The Desert Blues

In 2001, two unlikely friends created a music festival in Mali that drew the likes of Bono and Robert Plant. Then radical Islam tore them apart.

By Joshua Hammer

The Atavist Magazine, No. 48

Joshua Hammer is a former Newsweek bureau chief and correspondent at large in Africa and the Middle East. He is a contributing editor to Smithsonian and Outside, and his writing also appears in The New York Review of BooksThe New Yorker, the AtlanticThe New York Times MagazineNational Geographic, and many other publications. His fourth book, The Badass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts, will be published by Simon & Schuster in early 2016.

This project was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Editors: Katia Bachko and Joel Lovell
Producer: Megan Detrie
Designer: Gray Beltran
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kyla Jones
Images: Alice Mutasa, Nadia Nid El-Mourad (including cover photo), Jonathan Brandstein, Corbis, Associated Press
Video: Joe Conte/Ola TV
Music: Samba Touré, “Fondora”; Noura Mint Seymali, “Tikifite”; Super Onze, “Adar Neeba”; Lo’Jo, “De Timbuktu à Essakane”; Terakaft, “Alghalem”; Khaira Arby, “La Liberte”

Published in May 2015. Design updated in 2021.

Author’s Note — November 20, 2015

The terrorist attack at the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, the capital of Mali, wasn’t supposed to happen. Just a little more than two years ago French forces crushed a ragtag army of a thousand jihadis who had seized control of most of the African country. Opération Serval initially seemed a smashing success: French soldiers killed hundreds of extremists, dispersed the rest deep into the desert, and restored a sense of fragile normality to a region where, for one grim year, music was banned and adulterers were stoned to death.

Since early this year, however, Mali’s home-grown insurgency—which some say inspired the Islamic State—has come back to life. Militants have chased African peacekeepers out of the desert and carried out a series of murderous attacks across the country. On Friday—precisely one week after IS terrorists murdered 129 people on the streets of Paris—Mali’s jihadists carried out their most daring operation yet, storming the gates of the luxury hotel, seizing dozens of hostages and murdering at least 27 people, as of this writing. The hotel was a regular destination for Air France flight crews on the Paris-Bamako route, and some theorized that the act had been carried out in solidarity with IS. Whatever the case, France now appears to be waging war on at least two fronts. And Mali, its former colony, is spiraling again into instability and violence.

I have reported in Mali for more than 20 years, drawn to its vibrant music scene. In 2014, I traveled to the region to understand how the country’s musicians became a target of the Islamist rebels. What I discovered was the story of a friendship between two men who have lived the conflict in the most intimate way imaginable.

—Joshua Hammer


When Mohamed Aly Ansar studied international law at the University of Bamako, in the capital of Mali, he spent his days thinking about how to bring development to his impoverished nation. But at night he had a much different dream, one that came to him over and over: He saw himself standing in the middle of the desert near a stage, watching as a helicopter descended. The chopper was carrying the Swedish pop group ABBA, and Ansar was there to receive them.

Thirty years later, on January 12, 2012, a version of that dream came true. Ansar stood on the tarmac at the airport just outside Timbuktu, searching the dark sky for the lights of a private jet. Ansar was the founder of a three-day concert series called the Festival in the Desert, sometimes referred to as the African Woodstock, and on this cool night, he was waiting for Bono to arrive.

Around 8 p.m., the plane carrying the U2 front man alighted on the small runway, and Ansar climbed aboard to greet his guest. He found Bono relaxing on a sofa with his wife and a few friends. The group was excited about the festival, and Bono, dressed as always in black, asked Ansar, whom everyone called Manny, whether he thought Timbuktu was safe.

The situation was fine, Ansar replied. And everything was fine, but he knew more than he was saying, and he didn’t want to scare his guests.

For years, Mali had been among the most stable countries in western Africa, a democratic, laid-back, tourist-friendly oasis. It also had one of the world’s most vibrant music scenes. The Festival in the Desert had flourished since its inception in 2001, and some of the most famous musicians in the world—Robert Plant, Damon Albarn, and other Western stars—had come to play with popular Malian musicians. But things had grown darker in recent months. The Tuareg, a group of nomadic Berbers who periodically rose up against the government in the remote northeast corner of the country, were restive again. Radical Islam, introduced to North Africa in the 1990s, was rapidly gaining converts. And the Arab Spring, which began as a moment of hope in late 2010, had created ethnic and religious chaos that threatened to destabilize the entire region.

Even as Ansar reassured Bono—and it was true that at that moment the city of Timbuktu was enjoying a period of temporary calm—a large group of jihadist fighters were encamped in the desert. Armed with weapons stolen from the armories of the recently murdered Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddhafi, the jihadists had announced their plans to attack the government’s weak army. Six weeks earlier, three Europeans had been kidnapped and a fourth killed at a hotel in Timbuktu. Ansar didn’t mention his fear that his famous guest might be abducted.

Bono and his entourage boarded a guarded convoy of four-wheel-drive vehicles and drove to the festival grounds outside Timbuktu—a wide, sandy tract bordered by white domed tents. Troops patrolled the dunes outside the festival grounds, scanning the horizon for suspicious movement. As the crowd of 7,000 braced against the cold night air, Ansar escorted Bono to a VIP box. After an hour, Bono retired to a French-owned luxury guesthouse, where he was guarded by a dozen troops. The next day, he took a hike alone past the military perimeter and into the dunes while Ansar waited anxiously in a tent on the festival grounds.

That evening, Tinariwen (pronounced tee-na-ree-wayn), the festival’s headliner, took the stage. The band was composed of former Tuareg rebels who had achieved international fame with their haunting music, known as the desert blues. The group had formed in exile in Libya during the 1980s, and their music was deeply rooted in the Tuareg’s turbulent history: Like protest singers in the United States during the Vietnam War era, the musicians gave voice to an angry, alienated generation. They sang not about peace but about war, a fight for the dream of an independent Tuareg nation, which they called Azawad—“land of pasture.”

The crowd exploded when Bono got up to join the band, dancing and improvising with the singers and guitarists. A few hours later, he boarded his jet and flew to Bamako, in the south, far from the jihadists’ stronghold.

