I conducted this interview with Alghabass Ag Intallah over the phone late last Monday night, as he was preparing to bed down in a desert camp somewhere near Kidal. He sounded tired but quite relaxed. He gave his answers in a good though heavily accented French, which he spoke quietly without any great emphasis. He had contacted me the day before through a Touareg friend, who said that Alghabass wanted to give an interview to explain the platform of his new political movement. As he is undoubtedly one of the most important players in the drama that is current unfolding in the far north east of Mali, which involves various factions of the Touareg community, the French army, Chadian soldiers, Mali and the wider international community, who are waiting at a distance with baited breath to see what happens, an opportunity to interview him was one that I couldn’t possibly refuse.
First a bit of background: Alghabass Ag Intalla is the leader of the new and supposedly moderate Touareg Islamist movement, the Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA in French). He’s the son of the hereditary chief of the Ifoghas, the dominant ‘noble’ Touareg tribe in the far north east of Mali. The Ifoghas have ruled the vast Adagh region, whose capital is Kidal, since the arrival of the French in the early 1900s. They have also taken a leading role in all the Touareg rebellions since 1962. In late 2011, Alghabass was nominated heir apparent to the position of amenokal or chief of the Ifoghas. When the Touareg rebellion broke out in January 2012, his father Intalla Ag Attaher took a decidedly moderate and anti-Islamist stance, disowning the belligerent and radical Salafist Touareg rebel leader Iyad Ag Ghali, who belongs to a lesser branch of the Ifoghas clan.
Initially, Alghabass claimed allegiance to the secular Touareg nationalist movement, the MNLA. But sometime in February 2012, in slightly mysterious circumstances, Alghabass joined Ansar ud-Dine, becoming political chief under Iyad Ag Ghali. Below he claims that he made this move because Ansar ud-Dine were more powerful and better organised. Others have speculated however that he joined Iyad hardline movement in order to keep a firm eye on the most famous Touareg rebel leader in history and make sure that Iyad didn’t lead the Ifoghas and the wider Adagh Touareg community to catastrophe. However, in a dramatic turn of events, Alghabass split from Iyad on January 24th and formed his own movement, the MIA. The word is that his aging and infirm father prevailed on him to see reason and split away from Iyad. If you read on, you’ll see that Alghabass has a different story. With many Ansar ud-Dine soldiers joining his ranks, he is now one of the most powerful leaders in Kidal. The future peace and prosperity of northern Mali will depend significantly on him and on what he decides in the coming weeks.
Please don’t confuse this article with a piece of commentary or analysis. I’m simply transmitting what Alghabass told me and I don’t necessarily endorse any of his views. I leave to you to judge whether his is right or wrong. Here’s the interview:
Andy Morgan: How’s it going?
Alghabass Ag Intallah: Very well, thanks, hamdullilah.
AM: Great, so I’ll start. Can you describe the current situation in Kidal?
AAI: Well, in Kidal, it’s ok. Kidal is still ok. Today the MNLA have come to join us. So a lot has happened. We’ve created a new movement called MIA…Movement Islamique de l’Azawad. We’ve split completely from Iyad and other groups, who aren’t on the same path as us.
AM: And can I ask why you decided to split from Iyad?
AAI: Because we don’t have the same goals. The situation we’re living through is that we have our own territory, we have our cause, which we are all defending. We have a dialogue with the rest of the world. We discuss. We negotiate with the Malian state of course.
AM: With Mali did you say?
AAI: Yes, yes. We’re ready to talk to Mali. We were ready right from the start. That’s our strategy. And we saw that not everyone agreed with us. So we’ve declared our own autonomous group, which is separate from all the other groups.
AM: But at the start of the rebellion in January 2012, you were still with the MNLA at that time.
AAI: Yes, right at the start we were with the MNLA. But afterwards we joined Ansar ud-Dine. We thought that this was how we could defend religion in our society and at the same time defend our territory. And protect our entire culture, right here. I found that Ansar ud-Dine were fairly strong compared to the MNLA, in their actions against the enemy. So, we preferred to go with Ansar ud-Dine. But after that, we saw that Iyad went too far, one might say. We had it out with him the other day and we said, really, we want to talk with the rest of the world.
AM: So at what point did relations with Iyad begin to get difficult?
AAI: Yes, that’s it. So we created our own group. It’s over. We’ve totally split from Iyad.
AM: Yes, but I’m asking when did relations with Iyad become a bit difficult. When did you think it was the moment to separate? What was the final straw?
