“Old Wine in Old Bottles?” A Security Q and A on Post-Coup Sudan

Andrew McGregor

April 19, 2019 Yasir Arman (Reuters)

Veteran opposition politician Yasir Arman called the April 11 military coup in Sudan nothing more than “old wine in old bottles.” Arman suggested it had preserved “the political and economic structures of the old system,” the military-Islamist alliance that has ruled Sudan since an Islamist-backed military coup brought Brigadier Omar al-Bashir to power in 1989 (Sudan Tribune, April 12). Al-Bashir’s regime was based on three pillars: Islamism, military governance and Arab supremacy.

Despite the coup, demonstrations and sit-ins continue at military facilities beyond the capital, in places such as Port Sudan, al-Gedaref, Kadugli, al-Obeid, and camps for the internally displaced in Darfur (Radio Dabanga, April 16).

Lieutenant General ‘Abd al-Fatah al-Burhan (Daily Nation)

The coup leaders have formed a Transitional Military Council (TMC) under Lieutenant General ‘Abd al-Fatah al-Burhan, who commanded Sudanese forces in Yemen, where he formed ties to the Saudi military and its Gulf allies. Most recently he was Inspector General of the Sudanese Army. Al-Burhan replaced the first leader of the TMC, Lieutenant General Muhammad Ahmad Awad ibn Awf, who lasted less than 24 hours. Ibn Awf is a prominent Islamist and al-Bashir loyalist who has worked closely with Darfur’s Janjaweed militias (al-Jazeera, April 20). Under U.S. sanctions for his activities in Darfur, Ibn Awf was unacceptable to both Washington and the protesters. The former chief of Sudan’s Joint Staff, Lieutenant General Kamal ‘Abd al-Maruf al-Mahi (a leading Islamist suspected of having political ambitions), was relieved of his post as deputy chief of the TMC at the same time General Ibn Awf was replaced. [1]

The Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), a leading force in the demonstrations, is demanding nothing less than a civilian government (Asharq al-Aswat, April 13). The SPA is part of the Alliance for Freedom and Change, which includes the leftist National Consensus Forces and Nidea Sudan, a Paris-based group including opposition politicians and the leaders of armed movements (Middle East Online, April 16). The army is unlikely to clean house, which will continue to frustrate those demanding significant change.

What is al-Bashir’s fate?

Al-Bashir and his two brothers have been moved to the notorious Khobar Prison in Khartoum North (al-Jazeera, April 17). The military council has stated it will prosecute al-Bashir inside Sudan (APA News, April 12). The military has been repeatedly purged until the officer corps consists mostly of men whose fortunes and views are closely aligned with the ex-president’s. These officers may seek to send al-Bashir to a safe haven outside Sudan and avoid a nasty and public prosecution of regime misdoings. Uganda has said it is willing to consider offering asylum to al-Bashir (Monitor [Kampala], April 16).

Al-Bashir still faces two ICC arrest warrants for “massive human rights violations” including war crimes and genocide. However, the ICC lacks the means to detain the former president, and 33 nations (including China and Russia) have ignored the warrants by allowing al-Bashir to make visits to their countries. The ICC is demanding that the new government in Khartoum must surrender al-Bashir as well as four other individuals wanted on charges related to the Darfur conflict, including NCP leader Ahmad Muhammad Harun, Janjaweed leader ‘Ali Muhammad ‘Ali ‘Abd al-Rahman (aka ‘Ali Kushayb), former minister of defense Abd al-Rahim Muhammad Hussayn and Darfur rebel ‘Abdallah Banda Abakr Nourain (Al-Ahram [Cairo], April 12; for Harun, see AIS Special Report, March 3 ). The military council will not take action on these demands and it would require a massive and unprecedented power shift in Sudan for a future civilian government to surrender these individuals for ICC prosecutions.

What happens to the National Congress Party (NCP)?

Recognizing the hold the ruling NCP had over the Sudanese political system, the SPA has demanded its dissolution and the arrest of its leaders. The TMC has said NCP representatives will not be part of the transitional government (Sudan Tribune, April 15).

What happens to the Rapid Support Force (RSF)?

The RSF (Quwat al-Da’m al-Seri), was created by the NISS in 2013 to absorb Janjaweed gunmen into a more manageable unit with a central control (Terrorism Monitor, May 30 2014). The intent was to deploy the RSF as a counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism force composed mostly of Darfur Arabs. The unit is led by Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemeti” a member of the Mahariya branch of the Northern Rizayqat Arabs of Darfur. Daglo is now the deputy chief of the TMC.

Ahmad al-Harun, Omar al-Bashir and Muhammad Daglo Hamdan

Though reviled by many Sudanese for its methods, the RSF has had some success in counter-insurgency operations in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile State. It operates in large numbers along the border with Libya, where it hunts Darfuri rebels and interrupts the flow of illegal migrants from east Africa through Sudan to Libya and on into Europe. It has also been deployed in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, where Daglo served under al-Burhan, who may now rely on the RSF’s support.

There have been calls in Sudan to disband the RSF since its creation and its use of violence in the streets of Khartoum to repress the anti-regime demonstrations has not made it any more popular.

The appointment of Hamdan as deputy leader of the TMC does not indicate major change in the power structure and will anger the Darfur rebel movements who accuse him of ordering atrocities. Nonetheless, Daglo has been meeting with US and UK diplomats as the TMC’s representative (Anadolou Agency [Ankara], April 14).

What happens to the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS)?

The SPA and many demonstrators have called for the dissolution of the much-feared NISS (Jihaz al-Amn al-Watani wa’l-Mukhabarat) and the regime’s paramilitaries, such as the RSF, the Popular Defense Forces (PDF) and the Haras al-Hudud (Border Guards) (Reuters, April 16). NISS director Salah ‘Abdallah Muhammad Salah (Salah Gosh) resigned on April 13 but was not detained. He was replaced by Lieutenant General Abu Bakr Mustafa, putting the intelligence agency under military control for now. (Reuters, April 14; AFP/France24, April 14).

Ex-NISS Director Salah Gosh (al-Arabiya)

Gosh was NISS director from 2004 to 2009 but was suspected of plotting against al-Bashir in 2012. He was brought back into the fold in February 2018, when he was once again made chief of the NISS to subdue dissent. The NISS used rubber bullets, tear gas and live ammunition to disperse the demonstrators (Al-Jazeera, April 8). Roving squads of agents in pick-up trucks seized individuals and took them away to “ghost houses” where their unrecorded detention usually included torture. The NISS announced the release of all political prisoners on April 11, but there are reports that many protesters remain in detention (Radio Dabanga, April 16).

The snipers who continually took shots at demonstrators from buildings outside the army’s compound in Khartoum were believed to be NISS agents who defied the army by engaging in firefights with soldiers (Middle East Monitor, April 9). The clashes were indicative of the serious differences the NISS has with the military. The NISS was given extraordinary and extrajudicial powers to act as al-Bashir’s personal protection and enforcement unit. The opportunities for enrichment presented by NISS membership created a sore point with the poorly paid military.

There is no consensus in the opposition as to what should be done with the NISS. The Islamist Popular Congress Party (PCP), led by Dr. ‘Ali al-Haj, is calling for the dissolution of the NISS and the transfer of its responsibilities to the police (Radio Dabanga, April 16). However, the Umma Party of two-time Sudanese prime minister Sadiq al-Mahdi and the center-left Sudanese Congress Party (SCP) of Omar Yusuf al-Digair have called for only a change in the NISS leadership (Sudan Tribune, April 16).

The U.S. will watch Salah Gosh’s fate carefully – the notorious NISS director cooperated closely with the CIA on counter-terrorism issues and was even welcomed in Washington.

Will armed opposition continue?

Since independence, Sudan has been dominated by three powerful riverine tribes from Sudan’s north, the Ja’alin, Danagla and Sha’iqiya (al-Bashir is Ja’alin). This has created enormous internal tensions as Khartoum tries to control restive non-Arab ethnic groups in guerrilla-friendly regions such as Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile State. While a host of armed opposition groups operate in Darfur, the armed opposition in Blue Nile State and South Kordofan consists of two factions of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), led by Malik Agar and ‘Abd al- Aziz al-Hilu respectively (for al-Hilu, see MLM, July 2011).

Most of the major rebel movements have refused to engage with the regime for years and appear ready to wait for a new civilian government to renew negotiations, likely under AU mediation.

Malik Agar, leader of the rebellion in Blue Nile State (Sudan Tribune)

Al-Burhan’s appointment as head of the TMC has angered many in Darfur, who accuse him of being “the architect of the genocide” in Darfur and regard his new role as “a play of the Islamists to retain power” (Radio Dabanga, April 15). Burhan is well known in Darfur for his threats to exterminate the Fur people. A leading Darfur rebel, ‘Abd al-Wahid al-Nur (Fur), said that the Sudan “we dream of, cannot come through these racists like ‘Abd al-Fatah al-Burhan, Awad Ibn Awf, Omar al-Bashir and their ilk” (Sudan Tribune, April 16).

‘Abd al-Aziz al-Hilu, leader of the rebellion in South Kordofan (Nuba Reports)

The South Kordofan and Blue Nile factions of the SPLM/A-N declared a unilateral three-month ceasefire on April 17 to give the military “a chance for a peaceful and quick transfer of power to civilians” (al-Jazeera, April 17). Nonetheless, there are reports of escalating violence in Darfur, where hundreds of thousands of displaced indigenous Africans see an opportunity to take revenge on regime associates and reclaim land seized by the regime and given to Arab settlers, many from outside Sudan (al-Jazeera, April 17).

Darfur’s rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) has demanded the release of all war-related detainees from Darfur, Kordofan and Blue Nile State, saying that a refusal to release them “Is a call for the continuation of the war” (Radio Dabanga, April 15).

What about the Army?

The Army has invited the opposition groups to nominate a new civilian prime minister, but the question is whether the PM would serve under or above the TMC, which is unlikely to relinquish control until arrangements have been made for leading military and security figures to make a post-coup “soft-landing.”

During the demonstrations outside military headquarters in Khartoum, low-ranking troops and junior officers emerged at times from the military headquarters to interact with the demonstrators or offer refuge from NISS snipers. Al-Burhan listened to the demonstrators, but he and other officers will view their ongoing role as preventing the disintegration of the country, by whatever means necessary.

The military says it is only interested in holding the defense and interior ministries, which could remove the security sector from civilian oversight and bring the police and intelligence services under military control (Africanews, April 15).

Can the Islamists use the coup to their advantage?

Much of the Islamist political elite has been put under arrest, including al-Bashir loyalist and former prime minister Muhammad Tahir Ayala, leading NCP member Awad al-Jaz and two former vice-presidents, Berri Hassan Saleh and ‘Ali ‘Uthman Muhammad Taha, the latter a powerful Islamist who can call on his own supporters for political muscle. It should be recalled, however, that such arrests are often for show – the Islamist behind al-Bashir’s 1989 coup, Dr. Hassan al-Turabi, was sent to prison for several months after al-Bashir’s coup 1989 to disguise the Islamist nature of the new regime.

‘Ali al-Hajj, leader of the Islamist Popular Congress Party (PCP) (Alleastafrica)

The military has excluded Islamist parties from talks on Sudan’s political future. Islamists and supporters of the old regime are painting the demonstrators as secularists intent on attacking Sudan’s traditional Islamic faith. (Middle East Monitor, April 9). The dissolution of the NCP would weaken the Islamist grip on Sudan, but the movement has proved to be highly resilient in the face of setbacks.

Besides hosting Osama bin Laden and his followers in the 1990s (they were eventually expelled), religious extremists outside of Khartoum’s control were kept largely in check through most of al-Bashir’s rule. Neighboring states fear a new regime might allow extremists to operate in Sudan, whether deliberately or through negligence. According to an Egyptian government source, Cairo “cannot afford a leadership emerging in Libya or Sudan that tolerates, or even worse condones, militant Islamic activity. This is why we… are keeping a close eye on any possible transition of power in Sudan” (Al-Ahram [Cairo], April 10).

What of the Economic Crisis?

The security situation in Sudan cannot be eased until the uncertainty created by the ongoing economic crisis is resolved. The problems are many, and include a declining currency, raging inflation, massive unemployment, inability to replace oil revenues lost with the separation of South Sudan and the cost of fighting endless rebellions in the provinces.

If the general staff possesses any economic skills, they have yet to be revealed. Unfortunately, most of the TMC’s attention will be drawn to carefully watching their colleagues and rivals for signs of a counter-coup, a persistent danger in these conditions. The generals will also be concerned for their own future; as indicated by their demand for the defense and interior ministry portfolios in a future civilian government, they will work hard to ease their own safe transition into a new regime.

Note

1.The TMC, as announced by General al-Burhan, consists of:

General ‘Abd al-Fatah al-Burhan, President

Lieutenant General Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemeti,” Vice President

Lieutenant General Shams al-Din Kabbashi Ibrahim Shanto, member and spokesman

General Omar Zine al-‘Abdin Muhammad al-Shaykh, member

General Jalal al-Din al-Shaykh al-Tayib, member

General Mustafa Muhammad Mustafa Ahmad, member

General Yassir ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Atta, member

Airforce General Salah ‘Abd al-Khalig Said ‘Ali, member

Police General al-Tayib Babikir ‘Ali Fadl, memberRear

Admiral Engineer Ibrahim Jabir Ibrahim, member (Sudan Tribune, April 16).

This article first appeared in the April 22, 2019 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Yahya Abu al-Hammam: France Eliminates Leading Saharan Jihadist

Andrew McGregor

March 5, 2019

French commandos tore through the desert north of Timbuktu on February 21, in hot pursuit of a leading jihadist who had been detected as part of a three-car convoy by a Reaper surveillance drone. As the commandos caught up, the militants opened fire. Five French helicopters moved in and quickly destroyed the convoy, killing 11, including the main target, Algerian Yahya Abu al-Hammam (a.k.a. Djamel Okacha), a top al-Qaeda financier and strategist (Jeune Afrique/AFP, February 22; Defense.gouv.fr, February 22).

