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

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, March 3, 2019

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

Ahmad Muhammad Harun as Governor of South Kordofan

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

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 All of the nation’s 18 provincial governors have been replaced by army officers or officials from the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS).

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

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

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

Janjaweed Gunmen in Darfur, 2008 (Andrew Carter)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew McGregor                                                    

March 1, 2019

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

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

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

The Governing Military-Islamist Alliance

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

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

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

Shaykh al-Zubayr Muhammad al-Hassan

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

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

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

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

A Partner in Counter-Terrorism?

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

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

Islamic Extremism in Modern Sudan

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

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

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

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

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

Muhammad ‘Ali al-Jazouli

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

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

Is Intervention by the Sudan Armed Forces Possible?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unresolved Rebellions

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

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

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

Security Prognosis

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

Russian Mercenaries and the Survival of the Sudanese Regime

Andrew McGregor

February 6, 2019

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

Russian Mercenaries in Syria

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

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

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

Photos of alleged Russian mercenaries in Khartoum (The Times)

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

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

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

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

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

‘Abd al-Wahid al-Nur (BBC)

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

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

Why the Janjaweed Legacy Prevents Khartoum from Disarming Darfur

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, October 15, 2017

Ten thousand members of Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF – al-Quwat al-Da’m al-Sari) have been transferred from Kordofan to North Darfur to help implement a mandatory disarmament campaign in the region. Almost exclusively Arab in composition, the RSF will attempt to disarm not only non-Arab rebel forces still in the field, but also Arab elements of the government’s Border Guard Force (BGF) that are in near rebellion and nomadic tribesmen who rely on their weapons to protect their herds from thieves and predators.

Sudan Armed Forces Armor in Darfur (Nuba Reports)

Both the RSF and the BGF are products of Khartoum’s efforts to make the infamous and internationally reviled “Janjaweed” disappear. Absorbing these ill-disciplined Arab militias into better defined government formations helped support a government narrative that the Janjaweed were not government-backed marauders, but rather unaffiliated bandits that had been removed from Darfur through the efforts of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF). In theory, transforming these militias into salaried employees of the state would bring them under tighter state control at a time when many Janjaweed and their commanders were beginning to have second thoughts about having sacrificed their reputation in return for empty promises from Khartoum. In practice, the RSF has transformed itself into a border control force reducing migration flows to Europe with ample funding from the European Union, while the BGF has evolved into a new formation, the Sudanese Revolutionary Awakening (“Sahwa”) Council (SRAC), which has slipped from government control with the help of enormous profits from its domination of artisanal gold mining in northwestern Darfur.

Both RSF and BGF are composed of members of the semi-nomadic Abbala (camel-raising) tribes of northern Darfur, the main source of Janjaweed manpower after the ongoing Darfur rebellion began in 2003. Some of the Abbala tribes, including the northern Rizayqat, had not been allotted specific lands for their use by the old Fur Sultanate (c. 1600-1916) or the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium administration (1916-1956).

Darfur (Human Rights Watch)

While customary arrangements between the semi-nomadic Arabs and sedentary non-Arab groups regarding land-use and migration routes continued into the independence period, these accommodations began to fall apart in the 1980s as drought and an encroaching desert placed new pressures on traditional systems. Possessing useful pastures became essential for the pastoralist Arabs, but after centuries of land allotments by Fur Sultans (the feudal hakura system) and their colonial successors, there was no unclaimed land to be had; dispossessing others was the only means of establishing a new dar, or tribal homeland.

The Baqqara (cattle-raising) Arabs of southern Darfur, whose dar-s were legally and traditionally defined, had little involvement with the depredations of the Janjaweed. Unfortunately for the Baqqara, this distinction is little understood outside of Sudan. It is also important to note that not all the Abbala tribes were involved with the Janjaweed; the Janjaweed was primarily drawn from sections of the northern Rizayqat (who were much affected by lack of land-title) and elements of Arab groups from Chad and Niger who had migrated to Darfur with the encouragement of the Khartoum regime, which suggested they carve out their own land-holdings from territory belonging to non-Arab tribes the regime viewed as supporters of the rebellion.

The progress of Khartoum’s disarmament campaign will have important consequences for the future of the Darfur rebellion, the regime’s continuing efforts to centralize power in Sudan and even the European Union’s campaign to reduce illegal migration into Europe.

