan clothing” (Reuters, February 10). MNLA sources later claimed that the photos of massacre victims had been “manipulated” and were actually old images being used to discredit the movement (Jeune Afrique, February 19).

Aguelhoc is further from Bamako than the Mississippi is from Washington and Mali’s small army, drawn mostly from the Bambara of the south, has a poor record fighting in the alien wastes of the north. Security there is provided largely by pro-government Tuareg and Bérabiche Arab militias using the same tactics as the rebels. The Tuareg militia is led by Colonel al-Hajj Gamou, a member of the Imghad, traditionally a vassal clan to the Ifoghas. The Bérabiche Arab militia is led by Colonel Abdurahman Ould Meidou, who is reported to have narrowly escaped two recent ambushes (Toumast Press, February 22). Both militias were instrumental in driving ag Bahanga’s ATNMCfrom northern Mali in 2009 (see Terrorism Focus, February 25, 2009).

Connections to AQIM

One of our best sources for information regarding ag Ghali’s views on al-Qaeda (at least as they were in 2007), is a U.S. Embassy cable relating an interview ag Ghali had with embassy officials while he was still leader of the ADC. During the discussions, Ag Ghali said that AQIM’s extremist ideology had little to no support in northern Mali. Efforts by the ADC and other Tuareg to encourage AQIM to leave Mali were met with assertions the land belonged only “to God.” Ag Ghali repeatedly urged “targeted special operations” as the best way to damage AQIM. [7]

While having become a Salafist, there is little evidence that ag Ghali has become a member of AQIM (Info Matin [Bamako], January 31).  If he had, he would surely be at odds with the MNLA and many other Tuareg who desire to see the terrorist group run out of northern Mali. Nonetheless, ag Ghali’s unusual access to the AQIM leadership was put to use in October 2010, when ag Ghali was designated the government’s official mediator with AQIM forces in northern Mali (Le Républicain [Bamako], October 4, 2010).

Several Tuareg associates of ag Ghali were arrested in Mali in December, 2011 in connection with the kidnapping of two French nationals in eastern Mali in November. The kidnappers were also said to be tied to Talib Abdelkrim al-Targui, a notorious AQIM commander believed by some to be one of ag Ghali’s many cousins. Al-Targui operates under AQIM Amir Abdelhamid Abu Zeid’s (al-Jazeera, January 3). Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz said ag Ghali had “established alliances with the terrorist groups, and it was he who acted as envoy for the payment of ransoms (Le Monde, February 9).

The MNLA has tried to distance itself from AQIM, saying their behavior and interpretation of religious texts is foreign to the Tuareg. The movement suggests instead that the government is tied to AQIM, pointing to Bamako’s failure to take action against AQIM bases in northern Mali (AFP, February 24).

Ansar al-Din

Ag Ghali announced the creation of a new religiously-oriented resistance group called Ansar al-Din (Supporters of Religion) in December, 2011 (Tawassoul.net, December 15, 2011). As news of the new armed movement emerged, Alghabass ag Intalla, leader of the Ifogha and an MP for Kidal, visited ag Ghali in the latter’s stronghold in the Boureissa region to sound out ag Ghali’s intentions. Reports emerging from the meeting suggested  ag Ghali was in a radical frame of mind, but had set conditions for standing down, including the withdrawal of government troops from Kidal, an end to the construction of new military barracks and the provision of a qadi (Islamic judge) alongside each government judge as a step towards full implementation of Shari’a. (Info Matin [Bamako], February 12; 22 Septembre [Bamako], January 12).  The formation of the Ansar al-Din may have been Plan B for ag Ghali, who unsuccessfully put himself forward for the post of MNLA Secretary-General but was rejected due to his association with past failures and compromises (Think Africa Press, February 6).

