Iyad Ag Ghaly

Iyad Ag Ghaly is the U.S.- and U.N.-designated Malian leader of Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM). Ghaly has aligned himself with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) brigades that are fighting the French and Malian armed forces in Mali and the surrounding areas of Burkina Faso and Niger.“ANSAR EDDINE,” United Nations Security Council, February 3, 2015, https://www.un.org/securitycouncil/sanctions/1267/aq_sanctions_list/summaries/entity/ansar-eddine. Ghaly’s notorious legacy has exacerbated the conflict in Mali, making the U.N. peacekeeping mission there the most dangerous in the world.Caleb Weiss, “Malian al Qaeda leader threatens France in audio statement,” Long War Journal, November 1, 2015, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2015/11/malian-al-qaeda-leader-threatens-france-in-audio-statement.php.

An ethnic Tuareg from northern Mali, Ghaly first gained notoriety during the Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s. In 1991, media sources claimed Ghaly served as secretary-general of the Popular Movement of Azawad. According to BBC News, in 2002, Ghaly spent some time studying at a mosque in Saint Denis, France.Steve Metcalf, “Iyad Ag Ghaly - Mali's Islamist leader,” BBC News, July 17, 2012, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-18814291.

Ghaly went on to lead a short-lived Tuareg revolt in 2006 called the 23 May Democratic Alliance for Change before joining the Malian High Council of Territorial Collectivities as a member in 2007.Steve Metcalf, “Iyad Ag Ghaly - Mali's Islamist leader,” BBC News, July 17, 2012, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-18814291.

In August 2003, Ghaly secured the release of 14 tourists kidnapped by the Algerian Salafi Group for Call and Combat (GSPC), a group that eventually became AQIM. Ghaly reportedly negotiated other hostage releases in 2008, 2010, and 2011.Conor Gaffey, “Who is Iyad Ag Ghaly, Mali's Veteran Jihadi?,” Newsweek,  June 29, 2016, https://www.newsweek.com/who-iyad-ag-ghaly-malis-veteran-jihadi-475473; Steve Metcalf, “Iyad Ag Ghaly - Mali's Islamist leader,” BBC News, July 17, 2012, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-18814291.

From 2008 until 2010, Ghaly served under former Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré as a diplomat at Mali’s consulate in Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom eventually expelled Ghaly for his contacts with extremists within the country.Bruce Riedel, “The New Al Qaeda Menace,” Brookings, August 8, 2012, https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/the-new-al-qaeda-menace/. In his role, Ghaly acted as a hostage negotiator with militant groups, including AQIM, where he cultivated high-level contacts among jihadist groups.Conor Gaffey, “Who is Iyad Ag Ghaly, Mali's Veteran Jihadi?,” Newsweek,  June 29, 2016, https://www.newsweek.com/who-iyad-ag-ghaly-malis-veteran-jihadi-475473; Steve Metcalf, “Iyad Ag Ghaly - Mali's Islamist leader,” BBC News, July 17, 2012, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-18814291.

Ghaly founded Ansar al-Dine (AAD) in December 2011, after AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel sought to expand AQIM activities into the Sahel, specifically in northern Mali.“IYAD AG GHALI,” United Nations Security Council, February 25, 2013, https://www.un.org/securitycouncil/sanctions/1267/aq_sanctions_list/summaries/individual/iyad-ag-ghali. Given Ghaly’s reputation among jihadist circles, he was suggested by a number of AQIM officials as the leader of the new group. Upon the formation of AAD, AQIM provided continued military, financial, and logistical support to the insurgency to counter the Malian Armed Forces. AAD quickly proved formidable as it captured a number of towns, including Tessalit and Timbuktu, from January 2012 until April 2012.“IYAD AG GHALI,” United Nations Security Council, February 25, 2013, https://www.un.org/securitycouncil/sanctions/1267/aq_sanctions_list/summaries/individual/iyad-ag-ghali.

Beginning in January 2012, the Tuareg separatists launched a rebellion—bolstered by jihadist forces—in northern Mali which has triggered a brutal conflict in the region, spreading to the neighboring countries of Burkina Faso and Niger.“Three prominent jihadists dominate Sahel after death of al Qaeda leader,” France 24, June 8, 2020, https://www.france24.com/en/20200608-sahel-jihad-africa-al-qaeda-is-group. In November 2012, AAD formalized their alignment with MUJAO and AQIM, setting up offices in the north of Gao and defining a common strategy.“Three prominent jihadists dominate Sahel after death of al Qaeda leader,” France 24, June 8, 2020, https://www.france24.com/en/20200608-sahel-jihad-africa-al-qaeda-is-group. The strategy involved taking over northern Mali, destroying UNESCO World Heritage sites, and enforcing a severe interpretation of sharia law upon the civilian population living in the areas under its control.“Country Reports on Terrorism 2019,” U.S. Department of State, https://www.state.gov/reports/country-reports-on-terrorism-2019/#AAD. According to the U.S. Department of State, AAD militants harassed, tortured, or executed Malian citizens who did not comply with AAD’s orders.“Terrorist Designations of Iyad ag Ghali,” U.S. Department of State, Febraury 26, 2013, https://2009-2017.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2013/02/205196.htm.