Musa Hilal: From Janjaweed to Border Guard

With the possible exception of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes in Darfur, no individual is more closely associated with the deeds of the Janjaweed than Shaykh Musa Hilal Abdalla, a member of the Um Jalul clan of the Mahamid Arabs.

Sudan President Omar al-Bashir (center) with Musa Hilal (right of of al-Bashir)      (al-Jazeera)

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. The southern Rizayqat are baqqara with little involvement in the Janjaweed). From his home village of Misteriya, Hilal became involved in the 1990s with the Arab Gathering (Tajamu al-Arabi), an Arab supremacist group following an ideology developed by Mu’ammar Qaddafi and the leaders of Libya’s Islamic Legion (Failaq al-Islamiya) in the 1980s. The Um Jalul began to clash with non-Arab Fur and Zaghawa tribesmen in the 1990s, leading to Hilal’s eventual arrest and imprisonment in Port Sudan in 2002 on charges of inciting ethnic violence.

Hilal’s prison term was brought to an abrupt end by the shocking April 2003 raid on Darfur’s al-Fashir military airbase by Fur and Zaghawa rebels retaliating against growing waves of government backed Arab violence against non-Arab communities. An unnerved government realized the SAF might not be capable of containing the mobile hit-and-run tactics of the rebels developed during fighting in Chad in the 1980s. After deciding to turn to local tribal militias to carry the counterinsurgency campaign, suddenly Shaykh Musa was just what the regime needed. Consequently, Hilal was released in June 2003 to organize a counterinsurgent force infused with pro-Arab ideology and armed, supplied and directed by SAF intelligence units. This was the “Janjaweed.” [1]

The strategy employed to hobble the militarily powerful insurgent forces was to cripple their support base and supply system through the destruction of defenseless Fur and Zaghawa villages. Tactics typically involved an initial bombardment by the Sudanese Air Force (usually crude “barrel-bombs” rolled out from Russian-built Antonov transport aircraft), followed by waves of horse and camel-borne Janjaweed and a final “mopping-up” force of Sudanese regulars and intelligence agents. Murder, torture, rape and looting were all part of a process intended to punish relatives of insurgents and even those with no connection to the rebels other than a shared ethnic or tribal background. Incitement of ethnic hatred, promises of immunity and a license to loot freely helped give free rein to the basest instincts of the Janjaweed; those reluctant to join in such activities were subject to imprisonment and the collective punishment of their families.

One of Hilal’s leading lieutenants during the 2003-2005 period of the worst Janjaweed abuses was Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemetti,” from the Awlad Mansur clan of the Mahariya branch of the northern Rizayqat, though by this time the Awlad Mansur were resident in South Darfur, having moved there in the 1980s where they seized Fur lands in the southern Jabal Marra region.

Hilal’s notoriety brought largely meaningless sanctions from the UN Security Council in April 2006. Instead of ostracism, Hilal was brought to Khartoum, where he was integrated into the government as a special advisor to the Ministry of Federal Affairs and a member of parliament in the ruling National Congress Party (Hilal later repudiated his membership in the NCP).

By 2005 the government’s campaign in Darfur had begun to attract unwanted international attention, including ill-informed but nonetheless damaging accusations of “genocide” from various media sources and celebrity activists. However useful to the regime, the “Janjaweed” had to go. The solution was integration into the Border Guards, previously a small and little known camel-mounted unit. Arab tribesmen serving in the Janjaweed for loot were now given salaries and government ID cards which helped shield the new Border Guards from prosecution for war crimes while bringing them under tighter regime control. Musa Hilal was made a top commander in the expanded BGF.

The Return of Musa Hilal

Following a dispute with the government, Musa Hilal returned to northwest Darfur in January 2014, where, despite remaining commander of the BFG, he established the 8,000 strong Sudanese Revolutionary Awakening (Sahwa) Council (SRAC) as a vehicle for his personal and tribal political agenda. By March 2014 he had brought the northwestern Darfur districts of, Kutum, Kebkabiya, al-Waha and Saraf Omra under SRAC’s administrative control by the exclusion of government forces. Clashes between Hilal’s mostly Mahamid followers and government security forces began to occur with regularity.

