Ansar Dine's ascendance is fueling worries in the West about the possibility of a new Islamist nexus in a part of the world that had long seemed dependably stable. For two decades Mali has enjoyed a reputation as a successful Muslim democracy, a status rewarded by the U.S. and other western donors with generous supplies of aid. But there was one source of potential trouble: The large and restive Tuareg population in the country's arid North, who have launched a series of haphazard revolts over the years, citing oppression and discrimination. During famines, for example, the central government looted funds for aid and resettlement camps, fueling anger amongst the Tuareg communities (often known locally as the "blue people," thanks to the indigo headscarves often wear, sometimes staining their skin the same color).
Many of the Tuaregs moved to Libya to escape drought and economic underdevelopment in their desert homeland; some of them even found jobs in the Libyan military. As it happened, the fall of Muammar Qaddafi last year gave fresh impetus to Tuareg separatists. As they watched Qaddafi's regime near its end, leaders from previous rebellions began plotting to return to Mali, now bolstered by cars and heavy weapons believed to have been largely swiped from Libyan government arsenals. Having formed the MNLA, which incorporated various Tuareg groups from around the region, the rebels launched an offensive and quickly took several major cities in the North.
Ag Ghali, who had been the instigator of a previous rebellion in 1990, quickly spotted an opportunity. At a meeting of rebel leaders last October, Ag Ghali offered himself as a leader of the MNLA. But the Tuareg leaders rejected him on the grounds of his increasingly ardent Islamist beliefs. "We want to be a secular group," MNLA spokesman Moussa Ag Acharatouman told me at the time. "Ag Ghali's desire to impose sharia does not fit the wishes of the people or the goals of the MNLA."
The leaders of the group have since had ample reason to regret their decision. Just weeks after they rejected him, Ag Ghali moved to announce the creation of his own group, which he dubbed Ansar Dine, or "Defenders of the Faith." Ag Ghali declared -- to the dismay of MNLA leaders -- that his group's main goal was the establishment of sharia law across Mali. The nationalist leaders suddenly found themselves outflanked. "We knew that with Ag Ghali, a famous Tuareg leader, running around shouting about sharia law and welcoming Islamists into the region, we had no hope," said one MNLA commander at the time, wishing to remain anonymous due to his physical proximity to Ansar Dine units.
This time the Tuareg revolt got off to a blazing start. The separatists took town after town with barely a fight; Ansar Dine and AQIM forces helped to push out the Malian troops. The Tuaregs' rapid success ultimately even triggered a military coup in the South, where disgruntled officers, enraged by the government's failure to support their efforts to quash their rebellion, toppled the civilian government in the capital of Bamako. Ironically, considering the plotters' expressed intent to maintain Mali's national integrity, their move ended up accelerating the Tuareg takeover of the North. Although barely in control of the region, the rebels' political wing announced the creation of the new state of Azawad on April 6. The declaration was aimed at trying to steal some of the thunder from Ag Ghali's group.
The leader of Ansar Dine wasn't prepared to let it go at that. He welcomed in Islamists from around the region, and, with Mali's borders unguarded by Malian troops, they began to flock to the North. The ranks of Ansar Dine, which had begun with just a few hundred troops, quickly swelled -- and the MNLA found its power slipping away. "One moment we were in control of everything," one MNLA fighter told me. "We thought this was it, this is set to be the most successful rebellion yet. Then suddenly it all went completely wrong. It's heartbreaking." The MNLA discovered that it didn't have enough troops to control all the territory it had captured. Ansar Dine began following it into captured towns, where they raised the black flag of the group and announced that they were in control.