While Ag Ghali's relationship with the MNLA seems to have waned, and with most MNLA units either fleeing to the border areas or joining Ansar Dine's ranks, he has continued to build a strong network of Islamists in the region. Following the sightings of AQIM leaders around Timbuktu in April, members of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) also began to operate in the region. Although closely allied with AQIM, MUJWA is a jihadi group controlled by black Africans with an operational focus on the countries of West Africa.
In recent months, though, the lines between these Islamist groups has increasingly blurred. Oumar Ould Hamaha, previously a senior member of AQIM, recently began describing himself as an Ansar Dine commander. While AQIM has long operated in the region, this is the first time its leaders have openly appeared in public. In addition to his role as a negotiator, Ag Ghali is also closely linked to the group through a cousin who serves as one of its officers.
The MNLA leadership spent months demanding that Ag Ghali denounce the Islamist groups. But those hopes were dashed when MUJWA fighters clashed with the Tuareg nationalists on June 27. The head of the MNLA, Bilal Ag Acherif, was injured in the fighting and taken to Burkino Faso for treatment; he is yet to return to Mali. Soon after the event, Abu Omar, a senior member of Ansar Dine, sounded unrepentant. "If you want to know if we are in conflict with MNLA, just bear in mind we do not have the same goals," Omar told me. "We will not fight against those who want to make Islam the winner." He explained that Mali has long been dominated by "satanic policies" such as open access to alcohol, prostitution, non-Islamic banking, and tolerance of stark inequalities of wealth as well as "so-called democracy." "We will not go back to the kind of system that God helped us to destroy," Omar told me. Meanwhile, Tuareg sources say that Ag Ghali is pushing the remnants of the MNLA into joining Ansar Dine, threatening attacks if they don't merge with his group.
Local sources say fighters from Senegal, Pakistan, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia, are arriving in northern Mali and attending Islamist training camps. Just last month MUJWA reinforced their rule in the town of Douentza, pushing the boundary of Islamist-controlled territory even further south and raising alarms in Bamako. Already some are beginning to worry that Ansar Dine and its allies could start to launch terrorist attacks in other countries of the region. Such concerns are prompting members of the regional grouping of West African countries, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), to consider calls for intervention. Responding to these moves, Ansar Dine spokesman Hamaha recently said: "We will conduct a war against all state members of ECOWAS and also France and the United States of America, the European Union which are supporting ECOWAS. We are ready to die for it."
The gravity of the situation has the attention of policymakers in the West, in Paris as well as Washington. The Malian government and ECOWAS military advisers are drawing up military plans for submission to the United Nations by a late November deadline. Those plans are likely to follow the model of the military intervention in Somalia by East African countries organized and supported by the West.
Talks between ECOWAS and Ansar Dine have so far brought little progress. When ECOWAS asked Ag Ghali to separate himself from "foreign" Islamist groups, he responded with fresh calls for the implementation of sharia. Malian Islamic officials have contacted the Ansar Dine leader to sound out possibilities for implementing some version of Islamic law, but it could already be too late for a peaceful solution. As his enemies marshal their forces, the enigmatic Ag Ghali will soon be forced to show his true colors. Either he will have to find an exit plan that plays to his well-versed strengths as a mediator or to go all the way in the fight for his religious beliefs.