Musa Hilal’s SRAC is also involved in a struggle with the RSF over control of Jabal Amer (northwest of Kabkabiya), where gold was discovered in 2012. The SAF withdrew from the area in 2013 under pressure from Hilal’s forces, which then defeated the rival Bani Hussein Arabs in a bloody struggle for control of the region. In 2016, the UN Panel of Experts on Sudan reported that Hilal was making approximately $54 million per year from SRAC’s control of the artisanal gold mining at Jabal Amer, though the report was not publicly released due to Russian objections. Gold is now the largest source of revenue in Sudan since South Sudan and its oil fields separated in 2011, though much of it is smuggled out of the country to markets in the Gulf States (Radio Tamazuj, April 27, 2016; Radio Dabanga, April 5, 2016).

In May 2017, SRAC spokesman Ahmad Muhammad Abakr called for “all Arab tribes in Darfur, Kordofan, and Blue Nile state to disobey the government’s military orders and refrain from participating in its war convoys.” Suggesting their cause had been “stolen by the government,” Abakr declared:

The ongoing wars are now fabricated for the purpose of a divide-and-rule policy of which the ruling elite in Khartoum is the ultimate beneficiary rather than the people of Sudan… If there is a need for war, we ask you to point weapons against those who employ you to fight on their behalf in order to take your political, economic and military rights instead of fighting a proxy war (Radio Dabanga, May 31, 2017).

The Rapid Support Forces

Prior to Hilal’s return to Darfur, Khartoum had detached the BGF’s Fut-8 Battalion (based in Nyala, South Darfur and commanded by Muhammad Hamdan Daglo) from the rest of the force and used it as the core of a new paramilitary, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The move was partly a response to internal tensions in the BGF between Fut-8 and the Hilal-commanded Fut-7 Battalion, which claimed Fut-8 was favored by Khartoum in terms of supplies of weaponry, vehicles and supplies. [2] At the same time, Daglo and his followers complained that Hilal was not distributing BGF resources fairly, especially the all-important Land Cruisers. [3]

RSF Troops, Darfur

The RSF came under the direct authority of the National Security and Intelligence Service (NISS – Jihaz al-Amn al-Watani wa’l-Mukhabarat) and continues to enjoy the patronage of Second Vice President Hassabo Muhammad Abd al-Rahman, a Rizayqat. [4]

The RSF was integrated into the SAF in 2016, but with an unusual semi-autonomous status under the direct command of President Bashir (a Nile Valley or “riverine” Ja’alin Arab). Saying that the establishment of the RSF was the best decision he had ever made as president, Bashir recently told a graduating group of 1450 RSF recruits in Khartoum that their aim must be to “show force and terrorize the enemies” (Sudan Tribune, May 14, 2017).

Despite government claims that Darfur was stabilized, the RSF took a leading role in May 2017 alongside the SAF in a bitter four day battle around Ayn Siro in the Kutum district of North Darfur last May against the Zaghawa-led Sudan Liberation Movement – Minni Minawi (SLM-MM) and the allied Sudan Liberation Movement/Army – Transitional Council (SLM/A-TC), led by Nimr Abd al-Rahman. [5]

Several leading prisoners, including veteran rebel Muhammad Abd al-Salim “Tarada,” military commander of the Sudan Liberation Movement – Abd al-Wahid (SLM-AW) until June 2014 and then a commander in the SLM/A-TC, were reported to have been killed by NISS agents following their capture. The defeated rebels fled westward along the Upper Wadi Howar into Chad, though they later issued a joint communiqué making an unlikely claim to have driven off the government forces. The heavy losses suffered by the SLM/A-MM marked a disappointing return to Darfur after the movement had spent nearly two years fighting as mercenaries in Libya (Sudan Tribune, May 29, 2017; May 23, 2017; Sudan Vision, May 22, 2017; Radio Dabanga, May 23, 2017; IRIN, August 2, 2017).

RSF Commander Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemetti”

RSF commander Daglo claimed the Darfur rebels were aided at Ayn Siro and Wadi Howar by Chadian opposition fighters (who have also been fighting as mercenaries in Libya) [6] and insinuated that the Chadians were harbored and supported logistically by Musa Hilal, though he did not elaborate on the reasons for this new support by Hilal for Darfur’s non-Arab rebels (Sudan Tribune, June 4, 2017).

By January 8, 2017, the RSF announced the capture of over 1500 illegal migrants in the last seven months following the interception of 115 migrants several days earlier (Sudan Tribune, January 9, 2017). RSF activity along the Libyan border is intended to intercept traffickers in humans and narcotics and to demonstrate Sudan’s commitment to reducing flows of illegal migrants after the European Union made a grant to Sudan of €100 million to deal with the issue.