Yahya Abu al-Hammam

Al-Hammam was the second-in-command of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa’l-Muslimin (JNIM), al-Qaeda’s Sahel/Sahara affiliate. There are reports that al-Hammam may have been ill and decided to seek medical treatment elsewhere (Malijet, February 23). According to a Malian security source, Abu al-Hammam had been tracked for three months through his telephone (AFP, February 22). Al-Hammam was the third JNIM leader to be killed within a year as French forces work to decapitate the JNIM leadership in the hopes of destroying the Salafi-Jihadist movement in the Sahara/Sahel region.

The announcement of al-Hammam’s death came only hours before French Prime Minister Edouard Phillipe arrived in Mali, where French troops have been fighting militants and terrorists since 2013. An upbeat Phillipe told a gathering of French, Malian, British, and Estonian troops that they had “managed to destroy [the jihadists’] means of combat, to intercept their logistical flows, to dry up their resources… every day our enemies suffer significant losses…” (Ouest-France, February 24).

Born on May 9, 1978, in the Reghaïa commune of Algiers province, al-Hammam began his career in 1998 as a militant with the Algerian Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA – Armed Islamic Group) and later, after 18 months of imprisonment, the Groupe salafiste pour la prédication et le combat (GSPC – Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat).

Al-Hammam arrived in northern Mali in 2004 with the controversial GSPC commander ‘Abd al-Razzak al-Para (Malijet, February 23). From bases there, al-Hammam left an explosive trail through Mauritania, where, under the direction of Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Abu Hamid ‘Abd al-Zaïd, he and his fellow militants exploited Mauritanian military weakness in a series of deadly attacks that killed dozens of Mauritanian troops between 2005 and 2008 (Malijet, February 23). In 2009 he was a suspect in organizing both the murder of American missionary Christopher Leggett and a suicide attack on the French embassy in Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital.

In 2009, as commander of the Katiba al-Furqan, al-Hammam ordered the assassination of Mali’s intelligence chief in northern Mali, the Timbuktu-based Colonel Lamana Ould Bou, a Bérabiche Arab. Though the killing was a setback for security forces, it reportedly provoked a disagreement between al-Hammam and his former sponsor, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who had spent years cultivating relationships with the Bérabiche of northern Mali (Malijet, August 13, 2014).

From 2009, al-Hammam became heavily involved with kidnappings, particularly those of Western tourists or workers.

Al-Hammam led AQIM gunmen into Timbuktu in April 2012 as part of the Islamist uprising and occupation of northern Mali. As governor, he oversaw a rigidly strict Shari’a regime that destroyed much of the city’s Islamic heritage and applied corporal and capital punishments to its people for offenses against their interpretation of Islam.  He was rewarded in October 2012 when AQIM leader ‘Abd al-Malik Droukdel (a.k.a. Abu Mus’ab ‘Abd al-Wadud) appointed al-Hammam the new amir of AQIM’s Saharan affiliate in October 2012. (Agence Nouakchott d’Information, October 4, 2012; Le Monde, February 22). Unlike many of his fellow militants, al-Hammam survived the 2013 French-led Operation Serval that dispersed the Islamists and assumed ‘Abd al-Hamid Abu Zaïd’s command when the latter was killed by a Franco-Chadian patrol in February 2013.

The founding of JNIM: Yahya Abu al-Hammam (left), Iyad ag Ghali (center), Abu Hassan al-Ansari (right, killed by French forces in February 2018).

Remaining aloof from the rival Islamic State group, al-Hammam appeared in the March 2017 video that announced the establishment of the al-Qaeda-affiliated JNIM alliance of four Sahara/Sahel jihadist groups under veteran Tuareg militant Iyad ag Ghali (al-Akhbar [Nouakchott], January 10, 2016, MaliActu, March 2, 2017).

Al-Hammam last appeared in a November 8, 2018 video, in which he sat alongside ag Ghali as Amadou Kufa, the Fulani leader of the Force de libération du Macina (FLM – Macina Liberation Front), and called on his fellow Fulani to “make jihad” wherever they are (Le Monde/AFP, November 9, 2018). Two weeks later Koufa died in the Wagadou Forest after being mortally wounded by a French attack. With al-Hammam now gone as well, the priority of French forces will be the elimination of JNIM leader Iyad ag-Ghali. Al-Hammam could be succeeded by Abd al-Rahman Talha al-Libi, the current commander of the Katiba al-Furqan, though there are rumors that Talha may have been one of those killed in the attack on al-Hammam’s convoy (Malijet, February 23).

This article was first published in the March 5, 2019 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor.

 

Who is Ahmad Harun, the New Leader of Sudan’s Ruling Party?

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, March 3, 2019

Sudan’s embattled president, Omar al-Bashir, appeared to take a small step back from his authoritarian rule of Sudan on February 28 when he resigned as leader of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP – al-Mu’tamar al-Watani). However, his newly-appointed successor, Ahmad Muhammad Harun, is a long-time Bashir loyalist who, like his patron, is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and therefore has little interest in any regime change that could lead to arrest.

Ahmad Muhammad Harun as Governor of South Kordofan

Harun, a 54-year-old trained as a lawyer, will serve as party chief on an interim basis until the next NCP convention. The promotion came only one week after Harun was appointed deputy chief of the party by al-Bashir and puts Harun in the unusual situation of automatically becoming the party’s next presidential candidate according to party rules (AFP, March 1, 2019). Of course Harun might be replaced at the party’s next convention, but the appointment signals that al-Bashir may be reconsidering his controversial bid to be re-elected president in 2020.

Harun’s promotion comes in the midst of a wave of administrative changes that accompanied the imposition of a state of emergency to deal with the continuing protests against the military-Islamist regime. All of the nation’s 18 provincial governors have been replaced by army officers or officials from the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS).

Harun has long been the NCP’s point man on its most difficult files. His talent was spotted early, when he was made Sudan’s youngest minister of state (April 2003 – September 2005). His appointment as NCP chief shows the confidence al-Bashir has in Harun as someone who can keep a strong grip on the ruling party at a time when many members might be tempted to look at different political opportunities.

Harun first proved his usefulness to the regime in the 1990s, when he was involved in the organization and operations of the Murahileen, Arab militias living in the borderlands between north and south Sudan during the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005). Harun and others were able to persuade Missiriya Arab tribesmen to raid and displace their long-time Ngok Dinka neighbors in an effort to control the massive oil reserves along the border between South Kordofan and Bahr al-Ghazal provinces. It was a blueprint that was later used in Darfur, where some Arab tribesmen were convinced by government agents that the looting and murder of their non-Arab Muslim neighbors was not only permissible but also well-rewarded.

The Darfur Security Desk was put under Harun’s control from April 2003 to September 2005, placing him in a command position over the activities of security services and pro-government militias. According to ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo, it was during this time that Harun boasted he now had “all the power and authority to kill or forgive whoever in Darfur, for the sake of peace and security.” (Sudan Tribune, February 28, 2007). Harun later denied making the statement.

Janjaweed Gunmen in Darfur, 2008 (Andrew Carter)

According to Harun, the atrocities in Darfur were the work of rebel groups that had been unsuccessful in attempts to confront the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and its Janjaweed militias on the battlefield. In consequence, he alleged, the rebels targeted civilians while blaming the government for the atrocities in international forums and media: “They started putting pressure on civilians to move out of villages, they killed their children, women they abducted, they destroyed the infrastructure and means of people’s livelihood, and caused the mass migration of people into refugee camps” (Guardian, December 4, 2008).

ICC charges against Harun were first announced in February 2007 and an arrest warrant was issued in April of the same year. After the charges were laid, Harun made a public appearance to demand the ICC prosecutors first charge US President George W. Bush and former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with war crimes (Sudan Tribune, February 28, 2007).

Charges were filed at the same time against former Harun associate and Janjaweed commander ‘Ali Kushayb (a.k.a. ‘Ali Muhammad ‘Ali). President al-Bashir was charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity in 2008.  Like the United States, Sudan is not a signatory to the ICC statutes and has refused all appeals to cooperate with the court.

Among the ICC charges were 51 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including 14 counts of murder, ten counts of rape and the torture of 60 people (Telegraph, June 5, 2008). Most of the charges related to Khartoum’s ruthless counter-insurgency in Darfur during the period 2003 to 2005. Harun was Sudan’s interior minister at the time and responsible for internal security. In 2006, al-Bashir surprised many of those following the Darfur conflict by appointing Harun as Sudan’s new Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, putting Harun in charge of relief efforts for the hundreds of thousands displaced by his own activities in Darfur. In September 2007, Harun was placed in charge of an investigation of human rights abuses in Darfur.

Moreno Ocampo deplored Harun’s appointment to Minister of Humanitarian Affairs: “Formally, [Harun] shares responsibility for the safety and well-being of the displaced population. In reality, he joins in constant abuses against them” (IPSNews, February 6, 2009).

Commander ‘Abd al-Aziz al-Hilu (Paulo Nunes dos Santos/Polaris)

In May 2009, Harun was given a more familiar role as governor of South Kordofan province, where a rebellion was raging. Anti-government guerrilla actions were (and continue to be) led by the mainly Nuba fighters of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army – North (SPLM/A-N, which split-off from South Sudan’s SPLM/A when the south gained independence in July 2011). The movement is led by veteran opposition leader ‘Abd al-Aziz al-Hilu, who lost the May 2011 gubernatorial election to Harun (the NCP candidate) in a contest that was transparently rigged in the last hours when it appeared ‘Abd al-Aziz would be the certain winner. Another division of the SPLM/A-N operates in Blue Nile province; both sections are allied to the main rebel movements in Darfur.

A spokesman for Darfur’s rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) was unsurprised at the time that Harun had been appointed governor of South Kordofan: “Having orchestrated the Darfur genocide, Harun is the right choice for the Government of Sudan to complete the unfinished job to ethnically cleanse the Nuba People and bring in Arabs to occupy their lands” (Sudan Tribune, June 21, 2011).

In April 2012, al-Jazeera obtained footage of Harun encouraging SAF troops in Southern Kordofan to take no prisoners during an offensive into rebel-held territory: “You must hand over the place clean. Swept, rubbed, crushed. Don’t bring them back alive. We have no space for them” (Al-Jazeera, April 1 2012).

For the moment, the rebel movements of Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile state have extended a unilateral ceasefire, attempting to allow a popular uprising to continue without providing the regime with an opportunity to claim the protests are the work of rebel infiltrators (something security authorities have already done).

Harun maintains that everything he did in Darfur to preserve the regime and the state was his legal duty (Guardian, December 4, 2008). It is an approach al-Bashir will expect as the regime struggles to right itself in the midst of a popular uprising that threatens the president’s three-decade old rule.

“A Revolution Not Like the Others”: Directions in Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism in a Post-Bashir Sudan

Andrew McGregor                                                    

March 1, 2019

Ten weeks into massive street protests in Sudan, anger at the three-decade-old regime of President Omar al-Bashir has begun to spread well beyond Khartoum. Unsure of support from the army (supposedly his powerbase), Bashir has unleashed counter-terrorist paramilitaries against the demonstrators. Though the 75-year-old Bashir continues to resist calls for his resignation, he is unlikely to continue his iron-hand rule of Sudan for much longer. With religious extremists active in Sudan and continuing insurgencies throughout the country, there is a strong possibility the nation might experience a rapid deterioration in security following a regime collapse, one which would quickly have regional consequences.

While al-Bashir might survive the latest protests through brute repression, he has experienced ill-health in recent years and is facing opposition even amongst his base against running for re-election in 2020. The  circumstances raise the question of whether terrorism and counter-terrorism will develop in new or novel ways in a post-Bashir Sudan.

Foreign debt, economic mismanagement, inflation and shortages of foreign currency have plagued Sudan since the separation of South Sudan in 2011 and the consequent loss of the enormous oil revenues supplied by wells in the south. Protesters have connected this economic deterioration with the authoritarianism of the regime in their calls for immediate change. The growing death toll on the streets of several Sudanese cities reflects how serious the regime takes these protests – popular uprisings supported by elements of the army succeeded in deposing Sudanese regimes in 1964 and 1985.

The Governing Military-Islamist Alliance

Sudan’s rather unique military-Islamist regime is the result of Sudan’s Muslim Brotherhood (the Ikhwan) seeking firepower and muscle to enable them to overthrow the elected but ineffectual government of Sadiq al-Mahdi and establish an Islamic regime in 1989. Finding little support for this project amongst the military’s senior staff, Brotherhood leader Dr. Hassan al-Turabi (1932-2016) turned to more junior officers, especially Omar al-Bashir, who would leap from Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) major to Sudanese president overnight as the figurehead of the coup.

One of the major grievances of Sudan’s highly diverse population is the nation’s political domination since independence by members of three Nile-dwelling Arab tribes from North Sudan – the Danagla, the Sha’iqiya and the Ja’alin (al-Bashir is a Ja’ali).

The Islamist movement that propelled al-Bashir to power split in 1999, with its leading member, al-Turabi, leaving to form the opposition Popular Congress Party (PCP). Other Islamists remained with the ruling National Congress Party (NCP), which has seemed more dedicated to preserving the regime than promoting an Islamic social transformation in Sudan.  The NCP is currently preoccupied with internal rifts.

Shaykh al-Zubayr Muhammad al-Hassan

The NCP is supported by the Sudan Islamic Movement (SIM), which is intended to provide ideological guidance. In the midst of the economic crisis, SIM leader al-Zubayr Muhammad al-Hassan praised the regime for creating a “much better economic situation” and drastically lowering poverty rates. In reality, the country has been propped up in recent years with heavy financial assistance from the Gulf States. Few Sudanese could agree with al-Zubayr’s perception, but many would agree with his observation that opportunities had been created for “a number of Islamists” (Radio Dabanga, August 28, 2018).

Ansar Protesters Gather outside the Hijra Wad Nubawi Mosque in Omdurman (Radio Dabanga)

Mosques have become gathering points for protesters, particularly after Friday sermons denouncing the “tyranny and corruption” of the regime. As a result, various mosques have been stormed by security forces firing tear gas, including the Hijra mosque in Wad Nubawi (Omdurman), home of the powerful Ansar Sufi movement led by two-time prime minister Sadiq al-Mahdi (Radio Dabanga, February 17).

Tear Gas strikes the minaret of al-Hijra Wad Nubawi Mosque on January 11, 2019 (Pan-African News-wire)

A Partner in Counter-Terrorism?

Khartoum has enjoyed quiet U.S. support as a counter-terrorism partner despite the regime’s Islamist base. To reward Sudan for cooperation on the counter-terrorism file and progress on several other issues, U.S. President Barack Obama lifted a long-standing American trade embargo in one of the last acts of his presidency. [1] Sudan, however, has remained a designated state sponsor of terrorism since 1993 and is still subject to certain sanctions as a result.

Sudanese Foreign Minister al-Dardiri Muhammad Ahmad visited Washington in November 2018, where he claimed to have convinced Trump administration officials that Sudan has made major progress on human rights and counter-terrorism issues. However, some of al-Dardiri’s remarks were somewhat disconcerting, such as when he insisted Osama bin Laden had “nothing to do with terrorism” during his presence in Sudan. Al-Dardiri claimed Bin Laden was only occupied with developing an airport with his construction team (VOA, November 1, 2018). Al-Dardiri also pointed out that Khartoum understood the world is no longer unipolar. China, Russia and Turkey were all ready to step up with aid and debt write-offs without regard to Sudan’s status as a state sponsor of terrorism (Foreign Policy, November 8, 2018).

Islamic Extremism in Modern Sudan

The Bashir regime has had an ambiguous relationship with extremist groups inside Sudan, partly as a result of the ebb and flow of Islamist influence within the government. In 1991, Muslim Brotherhood leader Hassan al-Turabi persuaded the regime to host Osama bin Laden and his followers until they were expelled in 1996 when they came to be identified as an internal threat. The sporadic emergence of other Sudanese extremist groups in some cases came to be recognized as little more than paper claims for the deeds of others.

A group called “al-Qaeda in Sudan and Africa” claimed responsibility for the July 2006 kidnapping and beheading of Muhammad Taha Muhammad Ahmad, the Islamist editor of Khartoum’s al-Wifaq newspaper, for “dishonoring the Prophet.” Authorities instead hanged nine members of the Fur ethnic group for the offense, despite claims by the suspects that they had been tortured into confessions. Their motive was alleged to be revenge for Muhammad Taha’s articles claiming that well-documented reports of mass rape by government security forces in Darfur were nothing more than consensual sex (Sudan Tribune, April 14, 2009; Sudan Tribune, April 16, 2009).

In 2008, gunmen belonging to the small Ansar al-Tawhid (Supporters of Monotheism) group murdered USAID employee John Granville and his Sudanese driver in the streets of Khartoum. The attack on Granville came only one day after then U.S. President George Bush signed the Sudan Accountability and Divestment Act, a bill drafted in response to Khartoum’s alleged genocide in Darfur. Suspicions of official sanction for the attack were reinforced when four members of the group made a video-taped escape from North Khartoum’s Kober Prison in 2010 while awaiting execution. It was the first escape from the colonial-era prison. Suspicions were revived when two men convicted of orchestrating the escape from outside were given early presidential pardons (Sudan Tribune, August 15, 2015; Radio Dabanga, April 7, 2016). The attack was also claimed by an apparently imaginary group called “al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Niles,” but ultimately none of the suspects were charged with membership in a terrorist group (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, October 12, 2008).

One of the escapees in the Granville case was ‘Abd al-Ra’uf Abu Zayid Muhammad, the son of the leader of Ansar al-Sunna al-Muhammadiya, the largest Salafist group in Sudan. Sudanese Salafism is primarily of the quietest type with minimal political involvement, consistent with Salafist beliefs in the legitimacy of political leadership in Muslim nations, which can only be challenged in extreme circumstances such as the repudiation of Islam. However, there exists a strong rivalry with Sufism, the deeply rooted and dominant form of Islamic worship in Sudan, as well as between different Salafist groups. Ansar al-Sunna became engaged in a doctrinal dispute with the Salafist Takfir wa’l-Hijra (Renunciation and Exile) movement in the 1990s, leading to a series of three attacks on Ansar al-Sunna mosques that left a total of 54 people dead (see Terrorism Focus, February 6, 2009).

In December 2012, Sudanese security forces fought an eight-hour gun battle with Salafi-Jihadists at their training camp in Dinder National Park in Sinnar Province (east Sudan). The group was composed largely of university students from Khartoum but was not associated with al-Qaeda, according to authorities (Akhir Lahza [Khartoum], December 4, 2012).

Muhammad ‘Ali al-Jazouli

In 2015, it was learned that medical students, primarily dual-citizens from the UK, Canada and the United States, were being recruited from Khartoum’s University of Medical Science and Technology to serve in Islamic State medical facilities in Syria (Sunday Times, February 5, 2017). At the time, a prominent Khartoum imam, Muhammad ‘Ali al-Jazouli, was advocating for the Islamic State and encouraging Muslims to kill “infidel” women and children. The imam was jailed for eight months and then quickly re-arrested after it became apparent his beliefs had not changed (Radio Dabanga, July 1, 2015).

The following year, Sudan’s Interior Minister admitted there were as many as 140 Sudanese Islamic State members (mostly operating abroad in Syria, Iraq and Libya), adding that they did not present a threat to Sudan (Assayha.net, July 14, 2016). The actual number could be significantly higher.

Is Intervention by the Sudan Armed Forces Possible?

Opposition calls for the army to step in and depose al-Bashir have had little apparent resonance so far. After repeated purges, the officer corps of the SAF is largely Islamist and has little interest in enabling regime change for any other party. With the exception of a few members of al-Bashir’s inner circle, the SAF appears to be taking a wait-and-see approach to the street demonstrations, offering little in the way of open support or opposition to al-Bashir. The most likely scenario for an early exit by the president could involve transferring power to the army in preparation for new elections. Al-Bashir has hinted he would have no objection to handing over power to “a person wearing khaki” (a military man) but has otherwise held to a defiant course, maintaining that the protesters were only hired mercenaries and heretics (Sudan Tribune, January 9; Arab News, January 21).

Lieutenant General Kamal ‘Abd al-Marouf, SAF chief-of-staff

Soon after reports emerged of military officers joining protests in three Sudanese cities, SAF command released a statement confirming that it “stood behind the nation’s leadership” (Anadolu Agency, December 24, 2018). National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS – Jiha’az al-Amn al-Watani wa’l-Mukhabarat) chief Saleh Gosh and the SAF’s chief of general staff, Kamal ‘Abd al-Maruf, publicly proclaimed the army’s full support for al-Bashir, with the latter dismissively insisting the army would never hand over the country to “homeless” protesters (Sudan Tribune, January 30; Sudan Tribune, February 10).

The regular army has had little direct involvement in repressing the street protests, which are dealt with largely by elements of the pro-Bashir police, the NISS and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF – Quwat al-Da’m al-Seri), the latter a poorly disciplined paramilitary composed mostly of Darfur Arabs. Some are veterans of the notorious Janjaweed. The president’s security institutions have used all the tools of a repressive state to control and suppress Islamist extremists (or even manipulate them when desired), but unleashing the “counter-terrorist” RSF against unarmed civilians will not be viewed favorably by most Sudanese.

The NISS is a pervasive and pernicious presence in Sudanese society, enjoying broad immunity from prosecution while deploying their extensive powers of arrest, censorship, property seizure and even indefinite detention and abuse in so-called “ghost houses” that exist outside the judicial system. Of late, the NISS has been receiving training from Russian mercenaries (see EDM, February 6).

The director of the NISS is Saleh Gosh, a Sha’iqiya Arab and top intelligence figure who was retrieved from the political wilderness to provide unflinching support to the regime. Gosh, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who was the regime’s point man with Bin Laden during his time in Sudan, later became close to the CIA during his first tenure as NISS chief, supplying important information about al-Qaeda and other Islamist terrorist groups. As Gosh revealed in 2005 during the regime’s brutal suppression of the revolt in Darfur: “We have a strong partnership with the CIA. The information we have provided has been very useful to the United States” (LA Times, April 29, 2005).

Gosh had a major role in purging the regime of al-Turabi’s supporters in 1999 but lost his job a decade later when his rivalry with presidential advisor Nafi al-Nafi began to weaken the regime. In November 2012, NISS agents arrested Gosh and several senior Islamist officers of the SAF—including the popular General Muhammad Wad Ibrahim ‘Abd al-Jalil, former commander of the presidential guard—on suspicion of preparing a coup d’état. [2] Gosh was released several months later due to a lack of evidence but remained uncritical of the regime. He was rewarded in February 2018 when al-Bashir re-appointed him as NISS director (Fanack.com, March 28, 2018). Gosh has since cleansed the NISS of those not completely loyal to al-Bashir, even though Gosh himself remains a potential presidential successor.

President Omar al-Bashir (left) with ‘Ali Osman Muhammad Taha

Another possible Islamist successor is ‘Ali Osman Muhammad Taha (Sha’iqiya), a civilian who was once Hassan al-Turabi’s chief lieutenant in the Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood. Taha re-aligned himself behind al-Bashir and the NCP after the 1999 Islamist split.  Sudan’s Foreign Minister in the turbulent 1990s, Taha was appointed first vice-president in 1998, a post that he held twice until his final dismissal by al-Bashir in 2013. Since then, there has been a trend away from civilian Islamists in the nation’s top posts toward the appointment of Islamist-inclined senior army officers. Taha remains highly influential in Sudan’s Islamist movement, though his international reputation was damaged by his central involvement in the regime’s ethnic cleansing of Darfur (Fanack.com, November 30, 2016). Opposition members have accused Taha’s Islamist supporters (the “unregulated brigades” he warned protesters about) of assault on demonstrators and the use of live-fire (al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 21).

Unresolved Rebellions

Most of Sudan’s budget is dedicated to its endless internal conflicts, with over 70 percent of spending allocated to defense and security matters (Radio Dabanga, August 28, 2018). In effect, the regime devotes nearly all its resources to defending itself from internal opposition.

The SAF is engaged in the expensive repression of long-standing rebellions on three fronts: Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile State. The four leading rebel movements, grouped as the Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF), renewed their unilateral ceasefire for a further three months on February 9 (Sudan Tribune, February 10). [3] Though somewhat exhausted from years of campaigning, these groups are still capable of confronting government security forces and may be using Khartoum’s focus on the protests to replenish and rebuild. Despite the viciousness with which these conflicts are fought, Sudan’s rebel movements continue to eschew urban terrorism in favor of more “conventional” guerrilla tactics.

On December 28, 2018, the Sudanese government claimed to have captured armed members of Darfur’s SLM/A-AW rebel group in the North Khartoum suburb of al-Droushab, over 500 miles from the group’s normal operational zone in the Jabal Marra region of Darfur. Security forces broadcast footage of young detainees confessing their intention to kill protesters, destroy property and attack public institutions. The SLM/A-AW refuted the charges, calling them “blatantly fabricated allegations” while insisting the movement’s operations were confined to Jabal Marra  (Sudan Tribune, December 30, 2018).

Security Prognosis

Sudanese insularity and widely based self-perception as leaders rather than followers in the development of political Islam (dating back to the anti-imperialist Mahdist movement of the late 19th century) has helped to inhibit the local growth of foreign-based extremist groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Nonetheless, Sudan’s economic crisis will not suddenly cease if al-Bashir steps down, leaving a moderate possibility that foreign terrorist groups may try to exploit political instability to establish a presence in Sudan.

Islamists may find it hard to find space within a new post-Bashir regime, much as was the case when the Islamist-influenced President and former general Ja’afar Nimeiri was overthrown in 1985. Closely tied to al-Bashir, there is a good chance the NCP could collapse soon after a change in the presidency, leaving room for new actors and the traditional parties to explore after years of exclusion from power. Convinced of their religious duty, Islamists have turned to violence elsewhere after being ejected from power. Certain Islamist factions will thus remain a danger to the emergence of a more secular government, but a descent into urban terrorism remains unlikely, due in large part to the broader population’s revulsion for the targeting of innocents. The carefully-planned coup, the lightning raid and the protracted defense of rough terrain are all more acceptable methods of armed struggle in Sudan, though the growth of terrorism in neighboring countries means new strategies of violence are never far away.

Shortly before his death, former Muslim Brotherhood leader Hassan al-Turabi made a terrible prediction for the future of Sudan: “The revolution, if there is any, will not be like [the earlier uprisings]. The whole Sudan now is armed, though any violence will quickly spread across the whole country, and the situation will be worse than Somalia, Iraq, because we are from different tribes, and types” (Sudan Tribune, July 7, 2015). So far, the uprising has had more of a unifying effect, but the potential remains for a general security breakdown with daunting prospects for regional security.

Notes

1, See: https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2017/01/13/executive-order-recognizing-positive-actions-government-sudan-and January 13, 2017.

2. See: Andrew McGregor, “Sudanese Regime Begins to Unravel after Coup Reports and Rumors of Military Ties to Iran,” AIS Special Report, January 7, 2013, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=141 

3. SRF members include Minni Minawi’s Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A-MM), al-Hadi Idris Yahya’s Sudan Liberation Movement – Transitional Council (SLM-TC), Malik Agar’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army – North (SPLM/A-N) and the Justice and Equality Movement led by Jibril Ibrahim.

This article first appeared in the March 1, 2019 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Russian Mercenaries and the Survival of the Sudanese Regime

Andrew McGregor

February 6, 2019

Less noticed but no less important than the reported arrival of Russian mercenaries in Venezuela has been the influx of Russia Wagner Group “private military contractors” (PMC) in Khartoum to help local security forces shore up the embattled regime of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. The leader of this northeast African state is clinging to power in the face of nation-wide protests against his rule.

Russian Mercenaries in Syria

The demonstrations started on December 19, 2018, over a three-fold increase in bread prices after a shortage of foreign currency forced the government to cancel foreign wheat purchases. Accusations are rampant that some of the hundreds of arrested protesters have been tortured and compelled to confess membership in terrorist groups (Middle East Monitor, January 14; Sudan Tribune, February 3).

Over forty protesters have been killed in the demonstrations, with the president blaming the deaths on “infiltrators” from the Sudan Liberation Movement of ‘Abd al-Wahid al-Nur (SLM/A-AW), a Darfur rebel movement active since 2003. National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) chief General Salah ‘Abdallah Gosh accused Israel of recruiting the Darfuris to disrupt the Sudanese state (Sudan Tribune, January 21).

Al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity related to his repression of the revolt in Darfur. Russia was a signatory to the treaty that created the ICC but never ratified the agreement. In November 2016, Russia withdrew its signature, ending its involvement with the court (TASS, November 16, 2016). Ignoring the ICC travel ban on al-Bashir, Russia has hosted the Sudanese head of state twice: once in November 2017 and again in July 2018. When al-Bashir made an unannounced visit to Damascus last December, he travelled by a Russian military aircraft (RT—Arabic service, December 18, 2018). Russia is interested in the oil, mineral and financial sectors of the Sudanese economy and the establishment of a naval facility on Sudan’s Red Sea coast (see EDM, December 6, 2017).

Photos of alleged Russian mercenaries in Khartoum (The Times)

In January 2019, The Times published photos of men alleged to be Russian mercenaries being transported through Khartoum in a Ural-4320 utility truck, widely used by the Russian military and Russian PMCs. The report also cited witnesses who claimed Russians forcibly dispersed protesters (The Times, Newsru.com, January 10). Local sources state that the Russian contractors are training the special operations forces of the NISS, Sudan’s powerful secret police organization (Sudan Tribune, January 8).

Vasyl Hrytsak, the chief of the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU), claimed that his agency had obtained the travel documents and passport data of 149 Wagner Group personnel who “directly partook in suppressing democratic protests in Sudan in early 2019.” The SSU alleged that Wagner mercenaries had been transported to Sudan on Tu-154M airliners belonging to the Russian Ministry of Defense (Unian.info, Gordonua.com, January 28). The deployment was arranged by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s M Invest LLC, which obtained gold mining concessions in Sudan during al-Bashir’s 2017 visit to Sochi (Government.ru, November 24, 2017; The National, December 17, 2018).

A spokesperson from the Russian embassy in Khartoum declared that the Russian “experts from non-government structures” were not involved in suppressing the protests, adding that reports to the contrary in Western media were “outright fakes seeking to demonize our country and its foreign policies” (Reuters, January 15).

Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed, on January 23, that Russian military contractors “who have nothing to do with Russian state bodies” were operating in Sudan. According to the foreign ministry, their work was confined to “training staff for the military and law enforcement agencies of the Republic of Sudan” (Reuters, January 23). The statement contradicted an earlier one by Sudanese Interior Minister Ahmad Bilal Osman, who described reports of Russian mercenaries in Khartoum as “completely false… a mere fabrication intended to offend the government” (Middle East Monitor, January 14).

In late July 2018, there were reports of a group of 500 Russian mercenaries operating in a camp some 15 kilometers south of the Darfur town of Um Dafug, close to the border with the Central African Republic (CAR) (Radio Dabanga, July 31, 2018). Russian mercenaries were reported to have spent five months in the area training both Muslim Séléka rebels from the CAR and Sudanese troops. The bulk of these forces were said to have departed from the region in late July 2018 (Radio Dabanga, August 1, 2018).

‘Abd al-Wahid al-Nur (BBC)

‘Abd al-Wahid al-Nur, the veteran leader of Darfur’s SLM/A-AW, expressed his concern with the Donald Trump administration’s “decoupling” of human rights issues from foreign policy and the opening this is providing to Russia in Sudan at the expense of the United States:

What is most astonishing in the context of the Kremlin’s hostile action against the U.S. and deliberate sabotage of your electoral process… is the soft pedaling towards al-Bashir’s overtures to Moscow… When Russian mercenaries fresh from Syria and Ukraine now have a foothold in both Darfur and the Central African Republic, with a mission agenda entirely contrary to that of U.S. Africa Command… your ill-considered policy towards Sudan is self-evidently not serving you well (Sudanjem.com, December 19, 2018).

Major General Al-Hadi Adam Musa, the head of Sudan’s parliamentary defense committee, said that a draft military agreement made with Russia in early January “will pave the way for more agreements and greater cooperation… possibly a Russian base on the Red Sea” (Sputnik, January 12; Sudan Tribune, January 13). The general noted that Russian naval visits could provide the sailors of Sudan’s tiny navy of Iranian and Yugoslavian-built patrol boats with training and “first-hand experience of Russia’s cutting-edge military equipment…” The agreement will allow for shore leave by unarmed naval personnel, but it forbids visits by ships carrying nuclear fuel, radioactive substances, toxic material, drugs, biological weapons or weapons of mass destruction (Sputnik, January 12).

Since its 1971 show trial of German mercenary Rolf Steiner, Sudan has maintained strong opposition to the presence of European mercenaries in Africa. While al-Bashir appears to have reversed Sudan’s position, it seems unlikely that the regime would squander what is left of its political capital by deploying white mercenaries against unarmed Sudanese on the streets of Khartoum. Such direct intervention could set back Moscow’s growing role in Africa, though Russia will likely do all it can behind the scenes to preserve a regime that has proved highly accommodating to Russian interests.

This article was first published in the February 6, 2019 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor.

Advocate of Armed Rebellion: A Profile of Chadian Rebel Leader Dr. Abakar Tollimi

Andrew McGregor

February 5, 2019

Dr. Abakar Tollimi (TchadConvergence)

Twenty-eight years after taking power by force, Chadian President Idriss Déby Itno faces extremely difficult economic and security challenges. Chadians form one of the most impoverished populations in the world, relying on agro-pastoral pursuits for survival despite being an oil-producing nation. Formed from the tiny Zaghawa minority to which Déby belongs and notorious for its corruption, the regime nonetheless presents itself to the West as an essential partner in the military struggle against Islamist extremism in the Lake Chad region and beyond. For nearly a decade, a once powerful but divided armed opposition has been forced to operate as mercenaries and bandits in Darfur and southern Libya. However, last summer they began to make cross-border raids into northern Chad with the eventual goal of toppling the Déby regime.

Unlike many of the rebel leaders, Dr. Abakar Tollimi is not a fire-breathing desert guerrilla, but the polished, well-mannered, French-educated face of the Chadian rebellion. Equipped with a doctorate in law, Tollimi is also distinguished locally by his lineage as part of the family of a chief of the Burogat Zaghawa clan of northern Chad (Le Point Afrique, July 17, 2017). [1] Having already played an important role in uniting and organizing the fractious Chadian opposition, it is likely that Tolllimi will try to use the recent return of armed rebels to northern Chad to build a new coalition capable of tackling President Déby and the powerful Chadian National Army (Armée National Tchadienne—ANT).

 Early Life

Abakar Tollimi was born on August 5, 1964 in the town of Fada in the Ennedi region of north-eastern Chad. After attending secondary school in the Chadian capital of N’Djamena, Tollimi graduated from Morocco’s National School of Administration and pursued further studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he obtained a doctorate in law in 2005.

Beginning in 1991, Tollimi spent 14 years in public administration in Chad, including work as an adviser on administrative affairs to President Déby (a Bidayat Zaghawa) (Khabar Tchad, June 3, 2016). While serving in that role in 2003, Tollimi angered the president by objecting to Déby’s planned response to the rebellion that had just broken out in neighboring Darfur. His relationship with Déby continued to deteriorate in 2006 when the president learned Tollimi was forming a political party of his own, the Popular Rally for Progress (Rassemblement Populaire Pour la Justice—RPJ). According to Tollimi, Déby warned him to “stay quiet, or I am capable of making you quiet” (Le Point Afrique, July 17, 2017). Tollimi took the advice seriously, and departed Chad the next year to join the armed opposition operating out of camps in Darfur with the connivance of the Sudanese government. According to Tollimi:

I had no intention until 2005 to take up arms. When it is no longer possible to resort to a peaceful form of struggle, when one’s own life is in danger and that one aspires to change the political life of his country, one must resort to other means… Faced with the absence of a credible civilian opposition, rebellion, the armed struggle, is the only way for possible change in Chad if we want the development of this country which is in debt in unimaginable proportions. (Afrik.com, July 7, 2010).

From the Sorbonne to the Battlefield

At a time of growing tensions between N’Djamena and Khartoum (fueled in large part by the conflict in Darfur), rebel groups formed largely from ANT deserters attacked the border town of Adré in the Ouaddaï region of Chad in December 2005. That sparked a proxy war in which N’Djamena sponsored Darfuri rebels against Khartoum while the latter sponsored Chadian rebels against N’Djamena. Tollimi’s RPJ, with its Burogat Zaghawa core, was one of the beneficiaries of Sudanese assistance. [2]

In March 2006, the RPJ was the target of a government offensive in the movement’s operational zone along the border with Sudan (BBC, March 21, 2006). The following month Tollimi was part of an attempt by the Front uni pour le changement FUC coalition to overthrow Déby’s regime by driving 800 kilometers from their bases near the border to attack N’Djamena. [3] The bold operation was repulsed inside the capital by government forces on April 13, 2006.

President Idriss Déby (Tchad24)

The FUC signed a peace agreement with Déby’s government in December 2006 that called for the rebels to be integrated into the ANT, but many factions of the movement, including Tollimi’s, chose to remain in the field. By 2006, the FUC had joined the Union of Forces for Democracy and Development (Union des Forces pour la Démocratie et le Développement—UFDD) led by dissident general Mahamat Nouri, the former Chadian defense minister. Like General Nouri, the core of the UFDD was largely Gura’an Tubu. [4] Tollimi became the movement’s general secretary and led the UFDD delegation that helped negotiate the October 25, 2007 Libyan-hosted Sirte Accords intended to end the rebellion.

The agreement collapsed almost immediately and, in late November 2007, the UFDD fought three battles with the ANT in the Hadjer Marfain (Hyena Mountain) region of eastern Chad. The rebels were forced to withdraw through the difficult terrain with heavy losses. Angered by alleged French intelligence and logistical support to the ANT during the operation, the UFDD declared it was in “a state of belligerence” with France and “other foreign forces,” a reference to EUFOR, a European peacekeeping force that was about to be deployed in Darfur (AFP, December 2, 2007). The UFDD feared EUFOR interference with its bases along Chad’s border with Darfur. Tollimi threatened the French reconnaissance planes and helicopters he claimed were overflying UFDD positions, saying the movement would soon be “obliged to respond to this intervention” (RFI/AFP/Reuters, November 30, 2007).

On February 2, 2008, 300 pickup trucks carrying UFDD fighters arrived in N’Djamena after crossing the 800 km from their Darfur bases. Tollimi told reporters via satellite phone that the rebels controlled everything except the presidential palace, which would be stormed imminently (AFP, February 2, 2008; AFP/Reuters, February 2, 2008). This attack, like its predecessor two years earlier, was again unexpectedly repulsed at the last moment. Much of the blame was assigned to Tollimi, who failed to fully commit his forces even as the regime tottered on the precipice. Tollimi would later claim he was busy trying to act as an interlocutor with the 1,100-strong French garrison in N’Djamena, which the rebels feared might intervene on Déby’s side (Le Point Afrique, July 17, 2017). Soon after loyal ANT armored units arrived to defend the palace, the rebels were driven back into the bush in retreat. [5]

Chadian government forces retake N’Djamena, 2008

Afterwards, Tollimi explained his part in the attempt to overthrow the president:

I am one of those for whom the key is to put an end to the dictatorship of Idriss Déby. If we could have done it otherwise, we would have done it. Unfortunately, this man understands only the language of force. For him, everything is a balance of power and he respects only those who confront him with weapons (Tchadvision, April 2008).

Tollimi, who appears to dwell in continual political flux, became secretary general of the Union of Resistance Forces (Union des Forces de la Résistance—UFR) in 2009. An alliance of eight rebel movements based in Darfur, the UFR began operations in the Salamat region of southeastern Chad in May 2009. A series of counter-attacks by government forces failed to eliminate the movement.

Exile in France

N’Djamena and Khartoum came to an agreement to end their proxy war in early 2010, neither having benefited from it. Rebel leaders who had once been given aid and shelter were now invited to pack up their bags in both countries. As the UFR collapsed without Sudan’s support, Tollimi was deported from Sudan to France, where he was given political refugee status (RFI, July 18, 2010).

Not all was bleak, however; in 2010, a prominent French publishing house published an adaptation of Tollimi’s doctoral thesis. Entitled La Résolution des Conflits Frontaliers en Afrique, Éditions L’Harmattan, the work examines prevailing (and largely Western-based) methods of conflict resolution used in Africa while analyzing how more traditional African methods of conflict resolution could assist in solving outstanding territorial disputes, a process Tollimi refers to as “the inculturation of international law” (Afrik.com, July 7, 2010). Asked in an interview in 2008 which African politician or thinker he felt close to, Tollimi named Thabo Mbeki (president of South Africa, 1999-2008), Blaise Compaore (president of Burkina Faso, 1987-2014), Paul Kagame (president of Rwanda, 2000 to present) and, most of all, Kwame Nkrumah, “the father of pan-Africanism” (Tchadvision, April 2008).

In the meantime, Chad’s rebel movements relocated to Libya, where political chaos and rivalries provided work for mercenaries. Fighting for both of the main sides of the conflict, the rebels were able to obtain funds, arms and combat experience. Tollimi remained in France, preparing for the day the rebels might be able to return to Chad and confront Déby’s security forces. Tollimi noted at the time that the international community typically condemns armed opposition to recognized governments. This “reinforces dictatorships. The seizure of power by arms is condemned, but not the possession and maintenance of power by these same means” (Tchadenligne.com, May 5, 2011).

When the National Council of the Resistance for Democracy (Conseil Nationale de la Résistance pour la Démocratie— CNRD) was founded in March 2017, Tollimi became its president. The movement’s founding statement accused the Déby regime of establishing “nepotism, clientelism, mismanagement and state kleptomania as a system of governance”(CNRD-Tchad, March 31, 2017). The movement also made efforts to include Chadian expatriate communities in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) and Dakar (Senegal) (Africa Intelligence, April 19, 2017).

