Mali: Iyad Ag Ghali’s Loose Relationship with Salafism

Call me crazy, but even though al-Qaida is supposedly the quintessential “Salafi-jihadi” group, I think that a lot of people in the al-Qaida fold, even fairly prominent leaders, don’t really care about Salafi theology. That is, they’re either unaware or uninterested in the kinds of purity tests that doctrinaire Salafis, and theologically-minded jihadis, put to other Muslims.

A good example of one al-Qaida leader’s disinterest in Salafism appears in an interview (Arabic, .pdf, p. 4) that Malian national Iyad Ag Ghali recently gave to an al-Qaida publication. Just last month, Ag Ghali publicly and formally became head of a new jihadist formation in the Sahara, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (The Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims). The new group is formally part of al-Qaida and the al-Qaida affiliate al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In the interview, Ag Ghali nonchalantly discusses two issues that would give doctrinaire Salafis considerable pause: his career as a nationalist rebel leader in the 1990s (which involved negotiations with the Malian government), and his long relationship with the global Muslim missionary organization Jama’at al-Tabligh.

Both issues arise in Ag Ghali’s answer to the interviewer’s request for his biography. Ag Ghali divides his life into stages, and among them is: “the stage of negotiations with the Bamako regime in 1991, which produced the first agreement with the Malian government.” Ag Ghali describes the agreement, and the resulting situation “between war and peace” in the 1990s, dispassionately. He voices no regret over what many theologically-minded jihadis would view as a real problem: his willingness to enter into agreements with various regimes that hardline jihadis would consider infidels, and his prioritization of a nationalist struggle over a religious one at that time. It is true that al-Qaida has repeatedly considered and perhaps pursued agreements or truces with different governments, including possibly those in Mauritania and Yemen, but Ag Ghali doesn’t even attempt to frame his past behavior as something that advanced the cause of jihad. There is no indication that he repents for his nationalist past. His attitude is in real tension with the frequently invoked jihadi doctrine of al-wala’ wa-l-bara’, or exclusive loyalty toward Muslims and complete disavowal of those considered non-Muslims.

The second issue is one he describes enthusiastically. Speaking of the period in his life from 1998-2011, he says,

God inspired us – to Him be praise and thanks – to join the Society for Preaching and Spreading the Message [Jama’at al-Da’wa wa-l-Tabligh]. This was a beneficial phase in which God Most High facilitated [my] completion of the memorization of the Holy Qur’an, and [my] visits to God’s Muslims and [my] acquaintance with many of them in many places, such as [Saud Arabia], the Gulf, Mauritania, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Niger, Togo, and Benin. [I] even [visited] Muslim communities in the West, in France and other countries.

Now, Jama’at al-Tabligh has been roundly condemned by the senior Salafi scholars of the twentieth century. Such scholars viewed Tabligh as a group that did a little bit of good, by urging people to be more pious, but that did a lot of harm, due to its Sufi roots (most Salafis abhor Sufism). The Salafi scholars also felt that Tabligh’s rather generic preaching was a distraction from what Salafis consider the core issue, namely instilling an understanding of Salafi theology and doctrine in lay Muslims. Those Salafi scholars are not respected by al-Qaida when it comes to politics, but the theological concerns they raised about Sufism and Salafism are theoretically still relevant to al-Qaida.

Al-Qaida’s attitude toward Tabligh may be quietly flexible. There have been long-standing accusations that al-Qaida has used Tabligh for recruits and for forms of cover. My admittedly limited understanding of these issues is that Tabligh itself is not usually understood as culpable in such interactions; rather, al-Qaida may have taken advantage of Tabligh’s sprawling membership to pursue its own activities.

But that is a far cry from speaking fondly of one’s membership in Tabligh. Ag Ghali describes an overlapping period in his life – 2003-2009 – as “the stage of getting to know the mujahideen,” suggesting he saw no contradiction between membership in Tabligh and his emerging jihadi identity. And again, he voices no regret over his time with Tabligh – he says nothing like, “And then I saw that they were Sufi heretics and I repented.”