Most of the illegal migrants making their way through Sudan to Libya and on into Europe hail from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Yemen. The EU is funding the construction of two RSF camps equipped with modern surveillance equipment and electronics for intercepting and detaining illegal migrants. [7]

Rejecting Integration

Defence Minister Lieutenant General Ahmad Awad Bin Auf announced a reorganization of the SAF’s “supporting forces” on July 19, 2017. A central part of the reorganization was the planned integration of the BGF into the RSF. Within days, SRAC spokesman Haroun Medeikher announced the BGF would refuse to allow its integration, saying the decision was “ill-considered and unwise” and had been taken without consulting the BGF leadership (Radio Dabanga, July 23, 2017).

On news of the refusal, one of Hilal’s old opponents, Abd al-Wahid al-Nur (leader of the largely Fur SLM-AW), used radio to reach out to the Arab militia leader, stating that while Musa Hilal’s “awakening conscience may be belated,” it was “time for all the Sudanese people to stand united against the regime” (Radio Afia Darfur, via Sudan Tribune, August 20, 2017). Abd al-Wahid has always been the rebel commander most likely to seek terms with Darfur’s Arab community, recognizing the symbiotic relationship between pastoralists and farmers as well as the existence of a common enemy in the Khartoum regime.

Hilal has also stepped up his anti-government rhetoric, urging his tribesmen not to volunteer for the SAF’s campaign in Yemen, claiming Vice-President Abd al-Rahman and General Daglo have stolen millions of dollars given to Sudan by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in return for their participation in the intervention against the Zaydi Shiite Houthis in Yemen’s ongoing civil war (al-Jazeera, September 10, 2017).

Turmoil on the Libyan Border

On September 22, 2017 the RSF claimed to have killed 17 human traffickers a day earlier with a loss of two RSF men. The encounter took place in the Jabal ‘Uwaynat region where the Sudanese, Libyan and Egyptian borders meet. [8] An RSF field commander, Lieutenant Colonel Hassan Abdallah, described the intercepted group as “the largest armed gang operating in human trafficking and illegal immigration” on the Libyan-Sudanese border. The RSF also claimed to have detained 48 illegal migrants being shipped to Libya (Radio Dabanga, September 24, 2017).

A SRAC spokesman insisted those killed were SRAC members involved in trading but not trafficking, adding that the men had initially only been detained by the RSF, but were killed after three days of negotiations failed to reach an agreement on a ransom  (Radio Dabanga, September 25, 2017). One of those killed was a Hilal bodyguard, Sulayman Daoud. Leading SRAC member Ali Majok al-Momin counter-charged the RSF with “trading and smuggling vehicles over the borders with Chad and Libya” (Radio Dabanga, September 25, 2017).

The incident was not the first involving the RSF and SRAC on the Libyan border. Seven SRAC members, including leading member Omar Saga and Muhammad al-Rayes, another of Musa Hilal’s bodyguards, were arrested near the border by the RSF on their return from Libya on August 11, 2017.

Behind the RSF’s vigilance against Hilal supporters on the Libyan border is Khartoum’s fear that Hilal is establishing cross-border contacts with “Field Marshal” Khalifa Haftar, leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA – actually a strong coalition of militias under Haftar’s command that oppose the internationally recognized Libyan government in Tripoli). Hilal also has important ties to militarily powerful Chad, whose president, Idriss Déby Itno (a Zaghawa), is Hilal’s son-in-law. Further complicating matters for the government is the high probability that many Mahamid and other Arab members of the RSF could defect to the BGF in the event of a full-scale conflict between the two.

Musa Hilal reportedly sent 200 vehicles full of armed fighters to besiege the RSF camp until those RSF members involved in the September 22 killings were turned over to the BGF (Sudan Tribune, September 26, 2017). A battle between the BGF and the RSF was averted when the two sides agreed to third-party mediation. The process favored the BGF, with the RSF making concessions over control of the gold workings at Jabal Amer and handing over vehicles, military equipment and BGF members detained in the attack (Radio Dabanga, September 29, 2017).