Declining oil prices led to protests against government austerity measures, which rocked the capital in February 2018. Déby responded by suspending 10 Chadian opposition parties while Tollimi called, unsuccessfully, for a national dialogue involving all political factions, including expatriate Chadians, civil society groups and the military (Jeune Afrique, February 16, 2018; al-Wihda [N’Djamena], March 4, 2018).

As head of the CNRD, Tollimi used an interview to criticize the Chadian government’s mismanagement of the economy and the oil revenues that never seemed to lift the greater population from poverty and despair. He said that no one in the administration could “explain what we have done with the $2 billion in revenue that the sale of oil has brought in every year… When a country does not pay the civil servants at the end of the month or closes the end of the month by resorting to loans, we are in a state of bankruptcy.” According to Tollimi, the president has deployed the Chadian military in various military interventions as a “red rag he waves to the international community” to prove his essential role in regional security efforts:

When we listen to speeches by Chad’s leaders, we gain the impression that Chad is a haven of peace, but in reality, the socio-political situation is explosive. Chad is the country with the highest risk of implosion in the sub-region and this is likely to engulf all of Central Africa if the international community and friends of Chad do nothing about it (Tchadhanana.info, March 12, 2018).

Tollimi turned down amnesty offered in May 2018, citing a continued lack of democracy (Le Monde/AFP, May 8, 2018). Recently, Tollimi has allegedly been playing a leading role in the National Front for Democracy and Justice in Chad (Front de la Nation pour la Démocratie et la Justice au Tchad—FNJDT, created in July 2018), yet another rebel coalition consisting mainly of Chadian fighters operating out of southern Libya. A video released by the new Front named Tollimi as the FNJDT chairman, though Tollimi did not confirm the appointment (TchadConvergence, July 27, 2018). The largest component of the coalition was provided by the Military Command for the Salvation of the Republic (Conseil de Commandement Militaire pour le Salut de la République—CCMSR), which was involved in battles against Chadian government forces in the Tibesti region of northern Chad from August to October 2018. [6]

FNJDT Rebels (TchadConvergence)

On September 26, 2018, the FNJDT claimed to have surprised and captured a team of 60 Chadian Arab and Tubu commandos in Murzuk (southwestern Libya). The commandos were allegedly sent by Chad’s secret police, the National Security Agency (Agence Nationale de Sécurité—ANS), to assassinate the leaders of the various Chadian rebel movements based in Libya (al-Wihda [N’Djamena], September 29, 2018).

Tollimi and the Oil Industry

Oil production in southern Chad provides over 60 percent of the national budget, but a large proportion of these funds is lost to corruption or military spending, leaving the rest of the nation in dire poverty. Tollimi has pledged to honor commitments made by Chad in the oil sector (operated by both Western and Chinese firms), but believes a re-examination and “rectification” of certain clauses in the existing agreements is “indispensable” (Tchadvision, April 2008).

Tollimi sees a future in closer economic relations with China, possibly in an expanded role in Chad’s southern oilfields:

Beijing is the economic power of tomorrow, and China already allows us to no longer be offside on the chessboard of globalization. What African would complain? China is a partner that does not pose as a donor of lessons, and that is why it breaks with the old and hypocritical practices of some other partners (Afrik.com, July 7, 2010).

French material and political support have, despite occasional friction between Paris and N’Djamena, played a large role in maintaining the Déby regime in power. While Tollimi resents French arms deliveries to government forces and the use of French aircraft for military reconnaissance, he still maintains that a common history and cultural and economic links to France must ultimately strengthen Franco-Chadian relations, though “this must be done in a climate of neutrality and mutual respect” (Tchadvision, April 2008).

Conclusion

In early January 2019, Tollimi was one of 22 Chadians for whom Libyan arrest warrants were issued in connection to attacks on the Sidra and al-Lanuf oil terminals on Libya’s Mediterranean coast and the May 2017 Brak al-Shati attack that left 140 dead (See Terrorism Monitor, June 2, 2017). Nine Sudanese and six Libyans were also included in the warrants with Libya appealing for international assistance in apprehending these individuals (al-Wihda [N’Djamena], January 9). [7]

The CNRD protested Tollimi’s inclusion in the arrest warrants on the grounds that Tollimi had not set foot in Libya since signing the Sirte Accords in 2007 and had been conducting “peaceful political activity” in France, where the CNRD is a legal political organization (Makaila.fr, January 6). The warrants are a clear signal that legal options will now accompany the growing military pressure intended to force the Chadian rebels from Libyan soil.

Tollimi and his fellow rebels have failed to convince Paris of the necessity for regime change in Chad, resulting in reports of French intelligence and logistical support of Chadian government forces during the October and November fighting last year against the CCMSR around the Tibesti region town of Miski (Al-Wihda [N’Djamena], January 5). France and the rest of Europe are not seeking further instability along the Chad-Libya border region, part of the route taken by sub-Saharan African migrants headed for Europe.

N’Djamena hosts the military headquarters of France’s counter-terrorist Operation Barkhane, and Chad’s military plays a leading role in the battle against Boko Haram and in the French-sponsored counter-terrorist Sahel Group of Five coalition (which also includes Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Niger). Under these circumstances, Tollimi will likely find Western support for regime change in N’Djamena is minimal at present, regardless of misgivings regarding Déby’s seemingly endless rule and accusations of human rights abuses. If the regime can continue to find the funds to pay ANT salaries in a timely fashion, Tollimi may discover future attempts to overthrow Chad’s president from outside the country will be ultimately futile so long as Déby is intent on holding power.

Notes

[1] The Burogat Zaghawa is a Zaghawa sub-clan that resulted from intermarriage between the Gura’an Tubu and the Zaghawa.

[2] “They Came Here to Kill Us”: Militia Attacks and Ethnic Targeting of Civilians in Eastern Chad,” Human Rights Watch, 2007, p.69.

[3] In English literature on the movement, the FUC is often referred to by the alternate name United Front for Democratic Change (UFDC).

[4] “Alliance nationale pour le changement démocratique/ National Alliance for Democratic Change (ANCD),” Small Arms Survey, Geneva, March 2011, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/archive/other/armed-groups/HSBA-Armed-Groups-ANCD-March-2011.pdf

[5] See “Dr Abakar Tollimi SG UFDD à la tête de colonne1,” YouTube, March 21, 2008, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AVMhyDpl0mE

[6] See “War in the Tibesti Mountains – Libyan Based Rebels Return to Chad,” AIS Special Report, November 12, 2018, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=4308

[7] Other Chadian rebels cited in the warrants for mercenary offenses, murders and kidnappings in Libya include Mahamat Nouri, Ali Ahmat Abdallah, Adoum Hissein, Hassan Hissein, Timan Erdimi, Hassan Bouloumaye, Ali Oumar, Michelet Detapol, Mahamat Hakimi, Hamid Djorou Margui, Hassan Moussa Kelley, Mahamat Moussa Margui, Mahamat Mahdi Ali and Bichara Hadjar Erdi.

This article was first published in the February 5, 2019 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor.

Mauritania – Will Islamist Crackdown Make It a Terrorist Target?

Andrew McGregor

When Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Abd al-Aziz identified political Islamists as extremists and national enemies of Mauritania last August, his bluntness surprised some observers: “Proponents of political Islam are all extremists… Islamists, who practice politics and wear ties, can take up arms if they cannot achieve their goals via politics” (Saudi Gazette, August 31).

Faced with what authorities believe is religious and political interference in Mauritania by Iran and Qatar and the threat posed by jihadists lurking along the border with Mali, the president has undertaken several steps to scale back Islamist activities in Mauritania, including the closing of Islamic universities and moving towards a ban on the Muslim Brotherhood. Mauritanian troops are also now operating with the French-backed Sahel Group of Five (G5S – a regional security and development alliance that includes Mauritania, Chad, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso) to tackle Islamist terrorism throughout the Sahara-Sahel region. However, Mauritania’s poverty and an unemployment rate of 40 per cent make it an inviting target for political interference and religious agitation.

The Presidential Succession

Elections last September gave the ruling Union pour la République (UPR) party a majority in Mauritania’s National Assembly. The president has promised to step down at the end of his second term in 2019, though some suspect he may still be considering a third term. Abd al-Aziz is expected to choose his own successor and may select a military man as Mauritania’s next president with the support of the solidly loyal UPR. Abd al-Aziz is a former UPR leader, but was required to officially step away from the party when he became president. The Mauritanian opposition has warned that the nation’s stability “will suffer if the next president again comes directly from the army ranks” (Arab Weekly, November 4).

General Mohamed Ould al-Ghazouni (Taqadoum.mr)

General Mohamed Ould al-Ghazouani is considered a favorite to succeed Abd al-Aziz, but his November 4 appointment as Minister of Defense may be a sideways move intended to derail his succession. It is suggested that Abd al-Aziz fears his post-presidency influence will evaporate under a strong president like Ould al-Ghazouani, while the more pliable Colonel Cheikh Ould Baya (currently speaker of parliament and a UPR stalwart) might be more acceptable as Abd al-Aziz’s successor (Arab Weekly, November 4).

Mauritania’s Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic Education

Leading Mauritania’s political opposition is the Rassemblement national pour la réforme et le développement (RNPRD), better known as “Tewassoul.” Mohamed Mahmoud Ould al-Sidi leads the party, which is closely associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Abd al-Aziz claims that the Muslim Brotherhood has caused the destruction of several Arab countries,” adding that the Brothers are working inside the political opposition to divide and destroy Mauritanian society (Saudi Gazette, August 31).

The Tewassoul leader has rejected charges of religious-political extremism:

“[The authorities] are extrapolating the reality of other Islamists upon us. It is better for them to give proof and facts to back their accusations. The difference between us and the others is that we are inspired by Islamic values in our political activities while others are exploiting Islam for their political benefit” (Arab Weekly, September 30).

In late September, authorities shut down two Islamic higher education institutions in Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital. Both the University of Abdullah ibn Yasin and the Center for Training Islamic Scholars were believed to be closely tied to the Tewassoul Party. Mauritanian Muslim Brotherhood leader and prominent preacher Mohamed al-Hassan Ould Dadou was a leading faculty member at both institutions. The action resulted in student demonstrations and the arrest of two academics (University World News, October 2).

Shaykh Mohamed al-Hassan Ould Dadou

The day after the closures, Ould Dadou did not attack the government directly, but used his Friday sermon to warn that Arab countries were being “destroyed by despotism and injustice, the main causes for the destabilization of nations” swept up in the Arab Spring (AFP, September 26).

In preference to the opposition-affiliated schools, Ould Abd al-Aziz has stated his support for establishing an Islamic education center in Mauritania that would be affiliated with al-Azhar University in Cairo, a bastion of anti-extremism closely watched by the Egyptian government (MENA, March 19).

Mauritania and the Struggle for the Middle East

Mauritanians are overwhelmingly followers of the Sunni Maliki madhab (school of Islamic jurisprudence), but there are fears among top clerics and other officials in Mauritania of an Iranian campaign to convert Mauritanians to Shi’ism. [1]

Relations between Iran and Mauritania began to warm in 2008, after the military coup led by Abd al-Aziz and the consequent severing of relations with Israel. Since then, however, Mauritania has been pulled into the Arab-Iranian dispute in the Middle East and relations with Iran have suffered as a result.

Iran’s ambassador to Mauritania was called into the Mauritanian foreign ministry on May 25, where he was informed the government would not accept any activities by the Iranian embassy intended to “change the doctrine or creed of Mauritanian society.” The ambassador was further informed that the state was appointing a new imam for the Shiite Imam ‘Ali mosque in Dar Naim (a suburb of Nouakchott), where scholarships were arranged for young Mauritanians to study at Shiite institutions in Iran and Lebanon (Sahara Media [Nouakchott], May 29). For its part, Iran denied the meeting ever took place, claiming Saudi Arabia was behind the “rumors” published in Mauritanian media (Fars News [Tehran], May 30).

In early June, Mauritania was one of several Arab nations to join the anti-Qatar “Quartet” of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in cutting diplomatic ties with Qatar over its alleged support for terrorism and religious extremism. A Mauritanian government spokesman, Mohamed Ishaq al-Kenti, claimed that Qatar was funding both Tewassoul and the Mauritanian Muslim Brotherhood (Egypt Today, September 8). UPR chief Sidi Mohamed Maham stated in October that “all Qatari attempts at intervention in [Mauritania] have failed… their bad intentions are clear towards the state of Mauritania” (al-Arabiya, October 5).

The Military Dimension

Mauritania’s military struggle with modern jihadism began in June 2005, when militants belonging to Algeria’s Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC) crossed the border and attacked the Lemgheity military camp in Mauritania’s far north, killing 17 soldiers before withdrawing with prisoners, weapons and vehicles.

Only weeks after the 2008 military coup, gunmen from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) captured a Mauritanian patrol at Tourine. All 12 members of the patrol were decapitated and mutilated (Reuters, September 20, 2008; Tahilil [Nouakchott], March 21, 2011). The incident spurred General Ould Abd al-Aziz (then President of the High Council of State) and his old comrade, General Ould al-Ghazouani, to embark on an energetic program of reforms in the military designed to increase its efficiency, skills and operational capability. The two officers first met in 1980 at the Meknes military academy in Morocco and have operated closely ever since.

The most important step in the military reforms was to create small but highly autonomous and mobile Groupements spéciaux d’Intervention (GSI) led by energetic junior officers. The GSIs, each consisting of about 200 men, are capable of finding and destroying jihadist groups from advanced positions. Arms that were once directed to presidential security units were diverted to increase the firepower of the GSIs (Jeune Afrique, November 8, 2017; Le Point Afrique, July 18). American weapons and coordination with the Mauritanian Air Force’s Brazilian-made A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft gave Mauritanian counter-insurgency operations a new punch.

According to General Ould al-Ghazouni, military action in not enough: “We need development, to fight against the extreme poverty of a population that has no water, no food… There cannot be a rich army and a poor population” (Jeune Afrique, November 8, 2017). The general has identified several areas where military efficiency could be improved, including the provision of updated maps, a computerized operations room and technological training for recruits (Jeune Afrique, November 8, 2017).

