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Ag Ghali – the Mastermind Behind the Jihadist Movement in Mali

What started out as a mere conflict for independence has quickly escalated into a full out international engagement. No one could have predicted that the Touareg insurrection of 2012 could become the newest phase of the war on terror. Indeed, from an early stage, Islamist radical groups used the nationalistic pretensions of the Touareg to pursue their own jihadist goals.

Iyad Ag Ghali, a Touareg and radical Islamist tried and failed to take over the Touareg nationalistic group Mouvement Nationale de Libération de Azawad (MNLA) that first took arms against the Mali Government. When it became clear to Ag Ghali that he would not be able to control the movement that he was once a part of, he announced the creation of the jihadist fundamentalist group Ansar Dine. The group’s only purpose is to cause the demise of the West, with the first step being to take control of the Malian state in order to secure a base of operations to launch the world-wide Jihad; in other words, make of Mali a new Afghanistan.

In order to fully comprehend the real involvement of Al Qaeda in this rebellion, one must take into consideration facts beyond the obvious alliance between Ansar Dine and all the different Islamist groups that now control the northern half of Mali. Indeed, one must first take a closer look at Af Ghali, the leader of this movement, and the manner in which he took over the Touareg rebellion with only a few dozen followers. It should be noted that Hamada Ag Hama, an important Al Qaeda au Maghreb Islamique (AQMI) commander, is no other than Iyad Ag Ghali’s own cousin.

Ag Ghali, is a notorious Touareg himself, and was one of the leaders of the Touareg rebellion of the early 90’s. Ag Ghali was known to be a hedonist who enjoyed nights of entertainment and heavy drinking. After a peace agreement was reached between the Malian Government and the Touareg rebels in the 90’s, Ag Ghali was sent to Saudi Arabia, as part of the Malian diplomatic mission. There, he met Islamist fundamentalists through whom he experienced a religious metamorphosis.  He grew out his beard and started to advocate the message of radical Islam, which in turn caused the Malian Government to dismiss him from his diplomatic functions.


Once the Mouvement Nationale de Libération de Azawad started its campaign for the independence of Azawad, Ag Ghali as he once had before, unsuccessfully tried to take over an incipient Touareg rebellion in the northern desert territories of the Malian state. He was rejected by the members of the most powerful organization within the rebel factions, the MNLA, due to his radical views on Islam, and because of the goals that he had for the rebellion itself.

While the MNLA sought the creation of a northern independent Touareg State in the territories known as Azawad, Ag Ghali sought to expand the rebellion further beyond the borders of the northern African state. He wanted to create a foot-hold that could later become the corner stone for a world wide Jihad in order to reestablish the Caliphate on all  territories under former Muslim control.

As mentioned, he failed in his attempt to lead the Touareg movement. It was then that he decided to take matters into his own hands. With the support of AQMI he managed to field a handful of fighters and presented battle on the Touareg side against the government forces. At first, he appeared to support the MNLA’s efforts to fight for the independence of Azawad, but once the three most important cities in the north were under insurgent control, differences between the factions started to arise. Ansar Dine had been gaining support from the Touareg side and quickly managed to take control of Azawad’s most symbolic city, after which point he immediately imposed strict Sharia Law in Timbuktu.


As soon as the MNLA gained control of Azawad, the jihadist group Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa aided by AQMI, Ansar Dine and other radical Islamist militias, organized a violent and successful ‘coup’. Today the region is under very strict Sharia Law and the jihadists’ attacks on government forces do not stop.  The MNLA is now fighting for the Malian Government and against the Islamists. They have renounced their claims of independence of Azawad in exchange for the promise of self-rule within the Malian state.

France is taking a bold and brave stance. The West has much to lose in this conflict and should be providing Mali and France all the support and help necessary to ensure that the jihadists are defeated. The European Union is sending a 450 strong force to train the Malian army in February. It is not enough.

– Borja de Aristegui

 Borja holds a Bachelor of Arts from McGill University where he majored in Political Science and History. He is currently a Ph. D. candidate at Carlos III Univerity in Madrid focusing on international public law. He has been foreign correspondent to Canada for La Razón, Spain’s fourth largest national newspaper, Borja also participates on “Es la noche de César”, a Spanish T.V. show on Libertad Digital Network, once a week, commenting the different political developments in Spain. Having lived in four countries and visited over fifty countries, Borja’s international livelihood has made him an independent consultant that specializes in bringing Western companies into Developing countries.


(Featured Image: AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike alwithacamera. Creative Commons, Flickr

Photo 1 : Attribution  Magharebia, Creative Commons, Flickr

Photo 2: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Christian , un marito, Creative Commons, Flickr )

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  1. Great perspective. How credible are the MNLA’s promises to renounce their goal of independence, and does the Malian gov have a choice in accepting their help against the jihadists?

    What are you views on countries other than France in the West sending more air support/ or boots if it comes to that?

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