A year later, I sat with Ansar in the garden of a riverside guesthouse in Bamako. He described the palpable relief he felt once his celebrity charge had departed. The festival had been an artistic success, he said, and had even made some money, but there was no time to celebrate. In the weeks before the event, newspapers had predicted that the Islamist rebels would attack and Western embassies had warned that northern Mali was highly dangerous. Ansar knew too well that those fears were well founded. After all, Iyad Ag Ghali, the man who commanded the fighters, had been one of Ansar’s closest friends—and had even inspired the festival that he and his rebels now saw as an affront to their vision for an Islamic state in Mali.

The story of their friendship, sealed by music before it was severed by ideology, is in many ways the story of Mali itself, and of the fractures between radical and moderate Islam that have emerged across the globe. But for Manny Ansar and Iyad Ag Ghali, their estrangement revealed more fundamental questions—about belief and betrayal, and about how well we really know those closest to us.

On January 14, roadies dismantled the stage and fans began the long journey home from Timbuktu. Meanwhile, somewhere in the desert, Ansar’s old friend was rallying hundreds of jihadist fighters. Once everyone departed, Ansar wondered if he had just closed his last festival and whether Ghali would deliver on his threat to destroy everything they had built together.

Audience members at the Festival in the Desert. Photo: Alice Mutasa


Manny Ansar and Iyad Ag Ghali met for the first time in January 1991, at the villa of a prominent Tuareg politician in Bamako named Baye Ag Mohamed. Four months earlier, Ghali and 45 rebels armed only with knives and hand grenades had ambushed a small army camp in northeast Mali. In close combat, rebels killed nearly 100 people and captured armored vehicles, mortars, and rocket launchers. The attack, the most brutal in a series of them, forced the army to retreat, and Mali’s military dictator Moussa Traoré began negotiations with the rebels.

Government officials and rebel commanders met in Tamanrasset, a large town in the southern Algerian desert. The enemies reached a ceasefire agreement, and the regime brought a delegation of five rebel commanders to Bamako for a round of ceremonial events. Mohamed invited Ghali to stay with him and arranged a meeting with Ansar. 

The roots of the hatred between the Tuareg and the Malian government date to the end of the 19th century, when the French colonial army forcibly occupied the Tuareg’s traditional homeland in the central Sahara. French administrators joined the arid north with the Niger River valley and the southern savanna, both dominated by black Africans, creating an awkward colonial construct they called French Sudan, later known as Mali. It would never be an easy peace, in part because the light-skinned Tuareg traditionally believed that blacks were inferior and kept many as slaves. (Descendants of those black slaves, known as bellah, speak Tamasheq, the language of the Tuareg, but tend not to identify as Tuareg because of the racial divide.) In the 1950s, the colonial administration considered joining the north with the Saharan regions of other French colonies to create a separate Tuareg state, but the idea was abandoned because the territory wasn’t viable without access to the Niger, Mali’s lifeblood.

In 1991, Ansar was working as an administrator for a Norwegian development organization in Bamako. He was also the leader of an association of young Tuareg students and professionals from the Timbuktu region that raised money from European donors to build wells and primary schools in the northern desert.

In college, Manny Ansar made recordings of traditional Malian musicians. In 2001, he founded the Festival in the Desert to celebrate their music. Photo: Jonathan Brandstein

Ansar and his fellow urban Tuareg didn’t support the rebellion, but they were in awe of the insurgents’ military prowess. “Everyone wanted to see these people who, when they started to fight, put Moussa Traoré in the position of begging,” he recalled. “They were like Rambo. There was something mystical about them.” Some worried that he was committing treason, but Mohamed assured Ansar that the rebels wanted to make peace. 

Ushered into Mohamed’s salon, Ansar laid eyes on the guerrillas for the first time. The men’s hair was long and tousled, their faces sunburned. Though they had done their best to attire themselves properly, with vests, trousers, and button-down shirts, it was clear that they had just emerged from the desert. Tall, slender, and bare headed, with expressive eyes, a wild black mane, and a walrus mustache, Ghali stood out. Ansar regarded him with a mix of admiration and trepidation.

Ansar invited Ghali and his four fellow commanders to a reception at a popular Bamako restaurant. He didn’t know what to expect, but he decided to break the ice with music and had crafted a mix tape of songs by some of Mali’s biggest stars, including Ali Farka Touré, a masterful guitarist and vocalist from the north, and Salif Keita, an albino troubadour from southern Mali. Four of the Tuareg commanders chatted up the female guests and danced, but Ghali sat silent in his chair. “He was closed off, shy, naturally fearful,” Ansar remembered, speculating that he had had little interaction with women before this, or that he had suffered some trauma that made him suspicious and guarded around strangers.  

When the meal was over, Ansar and Ghali retreated to a private room. Ansar told Ghali that because his father was a decorated Tuareg officer in the Malian army, he grew up on military bases and saluted the flag every morning. 

“What made you want to raise arms against the state?” Ansar asked.

Urged on by Ansar’s extroverted nature, Ghali began to talk. For the next several hours, he recounted his tumultuous youth, which followed the contours of Mali’s difficult path. Ghali grew up near Kidal, a dusty administrative outpost of 2,000 people living in wattle-and-daub huts in the shadow of a French colonial fort. 

When Mali achieved independence in 1960, long-smoldering ethnic animosities reemerged. Tuareg, who comprise about 3 percent of Mali’s population of 16.5 million, felt oppressed and ignored by the central government. In 1963, when Ghali was a small boy, Tuareg rebels swept across the desert on camels, seized rifles from government depots, and ambushed government soldiers. The government forces could not defeat the rebels and began to target civilians and their livestock. Thousands of innocents died. Ghali’s father, who served as a guide to the government army, was killed by a Tuareg rebel. And yet, after witnessing the killings of so many of his fellow Tuareg, Ghali, like many of his generation, came to believe that his people’s survival depended on forming their own state. During a devastating drought in the 1970s, government troops stole food donated by international aid agencies and sold it in markets. Many young Tuareg fled into exile, and Ghali left Kidal. “We didn’t believe we had a future here,” he told Ansar.  