On February 25, 2013, the United Nations Security Council designated Ghaly for his association with al-Qaeda.“IYAD AG GHALI,” United Nations Security Council, February 25, 2013, https://www.un.org/securitycouncil/sanctions/1267/aq_sanctions_list/summaries/individual/iyad-ag-ghali. A day later, Ghaly was listed by the U.S. Department of State as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist for providing support to terrorists and for perpetuating acts of terrorism.“Terrorist Designations of Iyad ag Ghali,” U.S. Department of State, February 26, 2013, https://2009-2017.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2013/02/205196.htm. A month later, on March 22, 2013, AAD was designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the State Department.“Country Reports on Terrorism 2019,” U.S. Department of State, https://www.state.gov/reports/country-reports-on-terrorism-2019/#AAD.

Beginning in January 2013, French and allied African forces conducted operations in northern Mali to counter AAD and other terrorist groups, eventually forcing AAD and its allies out of the towns that they previously seized. Ghaly, however, remained elusive to security forces. Ghaly later released statements on November 1, 2015 and again in 2016 where he threatened France and the U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).“Country Reports on Terrorism 2019,” U.S. Department of State, https://www.state.gov/reports/country-reports-on-terrorism-2019/#AAD. In his 2015 statement, which was released on AQIM’s Twitter page, Ghaly called on all people in Mali to join the jihad against the French and to reject any peace deal in Mali.Caleb Weiss, “Malian al Qaeda leader threatens France in audio statement,” Long War Journal, November 1, 2015, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2015/11/malian-al-qaeda-leader-threatens-france-in-audio-statement.php.

On March 2, 2017, the Sahara Branch of AQIM, AAD, al-Murabitoun, and the Macina Liberation Front joined together to form JNIM. Ghaly was announced as the leader, and he affirmed his allegiance to Abdelmalek Droukdel, the emir of AQIM; Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s emir; and Haibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s overall leader.Thomas Joscelyn and Caleb Weiss, “Analysis: Islamic State claims Al Qaeda started a war in West Africa,” Long War Journal, May 8, 2020, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2020/05/analysis-islamic-state-claims-al-qaeda-started-a-war-in-west-africa.php; “Country Reports on Terrorism 2019,” U.S. Department of State, https://www.state.gov/reports/country-reports-on-terrorism-2019/#AAD; Hauke Waszkewitz, “Jihadism’s staying power in North Africa,” Global Risk Insights, March 20, 2018, https://globalriskinsights.com/2018/03/aqim-staying-power-north-africa-al-qaeda/. In his role as JNIM emir, Ghaly stated in an April 3, 2017 interview with al-Qaeda’s weekly al-Massar publication that France was his “historic enemy” as it threatened al-Qaeda and its allies as “agents who occupy our lands, attack our religion, and steal our wealth.”Malek Bachir, “France is our first enemy, says 'emir' of new al-Qaeda affiliate,” April 7, 2017, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/france-our-first-enemy-says-emir-new-al-qaeda-affiliate.

JNIM released a statement March 12, 2020, claiming the group would be willing to engage in dialogue with the Malian government, on the condition that French troops and the U.N. peacekeeping mission withdraw from the country. The statement came after a February 2020 announcement by former Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who claimed he had sent his high representative, Dioncounda Traoré, to central Mali to initiate communication—in the hopes of achieving a ceasefire—with jihadist groups. The militants Traoré spoke to allegedly included Ghaly and Amadou Kouffa.Zeenat Hansrod, “Mali’s jihadists demand French withdrawal as condition for talks,” RFI, March 12, 2020, https://www.rfi.fr/en/international/20200312-mali-jihadists-demand-france-withdrawal-as-conditions-for-dialogue-anti-french-sentiment-ibk; Sirwan Kajjo and Salem Solomon, “Mali Seeks to Negotiate with Jihadists in Efforts to End Violence,” Voice of America, February 23, 2020, https://www.voanews.com/extremism-watch/mali-seeks-negotiate-jihadists-efforts-end-violence. On October 26, 2020, Mali’s interim prime minister, Moctar Ouane, who was appointed in August 2020 after Keita was ousted from power, claimed his government was prepared to pursue talks with Islamist militants. However, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, opposed the idea as the groups have yet to sign a 2015 peace deal that aimed to restore peace in northern Mali.“Mali and France at odds over talks with Islamist militants,” Reuters, October 26, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mali-security-france-idUSKBN27B1NA.