General Hanena Ould Sidi (NordSudJournal)

General Hanena Ould Sidi, who was also heavily involved in the post-2009 military restructuring, has noted it was also necessary to simultaneously strengthen the judiciary, promote development and intervene in Islamic education to discourage extremism and “to disseminate the good teaching of Islam” (Le Point Afrique, July 18).

Improvements in military performance became visible in June 2011, when the army destroyed an AQIM base in Mali’s Wagadou Forest (70 km from the border) in an attack that left 15 militants dead. [2] AQIM followed up with a retaliatory raid on the Mauritanian military base at Bassiknou, in the southeast corner of the country in July 2011, but a decisive Mauritanian air-strike the following October on the Wagadou Forest destroyed two vehicles loaded with explosives in preparation for another attack on Mauritanian positions. Local AQIM commander Tayyib Ould Sid Ali was also killed and AQIM operations against Mauritania tapered off after that.

The G5 Sahel

Though Mauritania’s military is still short of funding, training and advanced arms, it is fully committed to participation in the French-backed G5S anti-terrorist alliance. The total force consists of seven battalions; two each from Niger and Mali, and one each from Mauritania, Chad and Burkina Faso. France provides intelligence and logistical assistance through its Operation Barkhane, a French counter-terrorist operation in the Sahara-Sahel region. Unlike its G5S partners, Mauritania does not allow French troops on its soil.

The GS5 has three zones of operation. The first is the Mali-Mauritania border region, the second is the triangular border region shared by Mali, Niger and Burkina Fase, while the third zone is along the Niger-Chad border. Mauritania and Mali each contribute a battalion to the G5S’s Western Zone of operations. Mauritania has a history of cross-border military operations in northern Mali, endured with varying degrees of acquiescence from the weak Malian government.

After a series of successful jihadi attacks in Mali and Burkina Faso (including a suicide bombing that destroyed the G5S headquarters), Mauritanian general Hanena Ould Sidi succeeded Mali’s General Didier Dacko as the G5S Joint Force commander in July. Ould Sidi studied at the Meknes military school in Morocco, commanded Mauritanian units in Cöte d’Ivoire and the Central African Republic (CAR) and is a former director of military intelligence in Mauritania (RFI, July 18). The new G5S second-in-command is American-educated Chadian general Oumar Bikimo, who has commanded Chadian troops in northern Chad, Mali and the CAR.

General Oumar Bikimo of Chad

After the attack on its HQ, the G5S decided to move its headquarters from Sévaré to Bamako, but is still awaiting an exact location from the Malian government. Funds pledged to the G5S have been slow to arrive and the force is still short of vitally needed equipment (L’Indicateur du Renouveau [Bamako], November 14).

Conclusion

Typical of a career military man, President Ould Abd al-Aziz is taking a direct approach to the problem of political Islam, attempting to eliminate armed Islamists beyond Mauritania’s borders while forcing domestic Islamists to the political and religious sidelines of Mauritanian society. Meanwhile, the nation’s economic weakness, high unemployment and deep Islamic traditions make it attractive to extremists. The combination of a potential state-wide ban of the Muslim Brotherhood, an aggressive military stand against jihadism and uncertainty over the presidential succession could make Mauritania a target for exploitation from regional jihadist groups such as Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa’l-Muslimin, which is highly active just across the border with Mali.

However, there are reasons why Mauritania might survive this period of uncertainty. There appears to be little internal support for armed Islamism at this time and regional jihadists do not appear to consider Mauritania a priority since their 2011 defeat in the Wagadou Forest.  Much will depend on how far the president or his successor will go in attempting to root out Islamist influence in politics and education. The emergence of a significant degree of religiously-based internal dissent could act like a beacon for the region’s armed jihadists.

Notes

  1. United States Department of State, International Religious Freedom Report for 2017, https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/281008.pdf.
  2. See “Mali and Mauritania Conduct Joint Operations against al-Qaeda Base,” Terrorism Monitor, July 7, 2011, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=692

This article first appeared in the December 19, 2018 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

War in the Tibesti Mountains – Libyan-Based Rebels Return to Chad

AIS Special Report, November 12, 2018

Andrew McGregor

Tibesti (SVS Chad)

Relative peace has reigned in northern Chad’s arid Borku-Ennedi-Tibesti (BET) region since 2009, when most of the insurgents seeking to end President Idris Déby Itno’s 28-year rule were driven north across the border into Libya. Some 11,000 Chadian rebels have worked as mercenaries for both sides of the Libyan conflict, accumulating arms, cash and military experience as they prepared to make their eventual return to Chad.

Dissident general Mahamat Mahdi Ali gathered many of these groups together under his leadership in the Front pour l’alternance et la concorde au Tchad (FACT – Front for Alternation and Concord in Chad). [1] The first formation to return to Chad is the Conseil de Commandement Militaire pour le Salut de la République (CCMSR – Military Command for the Salvation of the Republic), founded in March 2016 as a split from FACT. The CCMSR claims to have 4500 fighters, mostly Daza Tubu, with smaller numbers of Zaghawa, Arabs and Maba (the latter hailing from the east Chadian province of Wadai).

Chad, with Tibesti in the North-West (Ezilon.com)

President Déby, a skillful desert fighter and former Chadian Army commander, took power in a coup in 1990 and has been re-elected five times in disputed elections. Rebellions have been frequent, but in recent years Chad has become a major regional ally of France and the United States in the struggle against terrorism in the Sahara/Sahel region. It is a member of the French-sponsored G5S counter-terrorism alliance along with Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, as well as the Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF), fighting Boko Haram terrorists in the Lake Chad region. With its headquarters in the Chadian capital of N’Djamena, other MNJTF members include Cameroon, Nigeria, Benin and Niger. On October 10, Boko Haram elements crossed the border into Chad and attacked an ANT base at Kaiga Kindji, killing eight soldiers before being driven off with a reported loss of 48 militants.

In a November 2016 statement, CCMSR secretary-general Mahamat Hassane Boulmaye described the Déby regime as “a perfect illustration of clan despotism in its most pernicious and most abject form.” After outlining the administration’s corruption and use of violence against its opponents, Boulmaye justified the CCMSR’s insurrection: “Ours is the armed struggle. The vulgar despot of Chad maintains power by force; why is it so bad to drive him away by force? The path of armed struggle is the only one left, and it will overcome by the grace of God.” As for Déby, “He will have a double choice, the grave or the prison” (Lepythonnews, November 27, 2016).

The rebel leader also noted that many Zaghawa (Déby’s ethnic group) were abandoning the president; Boulmaye’s strategy was to encourage other Zaghawa to do the same by creating “a situation of insecurity” for members of the ethnic group. [2]

Return to Chad

CCMSR Column in Northern Chad (Tchad Convergence)

The CCMSR began to probe Chadian defenses in April 2017 with an attack inside Chad that killed 12 soldiers (RFI, August 14, 2018). A further clash with the Armée National du Tchad (ANT) took place on August 18, 2017, when a CCMSR column moving from Libya to Darfur ran into a Chadian Special Forces patrol at Tekro in the Ennedi region of northern Chad. Though small and without a permanent population, Tekro’s wells and airstrip make it strategically important. The Chadian unit suffered casualties, including the deaths of two colonels, while the survivors fled into the mountains (TchadConvergence, October 19, 2017).

Imprisoned Leadership

The movement has managed to survive despite the arrest of three leading members in Niger in October 2017, allegedly at the request of N’Djamena. Boulmaye, CCMSR spokesman Ahmat Yacoub Adam and CCMSR external affairs secretary Dr. Abderahman Issa Youssouf were extradited to Chad, where they were charged with the capital offense of terrorism and transferred to the notorious desert prison at Koro Toro. Supporters of the men appealed unsuccessfully for France to intervene against the extradition. France had previously granted refugee status to Boulmaye and Youssouf. Adam has refugee status in Egypt.

Mahamat Hassane Boulmaye (left), Ahmat Yacoub Adam (center) and Dr. Abderahman Issa Yousouf (right) (Tchad Convergence)

Fearing the three would meet “certain death” if extradited to Chad, the CCMSR threatened to attack Niger in an October 25, 2017 statement, though the promised strike did not materialize (Tchad Convergence/Deutsche Welle, October 27, 2018).

Boulmaye’s temporary replacement as secretary general was Colonel Mahamat Tahir Acheick. The colonel was succeeded in 2018 by Hissène Habré loyalist Michelot Yogogombaye (a.k.a. Kingabé Ogouzeïmi de Tapol), who works from exile in Paris (Tchad Convergence, August 17, 2018; Tchad Convergence, April 3, 2018).

The Battle of Kouri Bougoudi

Chad closed its border with Libya in January 2018, but stood little chance of avoiding infiltration by the CCMSR along a lengthy and lightly inhabited stretch of inhospitable desert.

CCMSR militants attacked a military outpost at Kouri Bougoudi (35 km from the Libyan border) in the volcanic Tibesti region of northeastern Chad on August 11, 2018. The Tibesti Mountains, a picturesque but physically challenging area, is regarded as the ancestral homeland of the Tubu people of northern Chad, southern Libya and northeastern Niger. The discovery of gold in Tibesti has brought artisanal gold miners from Niger, Sudan and other parts of Chad. Many are based around Kouri Bougoudi.

CCMSR Fighters

Arriving in over one hundred trucks at 2:23 AM, the assailants were armed with DShK “Dushka” 12.7 mm heavy machine guns and ZPU-4 quadruple barrel anti-aircraft weapons systems, using 14.5 mm KPV heavy machine guns. Both these Soviet-era designs are commonly mounted on the beds of 4×4 pick-up trucks in Libya and Chad.

A CCMSR statement released after the battle claimed 73 government troops killed and 45 taken prisoner (including three officers) against a cost of four CCMSR dead and seven wounded (Al Wihda [N’Djamena], August 19, 2018).

The attack was initially denied by the Minister of the Interior and Security, Ahmat Mahamat Bachir, who mocked CCMSR claims: “No attack on our position took place. I don’t know – did they attack the pebbles, the mountains?” (RFI, August 24, 2018). N’Djamena eventually acknowledged the death of Colonel Tahir Oly and two other soldiers in the clash (Al-Wihda [N’Djamena], August 12, 2018; Le Monde, September 14, 2018).

Reluctant to admit the political context of the attack on the village and its garrison, a Chadian security source told French media only that the army had been confronted by “coupeurs de route” (highwaymen) and “drug traffickers” (RFI, August 11, 2018). Two days later, the government ordered all gold miners to leave Kouri Bougoudi within 24 hours or face removal by force (Tchad Convergence/Xinhua, August 13, 2018). Chadian forces were ordered to destroy all the miners’ goods and equipment in land and air attacks (AFP, August 16, 2018).

A CCSMR statement released on August 17 suggested that the movement was willing to consider releasing their prisoners (including three officers identified by rank and name) to the Red Cross or Red Crescent once the three imprisoned CCSMR leaders were released “immediately, unconditionally [and] safe and sound” (RFI, August 17, 2018). According to the statement, three columns of CCSMR forces were now in Chad to end “its economic crisis and dictatorship” (Tchad Convergence, August 12, 2018). Minister of Public Security Ahmat Mahamat Bachir in turn rejected the possibility of making any kind of deal with “savage mercenaries, bandits [and] thugs” (Tchad Convergence, August 22, 2018).

The Tibesti Mountains (Sakhalia.net)

The CCMSR claimed to have routed Chadian troops in a second attack in the same area on August 22, but local sources claimed the government forces had evacuated quietly, leaving the region open for the return of illegal gold-miners (Tchad Convergence, August 22, 2018). Reports of this second attack were again refuted by the Interior Minister, who described them as “the false reports of mercenaries” (TchadInfo, August 22).

President Idriss Déby declared on August 20 that “the era of seizing power by arms” was forever over, adding that “clinging to warlike rhetoric” was “a suicidal option” (RFI, August 23, 2018). The CCMSR’s spokesman responded by noting that Chad had enjoyed ten years of relative peace since the last major effort to overturn Déby’s regime, but in that time the president had done nothing to establish an effective administration or improve the lot of Chadians: “[The president] thinks himself powerful, invincible, untouchable. But we will prove the opposite to him” (RFI, August 23, 2018).

On September 13, two Chadian helicopters bombed Kouri Bougoudi, where a number of miners had failed to obey the evacuation order (Le Monde, September 14, 2018). Retaliatory government bombing raids in Tibesti are alleged to have killed civilians while cluster bombs are reported to have been used to devastate the camel herds on which the traditional local economy is based (La Croix, September 6, 2018). The bombing did not prevent another attack on ANT forces at Tarbou on September 21.

Battle at Miski

The ANT clashed with insurgents again on October 24 at a place called Miski, which has only recently been administratively detached from Tibesti region and made part of the Borku region, to the great displeasure of many of Miski’s residents (Jeune Afrique/AFP, October 25, 2018). Responding to reports of civilian casualties, Chad’s Defense Minister, Bishara Issa Jadallah, insisted that there were no civilians left in Miski and that the attack had been entirely initiated by “drug traffickers” and “traffickers of human beings” (RFI, October 25, 2018).

In reaction, CCMSR spokesman Kingabé Ogouzeïmi de Tapol said his movement was “determined to drive these Mafia criminals [i.e. the Déby regime] out of Chad” and called for “a total and widespread popular insurgency” in Chad (CCMSR Press Release no. 0033, Facebook, October 24, 2018).

Driving the CCMSR from Libya

Residents of southern Libya Fezzan region have grown impatient with promises to clean up the south from both the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), its Tobruk-based rival, the House of Representatives (HoR) and “Field Marshal” Khalifa Haftar’s so-called Libyan National Army (LNA). Armed locals have at times joined under-manned security operations in the south, most recently in mid-September when they joined an attack by the Salafist Khalid bin Walid Brigade on Chadian militants, freeing two hostages and killing six Chadians (Libya Herald, October 24, 2018; October 15, 2018).

