Cornwall, United Kingdom - "Will they? Won't they?" Watching the two largest rebel groups in Northern Mali, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA) and Ansar ud-Dine, pirouette around each other as they try to create a united front is a bit like watching the mating ritual of an rare species of bird. Western journalists and analysts, who know the habits and motivations of the protagonists to varying degrees, are forced to gaze from afar - but even the best-informed are at a complete loss to accurately predict what will happen next.
The stakes couldn't be higher - both for Mali and West Africa as a whole. If the Islamists in Ansar ud-Dine and their quietly Machiavellian leader Iyad Ag Ghali fail to come to terms with the nationalist and secular NMLA, then the prospect is either a protracted civil war in the north or a rapid defeat of the NMLA by the better-equipped and better-funded Ansar ud-Dine and their allies in al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
If a deal can be reached along the lines of the protocol signed by both parties in Gao on May 26, then a new Republic of Azawad - with the word "Islamic" officially riveted to its name - will come into being. It will be governed by Sharia law and ruled by an alliance of Tuareg and Arab bigwigs, some with close and fraternal ties to the al-Qaeda emirs who have been busy kidnapping westerners, protecting drug- and people-smuggling rackets and taking on the armies of Mali, Algeria and Mauritania for the past decade.
The May 26 protocol only fell at the last hurdle. After it had been signed, Iyad Ag Ghali issued a communiqué from Timbuktu on May 28 which added a boost of undiluted Salafism to some of the points already agreed. Hama Ag Mahmoud, the NMLA's political chief in exile, deemed the communiqué too hardline and refused to endorse it, proclaiming the protocol null and void. Ag Ghali's response was terse, arrogant even: "Take it or leave it."
Wheeling and dealing
The wheeling and dealing between the two parties has revealed serious flaws in the political and military structures of the NMLA, flaws that Ag Ghali has exploited masterfully. That's not surprising; he knows the arcane political mechanisms of the southern Sahara better than anyone else. The NMLA's political wing in exile, based mainly in Nouakchott and Paris, is comprised of geopolitically savvy "internationalists", with connections in the foreign ministries and governments of Europe and North America.
For the most part, they are convinced secularists and democrats, who know full well that tagging the word "Islamic" onto the name of their long cherished Republic of Azawad is enough ensure it has international pariah status from the outset and that to impose Sharia law and maintain links with local al-Qaeda gangs will bury any hope of international recognition. Not only that, they also argue that Salafism and Sharia law are incompatible with the tolerant, Sufi-infused form of Islam that has held sway among the Tuareg for centuries. And last but not least, they fear the indignity of reneging on the promise to rid an independent Azawad of AQIM, MUJWA and all other al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist groups, which they made back in January at the start of the rebellion.
The military wing of the NMLA, the fighting men out in the field, however, are readier than their distant political colleagues to accept the compromises of Saharan realpolitik, as long as those compromises serve to make their independent Republic of Azawad - "Islamic" or otherwise - a reality.
They know that Iyad Ag Ghali and his men are better-armed and better-funded than they are. They know that a civil war between themselves and Ansar ud-Dine would be disastrous right now. They know that the threat of an ECOWAS- or African Union-backed invasion of northern Mali is still very real, and that without Ansar ud-Dine they might not have the strength to repel it. They know that Ag Ghali is the only Tuareg leader who can talk to al-Qaeda with authority. They know that the alliance between the Ansar ud-Dine and AQIM has, at the very least, the merit of appeasing the Arabs of Timbuktu and Gao, who would otherwise be at war with the Tuareg-led independence movement. In short, they know that they don't have any other choice but to accept that Ag Ghali has outwitted them and carved out a pivotal role for himself and his clan in the process.
