This article, published by the French paper, Liberation, gives details of this new movement.
I have used Google translate – so it is not perfect. Below I provide a profile of its leader, Iyad Ag Ghaly.
Five jihadist leaders gathered behind a computer somewhere in the Sahel: on Thursday night, a seven-minute video was published announcing the unification of several armed groups in the region into a single entity, Jamaat Nosrat al-Islam Wal-Mouslimin, the “Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims”. Yvan Guichaoua, professor-researcher at the University of Kent in Brussels and specialist in armed dynamics in the Sahel, decrypts its contents.
What was the purpose of this video?
It is above all an act of political communication. Its content is relatively abstract, a little above ground. Iyad ag-Ghaly, who reads a text on his computer, makes name-dropping, he cites in particular the Egyptian Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al-Qaeda, and the Algerian Abu Moussab Abdelwadoud, whose real name is Abdelmalek Droukdel, the emir of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), to make them allegiance and to place themselves in their line of theological inspiration. What is striking is the desire to be part of a global, transnational jihad, rather than a territorial logic. Moreover, no reference is made to any particular geographical space, or to any specific action or battle.
The staging is quite classic …
This is not a video that will “tripper” young people on their smartphones. These organizations know very well how to make clips of action scenes, demonstration films of strength … But on the contrary, this time, all five characters appear all seated, rather cushy behind their big carpet. They display a kind of serenity. Their message is supposed to resonate in the major Islamist debates and place them on the map of the world jihad. At the end of the video, Iyad ag-Ghaly refers to the mergers currently taking place between jihadist groups in Syria, and says they are inspired by them.
Who are these five figures of Sahelian jihadism?
The emir of the new organization [the Group for the victory of Islam and believers] is Iyad Ag Ghaly, the Tuareg leader of Ansar Dine. It is therefore a Malian who takes the reins. It is a former rebel, became an intermediary of Bamako in the North in the 2000s, which then switched into jihadism after its passage through the Tabligh movement. He was also a nobleman of Kidal who was highly respected. There has always been, among some Malian political decision-makers, the hope that Ag Ghaly is “recoverable”. They think we can talk with him, bring him back to the right path. For France, it is out of question: Ansar Dine has claimed several attacks that killed French soldiers of Operation Barkhane. This hiatus between Bamako and Paris will be accentuated with this video, in which Ag Ghaly appears as a cadre of Al-Qaeda.
The second character is Hamadou Kouffa, the leader of the Macina Liberation Front, an active group in central Mali, in the Pele region. Until then, there was much speculation about the reality of the operational functions of this preacher, known for a long time but of which only one old photo circulated in the media. With this video, it also becomes a reference figure, which comes out of the only local context. The third man is the Algerian Djamel Okacha, the emir of Aqmi for the Sahara, who had participated in the occupation of Timbuktu in 2012: he represents the link with Droukdel, as well as the fourth, El Senhadji, Qadi [“judge”] of Aqmi, an intellectual figure.
Finally, the last is Hassan al-Ansari, one of Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s lieutenants in the Al-Mourabitoune brigade. The absence of Belmokhtar himself, the man who committed the most spectacular attacks in the Sahel, raises the question of his state of health. Was he killed in Libya, as has often been mentioned? Or, more likely in my opinion, is it in too bad condition to move? In any case, it is not mentioned by name in the video.
Is their physical meeting a surprise?
It’s all quite a case. So many people at the top of the anti-terrorist list who are in the same room without taking a missile is surprising! That said, the intelligence gap. On the other hand, their links are nothing new. They know each other, they occupied northern Mali together in 2012, coordinated their action. Moreover, I do not think that on the ground, this fundamentally changes the situation. Except if they intend to mark this unification by a symbolic glow. But otherwise, they already know their respective lands perfectly, and that is what makes them strong. They can not gather their troops, because Barkhane watches: they are forced to be very scattered.
Do you think that does not change the level of the threat?