AAI: It was really the moment when he declared that he wanted to break off negotiations with the others. Because the position that we had agreed on together, was to accept the negotiations and to accept that we have our limits. To accept that we demarcate ourselves clearly from the terrorist groups. Those were our positions. Little by little, we felt we were going in a direction without a clear end in sight, so we just stopped.
AM: Is there any relationship between Iyad and the Algerian government?
AAI: I don’t think so. Unless it’s the same old relationship in which Algeria always wants to save us from AQMI. I don’t know if that’s what it is. But it’s not a relationship that forces him to do anything. I don’t think so.
AM: Do you think Algeria is a friend of the Tamashek people? Or does Algeria act against the interests of the Tamashek?
AAI: Algeria is like all the neighboring countries who have Touareg populations within their borders. They think that if the Malian Touareg take a bit of a strong position it will oblige the Touareg of Algeria, or Libya, or Niger to do the same. So that’s the problem of the neighbouring countries. That’s why Niger is so keen on the ECOWAS military intervention.
AM: So do you think that Algeria during this rebellion, during the last year, has in fact hindered the evolution and success of the uprising of the Tamashek. Do you think they’ve been working against it?
AAI: You know, if we talk with Algeria they’ll say that they’re our friends, they’re our brothers, they’re this and that. But in their actions, especially over the past year, they closed their borders to our families, to our old people, to our refugees who sought shelter on Algerian territory. Really it signals that they don’t care much about the Tamashek people.
AM: I know that Touareg music, guitar music, assouf etc, is like Ambassador for Tamashek people all over the world. It spreads awareness of the culture as well as the problems of the Tamashek, to many many people. But it seems that Ansar ud-Dine want to ban this music. They don’t want it to exist. They want all music to have a very religious character etc. Was that what you wanted also?
AAI: I think that music, if it’s done with proper standards, nobody can be against it. But it’s when it becomes a problem, a bordello, excuse the expression, no one who respects their world or their religion can accept that kind of music.
AM: So you don’t have anything against the music of Tinariwen, for example, or bands like Tamikrest or Terakaft?
AAI: Well, if music really doesn’t stray outside the proper standards, then it isn’t a problem at all. As you said it’s an ambassador that helps to make the Touareg people better known. It’s a mission that music has been engaged in since the first uprising, since the 1980s through to the rebellion of the 1990s. Right up until now, music has a role to play through to the present day, in the movement, in the uprising of the Touareg people.
AM: So why did Iyad attack Konna two weeks ago, an attack that lead to the intervention of France?
AAI: Well, I don’t know. The army in Konna and then Diabaly haven’t stopped harassing nomads who are innocent. They’ve never stopped pillaging innocent people in those various communities, Touareg communities.
AM: So that was the reason why Iyad attacked and pushed south?
AAI: That’s the explanation that we have but, well, I don’t know the deeper reasons behind it.
AM: You don’t know the deeper background?
AAI: That’s the explanation we have. We know that there were nomads who were killed, several times. It’s the soldiers who killed them. It’s even carrying on now, after the attack.
AM: But we’re trying to understand why Iyad provoked the counter-attack, and the result is that France has come into the conflict and now what you might called the Islamic revolution, with Ansar ud-Dine, has lost a lot of ground thanks to that. So that’s what I’m trying to understand.
AAI: We don’t really know the reasons, but according to the explications, that’s what it was. The soldiers are killing innocent civilians every day, so they’re obliged to react in some way, as they were close to that zone.
AM: But don’t you personally regret that this attack has provoked France into coming in and the result is that Gao is in the hands of the Malian army, Timbuktu as well and probably they’ll come to you, to Kidal, very soon, no?
AAI: Well, perhaps. We don’t know. But there’s no problem. We don’t know why it has provoked the French. We can always say that France left us as colonizers and handed us over to the Bambara. And now that we’re rising up a bit against the colonisation of the Bambara they’re going to tell us to shut up, under Bambara colonisation.
AM: And are you trying to come to some kind of agreement with the French, so that they don’t come and bomb Kidal for example?
AAI: Yes, we’re trying. No problem. If there’s a possibility of doing it, then why not?
AM: To make an agreement you mean.
AAI: Yes, that’s right. With our brothers in the MNLA who arrived in Kidal today. It’s true that we’re all facing in the same direction together.
AM: And can you explain what that direction is? What’s your strategy now? What are your hopes?
AAI: We’re trying to talk to the whole world to say that we have cause that the world knows. It’s nothing to do with the extremism or terrorism which has evolved in our community. It’s a Touareg cause which everybody knows about. The Touareg people and the Arabs who are with us, nobody can say that they don’t know that cause. It’s lasted for years, from colonial times and independence right up until now.
