How Russia is Displacing the French in the Struggle for Influence in the Central African Republic

Andrew McGregor

May 15, 2018

Sudden Russian interest in the resource-rich Central African Republic (CAR – the former French colony of Oubangui-Chari) has raised questions regarding Moscow’s intentions in the violence-plagued nation.

French Patrol in Bangui, CAR (AFP/Getty)

As much as 80% of the CAR is not under government control. A new burst of violence earlier this month included attacks on churches and mosques that resulted in 19 deaths and left over 100 wounded (AP, May 2). Thousands have been killed and nearly half a million people displaced since 2013.

Fighting has escalated since the French ended a three-year military mission (Operation Sangaris) in October 2016. The operation, the seventh French military intervention in the CAR, ended amidst accusations of sexual violence by French troops, though Paris pledged to keep 350 troops inside the CAR as a “tactical reserve” while remaining ready to intervene with a larger force “at very short notice” (Deutsche Welle, October 31, 2016). Responsibility for security was turned over to the Mission multidimensionnelle intégrée des Nations unies pour la stabilisation en Centrafrique (MINUSCA), a 13,000 man UN peacekeeping mission which has struggled to restore order while being accused of large-scale sexual abuse of local women.

Deeply impoverished, the CAR has endured massive exploitation by Chadian Muslims in the 19th century, French imperialists in the 19th century and neo-colonialists working with corrupt CAR politicians since independence in 1960.

Russia appears ready to join this game, exchanging arms and cash for access to oil, minerals, strategic bases and rare earths, materials vital to modern electronics but a market almost entirely dominated by China. Moscow is trying to trade on Russia’s lack of colonial history in Africa (overlooking failed attempts to establish Russian colonies in the 19th century), its Cold War assistance to various bastions of Marxism in Africa and its military performance in Syria.

The CAR has been under a UN arms embargo since civil war broke out in 2013. Pleas from CAR president Faustin Archange Touadéra for arms and training to reinvigorate the shattered CAR military found a sympathetic ear in Moscow last year. An exemption to the embargo was granted only after Russia agreed to supply secure storage and serial numbers for the weapons. The US, UK and France were concerned the arms could disappear soon after delivery; in 2013 the armories were looted and weapons belonging to the Forces armées centrafricaines (FACA) have a habit of turning up on the black market. Aside from the Russian arms supplies, the UN embargo has been renewed through to February 2019. The exemption allowed CAR chief-of-staff Firmin Ngrebada and special adviser Fidèle Gouandjika to arrange an agreement for arms and training with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, signed in Sochi on October 9, 2017.

Firman Ngrebada

Ngrebada, nicknamed “Foccart,” after Jacques Foccart (1913-1997), the French special advisor on African affairs in the 1960s and 70s, insists it was French president Emmanuel Macron who sent the CAR delegates to Russia after a French attempt to supply FACA with arms seized off Somalia failed following Russian objections (Jeune Afrique, May 3; CorbeauNews [Bangui], January 16).

Among the weapons delivered in this year are 900 Makarov pistols, 5,200 Kalashnikov assault rifles, 140 sniper rifles, 840 Kalashnikov PK 7.62 mm machine guns, 270 RPGs, 20 man-portable anti-air defense systems, hand grenades, mortars and millions of round of ammunition (The Nation [Nairobi), December 14, 2017). Russian arms and parts are compatible with what Soviet-era arms remain in the CAR armories.

While the Russian arms are a donation rather than a sale, the Sochi agreement contains provisions for Russian exploitation of minerals, resources and energy sources as well as the development of infrastructure and enhanced commercial relations (Defenceweb, February 19; Russia Today, April 3). Though French Ambassador to the CAR Christian Bader has stated France does not perceive a problem with the Russian military agreement, France has traditionally resented the intrusion of other nations into its African “backyard” (CorbeauNews [Bangui], April 21, 2018). One French diplomat has complained of the “shameless” bribes paid by the Russians for access to CAR governing bodies (Le Monde, April 23). Russians in civilian garb have also appeared in poor neighborhoods of Bangui, handing out various essentials (RFI, April 25). Local reports suggest that among the newly arrived Russians are disinformation experts who have started an anti-French media campaign (MondeAfrique.com, May 9).

The arms are intended for use by two battalions (1300 men) of FACA trained by the European Training Mission (EUTM RCA), beginning in mid-2016. Training was initially inhibited by a shortage of arms. EUTM’s mandate is expected to be renewed in September.

The Russians are reported to have had talks with the Russian-educated former Séléka rebel leader and CAR president Michael Djotodia (2013-2014), though Ngrebada says he has no reason to doubt the sincerity of his new Russian friends (Jeune Afrique, May 3). Witnesses also described a Russian Cesna aircraft with three or four Russian soldiers visiting the compounds of Muslim rebel leaders Nourredine Adam and Abdoulaye Hissene in the northern CAR (Monde Afrique, May 4; RFI, May 1).  During Operation Sangaris, the French made similar efforts to contact rebel leaders to persuade them to refrain from attacking Bangui; Russian intentions are still unknown, but may have something to do with threats of a rebel “march on Bangui” in response to the military cooperation with Russia (L’Obs, May 5). Russian interest in the rebel-occupied goldfields of northeastern CAR may provide another reason.

Russian Mercenaries and CAR Troops at Béréngo Palace (Le Monde)

The 175 Russian trainers have established a base at Béréngo palace, the abandoned home of psychopathic CAR “emperor” Jean-Bédel Bokassa (1966-1979). Only five of this group are members of the Russian Army; most of the others are mercenaries working for private Russian military contractors (Le Monde, April 23). The palace’s 100 acres are only 35 miles from Bangui and include a firing range and airstrip that can easily be expanded and modernized to handle large Russian aircraft, enabling the Russians to avoid using the French-controlled airport in Bangui. One estimate suggests that there are now 1400 armed Russians in the CAR, most of them employees of private military contractor Sewa Security Services (Le Tchadantrhropus Tribune [N’Djamena], May 14).

Grave of Emperor Jean-Bédel Bokassa at Béréngo Palace. Bokassa’s family objects to the Russian presence there, claiming it is still family property. (AFP)

Some 40 members of the Russian Special Forces have been assigned as a security detail for President Touadéra, work that used to be done by Libyans, Chadian mercenaries or, most recently, Rwandans attached to MINUSCA. Valeri Zakarov, a Kremlin insider, is the new presidential security adviser. The CAR presidency is now concerned that the military agreement with Russia will encourage Western attempts to overthrow Touadéra, prompting even greater reliance on Russian security personnel.

This article first appeared in the May 15, 2018 issue of Eurasia Daily Monitor.

Salafists, Mercenaries and Body Snatchers: The War for Libya’s South

Andrew McGregor

April 6, 2018

Renewed fighting in southern Libya around the Kufra and Sabha oases demonstrates the difficulty of reaching anything more substantial than temporary and fragile political agreements in the region. The parties to the seemingly intractable conflict in the south include a range of legitimate and semi-legitimate actors – forces allied to Libya’s rival governments, self-appointed police and border security services – and illegitimate actors, such as foreign mercenaries, bandits, jihadists and traffickers.

Tubu Tribesmen in Sabha, southern Libya (Libyan Express)

The fact that membership of these groups often overlaps leads to heated clashes over turf and privileges that endanger the civilian population while inhibiting sorely-needed development initiatives. On March 13, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) warned that the build-up of armed forces in the south “risks further escalation” of the ongoing violence. [1] Tensions are so high at present that even the body of the 19th century head of the Sanusi order has been pulled into the struggle for the resource-rich deserts of southern Libya.

The Madkhali Infiltration

The Saudi-backed Madkhalist religious sect is the most prominent player in the Kufra and Sabha violence. A basic tenet of Madkhalism is respect for legitimate authority, the wali-al-amr.  This Salafist movement was first introduced to Libya by Mu’ammar Qaddafi to counter Libya’s more revolutionary Salafist groups. Madkhalist militias in Libya typically seek to control local policing duties, providing them a degree of immunity while enforcing Salafist interpretations of Shari’a that have little in common with traditional Libyan Islamic practice.

Rabi bin Hadi al-Madkhali

Although Saudi sect leader Rabi bin Hadi al-Madkhali issued a surprising declaration of support in 2016 for General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) in its fight against “the Muslim Brotherhood” (ie the Tripoli-based government), Libya’s Madkhalis do not appear to have a preferred allegiance in the rivalry between Tripoli’s Presidency Council/Government of National Accord (PC/GNA) and Haftar’s military coalition (Arabi21.com, September 21, 2016). Indeed, they appear to be covering their bases by supporting both rivals without coming into direct conflict with either.

The Madkhalis in Tripoli are represented by the Rada Special Deterence Force, led by Abd al-Rauf al-Kara. Nominally loyal to the PC/GNA but operating largely independently of government control, they act as a self-appointed police force complete with private jails reputed to be dens of torture (Middleeasteye.net, January 15).

Meanwhile the growing Madkhali armed presence in Benghazi appears to be meeting resistance. The January 25 twin car-bombing that killed 41 people in Benghazi, including LNA commander Ahmad al-Fitouri, appears to have targeted the Baya’at al-Radwan mosque frequented by Madkhalist militia members (Libya Herald, January 23). The Madkhalists also dominate the 604th Infantry Battalion in Misrata (Libya Tribune, November 4, 2017).

Body-Snatching at Kufra Oasis

A combination of fresh water and nearly impassable desert depressions on three sides makes southeast Libya’s remote Kufra Oasis an inevitable stop for cross desert convoys or caravans. Some 1,500 km from the Libyan coast, Kufra is now a major stop for the flow of illegal migrants that Kufra mayor Muftah Khalil says is overwhelming local security services (Libya Observer, March 5). Since the 2011 Libyan Revolution, Kufra has several times erupted in tribal violence, usually pitting the Zuwaya Arabs against indigenous black semi-nomadic Tubu tribesmen, whose homeland stretches across southern Libya, northern Chad, northwestern Sudan and northeastern Niger. There is long-standing friction between the two communities – the Zuwaya were only able to take possession of Kufra in 1840 by driving out the Tubu.

Sayyid Muhammad al-Mahdi al-Sanusi

Things have been heating up in the Kufra region in recent months, as Sudanese mercenaries clash with LNA forces and Subul al-Salam, a local Madkahlist militia affiliated with the LNA.  In the last days of 2017, Subul al-Salam attacked al-Taj (“The Crown”), a height overlooking the Kufra Oasis, destroying the funerary shrine of Sayyid Muhammad al-Mahdi al-Sanusi, who built a proto-Islamic state in the Sahara and Sahel from 1859 until his death in 1902, and stealing his body.

The emptied tomb of Sayyid Muhammad al-Mahdi al-Sanusi (Libya Observer)

A former representative for Kufra, al-Tawati al-Ayda, insisted that the vehicles used in the attack bore the insignia of the LNA. He also suggested the attack was inspired by the arrival in Kufra of Tripoli Madkhalist preacher Majdi Hafala (Libya Observer, January 2).

The Sanusi are a conservative Sufi religious order that grew into a powerful political and military organization in the 19th and early 20th centuries, resisting invasion by the French and later the Italians. Founded in Mecca by Muhammad al-Mahdi’s Algerian father in 1837, the order’s rapid growth after moving to Libya in 1843 attracted the attention of the Ottoman rulers of Libya and the movement moved south, out of Ottoman control, to the oasis of Jaghbub in 1856.

The conservative asceticism at the core of the movement had wide appeal in the desert communities and tribes. This was especially true in the southern oasis of Kufra, to which al-Mahdi moved the Sanusi headquarters in 1895. Using the trade routes that ran through Kufra, al-Mahdi introduced the commerce-friendly Sanusi brand of Islam to the Saharan and sub-Saharan interior of Africa. The Zuwaya Arabs of Kufra became adherents to the Sanusi tariqa, or path, and defenders of the Sanusi family. Today, the Zuwaya form the core of the Subul al-Salam militia responsible for the assault on al-Taj.

While they enjoyed more influence in Cyrenaïca than Tripolitania, the Sanusis eventually formed Libya’s post-Second World War pro-Western monarchy between 1951 and 1969.  There is some support in Cyrenaïca for the restoration of the exiled royals as a means of bringing rival government factions together. The current heir to the Libyan throne is Muhammad al-Sanusi, who has not pursued a claim to a revived Sanusi constitutional monarchy, but equally has done nothing to discourage discussions about it within Libya.

After overthrowing the Sanusi monarchy in 1969, Qaddafi began a campaign to malign the Sanusis as the embodiment of the inequities of the old regime and a challenge to the peculiar blend of socialism and Islam he propagated in his Green Book. Attitudes shaped by Qaddafist propaganda against the Sanusis still color the way the order is regarded by many modern Libyans.

The desecration at al-Taj was quickly denounced by the Presidency Council in Tripoli. The Dar al-Ifta (Fatwa House) run by Grand Mufti Sadiq al-Ghariani blamed the imported Madkhalilst trend: “Madkhalists are being sent to Libya by Saudi Arabia in order to destabilize the country and abort the revolution. These are all loyalists of Khalifa Haftar and his self-styled army in eastern Libya” (Libyan Express, January 2). Dar al-Ifta also used the incident to launch a broader attack on Libya’s Madkhalists, which it accused of detaining, torturing and murdering Islamic scholars and clerics who failed to fall into line with the Salafists sect (Libya Observer, January 2). The Madkhalis in turn accuse al-Ghariani of association with the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, and hence a follower of the late revolutionary Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader Sayyid Qutb (executed in Egypt in 1966), the Madkhalis’ ideological arch-enemy.

Surprisingly, this is not the first time al-Mahdi’s corpse has gone missing – it was disinterred by unknown individuals in 2012 and reburied in a nearby cemetery, before relatives recovered it and returned it to the shrine at al-Taj (Libya Observer, December 30, 2017).

Operation Desert Rage

Chadian and Sudanese rebels driven from their homelands have turned mercenary in Libya to secure funding and build their arsenals. [2] Grand Mufti al-Ghariani has accused Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) of funding the recruitment of African mercenaries to occupy southern Libya on behalf of Haftar’s LNA (Libya Observer, March 13). In practice, the rebels have found employment from both the LNA and the PC/GNA government in Tripoli.

Sudanese fighters of Darfur’s Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) killed six members of the LNA’s 106 and 501 Brigades engaged in border security near Jaghbub Oasis on January 15. A seventh LNA soldier was abducted. The area was the site of an earlier clash in October 2016 between JEM and Kufra’s Subul al-Salam militia in which 13 JEM fighters were killed (Libya Herald, October 20, 2016).

Sudanese Forces at Jabal ‘Uwaynat (Libya Observer)

The LNA responded to the death of the border guards with “Operation Desert Rage,” which opened with January 20 airstrikes against what the LNA alleged were Sudanese and Chadian rebels near Rabyana Oasis, 150 km west of Kufra. Possibly involving Egyptian aircraft, the strikes caused “heavy losses” to a 15-vehicle convoy of “terrorists” (TchadConvergence, January 22). The Sudanese and Chadians had been prospecting for gold in the newly discovered deposits near Jabal ‘Uwaynat, the remote meeting point of Egypt, Libya and Sudan (Egypt Today, January 23). The commander of the LNA’s Kufra military zone, al-Mabruk al-Ghazwi, said patrols had been sent in every direction to prevent JEM fighters from escaping (Libya Observer, January 20).

Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) spokesman Brigadier Ahmad al-Shami confirmed the presence of Darfuri rebels working as mercenaries in Libya last summer, noting their greatest concentrations were at the oases of Kufra and Rabyana as well as the city of Zintan in Libya’s northwest (Libya Observer, July 20, 2017).

The ‘Invasion’ of Sabha

The Tubu, Awlad Sulayman Arabs and African mercenaries are also engaged in a new round of post-revolutionary fighting in Sabha, capital of Libya’s southwestern Fezzan region.

Following the 2011 revolution, the Awlad Sulayman took advantage of shifts in the local tribal power structure to take over Sabha’s security services and regional trafficking activities. This brought the Arab group into conflict with the Tubu and Tuareg, who traditionally controlled the cross-border smuggling routes. The result was open warfare in Sabha in 2012 and 2014. One of the leading Awlad Sulayman commanders at the time was Ahmad al-Utaybi, now commander of the Awlad Sulayman-dominated 6th Infantry Brigade.

In mid-February, Haftar announced his decision to join the 6th Brigade with the LNA, but al-Utaybi quickly declared his Brigade’s loyalty was to the defense ministry of the GNA government in Tripoli. Following al-Utaybi’s refusal to commit his forces to the LNA, Haftar announced his replacement as commander of the 6th Infantry Brigade with Brigadier Khalifa Abdul Hafiz Khalifa on February 25, though Khalifa has been unable to assume command (Al-Sharq al-Aswat, February 27). At the same time, the 6th Brigade came under heavy attack from alleged Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries working for Haftar. According to al-Utaybi: “The militias who attacked our locations wanted to take control of it and then seize the entire southern region because the fall of the Brigade means the fall of the security of the south” (Libya Observer, February 24).

Al-Utaybi claims that the fighting is not tribal-based, but is rather a clash between the 6th Brigade and groups loyal to Haftar, consisting largely of Tubu mercenaries from Chad, Niger and Sudan (Libyan Express, March 1; Libya Observer, March 2). [3] There are also claims that the conflict has much to do with the collapse of the Italian agreement with the southern tribes providing them with funding and development in return for suppression of migrant flows through Libya to Europe (Eyesonlibya.com, February 27).

Damage to Sabha Castle from shelling (Libya Observer)

The 6th Brigade was forced to withdraw into Sabha’s Italian colonial-era fortress. The historic building has been heavily damaged in this round of fighting, with the Libyan Antiquities Authority protesting that: “Those who do not wish us well are seeking to obliterate Libyan history and civilization” (Libya Observer, March 5). The fighting consists largely of artillery attacks on the fortress and ethnic neighborhoods, as well as sniping, assassinations and drive-by killings.

Sabha’s mayor, Hamid al-Khayali, insists that well-armed Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries flying the flags of “African countries” were taking advantage of the region’s insecurity: “This is an occupation of Libyan land. This is on the shoulders of all Libyans. The south is half-occupied and some Sabha areas are occupied by foreign forces from Sudan, Chad and other countries; why is the Libyan army silent about this?” (Libya Observer, February 25; Libyan Express, February 27).

The long-standing Arab suspicion of the Tubu was reflected in a Presidency Council statement in late February praising the 6th Brigade’s defense of Sabha against “mercenaries” intent on changing the south’s demographic structure from Arab-dominant to Tubu-dominant (Libya Observer, February 27).

Roadblock to Political Resolution

The abduction of Muhammad al-Mahdi’s body was, like earlier Salafist demolitions of Sufi shrines in coastal Libya, both a demonstration of Madkhali determination to reform Libya’s religious landscape and a provocation designed to reveal what real resistance, if any, exists to prevent further Madkhalist encroachments on Libyan society.

For now the Madkhalists are in ascendance and have made important, even unique, inroads in assuming control of various security services across the country, regardless of which political factions are locally dominant. Reliable salaries, superior weapons and a degree of legal immunity ensure a steady supply of recruits to the Madkhali militias.

However, the Madkhali rejection of democracy, and their indulgence in extra-judicial law enforcement and theological disputes with nearly every other form of Islamic observance, ensures their growing strength will inhibit any attempt to arrive at a democracy-based political solution in Libya.

Notes

[1] “UNSMIL statement on the ongoing violence in Sabha,” March 13, 2018, https://unsmil.unmissions.org/unsmil-statement-ongoing-violence-sabha

[2] The Chadian groups include the Front pour l’alternance et la concorde au Tchad (FACT), the Conseil du commandement militaire pour le salut de la République (CCMSR) and the Rassemblement des forces pour le changement (RFC). The Sudanese groups are all from Darfur, and include the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), the Sudan Liberation Movement – Unity (SLM-Unity) and the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army – Minni Minnawi (SLM/A-MM). The latter two attempted to return to Darfur in 2017 but were badly defeated by units of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

[3] Libyan Arabs commonly describe the Libyan Tubu as “foreigners” and “illegal immigrants” despite their historic presence in the region.

This article first appeared in the April 6, 2018 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

 

Religious Extremist or Force for Moderation? A Profile of Imprisoned Saudi Shaykh Salman bin Fahd al-Ouda

Andrew McGregor

March 8, 2018

Shaykh Salman bin Fahd al-Ouda (Sydsvanskan/Lars Brundin)

One of Saudi Arabia’s leading Salafist religious scholars, Shaykh Salman bin Fahd al-Ouda, is currently hospitalized under guard after spending nearly five months in isolation without charges in a Saudi prison. [1] Once a strong opponent of the American military presence in the Arabian peninsula and often described as an inspiration to leading jihadists such as Osama bin Laden, al-Ouda’s failure to endorse the Saudi rivalry with Qatar has brought a bitter end to years of cooperation with the Saudi regime. With millions of followers in the Saudi Kingdom and abroad, the shaykh’s death in custody would have a direct impact on Saudi stability and the long-term plans of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman al-Sa’ud to reform the nation according to his own vision and succeed his father as king.

Early Career

Shaykh al-Ouda is today a leading scholar of Salafist Islam, one of the most influential preachers in Saudi Arabia and a member of the influential International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS), a movement often associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Al-Ouda was born in 1955 in the village of al-Basr near the Saudi city of Burayda in Saudi Arabia’s al-Qassim Province, a relatively poor agricultural region in the center of the Kingdom known for its religious conservatism. The region is considered the heartland of Wahhabism, the 18th century Islamic reform movement that united with the al-Sa’ud royal family to form the Kingdom’s enduring power base. [2] By 2001, it was estimated that 80% of the Kingdom’s judges (experts in Shari’a, the nation’s sole system of jurisprudence) hailed from al-Qassim (Economist, June 16, 2001).

Al-Ouda  is a scholar of the Hanbali madhab, one of the four Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence (madahib), Hanbali is the dominant school in Saudi Arabia and is the one most commonly followed by Saudi Arabia’s conservative Salafis (“followers of the pious predecessors,” i.e. the first three generations of Islam). The shaykh carries a Ph.D. in Islamic jurisprudence from the prestigious Imam Muhammad bin Sa’ud. After completing his Islamic education, al-Ouda returned home to become a professor at the al-Qassim campus of the Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University in Burayda. In those years, al-Ouda operated under the shadow of well-known Burayda-based Salafist scholar Shaykh Muhammad bin Salih al-Uthaymin, who was frequently critical of the young al-Ouda.

Osama Bin Laden and the Gulf War

The internal controversy over the Kingdom’s participation in the First Gulf War (1990-1991) provided al-Ouda with the opportunity to become internationally known in the Islamic world through a series of audiotapes critical of a fatwa (religious ruling) issued by Saudi Grand Mufti Abd al-Aziz bin Baz that permitted non-Muslim allies led by the United States to use Saudi Arabia as a base for the war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Al-Ouda questioned why the Kingdom was still reliant on U.S. protection after billions of dollars of American arms purchases. The presence of kaffir (infidel) U.S. troops on the Kingdom’s sacred soil during the campaign was also used to propel the career of a supporter of the Islamic jihad in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden.

Al-Ouda was not alone in using cassette tapes to address Islamic issues; indeed, Shi’a Iran had been prepared for the return of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 by a series of audiotapes recorded by the Ayatollah in his Paris exile. With such tapes being collected like books by Saudi citizens, al-Ouda even addressed the importance of the phenomenon in a sermon entitled Al-sharit al-Islami ma lahu wa ma ‘alih (The Islamic Tape: An Assessment).

During the next three years, al-Ouda became a leading opposition figure and a signatory of the Khitab al-Matalib (Letter of Demands), a 1991 document requesting the king to open the political system to reforms and greater consultation (shura). It is al-Ouda’s belief that shura rather than democracy is the core of a successful Islamic state; those that relied on shura, such as the Ummayads, Abbasids and Ayubids survived, while those that rejected shura, such as the Ottoman Empire, ultimately disintegrated. [3] In September 1994 the regime asked him for a pledge to desist from preaching on politics. His refusal led to his arrest two days later. [4]

Imprisonment

Al-Ouda was arrested in September 1994 along with fellow Sahwa movement leader Shaykh Safar bin Abd al-Rahman al-Hawali. Bin Laden spoke approvingly of al-Ouda shortly after the latter’s arrest in his “Open Letter to Shaykh Bin Baz on the Invalidity of his Fatwa on Peace with the Jews.” [5] Two years later, Osama bin Laden would insist the arrests were made on the orders of the United States in his “Declaration of jihad on the Americans.” [6] The claim was repeated by al-Gama’a al-Islamiya leader Omar Abd al-Rahman while he was serving a life sentence in the U.S. for various terrorist activities, including the 1993 bombing of New York’s World Trade Center. [7] While awaiting trial in 1995 for his role in the World Trade Center, imprisoned terrorist Ramzi Yusuf claimed his “Liberation Army” was preparing strikes in Saudi Arabia in retaliation for the arrests of al-Ouda and al-Hawali (al-Hayat, April 12, 1995).

Bin Laden’s biographer, Hamid Mir, recalled that Bin Laden had described al-Ouda as his “ideal personality, a savior who was the first to demand the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Saudi.” According to Mir, Bin Laden claimed al-Ouda had written several pamphlets on jihad for al-Qaeda, though these had not been issued under his name. [8]

In 1998, former Bin Laden bodyguard Abu Jandal (a.k.a. Nassir al-Bahri) told an interviewer that Bin Laden had told him that he would never have entered into opposition to the Saudi government had al-Ouda and al-Hawali not been detained. [9] In his pre-9/11 communications, bin Laden frequently addressed themes contained in al-Ouda’s written works and taped messages. [10] Al-Ouda’s five-year imprisonment failed to silence the preacher, as he continued to record audiotapes smuggled out of prison and released for public consumption.

The Sahwa Movement

After his release, al-Ouda became an important member of the Saudi al–Sahwa al-Islamiya (Islamic Awakening) movement.  The group emerged when Muslim Brotherhood members fleeing repression in Egypt began to interact with normally hostile Saudi Salafists in the 1960s. A shared conservative approach to Islam was the foundation for greater cooperation, particularly in urging a greater political role for religious scholars in the state. The Sahwa movement was strongly opposed by the Kingdom’s Madkhalis, another Salafist faction that advocates an almost extreme form of loyalty to the state and its rulers. [11]

Letter to Bin Laden

Bin Laden’s admiration of al-Ouda does not appear to have been reciprocal; six years after the 9/11 attack, al-Ouda released an open letter to the al-Qaeda leader. [12] In the letter, al-Ouda accuses Bin Laden of tarnishing the image of Islam: “People around the world are saying how Islam teaches that those who do not accept it must be killed. They are also saying that the adherents of Salafi teachings kill Muslims who do not share their views.” Al-Ouda asks who benefits from turning Muslim nations into battlefields “where no one feels safe” and questions whether obstructing governments is a solution for anything: ‘Is this the plan – even if it is achieved by marching over the corpses of hundreds of thousands of people – police, soldiers, and civilians, even the common Muslims? Are their deaths to be shrugged off, saying: “They will be resurrected in the hereafter based on the state of their hearts?”

The shaykh also asked what violent extremists could contribute should they succeed in taking power: “What can people who have no life experience hope to achieve in the sphere of good governance? People who have no knowledge of Islamic law to support them and no understanding of domestic and foreign relations? Is Islam only about guns and ammunition? Have your means become the ends themselves?” Al-Ouda concluded with one last question for the al-Qaeda leader: “What have all these long years of suffering, tragedy, tears, and sacrifice actually achieved?” (Muslim Matters, September 18, 2007).

Overall, the letter falls short of being a clear denunciation of Bin Laden or his terrorist tactics. Instead, al-Ouda treats Bin Laden as a Muslim believer who has strayed from the path of Islam but still has the opportunity to review his approach much like the imprisoned jihadists occupied with compiling “revisions” of their past activities. The fact that it took six years for al-Ouda to compose his critique suggests a long period of either indecision or fear that such criticisms might alienate the shaykh’s following.

Becoming a Voice for Moderation?

Moving on from production of audiotapes, al-Ouda embraced the internet, becoming in 2001 a director of IslamToday.net, which carries content in Arabic, English and Chinese. Islam Today has become the shaykh’s most significant avenue for influence, supplemented by numerous YouTube videos and the publication of over 50 books on Islamic theology. Al-Ouda also realized the potential of Twitter and has today something between 11 to 14 million Twitter followers (The Peninsula [Doha]. January 26, 2017).  14.3 million (Al-Bawaba, October 7, 2017).

Shaykh al-Ouda was generally supportive of the Arab Spring uprisings as a much-needed corrective to Arab authoritarianism, but this did not play well with the Saudi regime. Al-Ouda’s relationship with the regime was further aggravated when he denounced the military overthrow of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government in 2011 as a “coup.” Nonetheless, al-Ouda rejected the absolutism that runs as a common thread through Islamist politics:

We have to remember that the Islamists’ program in any country should not be mistaken for Islam itself, nor that anyone who disagrees with it is a loser. It is the Islamists’ right, like anyone else, to practise what the others practise [i.e. politics], as long as it respects the limits of moderation, justice, and distance from the assumption that they have the absolute truth or that what they are calling for is sacred. [13]

In March 2013, al-Ouda took the bold step of issuing an open letter to the Kingdom’s rulers, warning of the danger posed by censorship and political repression: “[The people] will not remain silent forever if some or all of these things are constantly denied to them. When revolutions are suppressed, they turn into armed conflicts. If they are ignored, they grow in reach and breadth” (IBTimes, March 18, 2013).