Possibly trying to cleave ag-Ghali’s group from its alliance with the MNLA, Bamako offered on January 7 to create a new qadi for every administrative region in the north and to provide an imam for every major mosque (Think Africa Press, February 6). It was not enough to satisfy ag Ghali, and in mid-January he announced that his movement had begun operations designed to “spread Islamic Shari’a in the country and replace the Malian constitution with it” (Sahara Media [Nouakchott], January 19). The stated goal of Ansar al-Din is the “application of Islamic Shari’a and the rehabilitation of the ulema (religious scholars),” though ag Ghali has promised a moderate form of Islamist government in Azawad similar to that of Tunisia or that advocated by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (Le Courrier d’Algérie, January 31).

Even some of ag Ghali’s long-term associates in the rebel movement are uncertain about his intentions in creating a Salafist movement in the midst of a population largely inimical to the trend. One such associate, MNLA spokesman Hama ag Sid’Ahmed, has said: “I know that Iyad is an important person in the region and I know that he’s involved in religious matters. But I cannot believe that he would completely abandon the tolerance that is part of our Tuareg culture. Not for one second. Maybe Iyad and others realize that AQIM has a hold on some of our young people, and they’re trying to present a different message about Islam that might possibly win back all those that the Salafists have co-opted into their ranks.”(Think Africa Press, February 6).

Conclusion

The Tuareg have heard endless reasons why an independent Azawad is impossible, but note that many of these sound similar to the reasons why an independent South Sudan was also impossible. There is, however, one difference; the homeland of the South Sudanese is relatively identical to its boundaries, while an independent Azawad would border Tuareg lands in three nations with no interest in seeing Azawad become a reality. Not unreasonably, these nations fear that Tuareg irredentism emanating from Azawad would be an irresistible new political force in the Sahel/Sahara region.

However, does any of this have any meaning in the context of Iyad ag Ghali? Do the Ansar al-Din fight for Shari’a or independence? Or do they fight for a re-invented ag Ghali, seeking to maintain political influence both in Kidal and Bamako? Ag Ghali has tied his movement to the fortunes of the MNLA so far, but Bamako will use the presence of ag Ghali’s armed Islamists operating side-by-side with the MNLA to tie the broader rebel movement to AQIM wherever and whenever possible. The apparent massacre at Aguel Hoc indicates a movement that is confident enough in its arms and its timing to make a “no going back” statement, or a movement that has succumbed to extremism; earlier rebel movements would almost certainly have taken the garrison prisoner to use as hostages in the inevitable negotiations.

It is difficult to believe the anti-AQIM MNLA and an allegedly pro-AQIM Ansar al-Din could be close allies and ag Ghali has never publicly endorsed al-Qaeda. However, ag Ghali’s own mysterious relations with AQIM cells in the kidnapping business, similar contacts with Malian and Algerian government and intelligence officials and his attempts at spreading Salafism to an unreceptive Tuareg community in Kidal may make the veteran rebel a costly ally for the MNLA, both locally and internationally. Though ag Ghali’s new-found affinity for Salafism and Shari’a may be an innovative (if locally undesired) approach to the future of northern Mali, it may not be enough to prevent him from becoming “yesterday’s man” in the rebellion unless the Ansar leader can attract foreign support for his campaign to bring Shari’a to the Sahara/Sahel region.

Notes

1. Wikileaks, U.S. Embassy Bamako, Cable 08BAMAKO824, October 3, 2008, http://leaks.hohesc.us/?view=08BAMAKO824.

2. Wikileaks, U.S. Embassy Bamako, Cable 07BAMAKO587, May 31, 2007, http://leaks.hohesc.us/?view=07BAMAKO587.

3. Ibid

4. Wikileaks, U.S. Embassy Bamako, Cable 08BAMAKO824, October 3, 2008, http://leaks.hohesc.us/?view=08BAMAKO824.

5. Wikileaks, U.S. Embassy Bamako, Cable 08BAMAKO918, December l, 2008, http://wikileaks.org/cable/2008/12/08BAMAKO918.html#

6. MNLA Communiqué no. 6, February 15, 2012; http://www.mnlamov.net/actualites.html.

7. Wikileaks, U.S. Embassy Bamako, Cable 07BAMAKO587, May 31, 2007, http://leaks.hohesc.us/?view=07BAMAKO587.

This article first appeared in the February 29, 2012 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor