Iyad Ag-Ghali, 2012: Running Out of Road

Iyad Ag-Ghali, image via foreignpolicy.com

By Joe McKnight

Part 4: Making of the Ansar-al-Dine, Mali’s “Defenders of the Faith”

This post is the fourth in a series comparing the epic lives of Sundiata, medieval Malian ruler, and Iyad ag-Ghali, a power player and leader in Malian rebel movements for nearly forty years.  You can read part 1 here , part 2 here and part 3 here.


Every man to his own land! If it is foretold that your destiny should be fulfilled in such and such a land, men can do nothing against it. Mansa Tounkara could not keep Sundiata back because [his] destiny…was bound up with that of Mali. – D.T Niane

By the mid- to late-90s, then, Iyad ag-Ghali had undergone an apparent conversion to a stricter, less Sufi-influenced Islam. He’d given up his whiskey and cigarettes, and studied at Tablighi Jama’at centers in France and in Pakistan. Still, nearly a decade later, in May, 2007, he’d personally given the U.S. Embassy in Bamako a skeptical assessment of the appeal of extremist forms of Islam—and the foreign entities like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb—to Northern Malians, even asking for assistance in getting rid of AQIM. In the meantime, Iyad had maintained a position of influence in Malian affairs, continuing to play a role as a go-between for the Malian governments and restive factions in the north (particularly the Alliance for Democratic Change, or ADC, then the primary political organization of northern Tuaregs), all the while with a hand fully in the lucrative business of hostage negotiations.

Curiously, though, shortly after his October, 2007 statements on AQIM to the U.S. Embassy, Iyad held one final official post for the Malian government: that of an advisor to the Malian consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. U.S. Embassy informants reported in November, 2007—just a month after Iyad’s meeting at the Embassy—that Iyad himself had requested the overseas assignment, having “openly desired to withdraw from his role as northern Mali’s main power broker…asked President Toure for an assignment to either Saudi Arabia or Egypt.” In the view of the Embassy, this indicated possible signs of fatigue on Iyad’s part, and was in keeping with the Malian government’s commitment to “assign current or former Tuareg and Arab rebel leaders to Malian Embassies abroad in accordance with the terms of the 1992 pact between the Malian government and various northern rebel groups.” It may be that Iyad and his government liaisons agreed that it was a good moment to step away for a time; or it may be that Iyad had specific goals in mind for his time in Egypt or Saudi Arabia; or again, it may have been a bit of both.

In any event, Iyad wasn’t gone long, and appears to have kept on the move during his posting to Jeddah. Having gotten his foreign posting, he delayed his departure for several months in order to take part, in early 2008, in peace talks hosted by Libya between his longtime allies-rivals from one northern Malian faction and the Malian government. He may not have actually left for Saudi Arabia until about May, 2008, and by November, 2008 he was back in Mali for further negotiations and another meeting with the U.S. Embassy, apparently hoping to revisit earlier terms and even talking about the idea of a Malian “truth and reconciliation commission” to move the country forward and resolve past hostilities. By December 2008, Iyad was back for good, thanks to what the U.S. Embassy viewed as “a calculated risk by President Toure [to] recall him from his…sabbatical with the Malian Consulate in Jeddah.”

Other observers take a more skeptical view of Iyad’s departure from Saudi Arabia. Though I haven’t come across a fully documented substantiation, some experts and longtime observers of Iyad and the region suggest he was asked to leave Saudi Arabia for his association with Islamic extremists there. Andy Morgan, for example, sums up the potential implications of Ghali’s stint in Jeddah:

What happened to Ag-Ghali during his brief stay in Saudi Arabia is a matter of huge conjecture. What’s certain is that he was eventually removed from his post at the request of the Saudi authorities, reportedly for consorting with undesirable extremists. But who were they? What promises were made to Ghali and by him? Are there Middle Eastern potentates currently funding Ag Ghali’s inexorable rise to power in the north of Mali?

By late 2011, the writing on the wall was clear – a Tuareg rebellion in Mali was imminent. In Libya, Gaddafi had been deposed, and then killed, with the assistance of the U.S. In northern Mali, decades of drought, economic hardship, intra-Tuareg and Tuareg-Arab competition for political prominence and control of illicit or semi-licit trade, and stalled negotiations with the Malian government amounted to a pile of dry tinder, susceptible to a lit match.  To Jeremy Keenan, the changing of the Libyan guard reflected larger geopolitical openings in the making. He commented, “So the Americans wanted a bit of terrorism [to justify their expansion of AFRICOM]. Algeria wanted Gaddafi out of the region. The Tuareg were getting a bit cross with the Bamako government. So those three things were all coming together. This led to extraordinary plotting and scheming of which Iyad was at the center.