No Place in the Crown Prince’s Reforms

Saudi Arabia’s political climate began to undergo major changes with the accession of King Salman to the throne in January 2015. Foreign policy in particular took on a much more aggressive edge as Crown Prince Muhammad assumed the defense, economic and foreign affairs portfolios in the Saudi government while the eighty-one-year-old King, possibly suffering from pre-dementia, began to prepare for an expected abdication in favor of the Crown Prince.

Crown Prince Muhammad is well aware of the tenuous nature of his status – his two predecessors as Crown Prince since King Salman took the throne in 2015 were both removed. In this tense atmosphere it can be risky just to withhold public approval of the regime’s activities (including the feud with Qatar), most of which are already controlled by the ambitious Crown Prince.

For al-Ouda, 2017 began with tragedy when his wife Haya al-Sayari and his son Hisham were killed when their car collided with a truck (The Peninsula [Doha], January 26, 2017). Accusations of extremism came next, as al-Ouda appeared on a list of six “hate preachers” who were banned from Denmark in 2017, with the Danish government describing the six (five Muslims plus evangelical American preacher Terry Jones) as “travelling fanatical preachers” who “indoctrinate listeners to commit violence against women and children, spread ideas of a caliphate and undermine founding values” (Jyllands Posten [Copenhagen], May 2, 2017).

Crown Prince Muhammad moved to consolidate his personal power in September 2017, when he ordered the arrest of over a score of religious scholars, businessmen, politicians, poets, academics and writers, including al-Ouda (Middle East Monitor, September 14, 2017).

After news spread of a U.S.-brokered phone call between the Saudi Crown Prince and Qatari amir Shaykh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani on September 9, 2017, al-Ouda tweeted “May God bring their hearts together for the good of their people.” [14] Al-Ouda’s arrest followed only hours later. Even the suggestion of support for a Saudi reconciliation with a Qatari regime the Saudi leaders describe as supporters of terrorism was evidently enough to remove al-Ouda from the public sphere. According to the shaykh’s family, al-Ouda had resisted previous pressure from the regime to support its feud with Qatar and his brother Khalid was imprisoned just for announcing news of Salman’s arrest (AFP, January 18).

Shaykh Awad al-Qarni

Al-Ouda and fellow Sahwa leader Shaykh Awad al-Qarni (reputed to have close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood) were among those accused by the Saudi Security Directorate of engaging in intelligence activities “for the benefit of foreign parties against the security of the Kingdom and its interests, methodology, capabilities and social peace in order to stir up sedition and prejudice national unity” (Saudi Press Agency, September 12, 2017).

Al-Ouda’s actual Twitter message may not have been as offensive as its demonstration of defiance of regime instructions to scholars to attack the role of the Qatari government in the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region. Al-Ouda’s international reach only helped make his recalcitrance impossible to ignore.

Al-Ouda’s greatest offense seems to have been his continued association with the IUMS and its leader, Egyptian-born Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, now living in exile in Qatar and viewed as the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. This association appears to be at the core of Saudi contentions al-Ouda, al-Qarni and other religious figures were acting as agents of the Qatari regime, which has sheltered leading members of the Brotherhood (Arab Weekly, September 17, 2017; Gulf Digital News [Manama], September 11, 2017).

Return to Prison

Al-Ouda was sent to solitary confinement in the Dahaban Prison, north of Jeddah on the Red Sea coast, where he quickly entered into a hunger strike to protest his detention, isolation and inability to secure legal assistance.

When rumors of al-Ouda’s death began to circulate after five months of solitary confinement, the shaykh’s son Abdullah demanded information on his condition. In frail health, al-Ouda was transferred to a hospital in Jeddah, but remained incommunicado until he was allowed to make a phone call to his son on February 6 of this year (Middle East Monitor, February 8).

Conclusion

Al-Ouda’s world-view is based on a kind of religious nationalism, in which Saudi Arabia remains the spiritual and physical homeland of an Islamic practise untainted by innovations or foreign influences (other than the Western experts who should be expelled and replaced by Islamic scholars). The shaykh melds this religious nationalism with a type of Arab supremacism in which Arabs are both intellectually and physically superior to other races and even non-Arab Muslims. [15] This sentiment is common in the Arab leadership of extremist movements such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Though some of his views (especially those presented in Western rather than domestic forums) appear to suggest a moderate approach to Islam, al-Ouda remains adamantly anti-Western and anti-Shi’a, including the Arab Shi’a in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich al-Sharqiyah Province, where they form as much as one-third of the population. [16]

Despite al-Ouda’s popularity in many quarters, he remains a polarizing figure in Saudi society, where some view him as a progressive voice while others remain convinced he is a conservative extremist. Unlike many Saudi imams, al-Ouda does not rely on a government salary and this makes him dangerously independent in the eyes of the regime. For now, the shaykh’s millions of followers await his fate, which depends largely on the political mood of the determined Crown Prince.

Notes

  1. Other common transliterations of the shaykh’s nisba include al-Awda, al-Odah, al-Udah and al-Auda.
  2. Founded by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792), the movement rejects the term “Wahhabism” as implying worship of its founder rather than God. Its followers prefer the terms “Salafi” or “al-Muwahidin” (Monotheists).
  3. Salman al-Ouda, Audiotape “Asbab Soqut al-Diwal,” (Why Do States Disintegrate), as cited in Mamoun Fandy, Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent, Palgrave, New York, 1999, p.97.
  4. Mamoun Fandy, Ibid, p.92.
  5. Osama bin Laden: “Open Letter to Shaykh Bin Baz on the Invalidity of his Fatwa on Peace with the Jews” (September 29, 1994), https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Open_Letter_to_Shaykh_Bin_Baz_on_the_Invalidity_of_his_Fatwa_on_Peace_with_the_Jews
  6. “Declaration of jihad against the Americans occupying the land of the two holiest sites: A message from Osama bin Muhammad bin Laden,” August 23, 1996, https://ctc.usma.edu/app/uploads/2013/10/Declaration-of-Jihad-against-the-Americans-Occupying-the-Land-of-the-Two-Holiest-Sites-Translation.pdf
  7. “Fatwa of the prisoner Shaykh Doctor Omar Abd al-Rahman,” May 26, 1998, cited in Peter L. Bergen, The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda’s Leader, Free Press, New York, 2006, p. 204.
  8. Peter Bergen interview of Hamid Mir, March 2005, in: Peter L. Bergen, op cit, p.149.
  9. Khalid al-Hammadi interview with Abu Jandal, al-Quds al-Arabi, August 1998, as cited in Peter L. Bergen, op cit, p. 149.
  10. Mamoun Fandy, op cit, pp. 186-192.
  11. For Madkhalism, see: “Radical Loyalty and the Libyan Crisis: A Profile of Salafist Shaykh Rabi’ Hadi al-Madkhali,” Militant Leadership Monitor, January 19, 2017.
  12. “A Ramadan Letter to Osama bin Laden from Salman al-Ouda,” delivered on Saudi Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC), September 14, 2007, (Muslim Matters, September 18, 2007).
  13. Salman al-Ouda, “Al-Siyasa,” Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC), April 6, 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FfKpSoccw5s
  14. https://twitter.com/salman_alodah/status/906280562956132352
  15. Salman al-Ouda, Audiotape “Jazirat al-Islam,” (The Island of Islam), as cited in Mamoun Fandy, op cit, p. 101.
  16. Graham E. Fuller and Rend Rahim Francke, “The Arab Shi’a: The Forgotten Muslims,” St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1999, p. 180.

This article first appeared in the March 8, 2018 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor. 

How Does Russia Fit into Egypt’s Strategic Plan?

Andrew McGregor

February 15, 2018

As Russian-Egyptian military and economic cooperation increases, there have been many comparisons made with Egypt’s early post-independence era (1956-1971), when Cairo grew close to Moscow. Egypt’s current strategic position, however, bears closer similarities to the foreign policy of the first decades of rule by the founder of modern Egypt, Ottoman Viceroy Muhammad ‘Ali (1805-1848). Like Egypt’s post-independence leaders, Muhammad ‘Ali sought to simultaneously modernize Egypt with foreign assistance while increasing its political independence. This was no easy feat, as it involved balancing allegiance to his suzerain, the Ottoman Sultan, while using (unofficial) French military assistance and training to strengthen his own hand without falling under French control. Current Egyptian president Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi now uses Russian military aid in much the same way to gain leverage in a deteriorating relationship with the United States.

Building an Egyptian Empire: Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha with his new navy and army

Some of the objectives shared by Muhammad ‘Ali and President al-Sisi include:

  • Intensifying the purchase and manufacture of arms
  • Expanding naval capacity
  • Conducting military operations abroad to project Egyptian power
  • Consolidating Egypt’s control of the Red Sea region
  • Securing the supply of Nile waters from the south
  • Diversifying international military suppliers and trainers
  • Exterminating the previous regime, and
  • Repressing Islamic extremists

The question for Moscow is whether their objectives meld with those of Cairo. The Kremlin is seeking enhanced military and economic relations with Egypt but has no desire to be used merely as leverage against Washington. Moscow will seek to obtain their own regional objectives by exploiting differences between Washington and Cairo and filling any void left by diminishing American military aid and engagement with the Sisi regime. For their part, Egypt’s leaders remain wary of getting too close to the Russians – the last period of close cooperation ended badly. Nonetheless, Egypt may be seeking external military support in their failing campaign against Islamist extremists in Sinai and Russia’s military track record in Syria makes it an enticing partner. Whether this can be achieved without paying a high price (such as the establishment of permanent Russian bases in Egypt) is Cairo’s dilemma.

Egyptian and Russian Paratroopers on the 2016 “Defenders of Friendship” Exercise (Egypt Independent)

Russia and Egypt have now conducted two joint airborne exercises; one in Egypt in 2016, the second in Russia in 2017. The third “Defenders of Friendship” exercise will be held in Egypt later this year. Egypt has never conducted a combat air-drop, while Russia has not carried out a combat drop since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979-1989). However, the Russian Defense Ministry reported a successful drop of Syrian paratroopers behind Islamic State lines near the border of Raqqa and Homs governorates last August, with Syrian rocket fire directed by Russian Ka-52 combat helicopters (Sputnik, August 14, 2017). The ministry’s report could not be verified independently, but it could point to future Russian-assisted counter-terrorism para-drops in Egypt, possibly in Sinai or along Egypt’s remote western frontier.

Russia negotiated a deal last year that will allow Russian Air Force jets to use Egyptian airbases and airspace (Al-Monitor, December 18, 2017). The agreement could be the first step in allowing Russian airstrikes on terrorist targets in the Sinai or Libya. It would also preclude the necessity of further deployments of the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean; its performance in Syria was unimpressive and two Russian fighters were lost attempting to land on the ship’s deck.

In mid-January, Russian naval commander-in-chief Admiral Vladimir Korolyov declared that the Russian Navy would focus on improving its system of naval bases, particularly to accommodate “strategic non-nuclear deterrence groups” (TASS, January 16, 2018). Egypt has suitable ports on both its Mediterranean and Red Sea coasts, but Egyptian policy forbids the establishment of foreign military bases on its soil. Russia has engaged in talks with both Sudan and Libyan factional leader Khalifa Haftar regarding the construction of naval facilities in both those nations, but Egypt would provide a more stable long-term partner. However, a Russian base on Egypt’s Red Sea coast would conflict with Egyptian efforts to increase its own influence in the region, as seen in its establishment of a new Egyptian Red Sea squadron.

In furthering its own objectives, Cairo was able to take advantage of the cancellation of the French sale of two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships to Russia following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Egypt not only obtained the ships but was able to purchase Russian Kamov Ka-52K ship-based helicopters originally designed for the vessels (Tass, July 18, 2017). One ship, the Gamal Abdel Nasser, will be deployed with Egypt’s Alexandria-based Mediterranean fleet, while the Anwar El Sadat will join the Red Sea squadron.

(Southfront.org)

With the help of financing from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Egypt has stepped up Russian arms purchases. Russia began delivery of 50 MiG-29 fighter jets last year, a process scheduled for completion in 2020 (Egypt Independent, September 17, 2017; TASS, September 11, 2017). Russia supplied the S300VM mobile long-range air defence system to Egypt in 2017 and 46 Russian-made Kamov Ka-52 “Alligator” reconnaissance and combat helicopters are in the process of being delivered.

However, Cairo has avoided over-reliance on Russian arms (as in the Sadat era) by turning to other suppliers, such as France.  Twenty-four Dassault Rafale twin-engine multi-role fighter aircraft were ordered in 2015, some of which have already flown combat missions over Libya. Egypt took delivery of one French-made Gowind 2500 corvette (the El Fateh) last year and is building another three at its Alexandria shipyard (Defence Web, November 7, 2017). It has also purchased a South Korean corvette (the Shabab Misr) and four German-made Type 209 diesel-electric attack submarines to replace its ancient Chinese and Soviet-made Romeo-class diesel-electric submarines.

Al-Sisi, like Muhammad ‘Ali, is eager to modernize and increase the capacity of Egypt’s military but appears determined to avoid reliance on either the U.S. or Russia. While Russian approaches will not be rebuffed outright, Cairo is making it clear that enhanced cooperation must be consistent with Egypt’s strategic objectives.

This article first appeared in the February 15, 2018 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor.

Operation Deep Punch II: Can a Change of Command Help Nigeria’s War on Boko Haram?

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, January 28, 2018

In recent weeks, the Nigerian military has liberated thousands of civilians from the rule of the Islamic State-allied Boko Haram movement, a divided insurgent group now in its eighth year of a callous and merciless effort to impose an extreme form of Islamic rule on northern Nigeria and the Lake Chad region. Hundreds of former Boko Haram militants were released this month after passing through a controversial de-radicalization and rehabilitation program, but both factions of the movement continue assaults on civilians and security personnel in northeast Nigeria and the neighboring states of Niger and Cameroon. Some of the alleged success of the Nigerian military campaign in recent weeks has been attributed to a change in command of Operation Lafiya Dole (Hausa – “Peace by all means”), the codename for Nigerian military efforts to destroy the insurgents.

A Change of Command

The AIS Special Report of July 29, 2017 reported how Major General Ibrahim Attahiru, the commander of Operation Lafiya Dole, had been given a 40-day deadline to take Boko Haram leader Abu Bakr Shekau, dead or alive. [1]

Major General Ibrahim Attahiru (BBC)

On December 3, 2017, General Attahiru was relieved of command of Operation Lafiya Dole and redeployed to Nigerian Army HQ as deputy chief of policy and plans. The Nigerian press cited Defense Ministry sources that the change in command was related to poor performance in the field and the inability to catch Shekau (Daily Post [Lagos], December 6, 2017; Punch [Lagos], December 7, 2017).

