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Spotlight on leader of Islamist group in Mali

Friday - 4/27/2012, 12:29pm  ET

Associated Press

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) - He's a former diplomat whose armed Islamist group now controls much of northern Mali. He has links to an al-Qaida franchise and was expelled from Saudi Arabia for ties to yet another fundamentalist movement. U.S. officials call him a master manipulator.

Iyad Ag Ghali's group and Tuareg rebels took northern Mali a month ago in the wake of a military coup in Mali's capital that left government soldiers stationed in the north in disarray. His group, Ansar Dine, now seems to be muscling out the Tuareg rebels for control over an area that's roughly the size of Texas.

He is quickly becoming the most powerful person in northern Mali and, most worrisome for regional security, he is showing signs that he's willing to let militants of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb operate freely. Before, leaders of AQIM, as the group is known, did not dare show their faces in major northern Mali towns. But now diplomats are reporting privately that several have been spotted.

Ag Ghali's heavily armed men, with black flags fluttering from their pickup trucks, are attacking bars that sell alcohol, smashing non religious artwork and banning men and women from socializing in the streets. The Taliban did the same when they gained control of most of Afghanistan and its capital in the mid-1990s and imposed strict Islamic law. Arab militants used Afghanistan as a haven and al-Qaida took root, building terrorist training camps.

Similarly, al-Qaida militants and other Islamist fighters are descending on northern Mali, as reported earlier by The Associated Press. Residents of the region's major towns say Ansar Dine fighters are much more visible than the Tuareg separatists of the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad.

"I think Iyad wants a zone where he can impose discipline, where he can punish people by whipping them and cutting off their hands," said Tiegoum Boubeye Maiga, a Malian journalist from the north of the country who runs the newspaper La Nouvelle Republique.

While some wonder whether Ag Ghali is motivated more by religion or by personal ambition, he has taken on at least the appearance of a fundamentalist.

Gone is the large mustache that he used to sport. On a video released by Ansar Dine _ which in Arabic means Supporters of Islam _ he has a full, graying beard.

Colleagues say he became more religiously active in the 1990s when Tabligh Jamaat, a fundamentalist but nonviolent Islamic movement from Pakistan and India, started preaching in northern Mali. Tabligh Jamaat, founded early in the last century, is an offshoot of the Deobandi school of Islam which is very hardline. Most of the Taliban leadership is Deobandi.

After Ag Ghali was assigned in 2007 to Mali's consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the Saudis became concerned about the amount of time he spent on his satellite phone and his ties to Tabligh Jamaat. The Saudis considered his activities incompatible with his status as a diplomat, according to a colleague who worked with Ag Ghali at the time and who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the press.

He had been appointed to Saudi Arabia after he helped negotiate a peace accord that ended a brief Tuareg rebellion. "Some Tuareg rebels are irked at what they view as Ag Ghali's self-centered decision to abandon northern Mali during a time of crisis, leaving his Tuareg rebel colleagues in the lurch," a leaked U.S. Embassy cable noted in 2008.

Today, the doubts about Ag Ghali's motivations are resurfacing.

"One of the key questions that needs to be answered now is to what extent does Ag Ghali believe the Islamist rhetoric of Ansar Dine or to what extent is he just using it to legitimize his quest for power," said Andrew Lebovich, a senior analyst at The Navanti Group, a Virginia-based analytical firm.

Ag Ghali's family is part of a group of Tuaregs who have traditionally ruled the region around the town of Kidal, and he has been active in the rebellions there for years. Other leaked U.S. diplomatic cables describe Ag Ghali as a master manipulator, especially when there is the chance to make money.

"Ag Ghali is so adept at playing all sides of the Tuareg conflict to maximize his personal gain," notes a cable from October 2008 that was released by WikiLeaks. "Like the proverbial bad penny, Ag Ghali turns up whenever a cash transaction between a foreign government and Kidal Tuaregs appears forthcoming."

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