BAMAKO — Amid the chaos of Mali's northern rebellion, it is the charismatic Tuareg leader Iyad Ag Ghaly who -- for now at least -- has emerged as the greatest victor.
Alongside a hotchpotch of highly motivated and well-armed Tuareg and Islamist fighters, Ag Ghaly has exploited a March 22 coup and its accompanying military disarray to seize the top half of the vast west African nation.
A desert master with a kaleidoscopic career as a diplomat, separatist rebel chief and government mediator with Al-Qaeda hostagetakers, Ag Ghaly's latest incarnation is radical Islamist seeking to impose sharia Islamic law across his homeland.
In the ancient city of Timbuktu, now under Ag Ghaly's control, women have been ordered to cover up and thieves were threatened with having their hands cut off.
Ag Ghaly, aged about 50, is considered by those close to him an expert on the people and climate of the northern Sahara desert, as well as Tuareg history.
Born in the northeastern town of Kidal near the Algerian border, Ag Ghaly is a Tuareg from the Ifora tribe of the Irayakane branch of the desert nomads.
Somewhat small in size, he wears his black beard long, adding to his authoritarian air and reputation as a wise man, highly respected by his community who call him "the lion of the desert".
Ag Ghaly is the son of nomad stock farmers who was passionate about camel racing in his youth, but has also been a mechanic and civil servent in Libya and Algeria.
Touched by the "suffering" of his people who have long felt marginalised by their southern government, he took up arms in 1990 and spearheaded an attack on a military camp in Menaka which kickstarted a five-year Tuareg rebellion.
The leader of the Popular Movement of Azawad, Ag Ghaly is remembered for asking his fighters to only attack symbols of the state and military targets.
"Iyad is a cool cucumber. He never panics in a difficult situation," said an ex-minister who had a relative saved by Ag Ghaly during the conflict.
One of the first to take up the struggle, he was also one of the first to enter peace talks under the mediation of Algeria.
After the rebellion, he declined to be integrated into the Malian army, turning instead to business and disappearing from the public eye.
Then, in the early 2000s, when Algerian Islamists and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) arrived in this part of the Sahel desert region, foreign secret services asked him to negotiate the release of western hostages.
It is during this period, when he visited Pakistan, he is said to have discovered his "true faith" and became radicalised, his entourage say.
According to US diplomatic cables, which refer to him as unpredictable and "inscrutable", Ag Ghaly played a role in negotiating with Tuareg rebels during a 2006-9 insurgency, during which he was posted as an envoy to Saudi Arabia.
He was reported to have been expelled from Jeddah for having links to jihadists.
Come 2012, the newest Tuareg rebel movement the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) began an offensive in January for independence, boosted by the return of heavily armed, battle-hardened Tuareg from Libya.
When they made their first conquest, Ag Ghaly emerged from his silence and stamped his mark on the territory.
"I am not for independence, I want sharia for my people," he said during a meeting with the MNLA after seizing the town of Tessalit.
His newly formed Islamist movement Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) fought alongside the MNLA, but when they seized the first of three northern capitals, his home Kidal, fractures appeared in the relationship.
If the MNLA and Ansar Dine could co-habit among the dunes, it was Ag Ghaly and his "mujahideens" who emerged in control of the city.
The same scenario played out in the ancient city of Timbuktu. The MNLA helped seize the city, albeit with little defence from the disorganised army, but were soon left on the outskirts of town as Ansar Dine laid down sharia law.
The Islamists overtly displayed their ties to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, whose top leaders arrived in town on Ag Ghaly's side.
"All who are not on the path of Allah are infidels ... our struggle is reform. Our enemies are miscreants and polytheists" Ag Ghaly preached on a local Timbuktu radio station, referring to "uncultivated westerners."
"We must fight all who oppose the development of Islam. We must eliminate them ... it is a holy war we must lead," the man who is now the strongman of the north said.
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