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Mali’s mercurial jihadist leader targets France in rare video

© AFP, Romaric Ollo Hien / Iyad Ag Ghali arrives at the airport in Kidal in August 2012 for a meeting with Burkina Faso's foreign minister

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2014-08-08

Flanked by the requisite Kalashnikov and black Salafist flag, reclusive Malian diplomat-turned-jihadist leader Iyad Ag Ghali targets France and French interests in the region in a rare video statement this week.

In a 24-minute clip posted on YouTube on August 5, Ag Ghali sets his sights on France as well as “collaborators” working with “the Crusaders” - particularly “Muslims who help France”.

"We will get rid of the Crusaders, led by France," said the reclusive leader of Ansar Dine, a militant Islamist group that came to the world's attention following the 2012 jihadist takeover of northern Mali.

Dubbed “the whisky-drinking rebel turned Islamist chief,” Ag Ghali has not been seen in public since August 2012 – months before the launch of a French military operation to wrest northern Mali from jihadist control.

The operation in northern Mali has since been replaced by a new mission, Operation Barkhane, aimed at confronting cross-border terrorist threats in the Sahel-Sahara region, one of the world’s most inhospitable zones.

Operation Barkhane is led by the French military in partnership with five African nations – Mali, Mauritania, Chad, Niger and Burkina Faso. Ag Ghali appeared to be targeting France’s allies in the region when he warned "Muslims who help France” that “we are always present, and will inflict casualties on the enemy".

Seven years and several avatars later

A controversial figure who began his fighting career – like many fellow Tuareg males of his generation – as a mercenary in former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s disastrous engagements in Africa, Ag Ghali metamorphosed to fulfill a number of roles.

These included peace dealer, hostage negotiator and diplomat before coming full circle and returning home to a battlefield bristling with arms from the depots of his fallen former Libyan mentor.

Back in 2007, when he was in peace dealer mode, Ag Ghali paid a visit to the US embassy in the Malian capital of Bamako, where he met then US Ambassador Terence McCulley. A leaked US cable described Ag Ghali as “soft-spoken and reserved” and added that the controversial Malian figure “showed nothing of the cold-blooded warrior persona created by the Malian press”.

Seven years and several avatars later, a much fleshier Ag Ghali appears to be a bit of both in his latest video statement.

The Arabic language message opens with a visibly uneasy Ag Ghali mumbling the mandatory Islamic prayers and citations that mark the start of most jihadist statements.

He then goes on to confess that his group, Ansar Dine, has failed to communicate its aims and mission, leaving the arena free for “French propaganda”.

As if aware of the jihadist leader’s lack of rhetorical talent, the video editors have interspersed Ag Ghali’s statement with video clips from Arabic news channels covering the French operation in northern Mali.

It’s only minutes before the first visual break featuring an attack in the desert that Ag Ghali warms to his cold-blooded warrior persona.

Noting that Ansar Dine seeks to establish an Islamic state in Azawad – a mythical Tuareg nation that is now used to describe northern Mali – Ag Ghali claims that his Islamism has angered the West.

The 24-minute clip includes footage of French President François Hollande thanking African states for their cooperation in the Malian mission as well as shots of French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius at an AU (African Union) summit in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa.

The man who once visited Western ambassadors in their embassies then goes on to blast the West for dispatching their “infidel armies” into “Muslim lands”.

AQIM’s noticeable absence

With his flowing beard and shaved moustache in the style of the early followers of the Prophet Mohammed, or salaf, Ag Ghali in his latest incarnation has embraced the ideals of a global jihad.

Appealing to the mujahideen (holy warriors) in the Sahara, North Africa, Nigeria, Somalia, Central African Republic, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Caucasus, the Arabian Peninsula as well as the Levant, Ag Ghali endorses their quest for an Islamic caliphate.
But while he mentions Maghreb – the Arabic term of the western-most extremity of the Muslim world in North Africa – Ag Ghali makes no reference to AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb).

During his 2007 meeting with Ambassador McCulley, Ag Ghali repeatedly requested US assistance for “targeted special operations” against AQIM, according to the leaked US cable.

Known for his ability to switch allegiances, Ag Ghali then proceeded to build ties with AQIM, according to anti-terror experts. Following the rise in kidnappings of European citizens in the Sahel after 2009, Ag Ghali served as a negotiator, hammering out million-euro ransom agreements with European officials for the release of European nationals.

Following the 2012 fall of northern Mali to jihadist control, a motley mix of militant groups got into an uneasy alliance with al Qaeda’s regional branch as well as offshoots of the original AQIM.

The omission of AQIM in Ag Ghali’s latest video statements is likely to spark questions over the latest twists and turns in the ever-changing life and times of one of Mali’s most controversial figures.

Date created : 2014-08-07

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