Democracy Lab

Can You Save Diplomacy From Itself?

Carne Ross's quixotic crusade to help emerging nations get their seat at the table.

The chamber of the Security Council spreads out, airless and dimly lit, at the heart of the United Nations complex in New York. This is the inner sanctum of world diplomacy: Council members are responsible for maintaining peace and security across the globe, no less. A huge oil canvas mural, painted by the Norwegian artist Per Krogh, decorates one wall: A phoenix rises from its ashes, symbolizing the world's rebirth after World War II; and a group of farmers weigh out grain for all to share, showing how the international community values equality. This sense of bounty and fairness fills the big room with its large U-shaped table surrounded by welcoming blue chairs.

But the appearance of inclusivity is deceptive. The blue seats, center-stage, are reserved exclusively for the 15 Security Council member states. Other U.N. members must sit farther away from the decision-makers' table, on an incline. Even farther from the diplomatic action hangs the "public gallery," for mere onlookers.

The Council decor captures the real-life divisions of the world order. Only a handful of nations truly control the international agenda; others must make do with a spectator's role. This hierarchy is as fixed in the U.N. protocol as the blue chairs are fixed to the chamber floor. No diplomat, minister, or head of state would dare challenge it.

When Carne Ross, a former U.N. diplomat, begged passes from a "friendly" government in order to sneak his client, a delegation from South Sudan, into the public gallery, he knew this was a brazen breach of convention. It was 2010, and South Sudan had yet to be recognized as a state. Its right to a referendum on independence, won at the end of Sudan's brutal and prolonged civil war in 2005, was in doubt. Council members were set to discuss the referendum but South Sudan, whose future was at stake, was not invited to take part in the discussion.

Thanks to Carne Ross's subterfuge, the delegation, led by former guerrilla leader Pagan Amum, listened in on the Council discussion. Later, by door-stopping former colleagues at the United Nations, Ross managed to secure his client a seat at the table at the Security Council. Amum spoke eloquently about South Sudan's desire for peace and self-determination before an audience that included Hillary Clinton, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague. His speech made an impact: the United Nations approved the referendum, which was held a few months later. South Sudan became independent in July 2011.

Carne Ross, more than anyone, appreciated that with his ruse he had not only destroyed a taboo, but established a new way of doing diplomacy: Independent Diplomat was born. Forget the old-style diplomacy. In its place he would establish a transparent, inclusive, unpretentious service that would help the marginalized to the decision-making table.

From the outset, Ross was determined to distinguish his new outfit from the typical lobbyists. Independent Diplomat is different, he explains, because the firm only does "diplomatic process," helping its clients to navigate the tricky business of getting something done on the international stage. It does not "represent" them the way that conventional lobbying firms do; they have to do the heavy lifting themselves.

"The power of the state is declining," Ross argued in a TED talk two years ago -- before going on to liken the world situation to a Jackson Pollock painting, "complicated and fragmented." With the declining power of states, someone has to tackle the problems that the nation-states can't resolve: "Who is left to deal with them," asks Ross, "but us?"

Ross tells me that "we only help the good guys -- the legitimate democratic representatives, not any scumbag who will pay us." Such high-sounding aims could set a trap for ID: Many a client, determined to access the influence-brokers, might whitewash their record to look like "one of the god guys." Can Carne Ross really tell the difference between the genuine article and the phony?

Ross spent 15 years -- most of his professional life, in fact -- as a rising star in Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). A bright boy from the London suburbs, he had been on the fast-track at the FCO, and "despite speaking his mind, was seen as ambassador material," remembers Gerard Russell, a former colleague there. Ross loved the traditions that still dominated diplomatic life in the 1990s: the countless embassy parties whose gossips provided crucial nuggets of local opinion; the terminology that decreed diplomats never spoke with the individualist "I" but always as patriotic, collective "we"; the minutes (never memos) that had to be written on "blue" paper that in fact was green. He admired the ambassadors, with their veneer of charm and reasonableness; and felt at ease with the subtle distinctions of international diplomacy, whereby the British delegation could meet with top officials, but even the most junior staff could turn away a request from South Sudan, Kosovo, or Western Sahara. Statelets, with no status, they had no claim on anyone's time.

A Middle East expert (he admits that he does not speak Arabic, though his German "is pretty good") Ross was part of the British delegation at the United Nations in 1997, and later an eloquent defender of Britain's (and America's) sanctions against Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. He took part in the negotiations over Afghanistan -- but during a six-week stay in Kabul in 2002, he realized that the "minutes" his colleagues were sending back to HQ bore little resemblance to reality. The diplomats were sealed in the embassy compound, behind "high walls topped with coils of razor wire and sack-cloth netting, the latter to trap the rocket-propelled grenades that were feared as the greatest threat to our safety," he writes in his memoir, Independent Diplomat: Dispatches from an Unaccountable Elite. "Naturally, this was not the best way to detect the complex and powerful forces sweeping that country."

