Iyad Ag Ghaly, the leader of the Malian jihadist group Ansar Dine, is reportedly in the Kidal region of Mali, according to Der Spiegel. Paul Hyacinthe Mben, a journalist for the German magazine, reportedly traveled to the Kidal region of Mali and met with the jihadist leader. “Two years after the military intervention of the French, Ag Ghaly walks freely in Kidal and feels safe,” Mben reports. While it is likely that Ag Ghaly is indeed in northern Mali, the events told in the Der Spiegel report cannot be independently verified.
Mben says that Ag Ghaly met him at a tent camp “65km from the town of Kidal.” Mben goes on to say that the jihadist leader showed him a Sharia school run by the group for young boys. “Two days later,” Malian media has reported, “the leader of Ansar Dine presents the reporter one of his lieutenants, Rhissa ag Bounounou.” Ag Bounounou is reportedly one of Ag Ghaly’s men tasked with smuggling weapons from the chaos in Libya into northern Mali.
Mben purportedly then visited one of the group’s weapon caches, where he saw “rifles, grenades, explosives, mines, and rocket launchers.” Ag Bounounou then allegedly taunted the French-led counterterrorism mission by saying, “Europeans can send as many drones they want. They will not find us.”
Ansar Dine was formed in 2011 and throughout 2012 the group worked with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Tuareg separatist groups to take over Mali’s north. Ansar Dine acts as the local wing of AQIM. A confidential letter written by AQIM’s emir Abdelmalek Droukdel was found stating that the group’s fighters in Mali should hide their activities under the banner of Ansar Dine. By doing so, AQIM was considered less likely draw unwanted attention from the international community and thus avoid a military intervention.
However, after the various jihadist groups implemented their strict form of Sharia, France launched an intervention in Mali to help regain control of the north in January 2013. In February of 2013, Ag Ghaly was designated a terrorist by the US State Department. In their designation, State noted that Ag Ghaly “cooperates closely with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.” [For more on Ag Ghaly’s designation, see LWJ report Emir of Ansar Dine added to US, UN’s terrorist lists]
Ag Ghaly went off the radar shortly thereafter, only to periodically resurface. Despite the French intervention, which has now become a region-wide counterterrorism mission, jihadists in northern Mali continue to pose a serious threat.