In any case, Ag Ghali's bark seems worse than his bite, especially from a distance, or so the "local" NMLA wing based in the city of Gao claim. Islam is the religion of 99 per cent of the population of Azawad anyway, they say, so why not proclaim it as such. Iyad Ag Ghali and most of his men are "Azawadis" after all, not foreigners like AQIM. Surely they won't sell their people down the river. Ansar ud-Dine have even given assurances that they will help to free the western and Algerian hostages being held by AQIM and MUJWA once independence has been achieved, even though Ag Ghali refuses to fight the al-Qaeda katibas whom, he claims, still have rights as "guests" on the soil of Azawad. After independence, Ansar ud-Dine will become an Islamist political party, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or Ennahda in Tunisia, and it will be left to the people to decide to what role religion will play in their daily lives. Those are the arguments put forwards by the "locals" in favour of an NMLA / Ansar ud-Dine alliance.
But for NMLA internationalists like the movement's political supremo Hamma Ag Mahmoud, its passionate advocate of secularism and women's rights Nina Walet Intallou, or its adroit international media spokesperson Moussa Ag Attaher, a pact with Iyad Ag Ghali is a pact with the devil - nothing more, nothing less. They rejected his advances back in November 2011 when he tried to become the Secretary General of the NMLA, and they see no reason to accept him now. De facto, the NMLA is disastrously split.
Ag Ghali knows all about the way in which Tuareg rebel movements tend to divide and splinter. He was the supreme leader of the MPLA, the rebel movement of the 1980s, which fought the last great rebellion against Mali in 1990 and was responsible for bringing the movement to the peace-negotiating table in January 1991, kicking and screaming in the case of some of his fellow fighters.
His determination to end the conflict before the full independence of Azawad had been achieved led to a four-way split in the movement, along tribal rather than ideological lines. This disastrous schism soon allowed Mali to regain the upper hand and the status quo to prevail. Many Tuareg leaders have never forgiven Ag Ghali for what they saw as his wholesale betrayal of the movement's principles. Prominent among those refuseniks was Alhaji Ag Gamou, who subsequently became a "star" colonel in the Malian army and its leading soldier in the north, until the disastrous coup of March 23 that overthrew the democratically elected President Amadou Toumani Touré and brought Captain Amadou Sanogo and his CNRDRE to power. Ag Gamou and Ag Ghali still share feelings of bitter loathing towards each other.
Perhaps it was as a result of this bitter chapter in what had otherwise been an illustrious revolutionary career that Iyad Ag Ghali "found" religion in the 1990s. It was he who invited Pakistani preachers from the international Muslim proselytising organisation Tablighi Jamaat to Kidal in 1996, quickly seducing his fellow clansmen in the ruling Ifoghas tribe and introducing alien Salafist notions into the religious and philosophical life of Mali's northeast.
His political savoir-faire and perceived piety made him the ideal candidate to lead negotiations with the AQIM's precursor, the GSPC, who sequestered 15 western hostages in a secret location in northern Mali in 2003. This bought him into contact with Abderrazak "El Para", Abou Zeid, and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the three most powerful and feared Islamist Terror "emirs" in the southern Sahara. It also netted him a handsome cut of the 5m euro ($6.32m) ransom paid for the release of the hostages and valuable links with both the Malian and Algerian security establishments.
Ag Ghali became the ultimate "fixer" in the region, the go-to man with the right know-how and contacts as well as a healthy lust for power, money, and influence. When the next Tuareg insurgency reared up in May 2006, Iyad Ag Ghali was initially sidelined from the action, but he soon managed to regain control and become Secretary General of the ADC, the new rebel movement that was created in the wake of the uprising.
In 2007, exhausted once again by the tribal bickering and bitter recriminations of Tuareg politics, Iyad Ag Ghali requested a transfer to Mali's consulate in Jeddah, where he was appointed as a kind of consul without portfolio. What happened to Ag Ghali during his brief stay in Saudi Arabia is a matter of huge conjecture. What's certain is that he was eventually removed from his post at the request of the Saudi authorities, reportedly for consorting with undesirable extremists. But who were they? What promises were made to Ghali and by him? Are there Middle Eastern potentates currently funding Ag Ghali's inexorable rise to power in the north of Mali?