Their activity is already almost permanent! But in this long formal text, no target is specifically designated. Only the Crusaders, a generic term for the West, are mentioned. On the other hand, this film accentuates the distance between the Malian armed groups signatories of the Algiers peace agreement and the jihadist movements. The porosity between the two was strongly denounced last year, notably by Barkhane. But in 2017, with the attack on the MOC men in Gao [on 18 January, more than 50 combatants from the Common Operative Mechanism, including combatants from armed groups and Malian soldiers, were killed in an attack Car bomb] then this video, there is a barrier more and more clear between those actors who had been able in the past to work together. This is one of the demands of Barkhane: the French pitched the fighters to choose their camp. Nor does it bear the ambiguity of the population. Yet, the people of the Sahara live permanently in this ambivalence which is a condition of their survival. They know very well that in the end, it is not Barkhane who will stay. If they denounce, they expose themselves to reprisals! Whether we like it or not, Barkhane turns into an army of occupation: over time, blunders are committed, mistakes are made. And, on the spot, the populations of the Sahara retain all these false steps.
Who is Iyad Ag Ghaly, Mali’s Veteran Jihadi?
The Ansar Dine leader had a penchant for whisky and served as a diplomat in Saudi Arabia.
By Conor Gaffey On 6/29/16 at 11:30 AM
After almost two years in the shadows, one of the key figures in northern Mali’s jihadi struggle has resurfaced to issue fresh threats against the West.
In his first video in 22 months, Iyad Ag Ghaly, the leader of the militant group Ansar Dine, delivered an 11-minute message in Arabic and the local Tuareg language Tamasheq, according to AFP . The message lauded recent confrontations between Malian citizens and “the crusaders’ military machine”—a reference to French forces and United Nations peacekeepers stationed in northern Mali—and threatened the Western parties with continued unrest.
Ag Ghaly was a key figure in the 2012 rebellion that saw a collection of Islamist and militant groups—including Al-Qaeda’s North African affiliate—seize control of the country’s vast and lawless northern region. Despite being ousted from power in 2013 following a French counter-intervention, Ag Ghaly remains an important figure in northern Mali’s political landscape and his armed group—whose name translates as “Defenders of the Faith”—remain a potent enemy to Western interventions.
“There’s no way of reading them as a spent force,” says Andrew Lebovich, a visiting fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations. “They’ve spent almost two years since the French intervention, conducting some attacks but [mostly] rebuilding, regrouping and since 2015, there’s been a regular increase in attacks [by Ansar Dine].”
An ethnic Tuareg from Kidal in northern Mali and nicknamed “The Strategist,” Ag Ghaly is reportedly enjoys whisky and music. He served under former Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré as a diplomat at the country’s consulate in Saudi Arabia and also acted as a hostage negotiator with militant groups, including the precursor to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
After reportedly being rebuffed for a leadership position in the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA)—which campaigns for greater autonomy for northern Mali—Ag Ghaly set up Ansar Dine in 2012. Following a military coup against President Touré in the capital Bamako, Ansar Dine and other Islamist groups, including AQIM, backed the MNLA as it seized control of northern Mali’s three major cities of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu. The Islamists later overthrew the MNLA and took control of most of northern Mali—a region roughly the size of France—instituting a strict version of Shariah law and destroying ancient shrines considered blasphemous by the extremist groups.
Ansar Dine, along with AQIM and others, were ousted by a French military operation in early 2013, but were not entirely vanquished from northern Mali. The failure to fully implement a peace deal signed in June 2015 by an alliance of Tuareg rebels and the Malian government has left the region struggling to recover from the conflict, with groups such as Ansar Dine remaining a threat. “Things are very unstable [in northern Mali] at the moment and there’s an opportunity to claim some of these populations and to bring them over to their [Ansar Dine’s] side,” says Lebovich.
The group has claimed scores of attacks against international forces in 2016, such as a suicide and rocket attack on a U.N. peacekeeping base in Kidal in February that killed six peacekeepers. Ag Ghaly is also the mentor of Amadou Koufa, an extremist preacher from the central Malian town of Niafunke who founded the Macina Liberation Front (MLF) in 2015. Drawing their inspiration from Ansar Dine, the MLF have claimed multiple attacks in the past year, including on the borders with neighboring Mauritania and Ivory Coast, according to Bat-el Ohayon, an independent security consultant focusing on West and Central Africa.
“Ansar Dine has followed through on previous threats against the U.N. and French troops and has since become a bigger threat, given its growing geographic reach and operational capabilities,” says Ohayon. “As such, the latest statement by Iyad Ag Ghaly should be taken very seriously.”