SRAC claimed on October 7, 2017 that two columns of armed RSF Land Cruisers, one from Ayn Siro and one from Kabkabiya, had been sent to “punish Hilal” by defeating his forces and bringing him in to Khartoum “dead or alive” (Radio Dabanga, October 9, 2017; Sudan Tribune, October 8, 2017). The accusation was not new; Shaykh Musa has claimed for years that Khartoum is intent on his assassination.

Conclusion

According to SRAC spokesman Haroun Medeikhir, Musa Hilal met in August with BGF commanders and traditional leaders across Darfur to discuss what he termed Khartoum’s attempt to “dismantle the Arab tribes” (Sudan Tribune, August 14, 2017). Key to bringing the Arab tribes to heel would be disarmament. It was no surprise then that the tribes were alarmed when Vice-President Abd al-Rahman announced a new six-month campaign to disarm Darfur’s militias beginning on October 15.

The SAF and RSF are also taking over 11 military bases being abandoned by the United Nations/African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID). [9] The world’s second-largest peacekeeping force is in the first phase of a withdrawal prompted largely by international exhaustion with the complex Darfur issue and UNAMID’s annual budget of $1.35 billion. Khartoum, which never wanted the mission in the first place, began to push for an early UNAMID exit after the mission called for an investigation of the mass rape of 221 women and underage girls by SAF troops in the Fur village of Tabit in October 2014. [10] Khartoum maintains that Darfur has been stabilized and rebel fighters either expelled or neutralized.

Khartoum’s new effort to consolidate its power in Darfur raises renewed possibilities of an alliance of Arabs and non-Arabs against Khartoum, but the events of the last three decades have left a massive and deeply ingrained distrust between the two. Arab and non-Arab rebel groups in Darfur have toyed with the idea of an alliance against the center since 2007, when some Arab factions began to realize their international reputation had been irreversibly stained from manipulation by an insincere Khartoum regime that never had their interests in mind. [11] In addition, the services and development programs promised to the Arabs for their participation in the Janjaweed campaigns never materialized, leaving the Darfur Arabs no better off than they had been in 2003. Tension between the Darfur Arabs and the riverine Arab groups that control the government (the Ja’ailin, the Danagla and the Sha’iqiya) tend to bring out the strong prejudices that exist between the two Arab groups. The riverine Arabs regard the Darfur Abbala and Baqqara as backwards and “Africanized.” The Darfur Arabs, however, claim descent from the great Juhayna tribe of Arabia; some extremists seeking to shed the control of the riverine Arabs have described the latter as “half-caste Nubians.” [12]

Even Musa Hilal has at times demonstrated a broader understanding of Darfur’s ethnic make-up and the methods used by Khartoum to create and exploit racial and ethnic divisions. In 2008, Hilal told a gathering of Baqqara and Abbala tribal leaders that all Darfuris were “Africans” of mixed Arab and African origin who needed to work on restoring their traditionally cooperative social fabric. [13] In a private meeting with U.S. diplomats that followed, Hilal said “We found out that we have more in common with the Africans of Darfur than with these Nile Valley Arabs,” and even made a surprising recantation of the Arab supremacist philosophy he had followed for decades, suggesting that, based on their better education and moderation, “the Fur should lead” in Darfur, a return to the leadership structure of the old Fur Sultanate. [14]

Complete faith in Daglo’s loyalty does not exist in Khartoum, where conciliation is common when it is in the regime’s interests but indiscretions are never completely forgotten. In this case the issue is Daglo’s mutiny against the government in 2007 over RSF salaries, land and a dispute with Musa Hilal. Unable to assert its authority in Darfur and unwilling to see large numbers of armed Arabs join the rebels, the regime was forced to make major concessions to keep Daglo’s forces onside. When the salaries still went unpaid, Daglo threatened to storm Nyala, the capital of South Darfur. Money and arms eventually brought an end to the mutiny, but not the suspicion. [15]

While some Arabs and non-Arabs may discover they have a common enemy in Khartoum, they are still far from having common goals. In recent years, Khartoum has shown little interest in mediating disputes between Arab groups in Darfur that leave these groups weak, preoccupied and unable to unite against the center, especially at a time when budget cuts related to the loss of oil-rich South Sudan make it difficult for the regime to buy cooperation. The consequent environment of perpetual tension and suspicion does not bode well for the success of a campaign to seize the weapons of Darfur’s armed factions by force. In making the attempt the regime will encounter the consequences of its long-standing cynicism and duplicity on the Darfur file and a divide-and-rule policy that has left it with fewer friends in the region than when the rebellion and counter-insurgency began in 2003.

