The Mysterious Ideology Behind Sudan’s Toughest Rebels
Know your Sudanese rebel groups — the JEM
The Justice and Equality Movement, or JEM, is the most successful rebel army in Sudan. It has far greater reach and more battlefield successes than its competitors. Which isn’t that peculiar. What’s far stranger is that the JEM follows a mysterious, shadowy ideology.
As we’ve detailed previously, the Darfur-based rebel group SLM/A and the southern SPLM/A-N dream of an ideology known as New Sudan. This concept — which has gone nowhere, practically speaking — envisions overthrowing the regime in Khartoum and creating a secular state based on democracy and equality.
JEM is different. Analysts suggest the group wants to establish an Islamic republic, perhaps even a theocracy. But if so, it may be very different from what the West has come to expect from Islamist militants.
Or that may just be wishful thinking.
Some analysts connect the JEM to the National Islamic Front from the 1980s and 1990s. The NIF’s leader, Hassan Al Turabi, championed an Islamic state in which all Muslims — whatever their ethnicity or race — could achieve equality and live in a democracy. It was like an Islamic spin on New Sudan, at least in theory.
Al Turabi’s ideal attracted Muslim liberals and moderates, but failed in practice. In 1989, army Col. Omar Al Bashir overthrew the Sudanese government and became president. The NIF became the ruling party and Bashir’s most important ally. In the Second Sudanese Civil War to follow, the army enslaved, killed, raped and tortured animist and Christian blacks, whom the NIF deemed infidels. Sudan hosted and sponsored terrorists, including Carlos the Jackal and Osama Bin Laden.
Yet the alliance didn’t last. In 1999, Bashir turned on Al Turabi, imprisoning him after the international community pressured Sudan. The NIF fractured, with one faction still governing the country as the National Congress. Al Turabi has been in and out of jail throughout the 2000s.
Above — a Sudanese air force MiG-29. Photo via Wikimedia. At top — JEM fighters depicted in a propaganda video. Photo via YouTube
With Al Turabi marginalized, JEM moved in. Many of JEM’s leaders, including founding ideologue Khalil Ibrahim — who died in a 2011 airstrike — were once members of the NIF. Opponents of JEM accuse the group of working for the Popular Congress Party, Al Turabi’s latest front organization, but cite only circumstantial evidence.
However suspicious the JEM’s history, it has worked alongside the secular SLM/A. Many of the movement’s founders coauthored The Black Book: Imbalance of Power and Wealth in Sudan, a 2000 manuscript documenting how Arabs from the north had controlled Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, since independence. JEM’s website even published the second part of The Black Book in 2002.
On April 25, 2003, JEM went to war. It began when a small army of JEM and SLM/A fighters riding in Toyota Land Cruisers overran a military airbase in Darfur — a surprise attack. “They destroyed seven planes, killed more than 70 government soldiers, and took the commander of the Sudanese air force hostage,” Rebecca Hamilton wrote in the book Fighting for Darfur.
“Hardliners in Al Bashir’s regime decided that the insurgency must be defeated militarily and quickly,” Hamilton added. “The trouble was that the Sudanese army, whose foot soldiers were largely drawn from Darfur, could not be relied upon to crush their own people.”
To bolster the army troops, Khartoum organized the Janjaweed — a coalition of Arab militias. JEM recruited from the Zaghawa, one of Darfur’s three black tribes. Those tribesmen drew support from their relatives in Chad and, later, the Chadian government.
Sudan and Chad then engaged in a proxy war.
It got worse. In May 2008, hundreds of JEM rebels raced across the desert and stormed Omdurman, the country’s commercial center opposite the White Nile. Hundreds of people likely died in the street fighting that followed, including a Russian adviser whose MiG-29 was reportedly shot down.
Frightened at the rebels’ reach, the Sudanese government reached peace with Chad in 2010.
JEM has since proven resilient despite several setbacks. In 2010, Chad expelled Khalil Ibrahim and other rebel leaders, who moved to Libya. That country’s civil war forced Khalil and his allies back to Darfur in 2011. The same year, as they traveled from Darfur to Kordofan, an apparent Sudanese airstrike killed Khalil.
Khalil’s brother Gibril, a Japanese-speaking economist who had little experience in military strategy or tactics, took over. Many members of JEM then abandoned the movement, defected or founded their own factions, complaining that the group in general and the leadership in particular revolved around one tribe and one family. However, Gibril has been relatively more successful than the SLM/A in containing defections.
Today, JEM — like the SLM/A and the SPLM/A-N — seems to have allied itself with South Sudan. This bizarre alliance appears to be driven more by military opportunity than political affinity, given that the South Sudanese government would likely have little sympathy for an Islamist group but much reason to keep Khartoum distracted.
Leaving aside JEM’s worrying historical connection to Al Turabi’s ideology, it’s not clear the rebels have much in common with the extremists so common in the Middle East — at least not officially. “Islam will not be imposed on non-Muslims in Sudan,” JEM representative Adam Issa Abakar told War Is Boring. “There is no provision in Islam for this, and the imposition of sharia on Christians resulted in the Second Sudanese Civil War.”
This line works well for the JEM, which wants to distance itself from Al Turabi’s disastrous Islamic state. According to Abakar, the rebels are moderate in comparison — even non-ideological.
“We like the idea of New Sudan, but it is only a concept,” Abakar said. “What does it mean? We don’t know all the details for this project. We don’t advocate imposing any ideology, including New Sudan, on the Sudanese people. We only want a civil state that respects the rights of all individuals.”
Still, there appears to be a disturbing similarity between JEM’s Western-friendly terminology and how Al Turabi’s claimed that his ideology was about democracy, equality and human rights before he seized power and contradicted it. Since JEM is far from the centers of power, the rebels only need to describe what they will do if they ever get there.
Nor will the JEM ever accept secularism, proposing instead that regions should choose their own governments, with Muslim regions adopting Islamist systems. When asked whether the rebels might want a secular state, a sensitive subject for the movement, Abakar rejected the notion. “JEM is suspicious of secularism and opposes it,” he said.
“When 70 or 80 percent of the country is Muslim — or 90 percent as with Sudan — secularism is not a proper form of government. This is why we want a civil state, not a secular one. We propose that each region choose its idea of government democratically and independently. Many Sudanese are illiterate and resort to tribalism.”
“They do not understand secularism and would oppose you if you suggested it, calling you names.”
JEM has outlined other plans for Sudan’s future. First, reunite Sudan with South Sudan — which gained independence in 2011. Second, overthrow the Sudanese government. Third, establish a reconciliation process modeled on post-Apartheid South Africa. It’s ambitious but dubious, as other Sudanese rebel groups have made similar proposals without results.
Despite contradicting itself and its vague ideology, JEM scares Khartoum the most. In 2011, JEM allied with the SLM/A and the SPLM/A-N, forming the coalition Sudanese Revolutionary Front. An Islamist group in a secular alliance, JEM remains an outlier, yet it has expanded from Darfur to the Blue Nile, the Nuba Mountains and other regions of Sudan.
The movement has also grow beyond its tribal roots, even recruiting Arab veterans of the Second Sudanese Civil War and former fighters from the Janjaweed. By contrast, the SLM/A and the SPLM/A–N conduct operations in their remote territories, hoping for New Sudan without ever realizing it.