He traveled by camel and on foot to Libya and settled in a shantytown outside Tripoli while he looked for work. A photograph of Ghali taken around this time shows a teenager with an Afro and flared jeans poking out beneath an embroidered Arab gown. In Tripoli, in the 1970s, Ghali began to frequent cafés in Tuareg neighborhoods, where a vibrant music scene was preserving the Tuareg culture. Many of the exiles’ songs recalled the rebellion of 1963 and the dream of a separate Tuareg nation. The singers modernized the traditional music of northern Mali, replacing the four-string lute, or teherdent, with acoustic and electric guitars. A typical song declared: 

You should be in the desert 

Where the blood of kin has been spilled

That desert is our country 

And in it is our future.

When Ghali spoke of Tuareg music, Ansar felt the distance between them shrink. As a boy, Ansar had been drawn to Tuareg warriors and their doomed struggle. He had grown up in a desert encampment 75 miles north of Timbuktu, a region of rolling dunes and a few scattered Artesian wells. When he was five years old, a tall bronze man, wearing a purple turban decorated with silver jewelry, arrived at his home. The man wore a traditional white gown, or boubou, from which dangled goatskin bags covered with red and green embroidery, and he carried a teherdent made of wood and leather. He was a griot, an itinerant singer and oral historian who traveled from village to village, telling stories about Tuareg culture and history. The adults laid carpets in the dunes and gathered the family around a bonfire; people from neighboring encampments came to watch the griot’s performance. The griot sang about Ansar’s great-great-grandfather Ngouna, who was the chief of the Kel Antassar clan when the first French soldiers arrived in the Sahara. In the late 1890s, Ngouna led the Tuareg resistance against the French military occupiers; he died in an ambush in the very dunes where the griot performed. 

While he was at university, Ansar had often traveled back to his ancestral home with a reel-to-reel tape recorder, capturing the performances of traditional musicians. He made cassettes of the music and played them for his fellow students back in Bamako. 

While Ansar graduated from college and started working in rural development, Ghali became a mercenary. In 1981, Gaddhafi began recruiting a force to expand Libya’s influence in Africa and the Middle East, and Ghali joined the fight. He spent the next decade in and out of Gaddhafi’s camps, training in Syria and fighting in Lebanon alongside Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, and later in Chad, where Gaddhafi was trying to unseat the country’s president. 

Whenever Ghali returned to Libya, he lived in a Tuareg military camp near Tripoli. There he met Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, a skinny, brooding man with a billowing Afro. Alhabib’s father had been executed for helping the rebels in 1963. After the government destroyed the family’s livestock, he fled to the Algerian city of Oran, on the Mediterranean. In exile, Alhabib fashioned a guitar out of an oilcan and a bicycle cable. He was a musical omnivore, drawing on everything from the protest music of the Maghreb and Egyptian pop to the desert blues of Ali Farka Touré to Bob Marley, Elvis Presley, and Carlos Santana. The music he composed was often nothing more than a couple of chords and a repetitive phrase. It was austere and haunting, with Alhabib’s unpolished voice imparting a ragged authenticity. 

“They murdered the old folk and a child just born,” Alhabib sang in “Sixty-Three,” one of his early songs:

They swooped down to the pastures and wiped out the cattle

’63 has gone, but will return. 

Before long, Ghali began writing romantic ballads and martial songs for Alhabib and his band, including an anthem that would become the national hymn of Azawad:

Like true warriors we are going to trample on the enemy

Yes, in the name of God, we rise up and begin. 

By 1990, the Tuareg rebels in exile had become disillusioned with Gaddhafi, who promised to provide them with arms and vehicles but never delivered. Ghali left Libya with about 100 rebels and returned to Mali. “We are not bandits, but we want to claim our rights as Malian citizens,” they declared in a communiqué. “Today, these rights are trampled upon by the Malian government, which considers us strangers.”

Ghali’s army soon grew to more than 1,000 men. Their years of fighting for Gaddhafi had created a fierce force skilled in close combat. They seized vehicles from an international relief agency in northern Mali and captured weapons from poorly trained Malian soldiers in the north, who were quick to abandon their bases. 

In the evenings, the rebels gathered to hear Alhabib, and other Tuareg musicians who had joined the fight, play music around a fire. Bootleg cassettes of these sessions circulated throughout the north, attracting more young Tuareg to the insurgency. As Alhabib sang: 

Let the blood boil if it is really in your veins

At the break of day, take your arms and take the hilltops

We kill our enemies and become like eagles

We’ll liberate all those who live in the plains.

For months, Ghali’s men hammered the Malian forces, until the government finally conceded in September 1990 and negotiated the ceasefire. In Bamako, Ghali was stunned by what he found—educated Tuareg like Ansar, with decent jobs, and plenty of black Malians who didn’t want to exterminate the Tuareg. “Before I came here I thought Mali was an evil place,” he told Ansar. “I’ve seen a different reality.” 

Tuareg rebels in the Malian Sahara, November 1990. Photo: Getty Images


Ghali worked to maintain the ceasefire, but the accord began to unravel. Moussa Traoré’s dictatorship collapsed in the face of nationwide protests in March 1991. The interim leader, a former military man named Amadou Toumani Touré, pledged a quick democratic transition and committed himself to a lasting peace in the north. But many fighters in Ghali’s ranks believed that the instability afforded them an opportunity to wrest more concessions from the new government and urged him to resume their fight. European and American diplomats, as well as representatives from Mali’s powerful neighbor Algeria, warned Ghali that the Tuareg faced international isolation if they picked up their guns again.

Caught between powerful forces, Ghali organized a conference in June 1991 and called upon his new acquaintance Ansar to help him urge their fellow Tuareg to keep the peace. Ghali was waiting at the airport in Tamanrasset when Ansar arrived. The rebel chief brought Ansar to his modest house, introduced him to his wife and daughter, and took him out for a meal. “I’m going to lose the peace, Manny,” he said. Ansar reached out to influential young Tuareg from the north, and soon after, Touré organized a special flight to carry 30 Tuareg tribal chiefs and politicians to Tamanrasset. 

For the next ten days, Ansar met Tuareg leaders from across the country in the grand salon of the Tamanrasset governor’s mansion, urging them to stand behind the accord and persuade the fighters to lay down their arms. In the evenings, he and Ghali walked in the lively streets of Tamanrasset, stopping at small cafés to hear live music. 

