In an apparent sign of internal conflict among one of the Islamist rebel groups controlling northern Mali, a prominent Ansar Dine member, Alghabass Ag Intallah, told the Associated Press Thursday that he and his men were breaking from the group "so that we can be in control of our own fate."
The split suggests that at at least some of the fighters within Ansar Dine’s ranks have changed their posture since the start of French air strikes in central and northern Mali. With French air power and ground units weighing in on the side of the Malian government, the momentum of the conflict has shifted away from the once-surging Islamist forces.
But it remains to be seen how many fighters will follow Mr. Ag Intallah away from Ansar Dine and what future role they might play in a conflict that has become increasingly factionalized.
"We are not terrorists. We are ready to negotiate," Ag Intallah told AP. "We are neither AQIM or MUJAO," referencing Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Movement for the Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO is its acronym in French). "We are a group of people from the north of Mali who have a set of grievances that date back at least 50 years."
That Ag Intallah has now decided to part ways with Ag Ghali and claims his group is comprised of only Malian nationals suggests he may be trying to distance himself from the foreign jihadis and local extremist groups that have garnered the attention of the international community.
French radio RFI reported Thursday that Intallah's new group will be called the Islamic Movement for the Azawad, and specified that his men are willing to fight against what remains of Ansar Dine.
Formed in 2011 and led by veteran ethnic Tuareg powerbroker Iyad Ag Ghali, Ansar Dine rose to prominence in 2012 fighting alongside the MNLA, a secular, ethnic-Tuareg separatist group in northern Mali. The initial success of the rebellion was accelerated by a military coup that toppled Mali’s elected government in the south. With the Malian army in disarray, both groups swept through northern Mali to gain control of a vast desert expanse roughly the size of France.
Most analysts at the time believed that the MNLA was the stronger Tuareg faction, but Ansar Dine quickly marginalized its separatist allies of convenience by linking up with AQIM and other jihadist groups to gain control of northern Mali.
Mr. Ag Ghali has transformed himself several times over the years as rebel leader, hostage negotiator, even member of the Malian government. He is believed to have been “radicalized” as Mali’s envoy to Saudi Arabia where he may have been ejected by the Saudi government for suspected contacts with radicals. He now advocates the spread of an uncompromising interpretation of sharia law in Mali.
Regional mediators, particularly the neighboring nation of Burkina Faso, had long asserted that Ansar Dine – thought to be the most moderate and indigenous of the rebel factions in northern Mali – could be negotiated with. But when the Islamist rebels pushed southward and attacked the central Malian town of Konna just days before scheduled meetings with negotiators in early January, France quickly launched air strikes to stem the rebel advance.
According to Andrew Lebovich, an analyst based in neighboring Senegal, "The offensive toward Konna that began earlier this month made it impossible to deny Iyad [Ag Ghali]'s close cooperation with AQIM and MUJAO, making any kind of political solution significantly more difficult."
Ag Intallah, who hails from the same Tuareg tribe as Ag Ghali, comes from an important political family in the region of Kidal. His decision to throw his support behind Ansar Dine earlier last year was a considerable setback for the MNLA, who sought to isolate Ag Ghali and Ansar Dine as a fringe movement.