In the two weeks prior to Attahiru’s transfer, Boko Haram killed 13 people and injured 50 in twin suicide bombings in Biu (Borno State), killed 50 people in a suicide bombing on a mosque in Mubi (Adamawa State) and attacked a forward operating base (FOB) in Magumeri (Borno State), killing three members of the 5th Brigade garrison (8th Division) (Vanguard [Lagos], December 7, 2017; Daily Post [Lagos], November 21, 2017).

Major General Rogers Ibe Nicholas (Daily Nigerian)

Replacing Attahiru as commander of theater operations was Major General Rogers Ibe Nicholas, the former chief of logistics at Army HQ. Major General Leo Lucky Irabor, who commanded Operation Lafiya Dole prior to General Attahiru, continues as Force Commander of the Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) combating Boko Haram. The MNJTF, with headquarters in N’Djamena, includes troops from Benin and the four nations bordering Lake Chad, Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad.

MNJTF Commander Major General Leo Lucky Irabor

Born in 1962, General Nicholas is an Igbo Christian from southeastern Imo State.  Nicholas has experience in the Lake Chad Basin, where he was stationed as a young officer. He has also served in the Nigerian contribution to the joint UN/African Union peacekeeping mission to Darfur (UNAMID) and is the former commander of Operation Safe Haven in Plateau State. Well educated, Nicholas speaks Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa, English and French, has two Master’s degrees, a post-graduate degree in public administration (all obtained in Nigeria) and is a chartered public accountant (Daily Nigerian, December 11, 2017).

Two weeks after his appointment, General Nicholas warned his officers that they would be punished if they did not take their tasks seriously, adding: “We have been losing our equipment and men to Boko Haram. I cannot tolerate this. We must go out to this people once and for all and show them the might of the Nigerian military. We must make sure we defend this nation with the last drop of our blood. We must not lose anything to these insurgents again. We have no other country but Nigeria and we must fight for it” (Punch [Lagos], December 17, 2017).

General Nicholas also emphasized that Operation Lafiya Dole could not succeed if it was solely a military operation, noting that success required cooperation with police, immigration and customs authorities as well as the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF, a local vigilante militia) in order to restore civil authority in liberated regions (This Day [Lagos], January 4, 2018).

Nigerian Army operations in the northeast have been complicated by the split in Boko Haram that occurred in August 2016 when the Islamic State leadership moved to replace the erratic Abu Bakr Shekau with the young Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi. Boko Haram had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in April 2015. Shekau ignored the order to step down and the movement split into two groups; one commanded by Shekau in the Sambisi Forest and the other under al-Barnawi and his lieutenant Mamman Nur in the Lake Chad area. [2]

A Defeated Insurgency?

The New Year ushered in a wave of optimism to Nigeria’s military and political leaders. On January 6, the Nigerian military announced Boko Haram operational commander Mamman Nur had been “fatally injured” by a Nigerian bombardment in the Lake Chad region, though it did not explain the term “fatally injured” nor how it had identified Nur as a casualty. One of Nur’s wives was said to have been killed in the action while hundreds of militants surrendered to take advantage of Operation Safe Corridor, a de-radicalization and reintegration programme. Others were said to be fleeing to Niger to accept a government amnesty offered there (Premium Times [Abuja], January 6, 2018; Punch [Lagos], January 6, 2018; This Day [Lagos], January 7, 2018).

Following the bombardment, chief of army staff Lieutenant General Tukur Yusuf Buratai declared: “I want to assure you without mincing words that the Boko Haram terrorists have been defeated, all we are fighting for now is the peace in the northeast” (The Nation [Lagos], January 8, 2018). Buratai told troops of the Nigerian 8th Task Force Division based in Borno State that the division would soon be redeployed to Sokoto State in northwest Nigeria (Guardian [Lagos], January 8, 2018). The movement to Sokoto was first announced in November 2016, conditional on the completion of 8th Division anti-Boko Haram operations in Borno (Premium Times [Abuja], November 27, 2016).

On the same day Buratai addressed the 8th Division, Nigerian Army spokesman Brigadier Sami Usman suggested the Boko Haram leadership was in a rapid state of decline: “There is no doubt that the main Boko Haram terrorists’ group factional leader, Abu Bakr Shekau, is in a terrible state of health and not much a threat as he is now a spent horse, waiting for his Waterloo. However, Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi… will soon be captured” (Premium Times [Abuja], January 8, 2018).

Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari declared as early as December 2015 that Boko Haram had been “technically defeated.” The president used his 2018 New Year’s Day address to again declare Boko Haram “defeated,” though he acknowledged “isolated attacks still occur” (Premium Times [Abuja], January 1, 2018). On the same day, al-Barnawi’s faction of Boko Haram claimed to have killed nine Nigeria soldiers in an assault on the Kanama barracks in Borno State (Telegram Messaging via BBC Monitoring, January 1, 2018).

Lake Chad (WFP/Giulio D’Adamo)

As if to mock the president, Abu Bakr Shekau appeared in a 31-minute Hausa language video the following day to report “We are in good health and nothing has happened to us.” Shekau went on to claim credit for a series of grisly attacks on villagers and loggers in northeastern Borno State (The Guardian [Lagos], January 2, 2018; Vanguard [Lagos], January 2, 2018). Another video released on January 15 showed Shekau firing weapons as well as school girls kidnapped from Chibok in 2014 and weeping female police officers who were abducted in June 2017 to be the insurgents’ “slaves” (Sahara Reporters, January 15, 2018).

The AIS report of July 29, 2017 noted that members of the al-Barnawi faction of Boko Haram were relocating from the Sambisi Forest to the Nigerian city of Kano (capital of Kano State in northwest Nigeria). This was confirmed by a January 6, 2018 Nigerian Army statement reporting that junior and senior al-Barnawi faction commanders were fleeing to Kano after the latest Nigerian government offensive (PR Nigeria, January 6, 2018). Shekau’s faction is still operating in the Sambisi Forest region but is under pressure from the Nigerian Army.

Nigeria’s federal government announced in December that it intended to withdraw $1 billion from the controversial Excess Crude Account (ECA, currently standing at $2.32 billion) to combat Boko Haram. Media and opposition parties questioned why such an enormous sum was needed to fight a movement that, according to government leaders, was already vanquished. Amidst opposition fears the funds would be used for political purposes, the government has since suggested the money will not be used solely against Boko Haram and would in any case not be released without the approval of the National Assembly (Vanguard [Lagos], December 30, 2017; January 18, 2018).

Operation Deep Punch II

Nigerian Troops in Operation Deep Punch II (Saynaija)

Nigerian authorities claimed success in mid-December 2017 with coordinated ground-air attacks on Boko Haram hideouts in the Lake Chad islands as part of “Operation Deep Punch II,” [3] arresting 407 suspected militants and their family members (Premium Times [Abuja], December 16, 2017). Large stocks of food, fuel, ammunition, explosives and motorcycles were seized and destroyed, but not without resistance; Boko Haram suicide bombers struck an 8th Division MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) armored personnel vehicle with a car filled with explosives, killing three soldiers and a member of the CJTF as well as wounding nine others (The Nigerian Voice, December 9, 2017; Nigerian Army official website, December 20, 2017). Saying the deployment of the 8th Division in Borno was a “major strategic decision,” General Buratai declared the unit had “lived up to expectations” (The Nation [Lagos], January 8, 2018).

One tactical innovation used by Operation Safe Haven is the deployment of counter-terrorist troops on motorcycles in remote areas (Vanguard [Lagos], December 1, 2017). Boko Haram has long used motorcycles to carry out terrorist attacks.

On a more technologically advanced level, Nigeria will soon take possession of 12 Embraer Super Tucano A-29 turboprop aircraft and munitions from Brazilian Embraer’s US partner, the Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC). The nearly $600 million sale was initially blocked by the Obama administration over human rights concerns but has since been approved by the Trump administration. The highly maneuverable counterinsurgency warplanes were designed in Brazil for work in the Amazon Basin and are specially adapted for conditions of high temperatures, humidity and precipitation, conditions more likely to be encountered in the restive Nigerian south rather than arid Borno province. Nonetheless, the aircraft will be useful, particularly if military ground-air coordination can be improved.

Conclusion

Boko Haram is still far from a spent force and remains a regional threat, with recent attacks on troops and civilians in Niger (seven soldiers killed on January 20), Cameroon (four civilians killed on January 11) and Nigeria’s Adamawa State (five civilians killed on January 19) (News24, January 20, 2018; AFP, January 11, 2018). The Nigerians have made significant progress in the Lake Chad region, though clearing the Sambisi Forest of Boko Haram militants has proved frustratingly elusive despite all the claims of victory.

The recent arrest of a suspected Boko Haram terrorist in Germany raises concerns that the successful elimination of Boko Haram as a regional threat might be the beginning of Boko Haram as an international phenomenon as surviving members disperse and take advantage of easy entry into Europe and North America.  At the moment, the greatest impediment to Boko Haram’s out-migration from the region is the relative impoverishment of many of its members, though leading figures will certainly have the means and resources to escape Nigeria’s security forces and initiate new operations in Africa and possibly abroad.

Notes

  1. “General with a Deadline: Ibrahim Attahiru’s 40 Days to Seize Boko Haram Leader Abu Bakr Shekau Dead or Alive,” AIS Special Report, July 29, 2017, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3984
  2. See “Choosing a Figurehead over a Fanatic: A Profile of Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the New Leader of the Islamic State in West Africa,” Militant Leadership Monitor, August 31, 2016, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3712
  3. Deep Punch I was a mid-2017 operation to clear Boko Haram bases in the Sambisi Forest.

Egypt Looks for Security Answers as Its War on Terrorism Moves to the Desert Oases

Andrew McGregor

January 15, 2018

The spread of the Islamist insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula to the heavily populated Nile Delta and Nile Valley regions of Egypt has been facilitated by the importation of arms from Muammar Qaddafi’s looted Libyan armories. Prior to Libya’s 2011 revolution, arms and explosives were difficult to obtain. Since then, the growth of new Egyptian militant groups such as Liwaa al-Thawra (Revolution Brigade) and Harikat Souad Masr (Hasm – Arms of Egypt Movement) have been enabled by the availability of arms smuggled over 370 miles through the vast wastes of Egypt’s Western Desert, the 263,000 square miles of which account for two-thirds of Egypt’s land mass. With the Libyan-Egyptian border stretching for more than 650 miles, uncontrolled entry points to Egypt are plentiful, allowing militants and smugglers to move back and forth.

The Oases of the Western Desert (Our Egypt)

The Oases

The only centers of population in the Western Desert are the ancient oases of Siwa, Dakhla, Farafra, Bahariya and Kharga. Over time, the oases have been occupied by Ancient Egyptians, Romans, Mamluks and Ottomans. Modern influences only began to enter the oases with the construction of a road connecting them to the Nile valley in the 1970s. The mostly Muslim peoples of the oases are a mix of their original ancient inhabitants, Berbers, Arab Bedouin from Libya and migrants from the Nile Valley.

Ruins of the Oracle of Amun Temple at Siwa Oasis

Despite their isolation, the recent battles fought in the oases between Islamist extremists and government forces are far from the first incidents of large-scale violence in these communities. The terrain of the Western Desert has been treacherous for military operations since the Persian King Cambyses lost an entire army to a sandstorm after it had been sent to destroy the Oracle of Amun in 55 BCE.

In the modern era, the oases only began to come under Egyptian government control in the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1819, the Egyptian Viceroy Muhammad ‘Ali succeeded where Cambyses had failed by bringing Siwa under Egyptian control in a ruthless conquest in which he deployed Bashi Bazouks (ill-disciplined Ottoman irregulars), Bedouin fighters and a battery of artillery.

Sayyid Ahmad al-Sharif al-Sanusi

Conflict returned to the region during the First World War, when an Ottoman-allied expeditionary force entered the Western Desert from Libya. Commanded by Libyan Sanusi leader Sayyid Ahmad al-Sharif and Egyptian defector and professional soldier Muhammad Salih al-Harb, the expedition was designed to sweep through the oases before inciting an anti-British rebellion in the Nile Valley. By March 1916, the Sanusis held all five major oases, but the rebellion failed to materialize. After a year of ever more difficult attempts to sustain an army in the desert, Ahmad al-Sharif returned to Libya with only 200 men, his reputation in tatters.

British officers in stripped-down Ford Model T’s began intensive exploration of the desert in the postwar years. When war again descended on the region in 1939, their work provided the basis for successful anti-Axis operations by the Commonwealth’s Long Range Desert Group (LRDG). In the years before the defeat of Germany’s Field Marshal Irwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps, LRDG vehicles ranged the desert, discovering the routes that are now used by smugglers and arms traffickers.

LRDG Patrol in Siwa Oasis (WWII Today)

Tensions rose in the region again after Qaddafi seized power in Libya in 1969. However, the colonel’s attempts to incite revolutionary activity amongst the cross-border Awlad ‘Ali Bedouin (with historic ties to Libya) were dashed by a four-day border war in 1977, in which Qaddafi discovered his small and amateurish army was no match for battle-tested Egyptian troops.

Egyptian Efforts to Control Arms Smuggling 

The movement of arms from Libya to Egypt began during the short tenure of Egypt’s President Muhammad al-Mursi, who was deposed by the army in July 2013. Security forces disrupted a major arms smuggling network, the so-called Madinat Nasr cell, in November 2012. The suspects claimed the arms were intended for Syria, but plans and documents found in their possession indicated the arms were to be used by the extremists to overthrow the government of President al-Mursi, whom they reviled for participating in democratic elections. [1] However, when an arms convoy was intercepted near Siwa Oasis in July 2013, it became clear that the problem was far from solved (Mada Masr [Cairo], October 22, 2017).

The Egypt-Libya border region is patrolled by the Egyptian Border Guards, a lightly armed paramilitary unit operating out of the western oases. The Egyptian armed forces do not have a counterpart to partner with on the Libyan side, although there are growing ties with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of a largely Cyrenaïcan (eastern Libyan) militia coalition known as the Libyan National Army (LNA). Restoring security in Libya is key to ending the cross-border arms shipments, and Egypt has agreed to reorganize the LNA with the intention of molding it into a true national force (Middle East Monitor, September 19, 2017).