One afternoon, Ghali drove Ansar to a dry riverbed in the shadow of the Hoggar Mountains, which rise to more than 9,000 feet. A dozen all-terrain vehicles were parked at a camp, and mutton sizzled on a grill. Ansar sat beside Ghali on a carpet in the white sand, and together they watched low clouds on the horizon glow orange, then purple. Alhabib, Ghali’s friend from the camps in Libya, and Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, a former rebel-musician from a family of Islamic scholars deep in the Malian desert, set up a rudimentary sound system and played the songs they’d written in exile. As their guitars and raw voices echoed across the riverbed, Ansar drifted back 25 years to songs he had heard as a child.

My God, this is Ali Farka Touré singing in Tamasheq, the language of the Tuareg, Ansar thought. Ghali, too, seemed transported. “All the stress, the rebellion, the attacks were left behind,” Ansar recalled. One of the songs that the group sang was “Toumast,” or “The People,” a call for rebel unity:

A divided people will never reach its goal

It will never cultivate an acacia tree with beautiful leaves

A divided people will lose its way

Each part of it will become an enemy in itself.

Despite Ghali’s efforts the ceasefire collapsed, and Tuareg radicals resumed attacking army posts and camps. In 1992, after the deaths of hundreds more fighters and civilians, Ghali finally persuaded factional leaders to sign a new accord. Funds were set up to support former rebels and compensate victims. Government troops agreed to withdraw from many posts in the north, and hundreds of former rebels joined the Malian armed forces. 

After the new pact was signed, fighters began collecting their weapons. In March 1996, the country’s newly elected president joined Ghali at a ceremonial burning of 3,000 Kalashnikovs in Timbuktu. The weapons were encased in the Flame of Peace monument to commemorate the occasion. Nearby murals painted by local artists depicted Malian soldiers clasping the hands of Tuareg insurgents. For the first time since 1990, Mali was at peace.

The government hailed Ghali as a statesman and a peacemaker and considered various political and military positions for him but ultimately decided that the Lion of the Desert, as many called him, would never be satisfied in a conventional post. “Because he was the biggest fighter, no one was in a position to be the chief of Iyad,” Ansar explained. In the end, Ghali became an unofficial security adviser to the president and a diplomat without portfolio. He worked out of his villa in Bamako and also at the so-called Commissary of the North, located next to the president’s palace, a whitewashed Moorish-style villa perched atop an extinct volcano. He traveled with the president on diplomatic missions to Mauritania, Algeria, Niger, and other countries, and often brought Ansar along. Ghali now wore a Rolex watch, bespoke suits. and finely embroidered boubous, (“He was fascinating to people,” Ansar said, describing the many admirers who showered his friend with gifts), but he didn’t greedily pursue power or wealth. 

Nor did he practice his faith. Ansar prayed five times a day and fasted during Ramadan, but Ghali avoided prayers and never set foot in a mosque. “I was the good Muslim and he was the bad Muslim,” Ansar said. Ghali smoked, was reputed to be a big drinker—though Ansar never saw him touch a drop—and, when they traveled, was often out carousing all night. “People wanted to talk to him in the morning, and he just wanted to sleep,” Ansar recalled. “You could only bother him after 11:30.” 

Ansar frowned on such habits, but Ghali had earned his respect. During the factional fighting that had followed the breakdown of the peace in the early 1990s, Ghali’s men had brutally mistreated a captive, who later died. Ghali was infuriated when he learned of the crime, and he punished his men, he told Ansar. “He was a rebel commander, but he never condoned torture,” Ansar said. “He had a warrior’s code of honor.”

Ansar lived on the outskirts of Bamako, in a large house he had built for his family. (His wife gave birth to a daughter in 1995 and a son five years later.) He often hosted parties at which insurgents turned musicians were regular guests. As the evenings wore on, they would climb a spiral staircase to a rooftop known as La Terrasse des Fêtes, the Party Terrace, and listen to music and talk until dawn. On most Sundays, the friends gathered near the Niger River, a few miles outside Bamako, and held informal concerts hosted by Ghali and Ansar. Here, Alhabib and Alhousseyni would play for hours in the shade of a mango tree, typically joined by two female musicians, one playing the traditional imzad violin, the other the tindé drum.

The two former fighters formed the core of a group that had played together since they met in the Libyan rebel camps. Ansar became their manager, booking them into concert halls in Bamako. The rebellion was over, but they still sang songs about insurgency and the mythic Tuareg nation of Azawad. 

In 1999, the band accepted an invitation to play at a festival near Nantes, France. They chose La Groupe Azawad as their name. and Ansar booked flights and secured passports. They flew to Brussels Airport on Sabena Airlines, but when they arrived they were pulled aside for questioning. The police detained the group in a windowless cell after inquiring what the band, clad in traditional Tuareg veils and robes, were doing in Europe and whether they had sufficient funds. (They didn’t.) Seventy-two hours passed before the authorities finally released them. Alhousseyni commemorated the ordeal with a song: 

We thought we would arrive in paradise with Sabena 

Instead we ended up in prison with Sabena.

Despite the complications, the concert was a resounding success. Immediately after returning to Mali, Ansar decided that the name La Groupe Azawad was too politically charged, and he asked them to find an alternative. The musicians started calling themselves Kel Tinariwen, the People of the Desert, which was soon shortened to Tinariwen. 


In January 2000, Ghali invited Ansar to Intejedit, a remote valley of rocks, reddish sand, and unearthly silence in northeastern Mali. Ansar traveled there by Jeep from Bamako, a three-and-a-half-day journey. This could be Mars, he thought as he drove through the scorched, barren land. The valley of Intejedit was fiercely hot. Barren sand dunes lie to the west, while in the east rose the Adrar des Ifoghas massif, a nearly impenetrable range of eroded sandstone and granite boulders surrounding sandy riverbeds.

Amid this striking scenery, Ghali had organized an event he called the Kidal Festival. Hundreds of Tuareg nomads had pitched goatskin tents around a makeshift stage. They slaughtered sheep and settled in for three days of music, camel races, and a camel “beauty pageant”—all arranged by Ghali to drum up tourism and development in the region. At Ghali’s request, Ansar had brought a Malian television crew to film the event for the national network. 