Once again, Iyad would be a force to be reckoned with in Mali. As Andy Morgan reported, he made several bids to lead the latest liberation movement, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA—so named for the historical area of northern Mali known as Azawad), the Tuareg nationalist group that initiated this year’s uprising. He was rejected—it would seem partially thanks to accumulated doubts about Iyad’s commitment to northern secession from Mali, but also due to skepticism of his ever-evolving religious program. Morgan writes of Iyad’s failed pitch for the MNLA to aim for an independent state governed under sharia law, “One female delegate told him that he had a long road to travel before his fundamentalist dreams of a sharia state became true, as he would first have to climb over the bodies of all the dead women of Azawad, not to mention those of the dead men.”

Whether out of conviction regarding the fate and future of his homeland, or simply in a characteristic bid to maintain his relevance, Iyad explored his other options for leadership. In late 2011, after losing his bid for leadership of the MNLA, Iyad apparently made his case for political leadership of his clan. His heritage as a noble, his clear political talent and his years of leadership in various Tuareg nationalist movements would have made him a candidate with very legitimate credentials. Yet, somewhat poignantly, he was turned down here, as well.

Sundiata illustration, via mrkash.com

Undaunted, and perhaps running out of options, Iyad drew on his new brand of militant Islam—and his financial and political connections, cultivated over years of operating in the region and as far abroad as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan—and formed his own rebel group. Ansar-al-Din, or, Defenders of the Faith, would position itself as allied with the separatist MNLA, but favoring autonomy rather than full independence from Mali, and prioritizing the implementation of Shari’a law in the north. In Morgan’s observation, after being aced out of the MNLA leadership and that of his ancestral clan, Iyad still possessed a reputation as a fighter and tactician sufficient to peel off a significant number of young men from the MNLA training camps—especially those connected to him by clan ties. The invocation of the Ifoghas tribe’s spiritual and military authority still carried weight. Ansar initially allied with the MNLA, and in June began to usurp it after a joint effort to take control over Mali’s northern territories. Iyad had proven, yet again, his keen ability to maneuver.

Ironically, though, he had now drawn on his ties with foreign—and severe—Islamic extremist movements, including AQIM, whose very extremism and “foreignness” he’d denounced just a few years earlier. In the dangerous mix of northern Malian rebellion and politics, and the increasing activity generated by the Global War on Terror, the one-time Tuareg freedom fighter has now become the patriarch of a foreign-funded terrorist organization that could potentially destabilize the entire region.  At the very least, the symbolism is disturbing: Iyad’s Ansar has been striking at the heart of the religious symbols that define Tuareg people – the Sufi shrines, destroying the very culture he has spent his life trying to liberate, and teaming up with AQIM to create, as Morgan calls it, “the very first Al Qaeda-led city government on earth [in the city of Timbuktu].”

While the mystique surrounding this “lion of the desert” continues to grow, he’s put himself in a rather precarious position – he is now considered an enemy of Mali, the United States, Algeria, and by some lights even of his own people, the northern Malian (Sufi) Tuareg. It’s hard to imagine a situation where he’ll be able to negotiate the terms of his safety or escape – especially with U.S drones reportedly overhead and the African Union and United Nations supporting calls for outside military intervention in Mali. Yet Iyad doesn’t seem like the kind of demagogue likely to escape to a secret villa in Europe should things turn bad. And, as one of the few influential Malians with contacts on all sides of the conflict (the Malian government, the foreign extremists of AQIM, and Arab and Tuareg factional leaders across the north), he may yet find himself in a crucial role in settlement of the conflict—if things don’t get too far out of hand first. For better and worse, and like the hero Sundiata of Mali’s national epic, Iyad ag Ghali has spent his life fighting for his vision of northern Mali. Unlike the 13th-century hero, though, Iyad entered the battle following on the collapse of an empire, with limited chances of forging a great state from its ruins, and running out of road.

Do not go and disturb the spirits in their eternal rest. Do not ever go into the dead cities to question the past, for the spirits never forgive. Do not seek to know what is not to be known. – D.T Niane 


Joe McKnight is an MA candidate at Union Theological Seminary, concentrating on psychiatry and religion. A graduate of the Grady School of Journalism at the University of Georgia, he is working to integrate his writing on religion with his interest in foreign affairs in Africa as well as exploration of his Southern heritage. 

 Editing and additional research by Nora Connor.

 With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.

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