Despite the efforts of the border guards and the Egyptian air force, shipments of Libyan arms (including advanced weapons) appeared to intensify in the last year:

  • May 8 2017 – The Egyptian Army announced the destruction of a convoy of 15 vehicles carrying arms and ammunition across the Libyan border into Egypt (Ahram Online, May 8, 2017).
  • June 27, 2017 – An Egyptian army spokesman claimed 12 vehicles loaded with arms, ammunition and explosives had been destroyed during 12 hours of airstrikes near the Libyan border (Reuters, June 27, 2017; AFP, June 27, 2017; New Arab, June 28, 2017).
  • July 16, 2017 – Fifteen vehicles carrying explosives, weapons and ammunition were reported destroyed by the Egyptian air force (Middle East Monitor, July 17, 2017).
  • October 23, 2017 – The Egyptian air force reported the destruction of eight vehicles in the Western Desert carrying arms and ammunition (Daily News Egypt, October 23, 2017).
  • October 27, 2017 – The Interior Ministry recovered 13 bodies as well as weapons and suicide bomb belts after a raid on a training camp for militants at a farm on the highway from Asyut to the oasis of Kharga (Reuters, October 27, 2017; Daily News Egypt, October 28, 2017).
  • October 31, 2017 – The Egyptian army reported the destruction of six 4×4 vehicles and the death of all their occupants. The vehicles were reportedly carrying arms and other illegal materials (Ahram Online [Cairo], October 31, 2017). Earlier that day, Egyptian airstrikes targeting facilities of the Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna, Libya killed at least 20 civilians (Mada Masr [Cairo], October 31, 2017). [2]
  • November 11, 2017 – An army spokesman reported the destruction of ten vehicles carrying arms and ammunition in the Western Desert (Ahram Online, November 11, 2017; Libya Herald, November 12, 2017).

In all, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi claims that Egypt has destroyed no less than 1,200 vehicles carrying arms, ammunition and fighters in the 30 months prior to November 2017 (Xinhua, November 11, 2017). Though the list above may seem to indicate Egyptian success in controlling the border, the influx of modern weapons to Sinai and the Nile Valley suggests many arms convoys continue to get through the Egyptian defenses.

Controlling the border from the air without intelligence from the ground can lead to undesirable outcomes, particularly in a region that has become increasingly popular with tourists, who can now enjoy relatively safe excursions into the inhospitable desert thanks to 4×4 vehicles, satellite phones and GPS navigational equipment. From the air, there is little to distinguish tourist convoys from convoys of arms traffickers, as the Egyptian military discovered when one of their Apache attack helicopters mistakenly slaughtered 12 guides and Mexican tourists in September 2015, despite their having a police escort. Authorities claimed the group of four vehicles was in an area near Bahariya oasis “off limits to foreign tourists,” although a permit with a full itinerary had been obtained for travel in the region (BBC, September 13, 2015; PanAm Post, September 15, 2015).

Battle at Farafra Oasis

One of the most dangerous militants operating in the Western Desert is Hisham ‘Ali al-Ashmawy Musa’ad Ibrahim  (a.k.a. Abu Omar al-Muhajir), a graduate of the Egyptian military academy and a former member of the elite Sa’iqa (Thunderbolt) commando unit. Al-Ashmawy is reported to have received advanced military training in the United States (Egypt Today, October 21, 2017).

Hisham al-Ashmawy

After 10 years’ service in Sinai, al-Ashmawy was dismissed from the Egyptian army for Islamist activities and promptly joined the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis terrorist group in 2012, where he provided training in weapons and tactics.

In July 2014, al-Ashmawy led an attack on Egyptian border guards in the Western Desert’s Farafra oasis. The assault was carried out by uniformed militants in four-wheel drive vehicles and armed with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and other weapons (Egypt Today, November 28, 2017). The poor ground-air cooperation in the Egyptian military was again exposed when an injured officer was unable to call in air and ground support after the attackers broke off, allowing the militants to withdraw safely into the desert after killing 21 border guards (Egypt Today, October 21, 2017). Wounded during the operation, al-Ashmawy was taken for treatment in the Libyan city of Derna, an Islamist stronghold where he had strong connections with the now defunct Ansar al-Sharia group (Egypt Today, October 21, 2017).

Farafra Oasis

Soon after the Farafra assault, al-Ashmawy split from Bayt al-Maqdis over the group’s decision to pledge allegiance to Islamic State (IS). He appeared in a 2015 video under the name Abu Omar al-Muhajir to claim responsibility for the Farafra attack and to announce he was leading a new group, al-Murabitun (not to be confused with the Sahara/Sahel movement formerly led by Mokhar Belmokhtar).

In June 2016, militants struck again in Farafra, killing two officers and injuring three others (Daily News Egypt, October 23, 2017).

Disaster at Bahariya Oasis

Bahariya Oasis (Roderick Phillips)

The desert’s Islamist militants again displayed their military skills with the October 20, 2017 destruction of a column of Egyptian police. Working from air force intelligence that suggested a handful of militants were camped along the al-Wahat-al-Kharga-Assyut highway near the Bahariya oasis (85 miles southwest of Cairo), the Egyptian police sent to deal with them were working without air support and had only basic intelligence on the region (al-Arabiya, October 21, 2017).

Instead of a handful of terrorists, the police column ran into an ambush carried out by a larger than expected force. Egyptian security sources told multiple media outlets that over 50 security officers had been killed before the Interior Ministry issued a statement saying that only 16 had fallen with 15 militants killed (Mada Masr [Cairo], October 21, 2017). The ministry’s statement was followed by government criticism of all domestic and international media that published the numbers provided by security sources.

Abd al-Rahim al-Mismary (al-Hayat TV)

The only militant to survive the Egyptian pursuit that followed was a Libyan veteran of the Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna, Abd al-Rahim Muhammad Abdullah al-Mismary. Al-Mismary stated that he belonged to a group led by Imad al-Din Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Hamid (better known as Shaykh Hatim), another graduate of Egypt’s military academy and a lieutenant of al-Ashmawy (Egypt Today, November 17, 2017; Libya Herald, November 17, 2017). Shaykh Hatim, whose Ansar al-Islam group claimed responsibility for the Bahariya attack, was killed in retaliatory Egyptian airstrikes shortly after the attack (Ahram Online, November 17, 2017; al-Arabiya, November 3, 2017). According to al-Mismary, Shaykh Hatim’s group had been present in Bahariya oasis without detection since January 2017 (Egypt Independent, November 17, 2017).

Military Shake-Up 

The fallout from the Bahariya massacre hit the highest levels of the armed forces command structure. Army chief-of-staff Mahmud Ibrahim Hegazi was replaced by Lieutenant General Muhammad Farid Hegazi (no relation), a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that ruled Egypt after President Hosni Mubarak was deposed (The National [Abu Dhabi], October 29, 2017).

General Mahmoud Farid Hegazy

Also replaced were a number of high-ranking interior ministry officials, including the director of Egypt’s National Security Agency (NSA, responsible for domestic intelligence), General Mahmoud Sharawi,; Giza security director Hisham al-Iraqi; General Ibrahim al-Masri, chief of the Giza NSA; and head of special operations for the Central Security Forces General Magdy Abu al-Khair (MENA [Cairo], October 28, 2017; Daily News Egypt, October 29, 2017; Ahram Online, January 18, 2017).

The disaster at Bahariya made it clear that lightly armed interior ministry units cannot deal effectively with better-armed militant groups directed by leaders with advanced training in military tactics. Poor intelligence and unfamiliarity with the desert by security units drawn from the Delta or Nile Valley have hampered operations, while poor ground-to-air coordination has several times resulted in disaster. Nonetheless, Egypt’s military planners continue to neglect improvements in their capabilities in the Western Desert in favor of massive investments in prestigious, but likely useless, items such as French amphibious assault ships and German submarines.

Meanwhile, the instability in the Western Desert has pulled Cairo into the Libyan conflict at a time when it is struggling to control the Sinai and tensions with Sudan are increasing over the disputed Hala’ib Triangle region and Egypt’s alleged support for Darfuri rebels. Until improvements are made in Egypt’s operational capacity in the Western Desert, extremists and arms smugglers will continue to fuel militant and terrorist activities in the Sinai and Egypt’s main population centers.

NOTES

[1] See Andrew McGregor, “The Face of Egypt’s Next Revolution: The Madinat Nasr Cell,” Jamestown Foundation Hot Issue, November 20, 2012: https://jamestown.org/program/hot-issue-the-face-of-egypts-next-revolution-the-madinat-nasr-cell/

[2] The city of Derna, besieged by the LNA since 2015, appears to be the base for Egyptian extremists working out of Libya. Some of these have established bases in the vast Western Desert; according to Egypt’s interior ministry, Amr Sa’ad’s Jund al-Khilafah (Soldiers of the Caliphate), a militant group responsible for a series of attacks on Copts in the Delta and Nile Valley, was trained in the southern regions of the Western Desert, near the Upper Egyptian governorates (Mada Masr [Cairo], October 22, 2017).

This article first appeared in the January 15, 2018 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

The Brotherhood Fox: A Profile of Fugitive Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood Leader Mahmud Ezzat

Andrew McGregor

January 12, 2018

Dr. Mahmud Ezzat (al-Jazeera)

How does a leader of an outlawed religious-political movement apply pressure on an inflexible regime at a moment of organizational weakness and internal division? This is the dilemma facing Dr. Mahmud Ezzat, the deputy supreme guide of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB).  The Brothers (Ikhwan) are struggling to maintain a foothold in Egypt’s political process four years after its members were slaughtered in the streets of Cairo by security forces following the 2013 overthrow of democratically elected president and Brotherhood member Muhammad Mursi by General Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi and the Egyptian military. With much of the movement’s leadership now serving long prison sentences or awaiting execution, the work of keeping the Brotherhood alive has fallen into the hands of fugitive leaders such as Mahmud Ezzat.

Ezzat is wanted by Egyptian authorities in connection with the death of anti-MB protesters outside the movement’s headquarters in the Muquttam district of Cairo on June 30, 2013 (Al-Monitor, August 21, 2013). His current location is unknown, though speculation has placed him in Gaza, Turkey or even inside Egypt.

Ezzat was among five Egyptians added last November to the terrorist list of the Arab Quartet (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates) (Egypt Today, November 26, 2017). Known as a “hardliner,” Ezzat’s long membership at senior levels of the MB has given him an insider’s knowledge of the movement’s organization and finances, much of which is directed by him. Narrow, sharp features and a reputation for organizational skills have led Ezzat to be known as “the Brotherhood Fox” (Al-Monitor, August 21, 2013).

Early Career

Ezzat was born August 13, 1944 in the eastern Nile Delta city of Zaqaziq. He joined the Brotherhood in 1962 as an 18-year-old medical student. [1]

Formed in in Isma’iliya by Hassan al-Banna in 1928, the MB is a religious organization intended to advance political Islamism through social work and political agitation. Much disrupted by events since the 2013 coup, the MB’s leadership structure includes a majlis al-shura (consultative council) below a powerful 15-member Guidance Bureau (maktab al-irshad) with a Supreme Guide (murshid al-‘amm) and his deputies at its head.

The movement has had a difficult relationship with the state since a young MB member tried to assassinate the Egyptian prime minister in 1948. Thousands were jailed and al-Banna himself assassinated by unknown assailants shortly afterward. The movement was banned by President Gamal Abd al-Nasser in 1954. When another Brother tried to kill Nasser in October 1954, a massive crackdown followed that put thousands of Ikhwan behind bars, including revolutionary ideologue Sayyid Qutb, whose works deeply influenced the young Ezzat.

Imprisonment

Ezzzat was arrested in 1965 and imprisoned alongside Sayyid Qutb and Dr. Muhammed Badi’e, who later became the movement’s Supreme Guide (2010 to present). Qutb had already endured torture during nine years in prison; his re-arrest would lead to his execution the next year on charges of conspiring to assassinate the president and overthrow the government. Qutb believed that an Islamic administration could only be imposed by a vanguard of believers (tali’a mu’mina) who would lead the masses to Islam through revolutionary activity.

Dr. Muhammad Badi’e (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)

Ezzat became a pupil of fellow prisoner Shukri Mustafa, who took Qutbism to extremes after his release in 1971 with the formation of Jama’at al-Muslimin, better known as Takfir wa’l-Hijra (Excommunication and Flight) (Al-Monitor, August 21, 2013). Mustafa was also an adherent of the works of extremist icon Shaykh ibn Taymiya (1263-1328), but rejected most other Islamic scholarship, pulling his followers out of Egyptian society to live in caves (after the Prophet’s model, the concept of withdrawal from non-Islamic communities is known as hijra).  Mustafa’s jihad ended with his capture and execution in 1978.

Qutbist ideology was influential among the movement’s leaders serving long prison terms, a group that included Ezzat and Badi’e. Nonetheless, the efficiency of Mubarak’s security machine forced Ezzat and other Qutbists to acknowledge the temporary futility of a direct challenge to the state, and the movement shifted back to emphasizing religious education and social assistance as the means of expanding the MB’s influence. Ezzat explained the movement’s outreach efforts by saying Islam provided “a religion for Muslims and a civilization for non-Muslims.” [2]

After nine years in notorious prisons like Liman al-Turra and Abu Za’bal, Ezzat was released in 1974. Ezzat has noted that the cycle of arrests, torture and imprisonment of MB leaders in pre-revolution Egypt always increased membership and public support: “Regime repression is the glue that binds us together and reflects that we are on the right path.” [3]

After his return, Ezzat became a member of the all-important MB Guidance Bureau in 1981 before fleeing President Anwar Sadat’s crackdown on the MB in 1981. Ezzat traveled to Yemen, where he taught at the University of Sana’a, before moving on to England for several years of post-graduate studies (Egypt Today, November 26, 2017; al-Arabiya, November 23, 2017). [4]

By the mid-1980s, a conservative trend within the movement led by Ezzat and other figures who had emerged from prison or returned from exile drove many leading reformers from roles of influence. The ascendancy of the conservatives continued until the early 2000s, by which time Ezzat and conservative businessman Khayrat al-Shater dominated the ideological direction of the movement. [5] Ezzat was responsible for student recruitment and organizing movement cells across Egypt while working as a professor at the University of Zaqaziq’s faculty of medicine.

In 1992 Ezzat was arrested in connection with the “Salsabil Case,” in which security services claimed to have discovered documents detailing plans to overthrow the Mubarak regime in the offices of the Salsabil software company established by Khayrat al-Shater with Ezzat’s assistance. Two years later Ezzat was detained again alongside 153 other Ikhwan charged with plotting to depose the regime.

The Revolution

Ezzat served as MB secretary general from 2001 to 2010. During that time he became a prominent supporter of Khayrat al-Shater. Ezzat and other conservatives skilfully squeezed out or tamed the movement’s leading reformers in 2009-2010 and elected Muhammad Badi’e as the new supreme guide, replacing Mahdi ‘Akif, who was persuaded to step down. [6] Also forced out was ‘Akif’s first deputy, Muhammad Habib, who accused Ezzat of mounting a coup against him. [7]

By the time of the 2011 revolution, the movement was firmly in the hands of a conservative trend embodied by Ezzzat, al-Shater and MB spokesman Mahmud Ghuzlan.  Reformers began to flow out of the movement, a process accelerated by the events of the revolution and the uncertain response of the Brotherhood’s leadership.

Khayrat al-Shater (al-Arabiya)

Mubarak’s overthrow allowed the MB to form a political party for the first time in June 2011, the Ḥizb al-Ḥurriya wa’l-’Adala (Freedom and Justice Party – FJP). Ezzat’s ally Khayrat al-Shater became the FJP’s post-revolution candidate for president until his disqualification and replacement by Muhammad al-Mursi, who won the presidential election.

As al-Mursi was not the head of the Brotherhood, it remained unclear whether the Egyptian president was still answerable to the movement’s supreme guide. Despite efforts to portray the FJP as an autonomous political party, the Guidance Bureau’s importance became clear when Mursi and two other FJP leaders began to meet weekly with MB deputy supreme guides Ezzat, al-Shater, Ghuzlan and secretary general Mahmud al-Hussein to “coordinate” political activities. [8]

One consequence of the 2011 revolution was that the MB’s shura council was able to meet for the first time since 1995 without fear of arrest. During that time the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau (including Ezzat) made all the movement’s major decisions without input from the broader leadership. Yet even as the Brotherhood’s new political wing tried to convince Egyptians of their commitment to democracy and tolerance of different perspectives, Ezzat shocked many Egkyptians by making remarks endorsing the implementation of hudud punishments such as stoning, amputation and crucifixion for certain offenses under Shari’a. [9]

The Military Targets the Brotherhood

Following days of public protest, the July 3, 2013 military coup d’état brought an end to Mursi’s administration and yet another wave of anti-Ikhwan repression.  The Brothers’ insistence that the FJP was the legitimate and democratically elected government of Egypt was largely ignored by the international community.

Attempts by the Brotherhood to apply pressure on the military through public protests and sit-ins were met with a savage response by government security forces who killed hundreds and arrested thousands to make it clear to the movement and its supporters that it was no longer part of Egypt’s political process.

With supreme guide Muhammad Badi’e and deputy guides al-Shater and Rashad al-Bayumi in prison, Ezzat became the movement’s acting supreme guide in August 2013 (al-Arabiya, August 20, 2013). Kamal Helbawy, a former MB guidance bureau member who resigned in 2012 over the movement’s decision to run a presidential candidate, noted Ezzat’s affinity for “radical Qutbism” and questioned Ezzat’s appointment as the movement’s supreme guide: “Ezzat is a well-mannered, decent man; he is not a great public speaker and prefers to work in secret more than in public. … Given these characteristics, I don’t think that he is a suitable leader for the Muslim Brotherhood at this stage” (Al-Monitor, August 21, 2013).

Leadership in Exile

Ezzat evaded arrest unlike his comrades Badi’e, Mursi and al-Shater, all of whom are serving a variety of life sentences bestowed in trials on an assortment of charges, mostly involving terrorism, armed opposition to the state and espionage on behalf of foreign countries (Arab News, November 15, 2017; Daily News Egypt, September 16, 2017; Ahram Online, December 30, 2017).

Egyptian media reports in August 2015 maintained that Ezzat had been replaced as the MB’s acting supreme guide by his UK-based 80-year-old Guidance Bureau colleague, Ibrahim Munir Mustafa. Munir denied the report and insisted “Dr. Mahmud Ezzat is still the deputy supreme guide and acting supreme guide” (Middle East Monitor, August 10, 2015). Citing Ezzat’s alleged ill health, the claim resurfaced a year later (Youm7 [Cairo], September 22, 2016). However, there was no formal announcement, and Ezzat appears to remain the temporary supreme guide. [10]

A new generation of MB leaders suggest the conservative old-guard bears responsibility for the movement’s loss of power and post-coup persecution. Those conservatives still operating freely, such as Ezzat and secretary general Mahmud Hussein, maintain their influence with difficulty as new leaders seek methods of furthering MB aims in al-Sisi’s Egypt. [11]

Still insisting on the legitimacy of Mursi’s FJP government, Ezzat released a public letter from his place of concealment in August 2017 urging an escalation of violence against the al-Sisi regime. Admitting that the organization was “in pain,” Ezzat called for “victory and sovereignty or death and joy” (Egypt Today, August 14, 2017). The letter may have been designed to undercut the appeal to Ikhwan youth of the more militant Kamal faction of the Brotherhood that emerged after the military coup.

Muhammad Kamal (Middle East Monitor)

Muhammad Kamal, a member of the Guidance Bureau, led “special operations committees” engaged in violence intended to force out the new Egyptian regime. Kamal and another MB leader were both killed by shots to the head during a police raid in northern Cairo in October 2016 (Reuters, October 3, 2016). Nonetheless, Kamal’s followers (sometimes termed “the new guard”) attempted to take over the movement in December 2016 when they “dismissed” the existing guidance bureau and established their own “revolutionary” version, creating competing administrations within the movement (Mada Masr, March 22, 2017).

In early 2017 the Kamal faction announced that it would begin publishing internal assessments of the mistakes made by the movement’s leadership. Though this initiative of the MB’s youth wing was supported by Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the movement’s Qatari-based spiritual leader, the Brotherhood’s “old guard” was alarmed by the announcement.  Ibrahim Munir reminded members that documents lacking the approval of Mahmud Ezzat did not represent the movement’s opinion (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], March 27, 2017).

The Kamal faction followed up with a report in March 2017 that was highly critical of the reaction of Ezzat and the movement’s “old guard” to the 2011 revolution, accusing the Brotherhood’s senior leaders of adopting a cautious and conservative stance rather than adhering to the revolutionary principles of MB founder Hassan al-Banna (Mada Masr, March 22, 2017).

In May 2017, the Kamal faction published a document they claim revealed that the Munir/Ezzat faction of the Brotherhood was recommending a pragmatic and conciliatory approach to the movement’s political isolation, both in Egypt and internationally. It was an apparent recognition that continued insistence on the legitimacy of the FJP government and the return of Mursi as president was preventing political re-integration. The Munir/Ezzat faction was urging ideological flexibility at a time of weakness in order to allow the movement to survive and avoid international condemnation as a terrorist organization (al-Arabiya, May 8, 2017).

The Egyptian government has rejected all Ikhwan attempts to restore the group, even in a diminished fashion. In August 2017, a Cairo court placed 296 Ikhwan on the national terrorist list and claimed Ezzat was forming a military wing for the movement that would focus on toppling the state and working alongside other extremists to target Coptic Christians (al-Arabiya, November 23, 2017). The charges are at odds with Ezzat’s protestations of MB peacefulness, in which Ezzat has quoted Dr. Badi’e: “Our motto remains ‘Our non-violence is more powerful than bullets’” (Ikhwanweb.com, September 13, 2016).

Conclusion

Ezzat insists that there is still a future for the MB, which has survived 90 years of confrontation with Egypt’s governments. The MB’s temporary leader declared last year that the movement is still working to “break the coup and restore legitimacy [i.e. the Mursi/FJP government]” (al-Jazeera, February 24, 2017).

The disaster ushered in by the Brotherhood’s full-scale entry into national politics was met with confusion and dissension within the movement. The detention or dispersal of many Ikhwan prevents the movement from gathering to develop strategies to move forward. In the meantime Ezzat and an aging and fugitive leadership spend much of their time fending off internal challenges from younger members urging defiance rather than the gradualism of the old guard leadership, which still cherishes values like discipline and obedience.

Notes

  1. Hesham al-Adawi, “Islamists in Power: The Case of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt,” in Khair El-Din Haseeb (ed.): State and Religion in the Arab World, Routledge, 2017, pp. 193-94.
  2. Eric Trager, Arab Fall: How the Muslim Brotherhood Won and Lost Egypt in 891 Days, Georgetown University Press, 2016, p. 94.
  3. Khalil al-Anani, Inside the Muslim Brotherhood: Religion, Identity, and Politics, Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 142-43.
  4. Ibid, p. 151.
  5. Ezzat knew al-Shater from his days in al-Sana’a and London. For al-Shater, see: Andrew McGregor, “The Entrepreneur at the Heart of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood: A Profile of Muhammad Khayrat al-Shater,” Jamestown Foundation Militant Leadership Monitor, July 31, 2013.
  6. Hazem Kandil: Inside the Brotherhood, Cambridge, 2015, pp. 136-37; Carrie Rosefsky Wickham, The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement, Princeton University Press, 2013, pp. 139-40.
  7. Khalil al-Anani, op cit, pp. 153-54.
  8. Eric Trager, op cit, p. 111.
  9. Carrie Rosefsky Wickham, The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement, Princeton University Press, 2013, p.186.
  10. Nearly a year after this last alleged transfer of authority, Munir signed a statement regarding the Manchester terrorist attack as “Deputy Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood” (Middle East Monitor, May 23, 2017).
  11. 11. Khalil al-Anani, Inside the Muslim Brotherhood: Religion, Identity, and Politics, Oxford University Press, 2016, p. 158.

This article first appeared in the December 2017 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor.

Musa Hilal: Darfur’s Most Wanted Man Loses Game of Dare with Khartoum… For Now

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, December 12, 2017

Khartoum is using an Arab paramilitary under the direct command of President Omar al-Bashir to clean up resistance to its rule amongst Darfur’s northern Rizayqat Arabs, once the core of the notorious Janajaweed militias that wreaked havoc on the region’s non-Arab population in the 2000s.

Shaykh Musa Hilal (Sudan Tribune)

The campaign has included the violent arrest of Shaykh Musa Hilal Abdalla, a member of the Um Jalul clan of the Mahamid Arabs. Hilal is the nazir (chief) of the Mahamid, a branch of the northern Rizayqat tribal group (the northern Rizayqat includes the Mahamid, Mahariya, and Ireiqat groups). Once the leader of the Janjaweed, Hilal was arrested on November 26, 2017 by the government’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF – al-Quwat al-Da’m al-Sari) after spending the last few years building a fiefdom in northern Darfur funded by illegal gold mining. Hilal remains subject to travel and financial sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council in 2006 in connection to his leadership of the Janjaweed.

Also arrested in the RSF raid were Hilal’s sons Habib, Fathi and Abd al-Basit, three brothers and a number of aides. At the time of the RSF’s arrival in his hometown of Mistiriyha, Hilal was still receiving condolences from visitors after the death of his mother (Radio Dabanga, November 27, 2017).

RSF Commander Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemetti” (Anadolu Agency)

Commanding the RSF forces was Hilal’s cousin, Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemetti,” a member of the Mahariya branch of the northern Rizayqat and Hilal’s former Janjaweed deputy. Daglo is leading the government’s six-month disarmament campaign in Darfur, intended to confiscate weapons held by civilians, rebel groups and government-controlled militias such as the Popular Defense Forces (PDF) and the Central Reserve Police (CRP).

The clashes began when a RSF disarmament unit was ambushed near Mistiriyha, killing nine. Hilal’s men then attacked and killed RSF Brigadier Abd al-Rahim Gumma when he arrived to investigate the ambush (Sudan Tribune, November 27, 2017). The RSF has deployed 10,000 men and an armored regiment in North Darfur to deal with the threat posed by Hilal and his followers (Sudan Tribune, November 5, 2017).

Terrible conditions were described in Mistiriyha after the raid, with mass arrests of male residents, the flight of women and children to barren hills nearby without water or food and bodies left to decompose in the streets (Sudan Tribune, November 29, 2017). Government sources admitted the loss of between nine-to thirteen men with 35 others wounded (Sudan Tribune, November 29). Reports of heavy civilian losses were denied by General ‘Ali Muhammad Salim, who claimed only a single child was hit by a stray bullet (Sudan News Agency, November 29, 2017).

The list of weapons seized from Hilal’s forces included 25 “technicals” (Land Cruisers mounted with heavy machine guns), a SAM-9 anti-aircraft system and a variety of “Dushkas” (the Russian-made DShK 108mm machine gun) and other automatic weapons commonly found in the region (Sudan Tribune, December 5, 2017).

Daglo insisted the arrest of an Algerian with “sophisticated communications equipment” and several other foreign nationals at Mistiriyha confirmed “the participation of foreign parties in destabilizing the security [of] Darfur” (Radio Dabanga, November 27, 2017; November 30, 2017; AFP, November 27, 2017).

Hilal was the official commander of the government’s Border Guard Force (BGF), once a small camel-mounted unit that was greatly expanded as a means of absorbing former Janjaweed into more tightly controlled government structures. Hilal spent several years in Khartoum as a senior government advisor before a dispute with the regime led to his return to Darfur in 2014. To further his own personal and tribal agenda, Hilal began to transform the BGF into the Sudanese Revolutionary Awakening (Sahwa) Council (SRAC). Composed largely of members of Hilal’s Mahamid clan, SRAC began to drive over-stretched government forces from northwest Darfur and established administrations in the region’s major centers and at the artisanal gold fields of Jabal Amer.

RSF Officers after a Raid on the Gold Mines at Jabal Amer (Radio Dabanga)

The Defense Ministry announced its intention to integrate the BGF into the RSF under Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) command in July 2017. The decision was immediately opposed by Hilal, who had no intention of serving under his former Janjaweed lieutenant and tribal inferior, General Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemetti.” [1]

A major quarrel broke out between Hilal and what he described as “these Nile Valley Arabs,” the Ja’ailin, Danagla and Sha’iqiya tribes that have controlled Sudan since independence. Hilal announced his refusal to cooperate with the government’s disarmament campaign and accused Daglo and his patron, Vice-President Hasabo Abd al-Rahman, of siphoning off millions of dollars intended for the Sudanese treasury in return for the deployment of RSF fighters in Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen (al-Jazeera, September 10, 2017). [2]

As commander of the Border Guards (part of the SAF), Musa Hilal was flown to Khartoum for questioning by military intelligence, to be followed by a military trial for turning Mistiriyha “into a hideout for fugitives and outlaws,” according to Minister of State for Defense General ‘Ali Muhammad Salim (AFP, November 29, 2017). Fifty Border Guards were taken prisoner, with 30 sent immediately to Khartoum and the remainder to follow (Sudan Tribune, November 30, 2017).

The Northern Rizayqat – Defections and More Arrests

Hilal’s detention followed the arrest earlier in November of former Border Guards Lieutenant Colonel ‘Ali Abdullah Rizqallah “Savanna.” Rizqallah (Mahamid clan of the Rizayqat) split from the Border Guards in August to form his own Sudan Army Movement – Revolutionary Forces (SAM-RF) after Khartoum declared its intention to merge the Border Guards into the RSF. The commander was arrested after two days of clashes with the RSF around Korma (12 km west of al-Fashir) and in the area south of Kutum (Radio Dabanga, November 10, 2017). Rizqallah was removed to Khartoum for questioning and may face charges carrying the death penalty (Anadolu Agency, November 12, 2017).