Ansar and Ghali were inseparable. They watched camels thunder down a sandy path, listened to Tinariwen perform, and soothed an angry Tuareg chieftain who felt that his clan had been shortchanged by the peace agreement. The festival culminated with the “dance of the camels,” featuring a group of Tuareg women draped in black who sat in a tight circle beating drums, chanting, and rhythmically clapping their hands. Tuareg riders in turquoise gowns and turbans led their camels, bearing richly embroidered saddles, in a circle around the women. “He was proud of how well the camels had been trained,” Ansar remembered. “He was proud of his culture and happy to have the chance to show it to me.” At the end, Ghali presented his friend with a large white camel—“the most beautiful animal I had ever seen,” Ansar said—as a token of their friendship. It was, Ghali told him, “the number one camel of Kidal.” 

During his days with Ghali at Intejedit, Ansar began to realize the potential of a commercial music festival in the Sahara, one that would attract Western tourists and musicians and promote Tuareg culture. He envisioned a roving concert series that would take place in a different venue each year and include Tuareg clans across the north, all of whom would share in jobs and revenues.

In January 2001, Ansar joined with members of Ghali’s clan, the Ifoghas, to produce the first official Festival in the Desert, also north of Kidal. Through his development group in Bamako, Ansar persuaded the embassies of France, Germany, and the United States, as well as Mali’s Ministry of Culture, to contribute financing for the three-day affair. The chief of Ghali’s clan organized tents, firewood, food, water, and provisions for the crowd; Ghali himself, a power broker in the region, assured Ansar that he would keep the visitors safe.

At the time, political tensions were roiling. Months earlier a recalcitrant Tuareg rebel and close friend of Ghali’s, Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, had turned against the peace pact and launched a small-scale rebellion near Kidal. Malian officials hoped to use the festival to dissuade Tuareg from joining Bahanga’s uprising. Conferences took place during the day, followed by music at night. One evening, to Ansar’s annoyance, the politicians ordered the producer to delay opening the concert because the meetings were dragging on. 

Ghali used the occasion to carry on his own clandestine peacemaking mission in cooperation with the Malian government. While Tinariwen performed on a makeshift stage in the sand, before Western ambassadors, government ministers, and 2,000 Tuareg men in cerulean robes, Ghali huddled on a dune a few hundred yards away with Mali’s prime minister and Bahanga, trying to talk the rebel leader into laying down his arms.  

Festival entrance, Essakane. Photo: Alice Mutasa


During the winter of 2002, around the time of the second Festival in the Desert, a friend in the Tuareg community told Ansar that a group of Muslim missionaries from Pakistan had arrived in Kidal, Ghali’s hometown, to preach their version of the religion to the Tuareg there. Mali’s Muslims are predominantly Sufist. Theirs is a tolerant, mystical form of Islam whose adherents venerate Muslim saints and chant wazifas, or the names of God. 

The missionaries who arrived, by contrast, belonged to the fundamentalist Tablighi Jamaat sect, which extols a return to the austere lifestyle led by the Prophet. Members of the group that came to Kidal sleep on rough mats and use twigs to brush their teeth. They spend a portion of every year on overseas proselytizing missions.

“The Pakistanis are up there converting all the former Tuareg rebels,” Ansar’s friend told him. “They’re all becoming devout.” Even Ghali, Ansar learned, was going to mosque now on a regular basis and had expressed keen interest in what these strict Muslims had to say. 

A year later, Ghali invited Ansar to visit him at his home. When he entered, he found Ghali seated on the floor, absorbed in a copy of the Koran. Ansar had never seen him reading the Holy Book before. Soon after, Ghali again summoned Ansar to his home and began to lecture him. He thumbed through the Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet, and told his friend that life is “like a waiting room in an airport when you are in transit,” a brief interlude before the “real journey” begins. “You had better be prepared,” he admonished. Ghai pressed Ansar to cancel the Festival in the Desert. It was a “materialistic pursuit,” he said, that “won’t speak well for you before God after you are dead.” He handed Ansar a book about the proper way to pray and urged Ansar to read the book and put it into practice. 

Ansar fended him off gently, defending the festival as a source of much needed hope and jobs. “Leave me alone for five more years, and when I turn 50, I’m going to stop everything and follow your advice.”

“No, that’s too late,” Ghali replied. “You don’t know if you’re going to die today.” 

Soon after, Ghali invited Ansar to meet him at a Salafist mosque. Salafism is a radical branch of Islam that worships the Prophet and his original followers, the salaf, or ancestors. Ansar arrived to find Ghali seated on a mattress in a small prayer room, a stubbly beard forming on his cheeks. Delighted that Ansar had come, Ghali suggested that he spend the entire weekend there. Ansar looked at the cramped cubicles, the dirty mattresses, the bearded acolytes, and politely declined.

Ghali had given up his rich diet of lamb and couscous, his bespoke suits and embroidered boubous. He seemed to subsist on nothing but milk and dates, and he dressed in a white djellaba, a long Middle Eastern robe, and short trousers that ended well above his ankles, as favored by fundamentalist Muslims. He removed all photographs and paintings from his house, made his wife wear the veil known as the hijab, and kept her confined to home. And he began giving away his prized possessions, handing his expensive Rolex watch to another former Tuareg rebel. Ghali confided to Ansar that he was saying “twice as many prayers” as those required by Islam, because “of all the things I have done that I regret.”

Ansar was mystified by his friend’s devotion but tried to remain open to it. “He was always smiling,” Ansar said, “like a child.” 

“You must not lose yourself entirely in religion,” Ansar told him. “You were the one who created these problems for the state and for the society, so you have to stay in charge, to maintain the peace.” 

Ghali waved him off. 

When I spoke with Ghali’s old musician friend Alhousseyni of Tinariwen, he told me that Ghali “began to lose his friends, his acquaintances, and he became solitary. He entered a different world.”

