The man at the center of the fight against Islamists in northern Mali has an unexpected history with Germany. In 2003 he was crucial in facilitating a ransom payment to secure the release of German tourists held hostage in Algeria.
The Tuareg is a brawny man with a jet-black beard, and on the few occasions when he smiles, he seems almost gentle. He was once merely the leader of the Ifora tribe, who live in sandstone mountains in the Sahara Desert. But now the French government views Iyad Ag Ghaly as one of the greatest enemies of the West.
Today Ag Ghaly heads the largest Islamist group in Mali, Ansar Dine, and its roughly 1,500 fighters. His men now control about 60 percent of the country. Since last week, the French army has been fighting the Islamists with bombers, helicopters and ground troops. Berlin is assisting the French by providing transport aircraft.
The Germans are familiar with Ag Ghaly from his days as a partner to the Berlin government. In 2003, he helped negotiate the payment of ransom money to secure the release of a group of kidnapped tourists in the Sahara, 10 of them Germans.
A Brutal Brand of Sharia Law
Ag Ghaly was not an Islamist at the time, nor did he have the reputation of being particularly religious. But under pressure from two competing groups, Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the break-off Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), each of which has up to 500 fighters, Ag Ghaly also turned to religion about a year ago. He has introduced a brutal brand of Sharia law in the regions held by Ansar Dine, and he now gives fiery speeches against infidels.
Of course, his religious dogmatism doesn't correspond to his lifestyle. Until the first French air strikes, the man whose supporters venerate him as the "Lion of the Desert" resided in a luxurious villa the former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi had built for him near the airport in Kidal.
But according to information gleaned by the BND, Germany's foreign intelligence agency, Ag Ghaly cooperates closely with the two regional Al-Qaida affiliates. Until recently, the government in Bamako had hoped money would convince Ag Ghaly's Tuareg force to abandon the Islamist alliance. Ag Ghaly was its negotiating partner. However the BND warned the German government early on that the rebel leader had boasted to his associates that the negotiations were a sham, and that he was merely trying to buy time to prepare his military offensive against the south.
'He Was Our Man'
Ag Ghaly was once a well-known Malian politician, and for a time the Malian government even sent him to Saudi Arabia as a diplomat. In the spring of 2003, after a group of adventure tourists had been kidnapped in the Sahara, he helped the Germans by engaging in shuttle diplomacy between the capital Bamako and the Algerian Islamist group GSPC.
Ag Ghaly eventually managed to negotiate a deal. In August 2003, 14 hostages were released in exchange for a payment of 5 million ($6.7 million).
Then German State Secretary Jürgen Chrobog brought the money to Bamako in a suitcase on board a German Air Force Challenger jet. He handed it over to the Malian government, which in turn dispatched Ag Ghaly to the border region between Mali and Algeria.
As a former top official with the German government put it, "He was our man."
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