Lieutenant Colonel ‘Ali Abdullah Rizqallah “Savana” after his capture (Radio Dabanga)

The RSF claimed a week earlier that it had absorbed some 300 SAM-RF fighters after they defected from Rizqallah’s movement with their weapons and vehicles (Sudan Tribune, November 4, 2017; November 12, 2017; Radio Dabanga, November 5, 2017). Rizqallah is reported to have feuded with General Daglo’s Mahariya clan, responding to a 2016 ambush by Mahariya gunmen with an attack on the home of a Mahariya National Security and Intelligence Service (NISS) colonel and governor of East Darfur that killed two NISS agents. [3] More recently, the RSF claimed to have repelled a SAM-RF attack on the North Darfur city of Kutum (Sudan Tribune, November 4, 2017).

Three days after the RSF assault on Mistiriyha, Adam Khatir Yusuf, leader of the Awlad Eid clan of the Rizayqat, died in a medical facility belonging to Sudan’s security services. The tribal leader was wounded while in Mistiriyha to offer condolences to Musa Hilal and was seen in a poor and bloodied condition being taken off a plane in Khartoum. His family claimed that Adam Khatir died while undergoing torture by military intelligence (Radio Dabanga, November 29, 2017). RSF commander Daglo claimed Adam Khatir had deceived them regarding the possibility of acting as a mediator between the RSF and Hilal: “We thought he [could] serve as a good-faith mediator, but unfortunately we were surprised to see him carrying a gun and fighting with Musa Hilal” (Sudan Tribune, November 29, 2017).

On November 26, the RSF announced the capture of SRAC spokesman Harun Mahmud Madikheir south of Mistiriyha where he was reported to be on his way to Chad with his bodyguards (Radio Dabanga, November 27, 2017).

Government security forces have also raided camps for internally-displaced persons (IDPs) in Darfur as part of the disarmament campaign. President al-Bashir (a Ja’alin Arab) has declared his intent to empty the camps over the objections of the UN and the African Union and Darfuri rebel groups claim the disarmament efforts are just a pretext to clear them of IDPs (AFP, November 21, 2017; Sudan Tribune, September 24, 2017).

Conclusion

Khartoum must still deal carefully with Hilal; there are many members of his Mahamid clan in the RSF who could turn against the government and he can describe the exact type and level of involvement of many leading Sudanese politicians and officials in the ethnic cleansing of Darfur. Al-Bashir himself is subject to International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrants issued for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity in Darfur. Hilal has been in contact with rebel movements looking to integrate Arab groups into the ongoing rebellion. The former Janjaweed leader may also be able to call on powerful friends beyond Darfur’s borders – Khartoum believes he has been in contact with the commander of Libya’s “Libyan National Army (LNA),” Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Hilal is as well the father-in-law of Chad’s Zaghawa president Idriss Déby Itno, a former foe of al-Bashir.

SLM/A-MM Rebel Commander Minni Minawi (Radio Dabanga)

Hilal’s arrest has also met with internal opposition. Old enemy Minni Minawi, leader of a largely Zaghawa rebel movement and current chairman of the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) rebel coalition, denounced the government’s disarmament campaign for inciting a new round of violence in Darfur and called for the immediate release of Hilal and his sons.  He further described the alleged RSF killings of women and children in Mistiriyha as “a crime against humanity” (Sudan Tribune, November 29, 2017). The disarmament campaign has also been condemned as nothing but a new war in the name of disarmament by the Islamist opposition Popular Congress Party (PCP) and the still-influential Sudanese Communist Party (SCP) (Radio Dabanga, November 29, 2017).

In Sudan, prosecutions and detentions depend a great deal upon the importance of the individual to the regime’s tribal relations, his own connections to leading members of the regime, or his future value to the regime. Hilal was previously imprisoned in 2002 on charges of inciting ethnic violence, but was released the nest year when the regime needed a leader for  an Arab supremacist militia that would punish Darfur’s non-Arabs for their resistance to the government – the Janjaweed. With few political cards to play in Darfur and influence with the region’s Arab tribes in a state of decline, Khartoum is likely to hang on to Hilal as a potential future asset, however uncomfortable his stay may be made in the meantime.

NOTES

  1. For a detailed account of Musa Hilal’s resistance to the disarmament campaign and conflict with the RSF, see: Andrew McGregor, “Why the Janjaweed Legacy Prevents Khartoum from Disarming Darfur,” AIS Special Report, October 15, 2017, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=4027
  2. For the RSF’s campaign in Yemen, see: Nicholas A. Heras, “Sudan’s Controversial Rapid Support Forces Bolster Saudi Efforts in Yemen,” Terrorism Monitor, October 27, 2017, https://jamestown.org/program/sudans-controversial-rapid-support-forces-bolsters-saudi-efforts-yemen/
  3. Jérôme Tubiana, “Remote-Control Breakdown: Sudanese Paramilitary Forces and Pro-Government Militias,” Small Arms Survey, May 4, 2017, http://www.css.ethz.ch/en/services/digital-library/articles/article.html/571cdc5a-4b5b-417e-bd22-edb0e3050428

The Unlikely Rebel: A Profile of Darfur’s Zaghawa Rebel Leader Minni Minawi

Andrew McGregor

December 8, 2017

The career of Sulayman Arcua Minawi (better known as “Minni Minawi”) is the story of how a primary school teacher in a remote corner of northern Africa parlayed an ability to read and write and a previously hidden penchant for ruthlessness into his appointment in October 2017 as chairman of the Sudan Revolutionary Front (RSF), a coalition of Sudan’s armed opposition movements. Though widely disliked and lacking any semblance of the charisma usually found in revolutionary leaders, Minawi has nonetheless survived nearly two decades as a rebel leader in the brutal and unforgiving conflict being played out in Darfur.

SLM/A-MM Leader Minni Minawi (Middle East Observer)

Early Career

Born in or near the North Darfur town of Kutum on December 12, 1968, Minawi is a member of the Ila Digen clan of the Wogi sub-group of the Zaghawa, a desert-dwelling ethnic group speaking a Nilo-Saharan language but with broad knowledge of Arabic and French.

Prior to the opening of the Darfur rebellion, Minawi was a primary school teacher with a secondary school education but no political or military experience. [1] He spent much of the 1990s away from Darfur working as a trader in neighboring countries and learned English in Nigeria before returning home in 2001. After joining a Zaghawa self-defense militia, Minawi’s literacy helped a rapid ascent to important administrative positions, though a strong dislike for intellectuals and resentment of more experienced individuals has characterized much of his career. [2]

The Zaghawa

The Zaghawa, who call themselves “Beri,” are found in some of the most inhospitable regions of northern Sudan, northern Chad and southern Libya. Estimates of their total numbers range from 225,000 to 450,000, making them a small minority in each region.

The traditionally nomadic Zaghawa, divided by colonial borders imposed in the early 20th century, belong to one of three sub-groups; the Zaghawa Kobé, mostly in northern Chad with smaller numbers in northern Darfur; the Bideyat (close to the Tubu ethnic group) who are also found on both sides of the border, and the Zaghawa Wogi, most of whom live in northern Darfur. Each of these sub-groups is in turn divided in to a number of clans with little political cohesion. The broad range of northern territory inhabited by the Zaghawa is known as “Dar Zaghawa,” the Zaghawa homeland.

An early recognition of the value of education and success in commerce at home and in Libya and the Gulf region have given the Darfur Zaghawa an influence disproportionate to their numbers in Sudan, a development that has led some Arabs and other non-Zaghawa groups to fear the Zaghawa seek to create a “Greater Dar Zaghawa” (Dar Zaghawa al-kubra) at their expense. The recent geographical dispersal of the group and the establishment of powerful Zaghawa-led armed groups have only fueled these suspicions. [3]

Chad’s president since 1990, Idriss Déby Itno, is a Zaghawa of the Bilia clan of the Bideyat group and has played an influential role in the Zaghawa rebellion in Darfur. Many of Déby’s inner circle, as well as the leaders of the armed opposition, are Bideyat. In December 2010, Déby dismissed his half-brother Timan as sultan of the Bilia and assumed the post himself (Jeune Afrique, December 27, 2010).

The Darfur Zaghawa became increasingly militarized by their participation in Chad’s civil conflict in the 1980s and by their creation of self-defense militias during clashes with government supported Arab groups in northern Darfur in the 1990s and early 2000s. Weapons were frequently made available by their kinsmen in the Chadian and Libyan militaries.

The Sudan Liberation Front

In June 2002, Minawi became a founding member of the short-lived Darfur Revolutionary Front (DLF) led by Abd al-Wahid al-Nur, a Fur lawyer and former member of both the Communist Party of Sudan and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), a largely but not exclusively southern-based revolutionary movement determined to break the hold of Sudan’s Arab riverine tribes (the Sha’iqiya, the Danagla and the Ja’aliyin) over Sudan’s central government. The group’s first military action occurred in February 2003 when it temporarily seized the town of Gulu in the mountainous Jabal Marra region, homeland of the Fur.

Shortly afterward, al-Nur changed the name of the DLF to the Sudanese Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A), adopting the dual political-military structure of the SPLM/A. The movement was composed mainly by the non-Arab Fur, Zaghawa and Masalit groups.

The SLM/A transformed a minor rebellion in an obscure region to front-page news with a spectacularly effective April 25, 2003 assault on the military airport at al-Fashir, the Darfur capital. The operation was carried out jointly with the Zaghawa-led Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), a group with Islamist sympathies and a national focus.

On the same day as the airport attack, the SLM/A engaged Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) troops in Minawi’s hometown of Kutum, where they seized four tanks. Further engagements in Zaghawa territory followed, with the late May destruction of an SAF battalion at Kutum, a mid-July attack on Tine in Dar Zaghawa that killed 250 troops, and the capture of Kutum on August 1, 2003. [4] The Zaghawa initially benefited from their familiarity with the highly mobile tactics employed in Chad but a strong government counter-offensive sent Minawi fleeing for safety in Libya. His attempts to control the rebellion from abroad led to dissent within his own movement. [5]

As secretary-general of the SLM/A, Minawi released the group’s manifesto on March 14, 2003. The “Political Declaration” of the SLM/A called for a secular and “united democratic Sudan” with “full acknowledgement of Sudan’s ethnic, cultural, social and political diversity. [6] The similarity of the declaration to the principles of John Garang’s SPLM/A was no coincidence, as the document was largely written by SPLM advisors. [7]

Minawi and the Formation of the SLM/A-MM

Minawi attempted to seize control of the SLM/A at the rebels’ October 2005 Haskanita Conference. Methods that included having opponents beaten led to a split in the movement, with Minawi leading what came to be known as the SLM/A-Minni Minawi (SLM/A-MM).

Fighters of the SLM/A-MM (AFP)

Minawi also began to clash with JEM, which accused him of partnering with Khartoum and Idriss Déby’s Zaghawa-dominated government in Chad to eliminate JEM in return for cash, a leadership role in Darfur and a sultanate for his Ila Digen sub-clan. [8] The Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) was largely Zaghawa Kobé while Minawi’s SLM/A-MM was largely Zaghawa Wogi. By this time the conflict in Darfur was becoming intertwined with the struggle for power between various Zaghawa clans in Chad.

Abuja Agreement and Government Member

The turning point in Minawi’s career was his decision to become the lone rebel commander to sign the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA, also known as the “Abuja Agreement”) with the Khartoum government. When he signed the pact on May 5, 2006, he alienated not only other rebel commanders who refused to sign, but also many in his own movement.

Minawi, according to the agreement, was made special assistant to President Omar al-Bashir and chairperson of the Transitional Darfur Regional Authority on August 5, 2006. Many members of the SLM/A-MM began to abandon the movement for other rebel groups, reducing the movement mostly to members of Minawai’s Ila Digen clan. [9]

A month after signing the deal, Minawi returned to Darfur and began launching attacks on his former allies in the SLM/A-AW. Fifteen men of the latter group were kidnapped northwest of al-Fashir and were tortured by Minawi’s men for refusing to sign the peace agreement. Eleven were released and their signs of torture documented by AU peacekeepers. Among those held was the elderly Zaghawa humanitarian coordinator Sulayman Adam Jamous (Independent, June 7, 2006). As Minawi’s men began to gain a reputation for such excesses they became known to some Darfuris as “Janjaweed Two” (IRIN, August 4, 2006). The result was another wave of defections from Minawi’s movement, even including members of his Ila Digen clan. [10] Battlefield defeats followed, with the loss of many of the weapons supplied to Minawi’s fighters by the SAF.

In early July 2006, Minawi’s men were accused of mass murder and rape in the area around the town of Korma, with the attackers telling their victims they were being punished for opposing the DPA. The SLM/A-MM gunmen were allegedly supported by units of Janjaweed and the SAF. [11] Nonetheless, Minawi travelled to Washington for a meeting with President George W. Bush later that month (npr.org, July 28, 2006).

By September, there were reports of Zaghawa herdsmen attacking Fur villages supported by Minawi’s fighters. The attacks caused flight into IDP camps around AU bases where armed SLM/A-MM fighters extorted money and carried out kidnappings for ransom (IRIN, September 5, 2006). Representatives of the movement blamed UN reports of rape and executions on biased UN observers. [12]

While in Cairo in February 2009 for talks with President Mubarak and top Arab League officials, Minawi acknowledged the Abuja agreement had failed due to its failure to include all the rebel factions. Minawi also claimed to have asked for Egypt’s assistance as a mediator due to its knowledge of the Darfur situation, but his approach did not bear fruit (al-Ahram Weekly, February 19-25, 2009).

General Ismat Abd al-Rahman Zine al-Abdin

The tensions between Minawi’s men and government security forces led by General Ismat Abd al-Rahman Zine al-Abdin exploded on March 28, 2007, when clashes broke out between the Darfuris and security forces surrounding the SLMA/A-MM office in Omdurman, leaving at least eight of Minawi’s men and two policemen dead. Over 90 of Minawi’s followers were arrested in the incident, during which the movement claimed government forces tore down the SLM/A-MM flag and confiscated computers and documents (Sudan Tribune, March 25, 2007).

Despite friction with the Khartoum government, Minawi was still regarded abroad as sufficiently influential to be invited to Cairo by the Arab League in February 2009, where he participated in talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, intelligence chief Major General Umar Sulayman, Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi and Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu al-Gheit. During his visit, Minawi met with U.S. diplomatic officials. The U.S. officials were unimpressed with Minawi, concluding that he “did not appear to have a vision for the future of Darfur, and was vague about the future of peace talks, his role in Sudan, the future of the GOS, and even the opening of a SLA office in Cairo.” [13]

In January 2009, Minawi’s forces were driven out of the South Darfur town of Muhajariya by their JEM rivals. Minawi had taken the town (largely Birgid) from JEM in 2005, when it became the largest settlement under Minawi’s control. The SLM/A-MM had held the town through repeated attacks by Birgid, Tunjur and Janjaweed fighters. [14] JEM’s re-conquest was short-lived, as Birgid and SAF forces arrived to expel the town’s transplanted Zaghawa population (IRIN, January 28, 2009; al-Jazeera, January 24, 2009; BBC, February 5, 2009; Los Angeles Times, March 21, 2009).

