European Eye on Radicalization
Sudan has had a politically volatile four years during which two military coup d’états have taken place. This process has now culminated in overt fighting on the streets of the capital, Khartoum, between two faction of the junta that took over. Sudan has a long history as a centre of terrorist activity dating back three decades. This was somewhat curbed in recent years, but if the present situation presages a civil war, it could create conditions that return Sudan to being a terrorist threat to itself and its neighbours.
The First Wave of Terrorism in Sudan: Al-Qaeda and Iran
In June 1989, a Brigadier-General in the Sudanese Army, Omar al-Bashir, took power in a coup, overthrowing the elected civilian government. Al-Bashir allied himself with Hassan al-Turabi, the leader of the Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood, who had created a Brotherhood-style Islamist organization, the National Islamic Front (NIF). The exact balance of power between Al-Bashir and Al-Turabi is difficult to assess precisely, but in the early phase up to at least the mid-1990s, Al-Turabi appeared to have the upper-hand.
As the 9/11 Commission Report documents, it was Al-Turabi personally who invited Osama bin Laden, as leader of the nascent Al-Qaeda, to Sudan in 1989, an offer Bin Laden accepted in 1991. Bin Laden “agreed to help [the Sudanese regime] in an ongoing war against African Christian separatists in southern Sudan and also to do some road building. Turabi in return would let Bin Ladin use Sudan as a base for worldwide business operations and for preparations for jihad,” the 9/11 Commission reports.
In effect, Al-Qaeda and the Sudanese state became interfused. Recognising this reality, in 1993 the United States designated Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism. By then, Al-Turabi—who, like many Muslim Brothers, had good relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran—had helped mediate a deal between Bin Laden and the Iranian theocracy, represented in the form of Imad Mughniyah, an officer in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the military chief of the IRGC’s Lebanon-based unit, Hezbollah. Mughniyah was a long-time terrorist whose career started in the 1970s with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), before he had switched over to the IRGC, which the PLO helped construct in Lebanon in the years before the 1978-79 Islamic Revolution in Iran.
Al-Turabi assisted in this because he sought to overcome the Sunni-Shi’a divide to create a common Islamist front against the West. The Iranian regime wanted the same thing. Iran’s imperialism operates through an IRGC militia structure across the region, and in recent years, with Iran’s merciless repression of the rebellious Sunni population in Syria and to a lesser extent the Houthis’ relentless jihad in Yemen, this has acquired a sectarian coloring. But this is strategically circumstantial, rather than ideologically mandated. The clerical regime’s absolute wilayat al-faqih doctrine conceives of Iran’s Supreme Leader as the commander of all Muslims.
This was the context of Iran’s pact with Al-Qaeda, an alliance that endures to this day. The pact led to the training of Al-Qaeda’s jihadists in the Bekaa Valley by the IRGC, enabling Al-Qaeda to become more proficient at terrorism throughout the 1990s, using Sudan for facilitation networks and resource generation, especially for the 1998 bombing of the East African Embassies. Bin Laden personally had moved back to Afghanistan by the time of the 1998 attack, but the U.S. retaliation targeted the Al-Shifa factory in Khartoum that was accused of using Al-Qaeda financing to manufacture chemical weapons for the Sudanese government’s ongoing civil war in the south.
The U.S. also accused another state-sponsor of terrorism of involvement at Al-Shifa: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Al-Bashir had undisguised friendly relations with Saddam—Sudan had supported Saddam’s annexation of Kuwait in 1990—but the accusation Saddam was involved at Al-Shifa was controversial at the time, and has remained so ever since, as has the accusation in toto that the factory was making chemical weapons. It is notable, however, that the U.S. officials involved in the decision have never wavered from their conviction that Al-Bashir’s regime was involved in an illegal weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program and had opened up Sudan as a playground for a nexus of rogue actors that included Saddam and Bin Laden.
Al-Turabi’s Fall and the Darfur War
In 2000, Al-Bashir arrested Al-Turabi, and would have him arrested several more times before Al-Turabi’s death in 2016. Al-Bashir sought two goals by doing this: to secure total power within Sudan and to explore ways of lifting Sudan’s isolation internationally. This proved to be well-timed: after 9/11, Al-Bashir could present his moves against Al-Turabi and the militant Islamists Al-Turabi had gathered in Sudan as part of the “War on Terror”. But the potential opening was short-lived.
In 2003, the non-Arab, mostly black African Muslim population in the Darfur area of Sudan erupted in rebellion after years of discriminatory policies and Al-Bashir’s regime responded with a ferocious campaign of massacres and ethnic cleansing. The Sudanese government utilised not only its own army and police, but—an important actor at the present time—paramilitary formations of Arab nomadic tribesmen known as the Janjaweed. 300,000 people were killed in the Darfur war, which the United Nations declared officially over in August 2009, though a low-intensity conflict and various “peace” initiatives continued long afterwards.
Five months before the “end” of the war, any possibility of the international community engaging with Al-Bashir was ended when he became the first sitting head of state to be indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC): an arrest warrant on charges of genocide was issued against Al-Bashir.
