He was once known for his drinking habits, his stylish mustache, and his serial womanizing. Over the course of his colorful career he has served as a diplomat, a rebel chieftain, and a negotiator with al Qaeda hostage-takers. Today, however, Iyad Ag Ghali -- known within his community as the "Lion of the Desert" -- is winning new notoriety as a militant commander and Islamist powerbroker in a strategically sensitive corner of North Africa.
His prominence is likely to increase in the months to come. The rebellion in northern Mali that began earlier this year, fueled by loose weapons from the revolution in neighboring Libya, has morphed over the past few months from an ethnic separatist conflict to one increasingly dominated by Ansar Dine, the radical Islamist movement led by Ag Ghali -- raising the possibility that the breakaway region could become a new jihadist safe haven and a lingering source of instability across northern Africa.
French President François Hollande has engineered a U.N. vote to consider intervention in Mali, and his defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, recently said it was "a matter of weeks" before military action. Washington has given its blessing to military involvement by a regional grouping of African states eager to staunch the possible side effects radiating out from Ansar Dine's new mini-state. And there's even been talk that the Obama Administration might launch drone strikes against members of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a group that has sought refuge with the Islamists in northern Mali and which has been linked by U.S. officials with the attack that killed U.S. diplomat Christopher Stevens last month in Libya.
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Much of what happens next will depend crucially on Ag Ghali's skills as a politician and a military leader. In recent months he has put his talents on ample display, stunning regional observers by engineering a convincing political and military victory over his erstwhile allies, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the latest manifestation of a long line of rebel groups that have violently agitated for independence for the ethnic Tuaregs of the northern part of the country. While Tuaregs share Muslim beliefs with other Malians, the MNLA was never distinguished by religious militancy -- in stark contrast to Ansar Dine, which aims for the unification of Mali under Islam and sharia law. By contrast, the MNLA has committed itself to a secular independent state it calls Azawad (a word that translates as "Land of the Nomads") and opposition to Islamic groups operating in the North.
Ag Ghali has already begun to realize his dream of imposing sharia law. Music, TV, and smoking have all been banned in the areas under his control, and Ansar Dine troops have been punishing women for not covering up properly. The group's members have drawn up lists of unwed mothers and offering couples money to get married. Those who don't comply with their demands face harassment, torture, or execution. In the town of Aguelhok, a man and woman were recently stoned to death for adultery. In Gao a young man had his hand chopped off for stealing. And in the fabled city of Timbuktu, Ansar Dine units have demolished various ancient Sufi tombs -- part of a UNESCO world heritage site that is nonetheless derided by ultraconservative Muslims as a symbol of unorthodox belief.