The Khalid ibn al-Walid Brigade (aka the 104th Brigade), a mostly Tubu unit under the command of Yusuf Hussein Salah, has suffered recent losses fighting the Chadians; four fighters were killed in a clash on October 14, while a further six fighters who had been abducted were found dead four days later (Libya Observer, October 18, 2018; Libya Herald, October 15, 2018). In late October, the brigade was forced to abandon a siege of Chadian militant groups at a Chinese-built factory in the Fezzan’s Umm al-Aranib district, conceding that without further support from the LNA, the brigade was outmatched by the Chadians’ superior manpower and weaponry (Libya Observer, October 28, 2018).  Qatar, a supporter of anti-Khalifa Haftar militias in Libya, has been accused of helping to finance the CCMSR (RFI, August 14, 2018).

Shortly after discussing security cooperation with President Déby in N’Djamena on October 16, Haftar launched a new LNA operation in the Fezzan’s Murzuq Basin in October to “cleanse the south of the country from criminal gangs and terrorist groups.” To accomplish this, he assembled a joint force of LNA units that included the 10th Infantry Brigade under Colonel Muhammad Baraka, the 181st Infantry Battalion under Tariq Hasnawi, the 116th Infantry Battalion and the Kufra-based Subul al-Salam Brigade (mostly Salafist Zuwaya Arabs) (Libya Herald, October 24, 2018; Libyan Address, October 19, 2018). A UN Security Council report recently claimed Subul al-Salam has defied its mandate to control human trafficking on the southern border to engage in the traffic themselves, holding migrants at the Himmaya forced-labor camp in Kufra. [3]

Logo of the CCMSR

Forecast

Chad is undergoing a massive economic crisis based on the decline in oil prices in recent years. Opposition leaders are regularly detained, as are the leaders of a civil opposition movement, “Iyina” (Arabic – “We are tired”). While the defense budget was largely untouched, there have been cutbacks nearly everywhere else and civil servants have gone for months without wages. With Chad’s citizens asking what happened to all the oil revenues already received in what remains one of the world’s most poorly developed nations, Déby’s regime may find itself vulnerable to an armed movement seeking an end to the Déby government. Should the CCMSR gain traction in the north, a desperate N’Djamena might be forced to withdraw MNJTF forces from the Lake Chad Basin to tackle a more immediate threat to the capital.

Notes

  1. For Mahamat Mahdi Ali, see: “Rebel or Mercenary? A Profile of Chad’s General Mahamat Mahdi Ali,” Militant Leadership Monitor, September 7, 2017, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=4010
  2. Blog of Mahamat Hassane Boulmaye, “Peuple tchadien meurtrie et inoffensive,” November 27, 2016, http://lepythonnews.over-blog.com/2016/11/peuple-tchadien-meurtrie-et-inoffensif.html
  3. UNSC: “Letter dated 5 September 2018 from the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011) addressed to the President of the Security Council,” September 5, 2018, p.15.

 

Italy and Russia: Rivals or Partners in the ‘Enlarged Mediterranean’?

Andrew McGregor

Integrity Initiative, Institute for Statecraft (UK), November 12, 2018

The approach of the Italian-hosted November 12-13 Palermo Conference on Libya has seen dire but largely unsubstantiated reports of Russian Special Forces, mercenaries and intelligence officers arriving in eastern Libya, together with advanced weapons systems aimed at NATO’s soft southern underbelly. Their alleged intention is to control the flow of migrants, oil and gas to Europe as a means of undermining European security. The full accuracy of these reports is questionable, but there is little question that Russia is deeply engaged in reasserting its influence in Libya, as well as other North African nations that once had close ties to Soviet Moscow.

Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar (Algeriepatriotique)

The task is far from simple; in Libya, Russian emissaries must deal with Libya’s competing governments, the Tripoli-based and internationally-recognized Presidency Council and Government of National Accord (PC/GNA) and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR). In practice, Moscow has dealt most closely with a third party, the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by “Field Marshal” Khalifa Haftar. Though nominally at the service of the HoR, the LNA is actually a coalition of former revolutionaries, mercenaries and Salafist militias under the independent command of Haftar and his family. The LNA controls eastern Libya (Cyrenaïca) and much of the resource-rich south.

While the Trump administration has indicated its disinterest in Libya in particular and Africa in general, Italy is also trying to reassert influence in its former Libyan colony, a project that is made more difficult by the contradictions created by the pro-Russian sympathies of the Italian government.

Russian Interests in Libya

Russia’s point man in Libya is Lev Dengov, a Chechen businessman and head of the Russian Contact Group for intra-Libyan settlement. According to Dengov, Moscow’s interaction with Libyan leaders is only part of an effort to restore economic ties with Libya. He denies that Russia supports any one side in the ongoing conflict.

Lev Dengoov (Russarabbc.ru)

Moscow does not deny the presence in Libya of Russian private military contractors (a modern euphemism for organized mercenary groups), but insists their presence is for legitimate security reasons unrelated to Russian foreign policy objectives.

Russia’s Tatneft oil and gas company is in talks with the Libyan National Oil Corporation (NOC) to resume operations within Libya that were brought to a halt by the 2011 revolution. The NOC operates independently of Libya’s rival governments but its facilities are often targeted by a broad variety of armed groups. Russia is also in talks to resume construction of the Sirte-Benghazi railway, a $2.5 billion project that was brought to an abrupt halt by the 2011 revolution.

A potential means for Russia to wield influence in Europe could come through domination of the Greenstream natural gas pipeline that carries 11 billion cubic meters of gas per year from Libya to Europe. Russia is already the largest exporter of oil and natural gas to the European Union; further influence over energy flows to Europe would place Moscow in a strong position in its dealings with Europe.

According to LNA spokesman Ahmad al-Mismari, Libyans admire Russia as a “tough ally.”  Al-Mismari also noted that most senior officers in Libya were trained in Russia and that Moscow was providing medical treatment for at least 30 injured LNA fighters.

Haftar has visited Moscow three times and was welcomed off Libya’s coast for talks with the Russian Defense Minister aboard Russia’s sole aircraft carrier in January 2017. Haftar is eager to have the 2011 UN arms embargo removed in order to resume shipments of Russian arms as part of a $4.4 billion contract signed before the revolution.

Italian Relations with Russia

Italy is increasingly at odds with its EU partners over sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014 after the Russian annexation of the Crimea and its support for ethnic-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. The partners in Italy’s governing coalition are the League (Lega) Party and the Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle). Both are broadly pro-Russian and Euro-skeptic.

In a mid-October visit to Moscow, Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini denounced the sanctions as “social, cultural and economic madness.” Prime Minister Giusseppe Conte is in agreement, calling the sanctions “an instrument that would be better left behind.” Salvini’s League Party is close to Moscow, having signed a cooperation deal last year with United Russia, Russia’s ruling party.

However, the Italian government is not blindly pro-Moscow or oblivious to its own interests; on October 26, Prime Minister Conte gave the long disputed go-ahead to the Italian portion of the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, a $5 billion project designed to relieve Europe’s dependency on Russian natural gas.

Italian Forces on the Libyan Border

Il Mediterraneo Allargato (Riccardo Piroddi)

Italy’s January decision to reassign troops from its missions in Iraq and Afghanistan to Niger and Libya is, in part, a reflection of a new emphasis on what Rome calls il Mediterraneo allargato, “the enlarged Mediterranean.” According to Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti, in this reshaping of strategic interests, “the heart of our interventions is the enlarged Mediterranean, from the Balkans to the Sahel, to the Horn of Africa.”

Italian Troops in Niger (RSI)

Italy has a small military presence in Libya, consisting of support elements for the Libyan Coast Guard (at least the part under the authority of the PC/GNA) and a military hospital in Misrata also acts as a military observation post. The Italian military presence in Italy was the subject of protests in several Libyan cities in July 2017.

After an eight-month delay, Italian defense minister Elizabetta Trenta announced the Italian mission to Niger, Operation Deserto Rosso, was ready to implement its mandate of stemming illegal migrant flows to Europe by providing training to Nigérien security forces patrolling the routes used by human traffickers and terrorists. Trenta added that, “for the first time, we in Italy begin to calibrate our own missions according to our own interests.”

Colonial Era Fort at Madama, Niger (Defense.gouv.fr)

At full strength, the Italian mission will consist of 470 troops, 130 vehicles and two aircraft. The mission is intended to be divided between Niger’s capital of Niamey and Madama, site of a colonial-era French Foreign Legion fort close to major smuggling routes near the Libyan border. There is no combat element to the Italian mission, which will focus on training Nigérien personnel rather than acting as “sentinels on the borders.”

Does Russia Intend to Control Migration Flows through Libya to Europe?

Rumors of Russian intention of building a naval base at the LNA-controlled deep-water ports of Tobruk or Benghazi began to circulate in January. Russian experts were reported to have visited the port several times to check conditions there. Initial Russian denials were followed in February by Lev Dengov’s claim that documented evidence existed at the Russian Defense Ministry proving Haftar had asked Russia to construct a military base in eastern Libya.

On October 8, the Sun, a UK tabloid better known for its “page 3” girls than cutting edge coverage of international issues, published an article claiming British Prime Minister Elizabeth May had been warned by British intelligence chiefs that Russia intended to make Libya a “new Syria.” Without revealing its source, the tabloid further claimed that members of the GRU (Russian military intelligence), Spetznaz Special Forces and private military contractors from the Russian Wagner Group were already on the ground in eastern Libya, where they were alleged to have set up two military bases. The Sun claimed their primary goal was “seizing control of the biggest illegal immigration route to Europe.”

Arriving with the military personnel were Russian-made Kalibr anti-ship missiles and S-300 air defense missile systems. The Russians were said to be providing training and “heavy equipment” to Haftar’s LNA.  An unnamed senior Whitehall source warned that the UK was “extremely vulnerable to both immigration flows and oil shock from Libya,” calling the alleged Russian deployment “a potentially catastrophic move to allow [Vladimir Putin] to undermine Western democracy.”

The Sun report emerged only three days after the UK’s Sunday Times revealed that the British military was war-gaming a cyber-attack on Russia based on a scenario in which Russia seizes Libya’s oil reserves and launches waves of African migrants towards Europe.

The deployment of advanced weapons systems in Libya in defiance of the UN arms embargo and in full knowledge that such a deployment would be regarded by NATO as a major provocation makes that part of the Sun story unlikely. Such systems would only have value as protection for a Russian base that, as of yet, does not exist. Haftar’s LNA is not under threat from either the sea or the air and has little need for such weapons.

Some of the Sun’s account appears to follow from an earlier but unverified report that dozens of mercenaries from the Russian RBC Group had been operating in eastern Libya since March 2017. This account appeared (without sources) in the Washington Times, a daily owned by Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. The article claimed the mercenaries were doing advance work for the establishment of a Russian military base in either Tobruk or Benghazi.

Lev Dengov suggested the Sun’s report could be an attempt to undermine the Palermo Conference, noting that “all reports about the Russian military presence in Libya, without exception, come from non-Libyan sources. How can it happen that no Libyan has ever noticed their presence?”

The deputy chair of the defense committee of the Russian Federal Assembly’s upper house described the Sun’s report as an attempt to discredit Russia’s war on terrorism: “There are no [Russian] military servicemen [in Libya] and their presence is not planned. How could they be there without official request by the country’s authorities?” Asharq al-Awsat, a prominent London-based Arabic daily, said that a number of Libyan deputies had told them there were no Russian bases in Benghazi or Tobruk.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said the Sun’s article was “written in a glaringly alarmist style, with the aim to intimidate the common British reader [with] a mythical Russian military threat.” Nonetheless, Russia’s RBC Media said a source within the Defense Ministry had confirmed the presence in eastern Libya of troops from elite Russian airborne units, though their numbers and mission was unclear.

Conclusion

Manipulating migration flows would require a continuous state of insecurity in Libya. A unified Libyan state could not possibly benefit (as militias and armed gangs do) from allowing mass migration from sub-Saharan states into Europe via Libya. As noted in the HoR agenda for the Palermo conference, illegal migration has led only to “the spread of organized crime, terrorism, looting and the smuggling overseas of the country’s assets.”

The 75-year-old Haftar, a US citizen, long-time CIA asset and alleged war-criminal who has spent much of his life outside of Libya, has had major health issues in the last year and is far from a secure bet to take power in Libya. Haftar has tried to devolve power onto his sons, but they enjoy little popular support. The LNA, a loose coalition or militias rather than an army, is likely to dissolve upon Haftar’s death into battling factions. This is factored into Moscow’s cautious approach in Libya, which is carried out simultaneous with probes (possibly including disinformation) to determine what activities the Western Alliance will tolerate there. Russia’s affinity for strongman types suggests that Moscow may have quietly thrown its support behind the aging Haftar while still keeping channels open with the ineffective but internationally recognized PC/GNA government in Tripoli.Italian and Eritrean colonial troops celebrate a victory in the conquest of Libya

Sovereignty is, and will remain, a sensitive issue in Libya, which suffered through brutal and exploitative occupation by Italian imperialists and later by Italian fascists. Even the Soviet Union was unable to get Mu’amar Qaddafi to agree to allow a Soviet naval base in Libya. Any perception that Haftar is willing to sacrifice Libyan sovereignty without legal authority for the benefit of himself and his family will do little to broaden his support in Libya.

Italy’s decision to work counter to the sanctions applied against Russia by the West will in turn encourage greater Russian expansion into Italy’s strategically defined “Enlarged Mediterranean.” Russia intends to build a sphere of influence extending through Libya, Egypt and Sudan, a strategic feat that is being accomplished through the disinterest of the United States and the acquiescence of NATO partners like Italy, which continues to struggle to reconcile Russian interests with its own.

The Thirty-Six Year Rebellion: Salif Sadio and the Struggle for Senegal’s Casamance Region

Andrew McGregor

November 6, 2018

Salif Sadio (Dakar Actu)

Low-intensity conflicts can be among the most resistant to resolution. A case in point is the 36-year separatist struggle in Casamance, the southern region of Senegal. While the conflict has veered between ceasefires and flare-ups, one man, Salif Sadio, has dedicated himself to keeping the separatist cause alive through his leadership of Atika, the armed wing of the Mouvement des forces démocratiques de Casamance (MFDC). The price of his struggle has been thousands killed and the devastation of the local economy.