Sudan’s involvement in the war in the south did at last come to a formal end in 2011, with the secession of South Sudan, albeit that new state promptly collapsed into an internal civil war that was announced somewhat artificially to have ended with a peace agreement in 2018.
Al-Bashir’s Fall and a Failed Transition
Al-Bashir began to reorient the rump of Sudan in 2015, severing ties with Iran and joining the Saudi-led coalition trying to stop Iran’s Houthis rampaging in Yemen. In April 2019, almost exactly thirty years after Al-Bashir took power, he fell the way he had risen, through a military coup. An interim Sovereignty Council was created, theoretically a mix of civilians and military officers, intended purportedly to guide a transition to democracy. In 2020, the U.S. endorsed this view by taking Sudan off the state sponsors of terrorism list.
In reality, the transitional council was dominated by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who ordered the rape and massacre of protesters in Khartoum in June 2019. Crucially, Al-Burhan’s orders for atrocity were carried out, as Al-Bashir’s had been, by the Janjaweed, reflagged as the “Rapid Support Forces” (RSF) in 2013 and led by Mohamed Dagalo, almost universally known as “Hemedti” (“Little Mohamed”). Hemedti had helped Al-Burhan depose Al-Bashir and in October 2021, when Al-Burhan terminated the pretence of sharing power with civilians, launching a second coup to purge the Sovereignty Council, Hemedti helped him again.
The situation for the last eighteen months has been one where Al-Burhan is nominally head of the Sovereignty Council, with Hemedti as his deputy. The exact lines of authority between the two men were distinctly indistinct, though Al-Burhan clearly saw Hemedti as one of the officers under his command. That uneasy compact is what has now broken down, as Al-Burhan looked to bring Hemedti’s RSF formally under his control as part of the “regular” Army. Al-Burhan accused Hemedti of trying to launch a coup against him; who fired first remains unclear.
Since the fighting began on 15 April, Hemedti (or whoever controls his Twitter account) has proven very skilled at propaganda, seeking to cast the fighting in Khartoum as between himself, supporting democracy on one side, and the “Kizan” (“deep state” or remnants of Al-Bashir’s regime), a cabal of “radical Islamist” officers, on the other side. Needless to say, this is very convenient, given Hemedti was until recently an enthusiastic servant of Al-Bashir’s Islamist regime and a close collaborator of Al-Burhan as his Islamist successor.
Nearly 200 people have been killed in the fighting and 800 wounded. The home of the European Union Ambassador has been attacked and an American diplomatic convoy have been fired upon in Khartoum, while the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that violence is spreading quickly beyond the capital. A proposed twenty-four-hour ceasefire due to start at 18:00 on 18 April was violated on all sides.
Terrorism Risks Going Forward
All around Sudan there are jihadists ready to take advantage should the situation deteriorate.
Al-Qaeda’s most powerful “affiliate”, Al-Shabab in Somalia, is capable of attacks into Ethiopia, on Sudan’s south-eastern border. The possibility of infiltration from that quarter cannot be ruled out. It might also be noted that Somalia is itself a case study of what can happen to a country that descends into all-out civil war: since the collapse of the Somali government in 1991, there has been continuous war, fragmentation of the state, and large tracts of territory captured by jihadists involved in international terrorism.
Al-Qaeda still clearly has an interest in jihad in Sudan. Just over six months ago, a jihadist publishing house believed to be linked to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), based in Yemen, released a book comprised of the writings of Abu Hudhayfah al-Sudani, a jihadist ideologue, which “provides ideological justification for waging jihad against the Sudanese state, as well as guidelines and rules for prospective jihadis to follow when forming a new [united] entity [for such a war].”
AQAP might seem to be some distance away, but Al-Qaeda’s networks in Yemen and Africa closely coordinate and share resources, and to Sudan’s west, in the Sahel, as EER discussed in a recent webinar, Al-Qaeda is highly active.
Sudan now has the buffer of South Sudan between itself and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where there is an increasingly potent Islamic State (ISIS) branch, but with the instability and lack of state capacity in South Sudan, this is hardly infallible protection if the jihadists are drawn to Sudan by security vacuums. And, again, to the west, ISIS poses a threat. The most powerful ISIS branch in Africa, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), is based in Nigeria, which is at some remove from Sudan, but ISWAP is well-integrated with ISIS’s other African units, such as the Sahel-based Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), and, as was touched on in our recent webinar, these ISIS networks seem to have tentacles in Sudan already.
The ideal outcome would be a swift end to the violence between Al-Burhan and Hemedti, and international engagement of the kind that was not in evidence before 2021 to pressure the current leaders to resume a process that gets Sudan to some more representative and responsible form of government that can stabilize the country. The alternative, which sadly seems more likely at this stage, is a continued spiral of violence that creates an environment—with ungoverned spaces and terrible incentives for the warring factions to collaborate with anyone who can offer assistance—that terrorists can exploit. This is very dangerous.