A lot has been made of Ag Ghali’s “chameleon-like” identity, and sometimes I think that’s overblown, but this interview definitely furnishes another piece of evidence for that view of him. In fact, the sense I got from the interview was: “This is a true politician.” The interviewer is often critical (perhaps to help Ag Ghali anticipate and deflect others’ criticisms of him), and at each juncture Ag Ghali responds like a politician, sometimes with quite vague answers. As a politician, Ag Ghali has committed to jihadism, but it is far from clear that he has committed to Salafism. (All of this, by the way, recalls Thomas Hegghammer’s argument that “Salafi-jihadi” is a deeply problematic category because of the difficulty assessing people’s theological commitments. Hegghammer recommends classifying people by how they actually behave. In the case of Ag Ghali his argument definitely applies.)

This discussion takes us back to yesterday’s post. Could the Malian government fruitfully engage Ag Ghali in negotiations? I’m still not sure, although I reiterate that I think it’s worth a try. His flexibility could be taken as either a hopeful or a doubtful sign – on the one hand, there is hope that one could find points of discussion with someone who’s ideologically flexible, but on the other hand, someone so flexible might make a very unreliable negotiating partner.

20 thoughts on “Mali: Iyad Ag Ghali’s Loose Relationship with Salafism

  1. Very interesting. Thanks. All the Touareg I’ve spoken to who knew Iyad well in the 1980s and 1990s describe him as a man who, though quiet of speech and seemingly self-effacing at times, was definitely focussed on his ‘career’, whether as a nationalist leader or later a proto-mujahid, (who it must be remembered was often in the service of the Malian government when it came to hostage negotiations and other political manoeuvres in the north). Regarding the disconnect between the Sufi inspired piety of Tagligh al-Jamaat and the hardline Salafism of jihadi ideologues, I’m reminded of ideological make-up the 19th century reformer Sayyid Muhammad ibn Ali al-Sanûsi, founder of the Sanusiya brotherhood. Although al-Sanûsi came from a Sufi background, and his teacher Ahmad ibn Idris al-Fasi was also of that persuasion, both tended towards a more literal interpretation of the holy texts and a narrower focus on Mohammedan teachings rather than that of other prominent Sufi scholars. In that sense, their beliefs fused elements of Sufism and Salafism. I suppose that Iyad ag Ghali, being a Malian Touareg, no doubt raised in the belief systems of the Kel Essouk marabouts and their Maliki Sufi doctrines, would find it hard to adhere entirely to a Middle Eastern Hanbalist outlook, and has probably settled on his own Sanusiay-style blend of Sufism and Salafism. But whatever his beliefs, friends who knew him well at the end of the 1990s, shortly after he’d made his first hadj to Mecca and was living in Kidal, say that he was very pious, almost ascetic, in his behaviour.

    • Thanks Andy, it’s very interesting to hear what your contacts say about him. Interesting comparison with al-Sanusi also. Certainly Ag Ghali’s comments make it sound that his time with Tabligh was the most religiously impactful experience of his adult life, and whatever piety he has sounds quite influenced by Tabligh (and probably by Sufism also, as you say).

      By the way, it is interesting to see the list of all the places he said he traveled…Benin, Togo, Nigeria, Niger, India, Pakistan, France! Amazing.

      • Yes, I hear that Ag Ghali spent quite some time at a Tabligh centre in St Denis, just north of Paris city centre. And also visited Peshawar and Islamabad. The whole period when senior Touareg cadres fell under the spell of the Tabligh’s ‘dawa’ in the mid to late 1990s needs proper study. From what I hear quite a few leading Ifoghas figures were seduced by the message, but most dropped out after a few years. Iyad however, kept going. It’s been explained to me by someone who knows Kidal extremely well, that one of his reasons for doing that was to give himself an ‘alternative’ spiritual and religious legitimacy, that might allow him to counter the authority of the amenokal Intallah, and his family, whose power rested on their traditional ‘Cherifian’ heritage. It’s a fascinating period.

      • Wow, really interesting about Ag Ghali’s travels. I agree that this period needs more study, and this idea about an “alternative” spiritual legitimacy makes a lot of sense.

