A powerful al-Qaida-affiliated leader in the Sahel has been in secret talks with armed groups in northern Mali that, like him, are fighting militants backed by the Islamic State group, sources close to the meetings said.
The jihadist is Iyad Ag Ghaly, an ethnic Tuareg who heads the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM), which has been battling the self-described Islamic State (IS) for influence in the Sahel.
He has recently held clandestine meetings in northern Mali, including with leaders of armed groups that have been fighting bloody battles with IS jihadists, the sources said.
They confirmed the talks had taken place but did not comment on mounting speculation that the GSIM would join forces with these groups.
Northern Mali is the birthplace of a jihadist insurgency that has destabilized the entire region and stoked fears that it could spread to countries farther south on the Gulf of Guinea.
Across the Sahel, thousands have died and millions have fled their homes to escape the violence.
"I was received on an individual basis and alone by Iyad Ag Ghaly lkala in the Kidal region last week. Others went in small groups. He said the same thing to everyone, about uniting the sons of the Kidal region," a local leader told AFP, asking not to be identified.
Kidal is a crossroads region in the north that is not under the control of the Malian state but by a coalition of predominantly Tuareg groups called the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA).
The CMA launched a fight for regional independence in 2012 that was joined by jihadists, and which they later fanned into their insurgency.
In 2015, the CMA signed a peace agreement with the Malian government and pro-state armed groups.
Separate forces against IS
Today, the Kidal region is relatively unscathed from the violence sweeping Mali.
But south of the region, in the Gao and Menaka areas, the CMA, pro-state groups and the GSIM have separately been fighting IS for months.
Hundreds of civilians have died and there has been a mass exodus of people fleeing their homes.
The source who met Ag Ghaly said "he paid tribute to the expected amalgamation" of the CMA's diverse groups, which could take place in February.
Ag Ghaly has been considered by many Malian commentators and officials as an unavoidable figure in efforts to end the country's prolonged crisis.
He was in contact with the government years ago, but the question of a dialogue between jihadists and the authorities has been off the political radar since the 2020 coup.
The recent meetings "aren't new," another leader in the north told AFP, saying that Ag Ghaly had always been in touch with powerful men in his region.
Ag Ghaly also met representatives of the civilian populations, telling them of his willingness to "defend Sharia and protect them from the Malian army and Russian mercenaries," a local government official said.
The ruling junta has forged close ties with the Kremlin, bringing in operatives that France and others say are from the Wagner paramilitary group.
Ag Ghaly "wants to impose himself as the uncontested leader of the northern Sahel," said a foreign diplomat, adding that the question was how the junta would respond to "this worrying new landscape."
The 2015 peace agreement has often been deemed crucial to efforts to end Mali's bloodshed, but after much fanfare following its signing, it remains dormant.
In December, the CMA and other groups suspended participation in the deal, blaming what they called the junta's "inertia" in tackling the crisis in the northeast.
An international team is expected to head to Kidal on Wednesday with the aim of reviving contacts over the agreement, diplomatic sources said.