Playing every side
In October of last year, Ag Ghali was asked by Mali's President Toure to head a delegation tasked with bringing Tuareg soldiers returning from the conflict in Libya back into the fold of Malian society. Two of his missions to the burgeoning NMLA camp in the hills north of Kidal were a conspicuous failure. On his third visit to the camp, however, Ag Ghali started to try to recruit young NMLA fighters to a new movement which he had christened Ansar ud-Dine (Followers of the Faith). His reputation as a supreme military leader and tactician together with his appeal to young Ifoghas men put wind in his sails.
Blood ties tend to override ideological ones in Tuareg society. The NMLA's leaders come predominantly from a distinct and rival tribe called the Idnane. The fight for supremacy between the Ifoghas and the Idnane in the Adagh, the name the Tuareg give to the far northeast of Mali, has been going on for a long time. For Iyad Ag Ghali and others like Alghabass Ag Intalla, son of the traditional Ifoghas chief Intalla Ag Attaher, the Ifoghas are the divinely ordained rulers of the region and no one has the right to try to usurp them. The NMLA's struggle with Ansar ud-Dine is underpinned by a complex tribal conflict.
Funded by the enormous proceeds of AQIM's criminal and terrorist activities and possibly by cash from other even more obscure sources, Iyad Ag Ghali had the means to pay, train, and equip his fighters properly. Although he claimed that Ansar ud-Dine did not share the NMLA's aim of independent Azawad, stating that the imposition of Sharia in the whole of Mali was his goal, Iyad Ag Ghali soon became an indispensable military ally in the NMLA's fight to defeat the Malian army, helping to bring about significant victories against the Malians in Aguel'hoc and Tessalit.
At the end of March, hours before the NMLA made their final assault on the three big cities of the north, Kidal, Timbuktu and Gao, Ag Ghali played his trump card and raced over to Timbuktu to team up with al-Qaeda fighters and plant the black Salafist flag in the city, thus stealing victory from the NMLA at the very last minute. Ansar ud-Dine and AQIM soon consolidated their grip on Timbuktu, creating the first al-Qaeda-run city government on earth. They proceeded to enforce Sharia law on the whole of Azawad at a rate too precipitous even for the supreme AQIM leader Abdelmalik Droukdel, who urged his men to simmer down and proceed more gently.
So Iyad Ag Ghali seems to have pulled a miraculous victory out of his cheche. A few months ago he looked to outside observers like an also-ran, a has-been who was desperately clinging on to dreams of power and influence. How wrong we all were.
How did he do it? Was it his political and military cunning, reportedly garnered in part from his reading of Clausewitz, or was it his inspirational piety and the call to rally around the fundamental principles of Islam that seemed so attractive in a time of war, chaos, and anarchy? And who, apart from AQIM, is backing him? That question is the elephant in the room. Some say it is Algeria and its secret services, the DRS, who view the prospect of an independent Tuareg-led state on its southern borders with utter dismay. Others point the finger at rich sponsors of hardline Wahabbi Islam in Qatar and Saudi Arabia. And some even suspect that Ag Ghali has been acting as the defender of Mali's territorial integrity from the beginning, by ensuring that a strong and united Azawad remains a pipe-dream.
What is certain is that the Sahara's man of mystery is holding most of the cards right now. We can only guess his next move.
Andy Morgan is a freelance author and journalist based in Bristol, England. He worked in music for twenty years, ending up as manager of Tuareg rockers Tinariwen, before giving up show business to write full time in 2010. He has contributed articles to The Guardian, The Observer, The Independent, Songlines and fRoots amongst others, and is currently writing a book about Tinariwen and the recent history of the Tuareg.
Follow him on Twitter: @andymorganwrite
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.