In 2003, Ansar moved the festival across the Sahara to Essakane, west of Timbuktu, a remote and otherworldly sea of dunes that served as a traditional gathering place for his clan, the Kel Antassar. The British guitarist Justin Adams arrived to play with Tinariwen, whose first album he had recently helped produce. Adams was joined by Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, who jammed with Tinariwen and Ali Farka Touré before an audience that included hundreds of foreign tourists. Thanks to Plant, the festival drew media attention around the world. It also produced some awkward encounters. Vicki Huddleston, who had just arrived in Mali as the new U.S. ambassador, reached Essakane on the festival’s first afternoon. Huddleston made her way to a section reserved for diplomats and briefly inspected her designated tent, marked by an American flag flying out front. When she returned late in the afternoon, she noted with puzzlement that the flag had been removed. 

“Is somebody in there?” Huddleston’s public affairs officer inquired, standing outside the tent.

Out stepped Robert Plant. 

“This is the ambassador’s tent,” the officer said.

“But I am ambassador to the world,” Plant protested, before surrendering the quarters to Huddleston.

Preparations for the 2003 festival in Essakane, west of Timbuktu. Photo: Nadia Nid El-Mourid

In the spring of 2003, an organization calling itself the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, based in Algeria, kidnapped a group of European tourists—most of them German—on a desert highway and led them on a punishing hike south through the Sahara, to the Adrar des Ifoghas massif.

Mali’s president, Amadou Toumani Touré, realized that he had a radical Islamic threat inside his borders and reached out to Ghali for help. The leader of the group, a former Algerian paratrooper who called himself El Para, offered to free the hostages in exchange for a ransom from the German government, and Touré asked Ghali to make the deal. 

Surrounded by barren hills, the Tuareg negotiator and the Arab terrorists sat on blankets in a dried-out riverbed and discussed terms. El Para agreed to a five-million-euro ransom, and Ghali delivered the money, flown down from Germany in a government jet, in a batch of suitcases. The hostages were freed immediately, earning Ghali the goodwill of both the Malian government and the jihadists. 

Soon after, Huddleston met with Ghali in Kidal. Huddleston and other American officials worried that the Germans’ five-million-euro payment would enable the Saharan radicals to buy weapons and recruit jihadists. They were also concerned about Ghali and his flirtation with fundamentalism. In 1998, John Walker Lindh, a young American, had traveled with preachers from Ghali’s sect, Tablighi Jamaat, to Pakistan and soon joined the Taliban. Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in the United States for the September 11 attacks, regularly attended a Tablighi Jamaat mosque in France. 

For half an hour, Ghali and the ambassador talked about the state of things in the north and the importance of keeping the Tuareg at peace for the sake of development. Huddleston noted his piercing eyes and full beard, the flowing white robe and intricately folded head scarf typically worn by Tuareg. He looked, she thought, like a classic desert warrior. When she pressed him about possible ties with Islamic terror groups, Ghali assured her that he had no interest in their cause.  

Vieux Farka Touré performs. Video: Joe Conte/Ola TV


As the festival grew, Ansar began to believe that it could help unite all of Mali through music. Although he was growing distant from Ghali, he took solace in the fact that the festival that Ghali had inspired was providing jobs to Tuareg and establishing Timbuktu as an international tourist destination. Western journalists and diplomats were praising Mali as a symbol of hope and freedom on a deeply troubled continent. And stars from around the world were clamoring to appear at Essakane.

Around 2007, Ansar began receiving warnings from Tuareg elders that a new movement of Islamic jihadists in the Sahara, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, viewed the festival as an abomination. The group was made up of some of the same Algerian jihadists whom Ghali had first encountered in 2003, when he negotiated the release of the European tourists being held by El Para. “They are saying that you’re spreading debauchery, that you’ve created some kind of Sodom and Gomorrah in Essakane,” he was told. And yet, AQIM never attacked the festival, and the radicals—who had begun seizing Western tourists and aid workers across northern Africa and holding them for ransom—never attempted a kidnapping in or around Essakane. When I asked Ansar why, he said he couldn’t be sure, but he believed that his longtime friend was quietly protecting it—and him—from violence.  

Outsiders, meanwhile, had little idea of the tension behind the scenes. I visited the Festival in the Desert in 2008, at the height of its popularity, when 8,000 people came to Essakane, a quarter of them Westerners. Tourists in safari jackets filled the sandy streets of Timbuktu. They flooded the markets and packed their rented Land Cruisers with tents, coolers, bottled water, food, first-aid kits, extra fuel, GPS devices, and other supplies for the two-hour journey down a rough track through the desert.

The festival was a grand, unforgettable scene. White canvas tents and traditional nomadic dwellings stitched together from the hides of goats dotted the wind-rippled white dunes. After a day in the heat and a communal meal with a party of young Australians on a months-long trek through Africa, I fell asleep in a tent before midnight. Two hours later, awakening to an infectious guitar phrase, I scaled a 50-foot-high dune overlooking the floodlit stage. I lay back on the cool sand, stared at a sky filled with stars, and let the hypnotic vocals and guitar licks of Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, Tinariwen’s lead singer, wash over me.

Tinariwen perform. Video: Joe Conte/Ola TV

In late 2008, Ghali informed Ansar that he had accepted a diplomatic assignment to the Malian consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

“I want to be close to the Great Mosque of Mecca, where I can pray every Friday,” Ghali said.

Ansar was appalled. He couldn’t understand why Ghali would leave the country for an inconsequential post, especially at a time when Tuareg insurgents were stirring again and radical Islamists had begun kidnapping Western tourists, aid workers, and diplomats in the north. Ghali had recently negotiated on behalf of the government and freed hundreds of soldiers captured by a Tuareg splinter group around Kidal. “God gave you this intelligence, the power to find solutions,” Ansar argued. “You don’t have the right to leave it all behind.”  

Ghali said that he was tired of the internecine warfare between Tuareg factions, and tired of Malian politics in general. He wanted out, and he was searching for a new direction. A few weeks later, Ghali boarded a plane for Jeddah. But after less than a year he returned to Mali, with newspapers reporting that he had been expelled from Saudi Arabia for allegedly making contacts with radicals.

Ansar shrugged off the news. In fact, he would later admit, he was pleased that Ghali had been forced to leave a dead-end job in Saudi Arabia, auguring a possible return to a domestic political role. Ansar continued to regard Ghali as a “great man,” he said, “who had always been respectful toward me, in spite of my resistance to his offers to lead me along the ‘right path.’” He regarded his piety as a good thing, on balance. “I had nothing against someone who transformed himself into a monk,” he would say years later, “to leave behind all the good things in life in order to nourish his faith.”