The conflict in Casamance has much to do with its physical separation from the rest of Senegal by the small nation known as “The Gambia.”  The Gambia, which became independent in 1965, was a former colony of the UK, while the area surrounding it was French territory which became independent as the nation of Senegal in 1960. The region south of The Gambia is known as Casamance and was integrated with Senegal by an eastern land connection that left The Gambia surrounded by Senegal.

An attempt at union between Senegal and The Gambia in 1982 (the Senegambian Confederation) brought economic benefits to Casamance, but the local economy was hit hard when the confederation collapsed in 1989. Administratively, Casamance was divided by the government into the districts of Ziguinchor to the west and Kolda to the east in the 1980s in the hope of ending references to “Casamance.” [1]

(al-Jazeera)

The main peoples found in Casamance are Mandinke, Pulaar and Jola (or Diola). The dominant ethnic group in Senegal is the Wolof, whose central role in the administration is resented by many Jola, who make up only 4% of Senegal’s population.

By the 1980s, the Christian and Animist Jola people of Casamance began to speak of separation from an exploitative Musliim regime in the Senegalese capital of Dakar (Senegal is 92% Muslim). The Jola, representing roughly a third of the Casamance population, dominate the ranks of the MFDC, though many Jola see the movement as inhibiting development and have nothing to do with the separatists (Le Monde, June 19, 2012).

Salif Sadio and the MFDC are angered by Senegal’s planned expansion of its resource sector, which will include exploitation of oil, gas, zircon and other minerals in Casamance. The MFDC claim the proceeds of such work go directly to the national government in Dakar without any benefit to the people of Casamance. Sadio also claims these projects will cause environmental devastation, though his own movement is accused of partaking in the massive ongoing deforestation of Casamance.

The MFDC

The MFDC was founded in 1982 by Father Augustin Diamacoune Senghor, though a movement for regional autonomy had existed since 1947. [2] Atika was formed three years later in 1985. Oil was discovered offshore in Casamance in the early 1990s, emboldening the separatist movement, but bringing on massive government repression of separatist activities. [3]

The first split in the MFDC dates back to 1992, when northern elements were prepared to negotiate a settlement, but Jola-dominated southern elements, such as those led by Salif Sadio, were determined to offer armed resistance to the Senegalese state. [4] Dakar’s military response to the insurgency was to drive the MRDC into neighboring Guinea-Bissau with such intensity that it nearly created a border war with that nation, as well as creating alienation in the local population. [5]

Early Years

In 1998, Sadio crossed into Guinea-Bissau and joined the military rebellion led by Brigadier General Ansumane Mané. The Brigadier (then chief-of-staff) had been suspended on suspicion of trafficking arms from Bissau-Guinean arms depots to the MFDC separatists in Casamance. The MFDC had already been engaged in bloody clashes with Bissau-Guinean troops along the border in January 1998 and were ready to support a change of regime. In the civil war that followed Brigadier Mané’s June 1998 coup, the MFDC fought alongside the vast majority of the Bissau-Guinean army which sided with Mané against the government of President João Bernardo Vieira. Military intervention by Senegal and Guinea led to a ceasefire and formation of a government of national unity in February 1999, but President Vieira survived only until May, when a second coup overthrew him. In the meantime, Sadio’s support for the military rebels had solidified connections that would serve him well in the future.

Determined to exterminate the MFDC, the Senegalese military shelled Ziguinchor, the largest city in Casamance, in 1999, even though it could hardly be called a MFDC stronghold. The resulting civilian casualties and displacement of residents did little to encourage loyalty to the state.

The Casamance Rebellion

Diamacoune agreed to a peace agreement in 2004 that called for integration of MFDC fighters into the Senegalese security services and economic development in Casamance, but other factions of the MFDC rejected the agreement and continued their armed movement for separation. The agreement eventually collapsed in August 2006.

In early 2006, the leaders of other MFDC factions condemned Sadio for his unwillingness to join the peace process and threatened to “outlaw” him. [6] In the following year, Sadio purged most of the older commanders in his group, whom he suspected of moderate tendencies, and replaced them with more aggressive younger commanders. [7]

After several years of avoiding direct confrontations with the Senegalese Army, the MFDC stepped up attacks on the military in late 2006 after Moroccan troops arrived to assist in a de-mining campaign. The MFDC, which uses mines as an important part of their arsenal, suspected that Dakar had brought in the Moroccans to assist in an effort to capture Salif Sadio. [8]

MFDC Fighters (Xalima.com)

In March 2006, the president of Guinea-Bissau, João Bernardo Vieira (who had returned from post-coup exile in 2005 to be re-elected as president), with the encouragement of his rival and military chief-of-staff General Baptista Tagme na Wale, decided that it was necessary to expel Sadio’s forces from Guinea-Bissau to help further peace efforts in neighboring Senegal. Though military operations succeeded in driving Sadio from his base in Guinea-Bissau, Sadio orchestrated an orderly withdrawal into Casamance, mining roads behind him and mounting attacks on Senegalese garrisons near the border to allow his men to retake old MFDC bases in the Sindian region of north Casamance, close to the border with The Gambia. [9]

The charismatic Abbé Diamacoune died in Paris in January 2007, but he had already lost control of the movement he founded, which split before his death into three major factions led by Sadio, Caesar Badiatte, and Mamadou Niantang Diatta. With fighting between the groups unsettling the entire region, the Senegalese military sent armor and heavy weapons to Casamance for an offensive focused on Sadio’s Atika faction, the most intransigent of the three. [10]

Sadio found refuge in The Gambia, ruled by President Yahya Jammeh, a Jola Muslim known for corruption and his use of assassination squads who took power in a 1994 coup d’état. In 2007, several MFDC leaders claimed the government of The Gambia was supplying arms to MFDC “hard-liners” such as Salif Sadio. [11]

Heavy fighting broke out around Casamance’s main city of Ziguinchor in August 2008 as the MFDC launched a series of raids to steal the bicycles, mobile phones and identity papers of local residents. Farmers were warned by the militants that if they returned to their fields they would be treated as army informants (IRIN, August 26, 2009).

After relations with The Gambia’s President Jammeh soured in 2009, Sadio shifted his base back to Guinea-Bissau, where he enjoyed a good relationship with a former comrade-in-arms, Captain Zamora Induta, the new military chief-of-staff and a veteran of the military rebellion of 1998-1999. [12]

A shipment of Iranian arms was found hidden amidst building materials on a ship that arrived in Lagos harbor in October 2010. Investigators believed the arms were intended to be shipped to The Gambia and then distributed to the MFDC. The incident resulted in Senegal recalling its ambassador to Iran (BBC, December 15, 2010). Other arms shipments might have made it through; Senegalese troops were surprised in December 2010 when MFDC forces using newly acquired equipment such as mortars, rocket launchers and Russian-made “Dushka” machine guns killed seven soldiers near the town of Bignona (RFI), December 28, 2010).

Fighting flared up again in December 2011, when at least 12 Senegalese soldiers were killed in clashes with the MFDC (SAPA, December 21, 2011). The election of Macky Sall as Senegal’s president in March 2012 opened new opportunities for a negotiated settlement of the Casamance issue. Talks with Salif Sadio’s representatives began in Rome in October 2012 under the auspices of the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Vatican-aligned charity specializing in conflict mediation. Two months later Sadio’s faction released eight hostages in a gesture of good-will (AFP, November 10, 2013).

When Macky Sall became Senegal’s president in 2012, one of his first promises was to bring a swift end to the Casamance conflict. If the promise sounded familiar, it was because his predecessor Abdoulaye Wade had promised in 2000 to resolve the crisis in 100 days through a combination of disarmament, demining and large agricultural projects in Casamance (al-Jazeera, February 14, 2012).

To keep the peace, President Wade supplied the MFDC factions with cash and rice. Sadio was reported to have used the money to buy weapons rather than distribute it to his fighters as intended (Seneweb.com, April 10, 2015). Nonetheless, by May 1, 2014, Sadio was ready to declare a unilateral ceasefire, still officially in place today.

Casamance

The MFDC in The Gambia

Back in The Gambia, President Jammeh’s long run as president came to an end with an election loss in December 2016, but Jammeh refused to step down to allow Adama Barrow, the surprise winner of the election, to take power.

After his election loss, Jammeh was reported to have recruited mercenaries from several West African regions, including MFDC fighters, to prepare for an expected intervention to remove Jammeh by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) (Liberian Observer, January 19, 2017). Senegal took leadership of the ECOWAS operation and Jammeh fled Gambia on January 21, 2017.

As relations between Senegal and The Gambia improved under President Adama Barrow, Omar Sadio, a son of Salif Sadio who had served in the Gambian Army since 2005, was relieved of his rank and arrested (Gambia Echo, October 12, 2017). His detention appeared to have been part of a sweep of suspected Jammeh loyalists in the military, many of whom were brought in by the ex-president from neighboring states in the belief they would be personally loyal to the president and not identify with Gambians.

Slaughter in the Forest – A Battle for Resources

The ceasefire was threatened this year by the January 6 execution-style killing of 14 alleged loggers in the Bayotte Forest of Casamance. Many of the hardwoods found in the forests of Casamance, such as teak and rosewood, are of high value. Much of the wood taken illegally is shipped through The Gambia on to China, where it is highly prized (AFP, January 24).

Casamance Timber Headed for Export (Daniel Glick)

Two armed men were killed by security forces in separate clashes shortly after the massacre as Senegalese troops rounded up suspected militants. Sadio promptly denied any involvement by his faction of the MFDC. In an interview recorded at his forest base near the Gambian border, Sadio insisted “The killing was only a pretext that served the Senegalese army to trigger military operations in Casamance.” He demanded the release of “innocent civilians” detained in the sweeps and warned that the MFDC’s unilateral ceasefire might end if the operations continued (Jeune Afrique/AFP, January 24).

Sadio, who has accused the army of cutting timber in protected areas, admits his men beat loggers and even burn their trucks, but insists they have never killed loggers (Jeune Afrique/AFP, January 24). Sadio rejects allegations that he cooperates with The Gambia to extract valuable hardwoods from Casamance (Senenews.com, January  24).

An emerging irritant is the plan by Australian firm Astron Zircon to dig out sand dunes on the Casamance coast to remove deposits of zircon, a gemstone with many applications. Locals fear the removal of these natural barriers to the sea will result in the salinization of farmland and drinking water (DakarActu, June 27) The government in Dakar insists the Zircon extraction will provide economic benefits to Casamance, but Sadio has warned that “the exploitation of zircon represents a declaration of war. Many times we have agreed with Senegal not to touch anything and wait for the settlement of the conflict.” [13]

Conclusion

Salif Sadio’s faction of the MFDC constitutes a destabilizing force in the Senegal/Gambia/Guinea-Bissau region. Prospects for a negotiated settlement in Casamance have grown remote with the split of the MFDC into three mutually suspicious factions. A military solution without coordinated regional cooperation is just as elusive, with MFDC fighters currently slipping across international borders whenever they are pressured.

Senegal’s government has tried different means of dealing with the MFDC, including pay-offs and military repression, but little effort has been put into addressing the social, economic and environmental underpinnings of Casamance separatism. Without such efforts, hardliners like Salif Sadio will continue to draw support from disaffected residents, particularly amongst the Jola ethnic group, whose culture and grievances have attracted little attention from government officials tasked with dealing with them.

Notes

  1. Aïssatou Fall, Understanding the Casamance Conflict: A Background, KAIPTC Monograph no. 7, December 2010, https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B40UDxMwk8FATGZ4U19pMk5ZNGs/view
  2. Ibid
  3. Michael E. Brownfield and Ronald R Charpentier, “Assessment of the Undiscovered Oil and Gas of the Senegal Province, Mauritania, Senegal, The Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau, Northwest Africa,” U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 2207–A, October, 2003, https://pubs.usgs.gov/bul/b2207-a/b2207-a.pdf.
  4. Wagane Faye, The Casamance Separatism: From Independence Claim to Resource Logic, Naval Postgraduate School Thesis, Monterey California, June 2006, http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a451368.pdf
  5. Ibid
  6. “MFDC Murders Casamance Deputy Prefect: Are Hardliners Trying to Sabotage the Peace Process?” US State Department Cable 06DAKAR43_a, January 6, 2006, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/06DAKAR43_a.html
  7. “Deterioration in the Casamance,” US State Department Cable 07DAKAR275_a, February 2, 2007, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/07DAKAR275_a.html
  8. “Casamance: Escalation in Rebel Attacks,” US State Department Cable 06DAKAR3016_a, December 27, 2006, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/06DAKAR3016_a.html
  9. “Casamance: Chief Rebel Stronger than Anticipated,” US State Department Cable 06DAKAR1005_a, April 26, 2006, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/06DAKAR1005_a.html. Three years after the offensive against Salif Sadio, the rivalry between General Na Waie and President Vieira proved fatal. The general was assassinated in a bomb attack on March 1, 2009; the next day, Vieira, who had turned his nation into a “narco-state,” was hacked to pieces by machete by troops loyal to the general (The National [Abu Dhabi], March 7, 2009l; see also Anders Themnér, Warlord Democrats in Africa: Ex-Military Leaders and Electoral Politics, London, 2017.
  10. “Casamance: The 2004 Truce Has Ended,” US State Department Cable 06DAKAR2012_a, August 21, 2006, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/06DAKAR2012_a.html
  11. “The Gambia: Further Strains in Ties with Senegal over Casamance,” US State Department Cable 07BANJUL250, May 15, 2007, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/07BANJUL250_a.html
  12. “Senegal: War and Banditry in the Casamance,” US State Department Cable 09DAKAR948_a, July 27, 2009, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/09DAKAR948_a.html
  13. “Le MFDC réitère sa menace de reprendre les armes ,”August 30, https://www.podcastjournal.net/Le-MFDC-reitere-sa-menace-de-reprendre-les-armes_a25680.html

 

This article first appeared in the October 2018 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor.