U.N. Warns Darfur Could Become a Jihadist Staging Ground
What could possibly make the terrible war in Darfur—now more than a decade old—worse than it already is? Islamist terrorism.
In the United Nations’ annual Sudan report, a group of panelists warned that Darfur could become a safe haven for jihadi militant groups.
The report, released in January, states the unstable desert region is potentially vulnerable, in no small part because of increased religious violence throughout North Africa.
“The panel finds that Darfur could be ‘potentially fertile ground’ for infiltration by radical Islamists,” the U.N. report states. “Owing to its porous borders and the cross-border family solidarity between Sudanese tribes and their African ‘cousins’ of Arab descent in the Central African Republic, Libya, Mali and the Niger.”
The possibility certainly exists. Khartoum has a long flirted with Islamism, and Sudan has both sponsored—and been targeted by—terrorism.
But both sides of the conflict in Darfur have a complicated history with Islamist groups. This could make it hard for jihadists to operate effectively in the region.
In 1989, Sudanese army Col. Omar Bashir—an ethnic Sudanese Arab—overthrew his government. While consolidating his power, he allied with Islamist leader Hassan Al Turabi, the chief of the National Islamic Front.
Bashir became president-for-life, and Al Turabi was an important ally. The two established Sharia law in the north of the country, and Sudan became a popular destination for extremists to lie low and plan operations.
For about six years, Al Qaeda leader and 9/11 mastermind Osama Bin Laden lived in Sudan in exile.
Bin Laden went to Sudan in 1991 after falling out with the House of Saud.
The royal family allowed western troops into the kingdom during the Persian Gulf War, enraging Bin Laden. He bought a house in Khartoum, where he lived with his four wives, and bought a vacation home overlooking the Blue Nile.
From his new base, he planned operations and networked with other Islamists. He became close to Al Turabi, and with Ayman Al Zawahiri of Egyptian Islamic Jihad—whose members formed the original core of Al Qaeda.
Al Turabi advocated an alliance between Sunni and Shia Islamists to wage war against the United States and Israel—and facilitated contact between Iran and Sunni militant groups.
“In late 1991 or 1992, discussions in Sudan between Al Qaeda and Iranian operatives led to an informal agreement to cooperate in providing support—even if only training—for actions carried out primarily against Israel and the United States,” the 9/11 Commission noted.
This led to a series of brief training exercises, but little long-term cooperation.
It was from Sudan that Bin Laden plotted the 1993 World Trade Center attack. In the aftermath, the U.S. State Department marked Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism. While in Sudan, the Saudis stripped Bin Laden of his citizenship and his family disowned him.
Besides Bin Laden’s extremist activities, he was a well-known businessman and entrepreneur—serving as the Sudan agent for the British firm Hunting Surveys, according to Vanity Fair. He invested in trading firms and construction companies.
There are allegations that Bin Laden’s followers took part in the Sudanese Civil War, aiding Khartoum’s troops in their fight against the black Christians and animists in the South.
Bin Laden also boasted that his followers took part in the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, helping warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid’s followers shoot down American helicopters. But experts disagree on what role—if any—they actually played.
In 1995, Islamic Jihad carried out an unsuccessful assassination attempt against Egyptian Pres. Hosni Mubarak. Al Turabi praised the attack. But the increasing tempo of terrorist activity—abetted by Khartoum—led to further sanctions against Sudan.
Bashir’s government now saw its allies as a liability. By 1996, under pressure to leave—and frustrated with Bashir’s unwillingness to fight against the west—Bin Laden returned to Afghanistan.
But Al Qaeda wasn’t done in Africa. Far from it.
In 1998, EIJ launched simultaneous bombings against U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, killing 224 people. In retaliation, U.S. Pres. Bill Clinton authorized a missile strike on the Al Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan.
American officials claimed the facility was producing VX nerve agents, and accused the owners of the plant of having ties to Al Qaeda. These claims are disputed—U.S. intelligence officials bitterly debated the voracity of the charges.
Bashir then arrested Al Turabi a year later. He has been in and out of prison since, frequently running afoul of Khartoum.
Jihadi groups have urged attacks on U.N. peacekeepers in Darfur. In 2007, Bin Laden called for a holy war against any international troops deployed to protect civilians and aid workers in the region.
“It is the duty of the people of Islam in the Sudan and its environs, especially the Arabian Peninsula, to perform jihad against the Crusader invaders and wage armed rebellion to remove those who let them in,” Bin Laden declared.
But nothing came of it. In Darfur, both sides of the conflicts are overwhelmingly Muslim. Black African Darfuri tribesmen fight Khartoum-backed Arab militias over water wells and grazing land. Race—not religion—is the loudest rallying cry.
The war has killed more than 400,000 people and displaced millions. No jihadist groups have claimed credit for any of the deaths.
But Al Turabi is an active supporter of the Darfuri rebellion, and allegedly a central figure of the rebel Justice and Equality Movement which is trying to unite Arab and Black Muslims against his one time ally Bashir. In May 2008, Al Turabi praised a JEM attack in the heart of Khartoum, not long before his 2009 arrest.
But as the U.N. report points out, many Darfuris are Sufi Muslims who see little appeal in the ideologies of Sudanese Islamist groups—or foreign groups for that matter—and they’re very, very protective of their tribal traditions. The report adds that Darfuris “are resistant to the Muslim Brotherhood ideology of the ruling National Congress Party.”
At times, Sufi loathing of Sunni fundamentalism has turned physical.
In 1992, a Sufi exile named Hashim Bedreddin Mohammed—a karate black belt—put Al Turabi into a brief coma with two knifehand strikes in an attempt on the Islamist’s life in Canada.
It’s not clear that either side of the conflict would necessarily welcome jihadists. In many ways, the report suggests Darfur’s biggest threats aren’t new ones, but rather the same old ones we see every year.
The peacekeepers have struggled to enforce their mandate. The U.N. force is plagued with logistical problems, insufficient firepower, and international backers defaulting on financial and material commitments. Entering 2015, things aren’t looking much better.
Though the U.N. report showed an overall decrease in Sudanese air strikes in 2014, it suggests little decline in the targeting of civilians.
The report also noted that sexual violence hasn’t decreased in the slightest. Last year, the Sudanese government blocked peacekeepers from investigating a mass rape in the village of Tabit. After repeated attempts, Bashir told U.N. troops to make plans to leave the country.
So suppose Islamists enter the fray. There’s a good possibility U.N. troops won’t be in a position to stop them. But who knows? Maybe if terror camps start to spring up, people will finally be able to find Darfur on a map.