Factbox-Ansar Dine – black flag over northern Mali
Fighters from Ansar Dine, an al Qaeda-linked Islamist group in northern Mali, have destroyed historic Sufi shrines in the ancient desert city of Timbuktu, triggering international outcry.
Here are some facts about Ansar Dine and its leader, Iyad Ag Ghali:
* The name means “Defenders of the Faith” and it follows the puritanical form of Islam known as Salafism, which looks to the religion’s 7th-century origins as a guide to conduct.
* Along with Tuareg separatist movement MNLA, Ansar Dine and other Islamists were among rebels who seized northern Mali following a March 22 coup in the capital Bamako, in the south of the country, which paralysed the Western-backed Malian army.
* Diplomats say Ansar Dine – with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), originally from Algeria, and al Qaeda splinter group MUJWA – have hijacked the MNLA’s secular separatist uprising and now control two thirds of Mali’s desert north, territory that includes the regions of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu.
* Ansar Dine’s leader, renegade Tuareg chieftain Iyad Ag Ghali, has links with AQIM through a cousin who is a local commander, according to diplomats.
* In direct opposition to MNLA’s stated aims, Ag Ghali has rejected any form of independence of the northern half of Mali and has vowed to pursue plans to impose sharia, Islamic law, throughout the now divided west African nation in the Sahel.
* Ansar Dine’s turbaned fighters, who operate under the black Islamist flag, initially gained a reputation in the north for keeping order after outbreaks of looting. But when they started enforcing sharia – making women wear veils, shutting bars and shops selling alcohol, and lashing offenders – they earned hostility from locals who have a long history of practising a more liberal, tolerant style of Islam.
* Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou said last month that Afghan and Pakistani jihadists were training recruits for Islamist groups in the Malian north.
* Diplomats and analysts say Ag Ghali, long known as a power broker in the north of Mali, formed Ansar Dine late last year after failing in separate attempts to become head of the MNLA and of his Ifoghas Tuareg clan.
* The Islamist allies said last week they had now secured full control of the north after pushing the Tuareg separatists out of Gao in a battle that killed at least 20 people.
* Ag Ghali, an Ifoghas of the Kel Ireyakkan faction of northern Mali’s Tuareg nomads, was a commander in a 1990 rebellion against the central government in Bamako launched by the fiercely independent “blue men of the desert” warriors, who are known for their distinctive indigo-coloured robes and veils.
* He helped negotiate a peace deal with the Malian government, establishing his reputation as an influential, yet notoriously inscrutable figure among the Tuaregs.
* A leaked U.S. diplomatic cable from 2007 said the Malian government appointed Ag Ghali an adviser to its consulate at Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, an Israeli think-tank, says it was at this time that Ag Ghali adopted Salafism before being expelled by the Saudi authorities.
* On his return to Mali he was again involved in 2008 as a mediator in helping to end another Tuareg rebellion, and took part in negotiations to free foreign hostages seized by AQIM.
* Another U.S. diplomatic cable says of the Tuareg leader: “Like the proverbial bad penny, Ag Ghali turns up whenever a cash transaction between a foreign government and Kidal Tuaregs appears forthcoming … Ag Ghali is … adept at playing all sides of the Tuareg conflict to maximize his personal gain.”