“Are you sure you’re not heading down the road of violence?” Ansar asked him upon his return. Ghali shook his head emphatically. “We are pacifists,” he said.

When they met again in February 2010 by chance in a roadside restaurant north of Bamako, Ghali was far less warm. Ansar was driving north to the Festival on the Niger, a five-day concert event set on a barge in the river. This time, Ansar said, Ghali stared at him with contempt, offering an unspoken rebuke to his former friend for continuing his passion for music.

It was the last time the two men would see each other, but it wasn’t long before Ansar realized how fully his friend had immersed himself in his fundamentalist faith and violent Islam.

Fighters from Ansar Dine in the desert outside Timbuktu. Photo: Associated Press 


In December 2010, Tunisians rose up against President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, a repressive figure whose free-spending wife had come to epitomize institutional corruption. The Tunisian revolution inspired Egyptians to demand the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, who fell weeks later. Soon it was Gaddhafi’s turn. In Benghazi, in eastern Libya, security forces killed many protesters, and rebellion spread. NATO forces, acting on a United Nations Security Council resolution, attacked Gaddhafi’s army. Gaddhafi called on the Tuareg of Mali for help, and several thousand answered his plea. Despite their help, Tripoli fell in late August. In the ensuing chaos, Tuareg looters ripped off the gates of arsenals across Libya and filled their trucks with heavy weapons. Then they headed back across the desert to Mali.

Ghali, meanwhile, was plotting his next move after his disgraceful expulsion from Saudi Arabia. He watched with keen interest as a rebel movement, consisting of secular Tuareg, coalesced in northern Mali. That fall he drove to the camp of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, as the group now called itself, and made a bid to become its commander. But Ghali had few diehard supporters left among the Tuareg rebels, some of whom viewed him with suspicion because of his longtime ties to the government; others were repelled by his fundamentalist leanings. The rebels rejected him.

A short time later, in Kidal, Ghali established his own rebel movement, Ansar Dine—Defenders of the Faith—consisting of Tuareg who embraced fundamentalist Islam. Ghali made an alliance with AQIM, whose confidence he’d won years earlier by arranging the five-million-euro ransom for the German hostages. 

Ghali’s new Islamist coalition soon proposed a partnership with the nonreligious Tuareg rebels who were encamped, with their heavy weapons, in the northern desert. The secular rebels were deeply divided. Some viewed the Al Qaeda fighters as criminals, killers, and international outcasts, and wanted nothing to do with them. The majority, however, saw the alliance in opportunistic terms. By merging their men and their heavy arms with AQIM and Iyad Ag Ghali’s Ansar Dine, they would likely roll over the Malian army and achieve their long-held dream—Azawad.

Iyad Ag Ghali (second from right) with Tuareg fighters. Photo: Corbis

Four days after the Festival in the Desert, on January 18, Ghali and the Ansar Dine rebels attacked an army camp in a remote village in northeast Mali. They overran the compound, then lined up nearly 100 soldiers and civilians and executed them, either by slitting their throats or shooting them in the head. The French government accused Ghali of Al Qaeda tactics. 

“My God,” Ansar exclaimed when he saw his old friend in combat gear, surrounded by armed jihadist fighters, on Malian TV. “He always swore to me that his Islam would never become violent.” 

The insurgents were growing in number, capturing weaponry and moving freely through the desert. In Bamako, mobs attacked businesses run by Tuareg. The president pleaded for calm. 

“Do not confuse those [Tuareg] who are shooting at military bases with those who are living amongst us, who are our neighbors, our colleagues,” he said on state television, but the message didn’t get through. 

“It’s you who have destroyed the country,” one man shouted at Ansar as he was stopped in traffic in downtown Bamako. 

In Bamako, threats against Tuareg intensified. As the situation worsened, Ansar flew with his family to Ouagadougou, the capital of neighboring Burkina Faso. A few weeks later, President Touré arrived there on a state visit. In his hotel suite, Touré pleaded with Ansar to return to Bamako, promising that the situation was stable. The Tuareg population in the south felt vulnerable and afraid, he said, and he believed that Ansar’s return would send a positive signal to them. Even now, Ansar realized, Touré failed to understand the enormity of what was happening in his country. His military was collapsing, Mali disintegrating. Ansar’s eyes filled with tears—Touré took his hand, and then the president teared up, too. 

In a show of fidelity to the president, Ansar left his wife and children in Burkina Faso and returned home on the presidential plane. But days later, Touré and his wife fled the palace ahead of a gang of marauding soldiers, taking refuge first in the Senegalese embassy, and later going into exile in Dakar. 

A junior army officer seized control of the government. Across the north, the military quickly collapsed. Soldiers fled south, abandoning an area the size of France—stretching from the Algerian border to Mali’s Inner Niger Delta—to the rebel army. By late March, two-thirds of the country was under rebel control. On April 1, Ghali led a convoy of 100 vehicles flying black jihadist flags into Timbuktu. 

Ghali declared war on the north’s musicians, whom he now believed to be a threat to the Islamic state that he had nearly formed. Members of Tinariwen fled to California. In Niafounké, an oasis town that lent its name to an album by the late desert-blues master Ali Farka Touré, Ghali’s fighters threatened to chop off the fingers of the singer’s protégés. In the summer of 2012, Ansar Dine militants trashed the studio of Khaira Arby, a popular half-Tuareg, half-Arab diva known as the Nightingale of the North, and threatened to cut out her tongue if they captured her, forcing her to flee to Bamako from Timbuktu. A few weeks later, Ansar Dine vandalized the house of Ahmed Ag Kaedi, a Tuareg guitarist from Kidal, taking special care to douse his guitars in gasoline and set them on fire.  

Khaira Arby. Photo: Alice Mutasa

The militants set up a Sharia court in the former La Maison hotel, where Bono had stayed during the festival three months earlier, and meted out medieval punishments without mercy. They lashed women caught with their faces uncovered, chopped off the hands and feet of suspected thieves, and stoned an unmarried couple to death. 