AM: Yes, but now the French army are there, the Malian army too. They’ll probably come in your direction, slowly or very quickly, toward the Adagh and Kidal and those towns, so what will your position be in order to avoid a massacre? How are you thinking of negotiating an agreement? Because it’s urgent isn’t it?
AAI: Yes of course, it’s urgent. But we are negotiating, we are talking with the others. We’re contacting the ECOWAS and Burkinabé mediators. So perhaps its their forces who will come to meet us.
AM: And will those meetings happen in Ouagadougou or Kidal or where?
AAI: I don’t know. Wherever they want. It’s no problem.
AM: So they can come to Kidal to meet you. They’ll be welcome.
AAI: Yes, they’re welcome in Kidal.
AM: And is your vision of the future with Mali still one of total independence? Or is more a kind of autonomy, or a federal position? What’s your vision of the future of Azawad?
AAI: I think, as a start, we need to have a broad autonomy for Azawad, a large autonomy, like that of the Kurds in Iraq or another model.
AM: And are you totally ready to share power with the other ethnic groups of Azawad, like the Songhai, the Arabs…
AAI: Absolutely. We’re together with the Arabs, because they’re pillaging and attacking Arabs.
AM: And what’s your relationship with the MNLA right now? The MNLA have often said things that are opposed to Ansar ud-Dine. That’s to say, that in the past they clearly stated they weren’t with Iyad. They didn’t agree with an Islamic republic. Rather they demanded something secular etc. So how can you reconcile your outlook with the MNLA?
AAI: You know, the problem with the MNLA is that they have a lot of spokespersons. And each of them has their own vision of things. Their vision isn’t very coordinated. But now, in general, we agree with the MNLA on a lot of things. Today, we’re not Ansar ud-Dine, we’re the Islamic Movement of Azawad. So we’re not talking in the name of Ansar ud-Dine today, we’re talking under that name, the MIA.
AM: I understand but if the MNLA’s bottom line was a secular republic in which everyone can choose their own religion and practice it freely, could you accept that or would it be acceptable?
AAI: Well the MNLA has just arrived here, we’ve just met. It’s just today that we met the MNLA around a fire. We’ll be discussing these issues and inshallah we’ll understand each other. Because we’re living the same reality.
AM: Has Bilal Ag Acherif [Secretary General of the MNLA - Ed] come to lead the discussions?
AAI: They’re all there, almost. There’s Mohammed Ag Najm, there’s Hassan Fagaga, there are all those people in Kidal. Bilal is also coming in the next few days.
AM: But you don’t think that religion will separate you…that’s say, you don’t think they’ll take a secular position and you’ll insist on an Islamic Republic. You have a hope that you’ll be able to get over that difference.
AAI: We don’t think that anybody can say that they’re against Islam in their way of seeing religion, in front of that group of people. Nobody wants to say that. If someone wants to live that somewhere, then its his affair. But anybody who speaks here, on this territory, cannot say that they’re against Islam.
AM: Yes, but it’s not a question of being against Islam. Of course, you’re all Muslims. It’s just leaving people to approach Islam in their own way, according to their habits.
AAI: Well, perhaps that won’t be out of the question. It’s never been out of the question in the area that we control.
AM: Except that what we heard in Gao and Timbuktu etc, people didn’t have that freedom. Because all the people in Gao and Timbuktu were already Muslims. They were just Muslims in a way that AQMI and MUJAO didn’t like. Was that the situation?
AAI: You know, regarding Gao and Timbuktu, I don’t know much about what went on there. I saw certain things on TV quite often, and the amputations. But that’s another group. You have to judge them in another way.
AM: Why did it take so long to separate from Iyad, if you didn’t agree with him on so many things. Why did it take months and months to separate from him?
AAI: All things must end. Everybody knows that.
AM: Yes, but you were together for at least ten months. Was it the arrival of the French that made you decide not to carry on fighting with him?
AAI: No…the French…the French. Even if we had decided to wage war against France, we could have stayed with him, that’s no problem. But there are many causes that created this split. I can’t say everything right now, straightaway. But there were many.
AM: There are many things which you disagreed on?
AAI: Yes, many many things.
AM: And I also wanted to ask, there were moments when your father Intalla made certain statements against Iyad, against terrorism. He more or less gave his support, at least in the beginning, to the MNLA. So it seems to me, coming from outside, that at a certain point you opposed the will of your father. Was that true or have I misunderstood something?
AAI: Well, all of that is between him and Iyad. I never got involved in that way. And that’s one of the things that I can’t really say out loud one to one. That’s one of the conditions that they created, you see. So I’m uncomfortable talking about that on the phone.
AM: Right now, how much support is there for Iyad and Ansar ud-Dine?
AAI: I’m not sure. There are many officers and important figures who were in Ansar ud-Dine but who have come to our side now. I think about 80% of Ansar ud-Dine has come to us.
AM: So Iyad is very isolated now. We’ve read in the press that he’s tried to flee to Mauritania. Do you know anything about that?
AAI: No, I don’t know. I can’t confirm it.
AM: So can you explain the aims and objectives of the MIA.
AAI: It’s still just to revive and strengthen Touareg culture in this region, Touareg and Arab who are all here together. And almost, if it wasn’t for the question of Islam, it’s almost the same platform as that of the MNLA.
AM: And are there Arabs in MIA.
AAI: Absolutely, just as they are in the MNLA. Arabs and Touareg.
AM: Are you prepared to hold peace talks to stop the fighting?
AAI: Our first communiqué said just that. It was an appeal for peace, an appeal for negotiation, an appeal to open a dialogue.
AM: And in your opinion do people in the north, around you, are they tired of war and conflict? Does the population want peace?
AAI: Absolutely, absolutely. What we’re demanding answers the needs of the population in our zone.
AM: And are you aware of the situation of the refugees over the borders. Do you hope they come back as quickly as possible?
AAI: Absolutely, absolutely. Yes, because it’s precisely they who are our priority today. The refugees who are scattered everywhere, who aren’t very well received in the various neighbouring countries. They’re not welcome in Mauritania, they’re not welcome in Niger, they’re not welcome in Burkina, they’re not welcome in Algeria, they’re not welcome anywhere. They’re crying every night and every day to come home.
AM: And over the last ten months when all those people had to leave their home, leave their animals etc, did you often think of them and their suffering?
AAI: Absolutely, that’s our main problem, our main worry, this population who are in a bad way everywhere.
AM: It’s your priority.
AAI: Yes, that’s our priority.
AM: So now, between the MNLA, Ansar ud-Dine, MIA and I think there also people from AQMI and MUJAO who have come, they say they’re in the Tegharghar and all that. Between you all, who is the most powerful in military terms?
AAI: Well, you can’t know straightaway but I know that if we make an agreement together, ourselves and the MNLA, that will create the most powerful group.
AM: And if a condition of France and Mali is that you help to chase out the terrorists, who kidnap etc, would agree to do it? For example, to rid the territory of people who are trafficking drugs, for example, or kidnap and those kinds of activity. You’re ready to chase them out?
AAI: Well, for the narco-traffickers, we’ve already taken action against it. We’ve mounted patrols in recent times, even on the day that Konna was attacked. But as for terrorism, that has to be managed by an international body. It’s no us who can deal with it. It will create an internal war which will never end.
AM: So it will create internal tensions that can last and last and do a lot of harm. That’s what you’re saying?
AAI: Absolutely. We don’t even want to get involved in all that.
AM: But in what way? Is it too dangerous for your relationships with certain Arab communities for example? Or people coming from Algeria? I’m trying to understand your problem in relation to all that.
AII: No, it’s just that if you create an internal problem like that, it’ll never end. People who know where you sleep at night, where your animals are kept, they know where you live. It’s not good to create a conflict with those people. I think that you can manage terrorism on an international level. But you can’t oppose it on your own.
AM: So one last thing: I’m giving you an open mic to address everyone over here in the UK and elsewhere. So there, Alghabass, you can say what you would like. Go ahead…
AII: OK. So, hello everyone. I thank you for giving me the chance of transmitting this message. We’ve created our own Islamic Movement of Azawad, to say that we’ve completely broken away from Iyad, and finished with him. We’ve created this movement to answer the call of our friends all over the place, and of our people too, to help the cause that the MNLA is fighting for on the ground. So the appeal that we make to the world is for the world to see the suffering of the Touareg everywhere. Those who have left their families and their homes and been scattered here, there and everywhere, to Mauritania, to Algeria, to Burkina and in Niger. And where they were now they’re really not welcome, they’re suffering everywhere. We see old people, we see young children who are crying for their country. And recently it’s the French bombing which has forced people to leave their homes. Many have already been displaced, because, since ten months, there have been plenty of dangers, so that’s why they’ve been taking refugee in every direction, right up until the French bombing. So they’ve been forced to leave. Even those out in the bush have left, because they hear planes circling over their heads and they don’t know if the French will make mistakes, just as the Malian army did in Konna and before.
So thank you. That’s my message.
Interviewed by Andy Morgan (c) 2013