A Smooth Criminal

Iyad Ag Ghali, head of Ansar Dine, has rescinded his pledge to halt violence and work with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and Bamako. Specifically, “Ansar Dine has decided to revoke the offer to stop hostilities together with the negotiations being conducted in Ouagadougou.” This could mean greater difficulty for any force seeking to break up the control of Northern Mali by various Islamist groups. However, it is important to recognize that Ag Ghali is a canny operator and may not have as strong an ideological commitment to militant Islamism as it appears.

Firstly, it must be remembered that Ag Ghali has been on the scene for some time. He was instrumental in launching a previous rebellion in 1990. However, Ag Ghali also signed the Tamanrasset Agreement with Bamako in Algeria. He even obtained a Malian diplomatic posting to Saudi Arabia. Although it appears he was removed from his post for consorting with jihadis, it is unclear what real effect this had on him. His main connection was with Tablighi Jamaat, which, while definitely fundamentalist, does not generally espouse direct violent political jihad. 

After all, before the breakout of the current conflict, Ag Ghali was known to desire a position in the secular MNLA. He was rejected not for any Islamist leanings, but because of his prior relationships with Bamako, not to mention exterior actors such as Algeria. Even after getting rejected for a position as secretary general of the MNLA, Ag Ghali still didn’t go the Islamist route. Instead, he attempted to become the political head of the Ifoghas clan, to which he belongs. After he failed to attain this position he finally decided to helm the Ansar Dine movement.

This, by no means complete, history doesn’t show a particularly ideological man. The fact that Ag Ghali has retracted (for now) his offer to lay down his arms should not detract from the fact that he has been willing to talk to both the MNLA and Bamako. Not to mention that Ag Ghali and Ansar Dine have not ruled out laying down their arms in the future. In fact, the current retraction of the offer to stop hostilities was followed by a statement that Ag Ghali was open to “new negotiations, even if (Ansar Dine) has never detected a willingness from the other party to reciprocate.”

While it is believable that Ag Ghali’s time in Saudi irrevocably changed him, it is entirely possible that Ag Ghali is simply holding out for the best deal. If he believes that association with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) will be more profitable for him, he will likely maintain a more bellicose position. However, when events start moving in another direction he may prove more receptive to diplomatic overtures. For now, with any international intervention months, if not a year, away and Bamako seemingly incapable of retaking the North alone, he will likely continue to vacillate between conciliation and conflict.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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