In December, Ghali and his partners in Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb gathered several hundred jihadists for a war conference near Essakane, the former site of the Festival in the Desert. Between prayers and grilled lamb, they set a date of mid-January for the conquest of the remaining third of the country. When Ansar heard about the gathering, he was certain that Ghali had chosen the area to rebuke him for refusing to close down the festival. As Ansar said, “He was telling me, ‘This place is no longer for singing and dancing, no longer for debauchery, no longer for the hippies of the world. This place is now for jihad.’”

In January 2013, jihadists drove hundreds of pickup trucks mounted with heavy weapons toward the government front lines, where ill-trained soldiers were charged with preventing the rebels from breaking through to the south. In a savage battle, the jihadists killed dozens and sent the rest fleeing into the bush. Ghali and his men were just eight hours from the capital now, and Ansar suspected that AQIM and Ansar Dine were mobilizing jihadist cells inside Bamako to facilitate their entry.

In Paris, President François Hollande followed the events with alarm. The prospect of a radical terrorist state in the former French colony, of the potential kidnapping and execution of French citizens, prodded him into action. He ordered armed helicopters stationed in nearby Burkina Faso to launch a counterattack. The choppers fired rockets at the militants’ vehicles. French jets from Chad followed, and with support from tanks on the ground, dozens of rebels were killed. 

A convoy of blood-streaked pickup trucks, led by Iyad Ag Ghali, made its way back toward Timbuktu. Ghali had gambled that his lightning strike against the south would overwhelm the government forces, never imagining that a powerful Western army would intervene so quickly. 

Tuareg on camels at sunset. Photo: Alice Mutasa


I met Manny Ansar for the first time a few days after the French intervention. He was sitting at a table in the outdoor bar of the guesthouse in Bamako, where I was staying, overlooking the Niger River. The haunting music of Ali Farka Touré was playing softly on the bar’s sound system. 

Ansar was a slender man in his early fifties, with a receding hairline, a narrow face, and a thin mustache. He wore jeans, sandals, and a loose-fitting, open-necked white shirt. Ansar seemed distracted, dazed by the dramatic turn of events, and still bewildered by his friend’s transformation. “I don’t understand what happened to him,” he said, going back and forth between English and French. “I could see that he had become radicalized, but I never thought that he would be capable of senseless violence.” Ansar acknowledged that Ghali might have become hardened to warfare and killing as a boy, but he had believed that the Tuareg leader’s embrace of religion had changed his life for the better. “Never violence,” he repeated. 

Even now, I thought, he seemed to be in a state of denial about Ghali’s crimes. Ansar said he heard that Ghali had been “furious” when his men overran the military camp in northern Mali in January 2012 and, in the war’s most notorious episode, killed nearly 100 people. And he was sure that Ghali had not been behind the most heinous applications of Sharia law. “I never had any proof that Iyad punished anyone who listened to music or that he tortured or executed anyone,” he insisted. “I hope that I never have such proof.” And yet it was hard to believe that Ghali’s men would have disobeyed their powerful commander; plenty of witnesses I talked to later would describe Ghali as being intimately and actively involved in every stage of the war and the brutal occupation of northern Mali. 

The Festival in the Desert had been canceled that year, and Ansar had little idea about its future or his own prospects. Ghali’s fate seemed equally unclear. Days after my first encounter with Ansar, as French forces advanced on Timbuktu, Ghali fled north from Kidal and disappeared. According to conflicting reports, he had either taken temporary refuge in Mauritania or was hiding in a mountainous region of Darfur, in western Sudan. For the moment, he appeared safe from the French special forces who were tracking down jihadists across Mali by air and by road.

When I returned to Mali a year later, sporadic rocket attacks and ambushes of French troops and civilians in the north had forced Ansar to cancel the festival for the second year in a row, but he had found a temporary solution. Ansar had organized a series of “concerts in exile” to keep the music of the north alive, and he invited me to join him at a performance of northern musicians at the Festival on the Niger in Ségou, a southern town that had never been occupied by the jihadists. 

We walked along the riverbank at dusk while waiting for the first night’s performance. On this stretch of the river, in December 1893, French officers and Senegalese infantrymen boarded a gunboat for Timbuktu—only to be massacred a month later by warriors led by Ansar’s great-great-grandfather. Ansar was a direct descendant of perhaps the greatest Tuareg rebel, yet he had been driven all his life by a yearning to knit his country together.  

At 10 p.m., Ahmed Ag Kaedi, the Tuareg musician whose instruments had been burned by Ghali’s men, climbed onto the stage with his band. Clad in boubous and veils, the men sang of the desolate beauty of the Sahara, the joys of companionship, and the loneliness of exile. To the sound of their call-and-response vocals and hypnotically repetitive guitars, ecstatic spectators rushed the small stage, surrounding Kaedi. Ansar danced among them, swept up by the music.

Soon after my visit to the Festival on the Niger, Malian and Algerian journalists reported that Iyad Ag Ghali’s whereabouts were known to security forces in the region. He was said to be hiding in the oasis of Tinzouatine, the no-man’s-land between Algeria and Mali. In exchange for immunity, Ghali had offered to negotiate for the release of Western hostages seized by Al Qaeda. The U.S. State Department had named Ghali a Specially Designated Global Terrorist and rejected any possibility of a deal with him. But the French and Algerian security forces seemed to have little interest in pursuing him. Ghali’s influence among the Tuareg remained considerable, and it was widely believed that no final agreement between the armed nomads and the government could be achieved without his approval. “Iyad has lived many lives,” Ansar told me, predicting that he would eventually resurface as a major political player in Mali. 

As for Ansar, he was forced to cancel the Festival in the Desert for the third consecutive year, and he had little hope that it would come together for 2016. Despite the presence of French and U.N. peacekeepers, the radical Islamists were resurgent. In February 2015, they launched a deadly attack in Kidal. In March, terrorists struck Bamako for the first time, firing on a café popular with expatriates. Five people, including a Frenchman and a Belgian, were killed. No place in Mali seemed safe, and the possibility of reconciliation between the north and the south seemed remote. The musicians of Tinariwen, who had been forced to flee into exile, now traveled throughout the West, still singing about their dream—the nation of Azawad.