The disillusionment that first stirred in Kabul grew into bitter disappointment by September 2002, when America and Britain started their saber-rattling over Iraq. Their formal excuse for the invasion was Saddam Hussein's presumed weapons of mass destruction. Yet Ross knew that there was scant evidence of their existence. In fact, his friend and colleague David Kelly, an expert in biological warfare, had felt compelled to warn the press anonymously that claims of WMD were exaggerated; when his identity was leaked the government turned against the respected scientist. Kelly killed himself. Ross watched politicians and diplomats instantly retreat behind a wall of silence; later, in 2010, he testified to the Chilcot Inquiry, the official British commission charged with investigating the intelligence scandal behind the war. As he puts it, "the closed nature of our work allowed us to get away with Iraq." Suddenly diplomacy struck him as "a pact between the unaccountable and the irresponsible."

The young man who'd aspired to the glamour of foreign postings and challenging negotiations now dreamed of revolution. Independent Diplomat (which now consists, in addition to Ross, of a team of 18, based in New York, London, Brussels, Juba and Hargeisa) would apply their knowledge of the inner workings of diplomacy to give even non-states a say on the international stage. Size, influence, wealth, tactical alliances would no longer be a bar to admission to the big boys' club.

Independent Diplomat promises its "clients" -- a term derided by Paul Whiteway, head of ID's London office, who says it "smacks of commercialism" -- access to the power-brokers, but it refuses to play the ventriloquist: "Our clients are their own best spokespeople," Ross emphasizes. "They don't need us to write out their script or even lobby. We just make sure they're heard." With his 15 years' diplomatic experience, Ross knows how to navigate the system: which official to speak to, meeting to attend, above all which issues to raise. He prides himself on the "full and unorthodox service" ID can offer its clients: Given that the controversy over South Sudan centered on its boundaries, the ID team in London spent a day poring over 19th-century maps in the Royal Geographic Society, to study where the original border lines had been drawn.

ID's clients confirm that Ross and his team are facilitators rather than puppet-masters: "They did a fantastic job for us," Fatmir Sejdiu, the former president of Kosovo, tells me. "Independent Diplomat opened the doors. They had me speak to the Security Council members, even though Kosovo is not a member of the Council. I am very grateful."

So is the Georgian Dream Coalition, which won the general elections in Georgia last October, ousting President Mikheil Saakashvili. "They are not patronizing." Tedo Japaridze of the Georgian Dream Coalition tells me. "They steer, they don't dictate. I trust them."

Does ID's client list pass the litmus test? Ross and his London associate Paul Whiteway insist that ID checks clients thoroughly and will only draw up a contract when satisfied that they are above board. Yet some would argue that the Dream Coalition, led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, has behaved like a vengeful victor since its election. Ivanishvili and his colleagues have pledged to pursue former officials for "wrongdoings" and have already arrested a former minister -- prompting criticism from NATO, of all institutions. Georgia-watchers brand this a "witch hunt" and claim Carne Ross cannot be surprised: It is difficult, if not impossible, to make billions in Russia, as Ivanishvili has done, and keep one's hands clean.

Other clients with the potential to dent ID's reputation for discernment are the Polisario Front, the politico-military organization of the indigenous nomadic inhabitants of theWestern Sahara under Moroccan control; and, yes, even South Sudan. Both have been accused of human rights abuses; and earlier this month, the United Nations condemned South Sudan for expelling one of its human rights investigators.

Another challenge: How is freelance diplomacy supposed to finance itself? When Carne Ross first set up Independent Diplomat in 2004, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation awarded him a £40,000 special centenary fellowship "for visionaries." The honor brought attention fromGeorge Soros, and the billionaire philanthropist now funds one-third of ID's budget on a rolling basis. (Several countries and foundations also support the outfit: Norway, Switzerland, Finland, and even Britain, through its support of the Climate Development Knowledge Network.

Ross is open about taking money from George Soros and has written about the key role private organizations like Soros's Open Society Institute can play. They, like NGOs, and even celebrities like Bono, are the new non-state actors on the stage, whose emergence is blowing apart the inner circle who commands geopolitics.