Leaving the Government of Sudan

In an interview at his Khartoum residence with American law professor Rebecca Hamilton three years after signing the DPA, Minawi confided, “I can see the president any time I want. But he doesn’t trust me – and after three years here, I don’t trust him.” [15]

Despite the election of several SLM-MM members in the April 2010 general elections, Minawi was dropped from his position as fourth vice-president. [16] Minawi resigned from the government, moved to Juba (capital of South Sudan) and returned to the armed opposition. The GoS declared that Minawi was now “an enemy” of the Sudanese state and launched a new campaign against Zaghawa fighters and civilians in which Birgid and Tunjur militias were recruited and armed by the state. The campaign soon degenerated into a brutal tribal conflict with little political direction (al-Jazeera, December 13, 2010). [17]

The SLM/A-MM was not a signatory to the Qatar-sponsored Doha Document for Peace in Darfur (DDPD), signed July 14, 2011 by the Liberation and Justice Movement (LJM), a coalition of ten Darfur rebel movements. The agreement thus replicated the weakness of the earlier Abuja Agreement in not including all major rebel groups. Some Zaghawa Wogi abandoned the LJM to join Minawi’s movement or strike out on their own. [18]

By September 11, 2011, the SLM/A-MM was functioning as four separate units; one on the Sudan-Libya border, one in eastern Jabal Marra; one in northern Bahr al-Ghazal (South Sudan); and another in North Darfur. [19]

After his collaboration with the Khartoum government, Minawi had little credibility left in Darfur.  In the first months of 2014, a much-weakened SLM/A-MM came under heavy attacks from the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a restructuring of the notorious Janjaweed intended to bring the Arab militias under the control of Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Service. [20]

The SLM/A-MM Goes Mercenary

Under relentless pressure from the RSF and SAF, Minawi’s movement split, with one group heading south to take refuge in South Sudan while the greater part (like JEM) headed north to Libya’s southern Fezzan region. Arriving in March 2015, they began to operate as mercenaries, working for Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) or rival Islamist militias based in Misrata according to who offered more cash or arms. On this basis Minawi’s fighters took part in the LNA campaign to take control of the Sidra and Ras Lanuf oil terminals on Libya’s Mediterranean coast.

In a March 2016 interview, Minawi claimed Islamic State forces were hosted by the Khartoum government in Kutum and South Darfur, where extremists had allegedly gathered from Mali, Chad, Libya, Egypt and the Central African Republic (CAR). He went on to claim, without evidence, that the Sudanese government was responsible for terrorism in Libya and had a hand in the creation of the Islamic State, Boko Haram, al-Qaeda and the Islamic Séléka movement in the CAR. [21]

Return to Darfur

By early 2017, many of Minawi’s commanders and fighters were drifting back to Darfur, complaining that the movement’s leadership was withholding payments. The rest of the movement followed in May, intending to link up with the allied SLM/A-Transitional Council (SLM/A-TC, led by Nimr Abd al-Rahman) and SLM/A-MM fighters returning to Darfur from South Sudan. The rendezvous was intercepted by RSF and SAF forces in the Kutum region and a fierce four-day battle followed in which the rebels were defeated. Nimr Abd al-Rahman, SLM/A-MM chief-of-staff Major General Juma Mundi Issa and Minawi’s military spokesman, Ahmad Hussein Mustafa, were captured. Other prisoners were reported to have been immediately executed by the NISS but this was denied by the RSF (Radio Dabanga, May 23; Sudan Tribune, May 23; Sudan Tribune, May 24;  Anadolu Agency, May 23). The RSF claimed to have pursued the rebels along the upper Wadi Howar into Chad while others were reported to have fled towards Libya (Sudan Tribune, May 29; Radio Dabanga, May 21).

Kutum, Darfur

After the confrontation, Minawi declared: “The brutal regime of the National Congress (Party), as usual, mobilized the Rapid Support Forces militias in a desperate attempt to hit the SLM in its strongholds and impose peace through the barrel of the gun.” He added that a “cessation of hostilities” was required to contain the humanitarian disaster caused by the regime’s aggression on unarmed civilians” (Middle East Observer, May 28, 2017).

Undeterred, Minawi’s unlikely progress through rebel ranks continued with his surprising election as chairman of the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF- Al-Jabhat al-Thawriyat al-Sudan) on October 13, 2017. The SRF was formed in November 2011 as a coalition of Sudanese rebel movements. It was essentially a response to the July 2011 independence of South Sudan, which compelled a realignment of the remaining Sudanese opposition groups, including two divisions of the SPLA that continued to operate in (north) Sudan.

Conclusion

The battlefield defeat in May constituted a major setback for Minawi’s efforts to re-establish himself as a force in Darfur. Minawi’s movement continues to have little appeal beyond his Zaghawa Wogi base and his past behavior works against building a multi-tribal movement or effective leadership of the SRF. In fact, the record of assassinations, looting, theft of livestock and rape associated with the SLM/A-MM has succeeded in alienating Darfur’s Zaghawa population from their neighbors, who now regard Zaghawa migration from the deteriorating environmental conditions of their northern homeland with suspicion and resentment.

Notes

  1. “Sudan Liberation Army-Minni Minawi (SLA-MM),” Small Arms Survey, September 6, 2011, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/facts-figures/sudan/darfur/armed-groups/opposition/HSBA-Armed-Groups-SLA-MM.pdf
  2. Julie Flint, “Darfur’s Armed Movements,” in: Alex de Waal (ed.), War in Darfur and the Search for Peace, Harvard, 2007, p.110.
  3. Jerome Tubiana, “Land and Power: the Case of the Zaghawa,” African Arguments, May 28, 2008, http://africanarguments.org/2008/05/28/land-and-power-the-case-of-the-zaghawa/
  4. Robert O. Collins, “Disaster in Darfur,” in: Samuel Totten and Eric Markusen (eds), Genocide in Darfur: Investigating the Atrocities in the Sudan, Routledge, 2006, pp. 9-10.
  5. Julie Flint, op cit, pp.154-155.
  6. Salah M. Hassan and Carina E. Ray (eds), Darfur and the Crisis of Governance in Sudan: A Critical Reader, Cornell University Press, 2009, Appendix B.
  7. Julie Flint and Alex de Waal: Darfur: A New History of a Long War, London, 2008, p.91.
  8. Roland Marchal, “The Unseen Regional Implications of the Crisis in Darfur,” in: Alex de Waal (ed.), War in Darfur and the Search for Peace, Harvard, 2007, p.193.
  9. Abdul-Jabbar Fadul and Victor Tanner: “Darfur after Abuja: A View from the Ground,” in: Alex de Waal (ed.), War in Darfur and the Search for Peace, Harvard, 2007, p.289; Jerome Tubiana, “Land and Power: the Case of the Zaghawa,” African Arguments, May 28, 2008, http://africanarguments.org/2008/05/28/land-and-power-the-case-of-the-zaghawa/
  10. Julie Flint, op cit, p.160.
  11. “Korma: Yet more attacks on civilians,” Amnesty International, July 30, 2006, https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/afr54/026/2006/en/
  12. Wikileaks: “Darfur: Update on Korma Attacks and Rape Allegations,” U.S. State Department Cable 06KHARTOUM, July 11, 2006, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/06KHARTOUM1637_a.html
  13. Wikileaks: “Darfur Leader Minni Minawi’s Visit to Cairo,” U.S. State Department Cable 09CAIRO339, February 24, 2009, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/wikileaks-files/egypt-wikileaks-cables/8327046/DARFUR-LEADER-MINNI-MINAWIS-VISIT-TO-CAIRO.html
  14. Mutasim Bashir Ali Hadi, “Power-sharing in Southeast Darfur: Local Translations of an International Model,” in Travelling Models in African Conflict Management: Translating Technologies of Social Ordering, Brill, 2014, pp.131-33.
  15. Rebecca Hamilton: Fighting for Darfur: Public Action and the Struggle to Stop Genocide, St. Martin’s Press, Feb 1, 2011, p.95.
  16. Small Arms Survey, op cit, September 6, 2011.
  17. A description of the conflict can be found in: Claudio Gramizzi and Jérôme Tubiana, “Forgotten Darfur: New Tactics and Old Players,” Small Arms Survey, 2012, p.15, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/working-papers/HSBA-WP-28-Forgotten-Darfur.pdf
  18. Ibid, p.15.
  19. Small Arms Survey, op cit, September 6, 2011.
  20. For the RSF, see: Andrew McGregor, “Khartoum Struggles to Control its Controversial “Rapid Support Forces,” Terrorism Monitor, May 30, 2014, https://jamestown.org/brief/briefs-43/
  21. Anadolu Agency Video, March 22, 2016, https://www.facebook.com/14310874716/videos/10154053104449717/

Will Khartoum’s Appeal to Putin for Arms and Protection Bring Russian Naval Bases to the Red Sea?

Andrew McGregor

Eurasia Daily Monitor 14(158)

December 6, 2017

Though Sudan’s national economy is near collapse, the November 23 visit of Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir to Russia’s top leadership in Sochi was dominated by expensive arms purchases and Sudan’s appeal to Russia for “protection from aggressive actions by the United States” (TASS, November 23; see EDM, November 29). A suggestion that Khartoum was ready to host Russian military bases took most Sudanese by surprise, given that Washington lifted 20-year-old economic sanctions against Sudan in October and relations with the US finally seemed to be improving.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir (AFP/Ashraf Shazly)

Al-Bashir expressed Sudan’s interest in purchasing the highly maneuverable Russian-made Sukhoi Su-30 and Su-35 fighter jets during the Sochi visit. And in fact, an unknown number of Su-35s were reportedly delivered days ahead of al-Bashir’s visit, making Sudan the first Arab country to have the aircraft (RIA Novosti, November 25; al-Arabiya, November 20).

Khartoum announced its intention to replace its Chinese and Soviet-era aircraft in March, when Air Force chief Salahuddin Abd al-Khaliq Said declared Sudan would henceforth be “fully dependent on Russia for its air armament” (Defenceweb, November 29).

Sudan’s Red Sea Coast

The Su-35, deployed in Syria by the Russian Air Force, is one of the best non-stealth fighters and missile-delivery platforms available, but at an export price of as much as $80 million each, cash-strapped Khartoum may have to provide other forms of compensation. It may have been no surprise then that Sudan’s delegation in Sochi expressed willingness to host Russian naval bases along its 420-mile Red Sea coastline (Sputnik News, November 28). However, there are few suitable places for such bases on the coast, where transportation infrastructure is poor.

The Old Coral City of Suakin

Suakin, the coast’s historic port, was replaced in 1909 by the newly built Port Sudan, able to accommodate the large steamers Suakin could not. Otherwise the coastline has only a handful of small harbors (sharm-s) suitable only for dhows and fishing boats. Sailors must cope with coral reefs, shoals and numerous islets. Gaps in the large reef that runs parallel to the coast determined the location of both Suakin and Port Sudan. The entire coast is notoriously short of fresh water, a problem that must be accounted for before the construction of any large facilities. Though Egypt’s own military ties with Russia are growing, Cairo is unlikely to welcome a Russian naval base on the Red Sea coast, where Egypt currently contests possession of the Hala’ib Triangle with Sudan. [1]

Djibouti, with its vast harbor and strategic location on the Bab al-Mandab strait would make a far better base for Russian naval operations in the Red Sea. Russian Cossacks first tried to seize the region in 1889, but now existing US, French and Chinese military bases there (along with an incoming Saudi base) make such a proposition unlikely. Russian naval ships on anti-piracy operations in the Red Sea have used Djibouti for resupply and maintenance.

Moscow is also providing Khartoum with 170 T-72 main battle tanks under a 2016 deal; and the latter has expressed interest in buying the Russian S-300 air-defense system as well as minesweepers and missile boats (Xinhua, November 25). Though Sudan still uses a great deal of military equipment of Chinese and Iranian origin, al-Bashir opened the possibility of hosting Russian military personnel when he claimed, “All of our equipment is Russian, so we need advisors in this area” (RIA Novosti, November 25). The BBC’s Russian service has reported unconfirmed rumors of Russian mercenaries operating in Sudan or South Sudan (BBC News—Russian service, December 4).

Two other factors weigh in on Khartoum’s improving relations with Russia:

Gold: President Putin was reported to have confirmed Russia’s continuing support in preventing US- and British-backed United Nations Security Council sanctions on exports of Sudanese gold due to irregularities in Sudan’s mostly artisanal gold industry in Darfur (SUNA, November 23). Since Sudan’s loss of oil revenues with the 2011 separation of South Sudan, gold has become Sudan’s largest source of hard currency, but Khartoum’s inability to control extraction has led to huge losses in tax revenues and has helped fund regime opponents in Darfur (Aberfoylesecurity.com, October 15). Sudanese Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour explained that it was in this context that al-Bashir’s remarks regarding “Russian protection” were made (Sudan Tribune, November 25).

War Crimes: Al-Bashir recently learned that Washington does not want to see him seek another term as president in the 2020 elections (Sudan Tribune, November 27). The 73-year-old has ruled Sudan since 1989, but retirement seems elusive—al-Bashir’s best defense against being tried by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged war crimes in Darfur is to remain president. Russia withdrew from the ICC in November 2016, calling it “one-sided and inefficient” (BBC News, November 16, 2016).

Khartoum’s request for Russian “protection” was best explained by Sudanese Deputy Prime Minister Mubarak Fadl al-Mahdi, who said the outreach to Moscow was intended to create a new balance: “We can at least limit American pressure, which cannot be confronted without international support… But with Russia’s support at international forums and the Security Council, American demands will be reasonable and help in accelerating normalization of ties” (Asharq al-Awsat, December 3).

However, the Sudanese regime’s nervousness over how this abrupt turn in foreign policy will be received at home was reflected in a wave of confiscations by the security services of Sudanese newspapers that had covered al-Bashir’s discussions in Sochi (Radio Dabanga, November 30).

Jibril Ibrahim, the leader of Darfur’s rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), insisted that al-Bashir’s request for Russian protection and willingness to accommodate Russian military bases had destroyed attempts to normalize relations with the US and was an opening to bring down the Khartoum regime (Sudan Tribune, November 27).

Is Sudan playing a double game here? Foreign Minister Ghandour claims “there is nothing to prevent Sudan from cooperating with the United States while at the same time pursuing strategic relations with China and Russia” (Sudan Tribune, November 25). Nonetheless, al-Bashir has so far avoided becoming anyone’s client and is likely aware that pursuing this new relationship with Russia to the point of welcoming Russian military bases could be his undoing as he seeks to reaffirm his rule over a restless nation in 2020. For this reason, Russian military bases on the barren and furnace-like Sudanese Red Sea coast seem unlikely for now.

Note

  1. For a detailed map of Sudan’s Red Sea coast, see: https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/map_2990.pdf