Roundup on Mali’s Iyad Ag Ghali

The northern Malian Tuareg leader Iyad Ag Ghali has had a long and complex career. He is currently the head of Ansar al Din (Arabic: “Defenders of the Faith”), part of the Islamist coalition that controls northern Mali and a player in negotiations with the Economic Community of West African States. Throughout 2012, as crises have unfolded in Mali, news organizations, analysts, and other actors have profiled Iyad Ag Ghali with an eye towards attempting to understanding the role he plays in those crises, and the role he might play in Mali’s political future. Here are some key English-language biographical resources on the man and his career:

  • Wikipedia page.
  • At New York University’s The Revealer, Joe McKnight’s four-part series on Iyad Ag Ghali: read part one, part two, part three, and part four.
  • BBC (July 17, 2012): “Iyad Ag Ghaly – Mali’s Islamist Leader.”
  • France24 (June 29, 2012): “Mali’s Whisky-Drinking Rebel Turned Islamist Chief.”
  • AFP (April 5, 2012): “Mali Rebel Iyad Ag Ghaly: Inscrutable Master of the Desert.”
  • Foreign Policy (October 22, 2012): “The Man Who Brought the Black Flag to Timbuktu.”
  • Peter Beaumont (October 27, 2012): “The Man Who Could Determine Whether the West Is Drawn into Mali’s War.”
  • International Crisis Group (July 18 2012): “Iyad Ag Ghali’s Thwarted Personal Ambitions and the Islamist Agenda.” (pp. 12-13 in “Mali: Avoiding Escalation.”)

And a few French-language resources:

  • Slate Afrique (April 6, 2012): “Iyad Ag Ghaly, le Nouveau Maître Islamiste du Nord.”
  • RFI (July 18, 2012): “Au Mali, Iyad Ag Ghali Cherche à Redorer Son Image.”
  • Jeune Afrique (June 7, 2012): “Iyad Ag Ghali, la Charia a Tout Prix.”

What do you make of this man?


4 thoughts on “Roundup on Mali’s Iyad Ag Ghali

  1. A very useful roundup, Alex. There is a lot of great reporting here, but my main issue with most of these pieces is that they do not provide any evidence to as to why the future of northern Mali may hinge on Ag Ghali.

    At least from my vantage point, it’s not enough to highlight his shadowy past and penchant for cutting deals. He might always come out on top personally, but Ansar Dine as a movement has come to be much more than Ag Ghali’s personal militia. In fact, there have been plenty of rumors suggesting that Ag Ghali is currently operating from a position of weakness and is in the midst of a power-struggle within Ansar Dine.

    It seems like an oversimplification to assume that that buying off Ag Ghali or peeling him away from AQIM means that Ansar Dine’s rank and file will necessarily follow.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

    • I agree with you, especially when you write, “It seems like an oversimplification to assume that that buying off Ag Ghali or peeling him away from AQIM means that Ansar Dine’s rank and file will necessarily follow.”

      From a different point of view, it’s interesting to me to look at Ag Ghali as a prismatic figure who reflects outsiders’ conceptions about the conflict and about the region. Not a big fan personally of titles like “inscrutable master of the desert” (though I felt I had to include it), but titles like that give us hints about the attitudes and assumptions outside writers hold – including a tinge of romanticism in some cases. Those attitudes play a part in some writers casting Ag Ghali as the central player in this drama.

  2. Its highly unlikely that Ansar Dine could have risen so rapidly without supportive funding from AQIM, which to an extent suggests that as an organisation it has a level of financial dependency on AQIM.

    I doubt this means that Iyad ag Ghali has become a mere “AQ payroll” officer though and although he may not be the kingmaker that some suggest he does carry a certain capacity to make solutions extremely difficult.

    If factions within Ansar al Din are more aligned with AQIM than Iyad ag Ghali the most likely motivation would be financial above ideological or political.

    At the current point in time when people are trying to add up troop requirements for intervention in Northern Mali it would be very handy not to have Ansar Dine numbers added to the enemy combatants list.

    But where is Iyad ag Ghali to turn if he wishes to replace the suspected AQIM financial support? If he has nothing to offer then there is a high likelihood that elements of Ansar Dine will stay where the money is at.

  3. I’m coming late to this discussion, but I’d like to add that while I agree, Alex, with your statement on Iyad as a “prismatic” figure, it’s important to note that he reflects not just the views of “outsiders” – which I took here to mean non-Malians – on the north, but also of many Malians themselves. If you look at how the Malian press reports on Iyad, he’s often at the center of debate and conversation, and I suspect that at least some of how non-Malians see Iyad comes from the view of Iyad among Malian government figures and others as an all-powerful powerbroker and warrior/leader.

    Peter, to your point about Iyad, I agree completely, though I think we even have to be careful when talking about “Iyad’s personal militia.” While much of the visible leadership of Ansar Al-Din, at least in Kidal, comes from Ifoghas Tuareg, I’d posit that we know somewhat less about the core composition of his fighters. While a number may be Ifoghas, it’s not quite clear where they came from, and I recall early reporting suggesting that Iyad’s cousin Abdelkrim, an AQIM commander, brought a group of Tuareg AQIM fighters “back” to Ansar Al-Din. But it’s not at all clear if these are Iyad’s fighters, per se, or if they fall under someone else.

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