Media sources reported on May 8, 2020, that in ISIS’s May 7, 2020 edition of its weekly al-Naba newspaper, that al-Qaeda started a “war” against ISIS militants in West Africa. Al-Naba criticized JNIM’s leadership, specifically Ghaly and Kouffa, as undermining the jihad in favor of negotiating with the Malian government. JNIM sought to diffuse the tension by releasing booklets—indirectly targeted at ISIS sympathizers who are skeptical of JNIM’s motives—by calling for unity among all jihadists.Thomas Joscelyn and Caleb Weiss, “Analysis: Islamic State claims Al Qaeda started a war in West Africa,” Long War Journal, May 8, 2020, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2020/05/analysis-islamic-state-claims-al-qaeda-started-a-war-in-west-africa.php; Caleb Weiss, “Analysis: JNIM addresses detractors, sends message of unity,” Long War Journal, February 10, 2020, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2020/02/analysis-jnim-addresses-detractors-sends-message-of-unity.php; Mina Al-Lami, “Africa's Sahel becomes latest al-Qaeda-IS battleground,” BBC News, May 11, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-52614579.

On February 3, 2021, Bernard Emie, the head of French foreign intelligence, announced that al-Qaeda in the Sahel was reportedly seeking to expand its operations towards the Gulf of Guinea, particularly Cote d’Ivoire and Benin. Emie revealed that Abdelmalek Droukdel, Ghaly, and Amadou Koufa—the leaders of AQIM, JNIM, and Katibat Macina, respectively—held a meeting in central Mali in February 2020 in which they discussed preparing large-scale operations. Droukdel was eliminated in a French-led airstrike and ground operation in June 2020.“Al-Qaeda North Africa chief killed: What next for the region?,” France 24, June 6, 2020, https://www.france24.com/en/20200606-al-qaeda-north-africa-chief-killed-what-next-for-the-region. However, French authorities believe Ghaly is now the head of operations for al-Qaeda in the Sahel.“Al Qaeda’s “Expansion Project” targets Côte d’Ivoire, Benin,” North Africa Post, February 3, 2021, https://northafricapost.com/47331-al-qaedas-expansion-project-targets-cote-divoire-benin.html. Given the Sahel’s importance in expanding al-Qaeda’s current operations, it is suspected by regional scholars that Ghaly may now be within al-Qaeda’s “senior leadership.”Caleb Weiss, “Analysis: JNIM celebrates prisoner swap in Mali,” Long War Journal, October 12, 2020, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2020/10/analysis-jnim-celebrates-prisoner-swap-in-mali.php.

As of 2022, JNIM and AQIM continue to threaten the stability of Mali and the Sahel region. Given France’s ongoing military withdrawal from Mali as well as Mali’s March 2022 withdrawal from the G5 Sahel—a West African military force that fights terrorists in the region—Bamako must drastically fill a security vacuum to effectively counter the growing threat of terror groups.Edith M. Lederer, “UN: Mali pullout from counterterrorism force `unfortunate’,” May 18, 2022, https://apnews.com/article/russia-ukraine-politics-niger-united-nations-africa-3ce881d81189212b54aab2954b352206; Norimitsu Onishi, Ruth Maclean and Aurelien Breeden, “France Announces Troop Withdrawal From Mali After 9-Year Campaign,” New York Times, February 17, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/17/world/africa/mali-france-withdrawal.html. Following the death of al-Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri in a U.S. drone strike on July 31, 2022, al-Qaeda scholars have determined that the operational capacity of JNIM and AQIM will remain unaffected as the jihadist groups in the region continue to expand and carry out attacks.“The death of al-Zawahiri will not significantly destabilize the action of AQIM,” RFI France, August 3, 2022, https://www.rfi.fr/fr/podcasts/invit%C3%A9-afrique/20220803-la-mort-d-al-zawahiri-ne-d%C3%A9stabilisera-pas-significativement-l-action-d-aqmi; Kevin Liptak, Kylie Atwood, Natasha Bertrand, Maegan Vazquez, Donald Judd and Nick Paton Walsh, “US kills al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in drone strike in Afghanistan,” CNN, August 2, 2022, https://www.cnn.com/2022/08/01/politics/joe-biden-counter-terrorism/index.html. As of May 2022, JNIM has expanded their geographical operations as they have threatened not only Mali, but northern parts of coastal Benin, Ivory Coast, Ghana, and Togo.“Al-Qaida Affiliate Claims May Attack in Togo,” Agence France Presse, June 3, 2022, https://www.voanews.com/a/al-qaida-affiliate-claims-may-attack-in-togo-/6602469.html.

Also Known As

Extremist entity
Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM)
Type(s) of Organization:
Insurgent, non-state actor, religious, terrorist, transnational, violent
Ideologies and Affiliations:
Al-Qaeda affiliated group, Islamist, jihadist, Qutbist, Salafist, Sunni, takfiri
Position(s):
Emir

  • Designations
  • Rhetoric

United States

United Nations

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On September 30, 2017, there was a small explosion at Myanmar’s embassy in Cairo, Egypt, though there were no casualties. Hasm later claimed responsibility for the attack, the militant group’s first on a civilian target, saying it was a warning in response to the Myanmar’s military crackdown on Rohingya Muslims. 

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