The moment I heard the name Iyad Ghali in relation to the events in Mali I started wondering if this is the same name, the same man, and the same country; all were identical.
Iyad Ghali is heading the military operations of terrorist militant groups in northern Mali and there was a man with the same name who was his country’s consul in Jeddah. I called a friend and he confirmed that he is the same man we met at the Hilton in Jeddah less than three years ago.
If he is right, then we are dealing with a strange, entangled world in which people who are legitimate today could be fugitives tomorrow morning.
What I knew back then from those who dealt with him as a Touareg tribal chief and a diplomatic consul is that he used to negotiate the release of hostages taken in the Azwad region. Now, he is said to be the head of Ansar al-Din movement fighting the Malian army and the international French and African forces.
When I read a profile about him yesterday in Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, I was even more confused, for it said that he was close to Libya’s late dictator Muammar Qaddafi who once sent him to fight in Lebanon. Yet, it was only recently that he displayed extremist tendencies.
This kind of confusion and mystery has become quite common and this is demonstrated for example by the role extremists like Tarek al-Zomor and Mohamed al-Zawahiri are playing in the political scene in Egypt. How did a man like Iyad Ghali turn from a moderate Sunni Muslim to an extremist militant? Is it possible that a man in his fifties like him would become extremist all of a sudden? This is hard to believe. I can sense some kind of political maneuver where politicians pretend to adopt extremist ideologies to be able to recruit impulsive youths ready to sacrifice their lives for a fake cause in return for a place in heaven and also to get funding under the pretext of religious duty.
And because there is a general lack of international will to fight anywhere in the world, the French will fight alone together with a few African countries then all of them would withdraw after realizing that desert wars are endless. What makes matters more complicated is that conflicts that involve religious slogans and tribal powers can last for decades without the emergence of a defeated faction.
The problem with powers keen on fighting extremists like the French today and the Americans yesterday in Afghanistan and maybe Syria tomorrow is their inability to understand the nature of the problem. The real challenge is not extremist groups, but rather extremist ideologies. Had the West, Arab countries involved, and other relevant parties invested their money and effort in fighting extremist ideologies, the crises might have come to end by now. However, they spent billions of dollars on tens of thousands of soldiers, advanced weaponry, and combat drones and managed to eliminate several of al-Qaeda’s extremist leaders, but the ideology remained the same and actually kept spreading like bacteria. Most find it easier to jump to easy conclusions through laying the blame on one group or another like Sunnis, Shiites, clerics, or religion while all those had always been there before and were not a source of trouble.
We are living in a different world in which political powers nourish extremist ideologies and generations. They have the project, the expertise, and the will power and they are almost immune to punishment because the wrong parties are always held accountable. Who could have imagined that Mali would become an international battlefield after Afghanistan?
The West is repeating the same mistake in Syria by allowing it to fall prey to extremists who emotionally manipulate the people under the pretext that they are their only saviors from the tyranny of Assad’s regime. They are, in fact, the only active faction because the rest have left the stage for them.
This article first appeared in Asharq al-Awsat on Jan. 20, 2013.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.