For many, Ag Ghali's metamorphosis into a fervent defender of the faith came as a surprise. For years, locals say, he was well known for his love of women and alcohol. Chana Takiou, the chief editor of the Malian newspaper 22 Septembre, says that during Ag Ghali's earlier years he was well known for frequenting bars and drinking the night away. "He is shy, not very talkative, and rarely laughs," Takiou told me, though noting that Ag Ghali often prayed. He also recalls that Ag Ghali guarded his privacy.
Born in Kidal, a member of the Ifoghas clan, Ag Ghali was the son of nomadic stock farmer. During the 1980s, when he was still in his early twenties, Ag Ghali traveled to Libya, where he joined Qaddafi's Islamic Legion, a group of fighters recruited to defend Islamic causes (and bolster Qaddafi's religious credentials in the process). Ag Ghali was sent to fight against Christian militias in Lebanon.
After the legion was dismantled in 1987, Ag Ghali found himself back in Mali, now with a newly acquired taste for rebellion. On June 28, 1990, he launched the previously mentioned attack on the town of Menaka in the North, killing several Malian police and inspiring the first of many Tuareg revolts. Six months later, however, after intervention by the government of neighboring Algeria, he was pushed into signing a peace agreement without having attained any of his goals. Many of his supporters derided him for selling out, and accused him of stopping the rebellion just as it was getting under way.
Following the 1990 rebellion and a trip to Pakistan, Ag Ghali is reported to have become involved with the Dawa fundamentalist sect, an offshoot of the South Asia-based Islamic missionary association Jamaat al-Tabligh. He is said to have spent increasing amounts of time in mosques, and distanced himself from his previous social circles. Takiou, the Malian journalist, says that was the period when Ag Ghali became more of a hard-line Islamist. "He was spending time with a particular Pakistani preacher called Peshawar, who brought the Dawa movement to Kidal," says Takiou.
Mohammed Sylla, a member of the Dawa movement, who claims to have known Ag Ghali, tells me that he did not appear particularly militant, and was very friendly to all the members. "When some of our members realized he was going to take a rebel initiative, we tried to discourage him," says Sylla. "Our aim is not to attack any one or any country. We are friendly. Ansar Dine has nothing to do with the Dawa movement and we do not understand his objective or his vision." Sylla says that the members of the group "have no idea" why their former adherent embarked on his present path.
It was in 2003 that Ag Ghali began to make public statements of his following adherence to the fundamentalist cause (though he took care to reject terrorism and suicide bombings). He was chosen to be the government's intermediary to negotiate the release of hostages held by the Islamic Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), the primarily Algerian militant organization that has since changed its name to Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM). His most significant success came in August 2003, when he negotiated the release of European tourists kidnapped in Algeria and held by Abou Zeid, a GSPC commander.