Charles Crawford, former British ambassador to Moscow, is wary of Ross's enthusiasm for such agents of change. "Who, after all, is George Soros?" Crawford wrote in his blog, in 2009: "Who gave him a mandate to stick his nose and his money into so many places? Who elected Greenpeace? What possible claim does Bono have to speak sense on anything? Should not the fact that he rubs shoulders with world leaders at Davos embarrass all concerned? This all boils down to a deep and dangerous proposition: that the strength of feeling (and the feeling of strength) matter far more than the strength of reason." Yet even Crawford admires what he calls Ross's "idealism": "No one" he admits to me, "can fault Carne's faith in more democracy and more transparency."

Is Ross's Independent Diplomat on a moral mission? After all, this is the man who, when the late Robin Cook was British foreign secretary, wrote the first draft of a famous speech Cook delivered in 2007 on the need for "ethical foreign policy." Ross squirms at the mention of "good" and "evil." "Cheesily, I chose a compass as our logo," he says. Listening to him speak, it is easy to conclude that it is moral indignation that fuels him -- a presumption borne out by his books, which lay out his vision of diplomacy (Independent Diplomat) and radical democracy (Leaderless Revolution). Phrases like "the injustice of what passes for democracy," "the gulf between the astronomically rich and everyone else," and "the shame of 40 million Americans living below the poverty line" pepper his conversation with me. Indeed, there is something of a crusader about Ross, with his clean, Clark Kent features, lantern jaw, and thick-rimmed glasses. As befits the unpretentious image of his new outfit, Ross opts for jeans and a polo neck rather than stuffy diplomat tailoring -- though a suit and tie hang in a cupboard in his office, for those unexpected meetings at the United Nations.

"Carne believes in opening up the elite decision-making and having more bottoms-up organizations -- in other words, a utopia." That's according to John Ashton, the British Government's special representative for climate change, who came across Independent Diplomat at the U.N. climate change negotiations. Here ID was helping small island states, whose very survival is at stake, voice their concerns. "They did some first-class work," says Ashton. "But none of this guarantees the organizations will be run by good people with good motives," Ashton notes. "Populism and incoherence are not a recipe for success. For that, we need a small group of people at the top making the right choices." Ashton's viewpoint would sit uneasily with Ross, who sees nothing inevitable about a self-perpetuating elite which he regards as self-important and out-of-touch.

Gerard Russell, who worked with Carne Ross at the FCO in 1995, likens him to a lawyer who takes on the cases no one else will. "The fact that his clients can't pay doesn't make them good but it does mean they deserve a lawyer."

Not that ID is a charity (though it does have non-profit status). Ross stresses that although he draws financial support from diverse sources, ideally he would like to make his clients pay: "If people don't pay for your advice they don't value it -- as aid agencies have learned."

Eight years on, ID has been employed by Somaliland, Croatia, Moldova, the Marshall Islands, the Western Sahara, as well as South Sudan and Kosovo. They themselves have employed a number of former diplomats from both sides of the Atlantic: "When I set it up," Ross explains, "I was genuinely surprised that regular diplomats would talk to us. I had expected that they would shun us. But they didn't. It is regular diplomats who have been most ready to accept ID, perhaps because they ‘get' us in a way that non-diplomats do not. One German ambassador exclaimed to me that ID should have been established 30 years ago."

Despite such ringing endorsement, ID's new model of diplomacy may not prove as contagious as Carne Ross might hope. "Non-western actors -- China, India, and the Association of South East Asian Nations, as well as the Economic Community of West African States -- are concerned with preserving sovereignty and doing so using traditional diplomacy," says Dr. Randolph Kent, former U.N resident and humanitarian coordinator in Somalia. "The West may see the concept of nation state as fraying at the edges, but emerging powers aspire to strengthen their national identity, not dilute it. They believe old-fashioned protocol, with its ‘us and them' distinctions, supports their aim."

Indeed, given the economic downturn, even the West may have to hold on to the concept of "nation-state" and "national government" for a while yet. Intervention is visible everywhere, as the only means to kick-start economies. And given that governments need to talk and negotiate with each other, "they need people to do it," says Charles Crawford. "And we know who they are."

While it may be premature to write off the traditional diplomacy of Talleyrand, Castlereagh, and Metternich, it would be downright foolish to write off Carne Ross. His vision of the "anarchist diplomat," as a French magazine dubbed it, has earned him attention worldwide as a thought leader; aside from his TED Talk about ID, he has appeared on American public TVto make the case for re-engaging the electorate at the community level and contributes regularly to newspapers. Ross may have tried, and failed, to dismantle the institution of diplomacy. But isn't he, as his old colleague Gerard Russell puts it, "in danger of becoming an institution himself?"

Photo by Emily Kasriel/BBC

Democracy Lab

The Man Who Brought the Black Flag to Timbuktu

A new Islamist strongman has taken the stage in North Africa. His rising power is giving him a lot of bad ideas.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Brahima Quedraogo/IRIN