He has since been involved in a number of other negotiations with the group, sometimes accepting large commissions for his work, which has also brought him a reputation as a powerbroker. In 2006 he became involved again in plans for rebellion, contacting a veteran rebel Tuareg leader with who he started yet another uprising. Yet again, though, to the dismay of countless Tuareg separatists, Ag Ghali once again took the lead in negotiating a peace deal with the Malian government.
In 2007, as described by a leaked State Department cable, he even paid a visit to the U.S. embassy in Bamako, where he met with then-U.S. Ambassador Terence McCulley. "Soft-spoken and reserved, [A]g Ghali showed nothing of the cold-blooded warrior persona created by the Malian press," the cable notes. It also said that the "seemingly tired" Ag Ghali requested U.S. military assistance for special operations against AQIM. Despite his current efforts to impose sharia law, Ag Ghali admitted to the U.S. ambassador that "one of AQIM's weak points was that not many people in northern Mali buy into its extremist ideology." His ability to play off different sides against each other has long been one of his most famous traits, and has helped to accentuate the air of mystery that he has cultivated around himself.
Small wonder, then, that the Malian government was happy to get him out of the way. In 2007, after he told authorities he was fed up with the problems of the North and requested to leave Mali, the government gave him a job as a consular official and dispatched him to Mali's embassy in Saudi Arabia, though without giving him any real diplomatic responsibilities. The government in Riyadh eventually expelled him, accusing him of cultivating contacts with extremist groups. When he returned home, Ag Ghali spent even more time in mosques and grew his beard even longer, though his political motives remained opaque.
Ag Ghali's group has rejected repeated requests for an interview, informing me that he does not wish to receive non-Muslim journalists. While there has been some debate about the sincerity of his religious zeal, analysts note an increasingly radical tone emanating from Ansar Dine over the past few months (as well as from Ag Ghali's own statements).
According to Tinegoum Maiga, the director of the Bamako newspaper La Nouvelle République, Ag Ghali's stress on the imposition of sharia law is motivated above all by a desire to secure financing. "He just wants to make a safe territory for himself, and so he uses sharia law to justify his donors sending him funding," explained Maiga, who claims that Qatar has been subsidizing the group. Maiga also explained that Algeria has a very strong relationship with Ag Ghali and has funded several of his operations for years. "He is very impressed with his new role as spiritual guide, coupled with warlord," says Maiga.
After meeting Ag Ghali in the northern town of Kidal in June, Malian journalist Adama Diarra told me that the Ansar Dine leader appeared deeply committed to his goal of implementing Islamic law. Diarra says that Ag Ghali depicted his aims as modest, and claimed that he merely wished to unify all Malians around their common Islamic heritage. But he says that Ag Ghali also declared anyone who refused to fight under the black flag of his group as "our enemy," and denounced secularism as "rubbish." "Whoever is working with secularism is our enemy and we will fight against them by all means," the warlord declared, according to Diarra. Ag Ghali also went on to demand that Mali should prove its democratic bona fides by holding a referendum allowing the Malian people to vote on the implementation of sharia law.