        I haven’t seen too many good books on Tabligh in West Africa aside from Marloes Janson’s book on Tabligh in the Gambia.

  2. Dear Alex Mallami Na,

    It is important for us to explain the different currents that shaped the career of Iyad Ag-Ghaly and his case should be treated as an outlier. First and foremost, permit me to disagree with you with deference. Your first paragraph is an overstatement and if my surmise is accurate, this is another attempt to whitewash Salafism and exonerate it from the jihadi current. Whether we like to admit or not, there is an organic link between the ideational capital of Salafism and Salafi-Jihadism.

    You said “I think that a lot of people in the al-Qaida fold, even fairly prominent leaders, don’t really care about Salafi theology. That is, they’re either unaware or uninterested in the kinds of purity tests that doctrinaire Salafis, and theologically-minded jihadis, put to other Muslims.” I will be glad if you can mention at least 10 other prominent leaders of al-Qaida or other associated groups that portray similar eclecticism like Iyad Ag-Ghaly? The career of people like Iyad Ag-Ghaly who later embraced jihadism after experiencing different currents of reform was clearly explained by Abu Mus’ab al-Suri in “‘Dàwat al-Muqāwama al-Islāmiyyah al-‘ālamiyya’” when he discussed the career of Marwan Hadid. Abdullah Azzam also fit into a similar category given the fact that he experienced different currents of reform before his participation in Afghan-Russian War and this clearly explains his methodological difference with Bin Laden and Zawahiri et al.

    There is no doubt that traces of the nationalist past of Iyad Ag-Ghaly will have an impact on his current embracement of jihadi Salafism. Perhaps, this explains why he conducted extensive diplomatic negotiations with the government of Burkina Faso during his group takeover of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. Nonetheless, we cannot downplay the fact that Iyad Ag-Ghaly also expresses core theological beliefs of Salafism particularly on “ḥukm bi-ghayri mā anzala Allāh” which he clearly stated during his radio broadcast to the people of Timbuktu and this affected the formation of alliance with secular movements like MNLA. Because of his past, we do not expect his tenacity to the doctrines of Salafi-jihadism to be as resolute as the career of people like Abu Mus’ab Abd al-Wadud or Yahya Abu al-Hammam whose career started within the fold of Salafi-Jihadi groups dating back to the period of GSPC.

    Thank you for the post and I look forward to learning more from you. Nagoda Mallami Na.

    • Thanks for your comment. Usually I would be happy to debate a colleague if the aim is a sincere exchange of views, but based on your statements I think you’ve already made up your mind. If you think that my goal is “whitewash Salafism,” then I don’t think we should continue to have these exchanges. Best of luck to you.

      • Ba na nufin zuwa zarga da ku da ni malamin. I sincerely apologize if you feel offended by the phrase ‘whitewash Salafism’. How do you want me to keep learning without exchanging views with you? Hakuri Mallam. I guess you don’t know how much I respect you and look up to you? The central thesis of my comment is the fact that different leaders of jihadi groups adhere to the tenets of Salafism at different levels. This variance is mostly informed by their history and who they came in contact with along their career. For instance, Shekau and Mamman Nur are both leaders of Boko Haram but the degree to which they understand and adhere to Salafism differ based on their different career trajectories.

  3. Alex, hi,

    Interesting piece. It strikes me that there is one other dimension to this, which goes to the divide between Saudi-backed Salafis and jihadists: Saudi scholars going back to Bin Baz have backed the Tablighi while at the same time acknowledging doctrinal differences.



    • Thanks, James, interesting points. The Salafi sources I found were quite critical of Tabligh, but certainly there is a lot to the story of the relationship.

  4. Very interesting analysis, thanks, Alex. Not a response to your post: I’d just note that others besides Salafis also highlight the “those who rule by other what God has sent down” as motivators for their activism/actions. It isn’t necessarily uniquely “Salafi,” though I suppose one could expand the definition of what is meant by “Salafi” to fit a broader array of individuals and groups. It’s not my main research area but I know that I’ve seen it come up in writings and lectures of some Deobandi ‘ulama and tulab al-‘ilm.

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