NOTES

  1. The term “Janjaweed,” which predates the counter-insurgency, was used colloquially in reference to armed bandits. The term was not used by the Arab militias themselves or the government.
  2. “Border Intelligence Brigade (Al Istikhbarat al Hudud) (AKA Border Guards)” Sudan Human Security Baseline Assessment (HSBA), Small Arms Survey, Geneva, November 2010, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/facts-figures/sudan/darfur/armed-groups/saf-and-allied-forces/HSBA-Armed-Groups-Border-Guards.pdf
  3. Julie Flint, “Beyond ‘Janjaweed’: Understanding the Militias of Darfur,” Small Arms Survey, Geneva, 2009, fn.78, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/working-papers/HSBA-WP-17-Beyond-Janjaweed.pdf
  4. For the RSF, see, “Khartoum Struggles to Control its Controversial ‘Rapid Support Forces’,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor, May 30, 2014, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=852
  5. The SLM-MM is named for its Zaghawa commander, Minni Minawi (a.k.a. Sulayman Arcua Minawi). Like Hilal, Minawi joined the government in Khartoum from 2006 to 2010 as Senior Assistant to the President of the Sudan before returning to the rebellion in Darfur. Nimr Abd al-Rahman was captured by government forces in the battle and replaced as SLM-TC head by al-Hadi Idriss Yahya.
  6. See Jérôme Tubiana and Claudio Gramizzi, “Tubu Trouble: State and Statelessness in the Chad-Sudan-Libya Triangle,” Small Arms Survey, Geneva, 2017, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/working-papers/SAS-CAR-WP43-Chad-Sudan-Libya.pdf; “Rebel or Mercenary? A Profile of Chad’s General Mahamat Mahdi Ali,” Militant Leadership Monitor, September 7, 2017, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=4010 .
  7. See Suliman Baldo, “Border Control from Hell: How the EU’s migration partnership legitimizes Sudan’s ‘militia state’,” Enough Project, April 2017, https://enoughproject.org/files/BorderControl_April2017_Enough_Finals.pdf
  8. For Jabal ‘Uwaynat and RSF activity in the area, see: “Jabal ‘Uwaynat: Mysterious Desert Mountain Becomes a Three-Border Security Flashpoint,” AIS Special Report, June 13, 2017, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3930
  9. The UNAMID bases are located at Eid al-Fursan, Tullus, Muhajiriya, al-Malha, Mellit, Um Kedada, Abu Shouk, Zamzam, al-Tine, Habila and Foro Baranga.
  10. “Mass Rape in North Darfur: Sudanese Army Attacks against Civilians in Tabit,” Human Rights Watch, February 11, 2015, https://www.hrw.org/report/2015/02/11/mass-rape-north-darfur/sudanese-army-attacks-against-civilians-tabit
  11. See Andrew McGregor: “Darfur’s Arabs Taking Arms against Khartoum,” Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies Commentary (November 2007), https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=559
  12. Julie Flint and Alex de Waal: Darfur: A New History of a Long War, Zed Books, London, 2008.
  13. “Iftar with the ‘Janjaweed’,” U.S. Department of State Cable 08KHARTOUM1450_a, September 25, 2008, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/08KHARTOUM1450_a.html
  14. Ibid.
  15. “Border Intelligence Brigade (Al Istikhbarat al Hudud) (AKA Border Guards)” Sudan Human Security Baseline Assessment (HSBA), Small Arms Survey, Geneva, November 2010, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/facts-figures/sudan/darfur/armed-groups/saf-and-allied-forces/HSBA-Armed-Groups-Border-Guards.pdf; Julie Flint, op cit, 2009, pp.34-36, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/working-papers/HSBA-WP-17-Beyond-Janjaweed.pdf

Jabal ‘Uwaynat: Mysterious Desert Mountain Becomes a Three-Border Security Flashpoint

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, June 13, 2017Before the advent of motorized desert exploration in the 1930s there were few areas as little known as the Libyan Desert, a vast and largely lifeless wasteland of sand and stone as large as India. In the midst of this forbidden wilderness stands a lonely sentinel, a massive mountain that covers some 600 square miles and rises to a height of 6345 feet, once possibly forming an island in the prehistoric sea that preceded the Saharan sands. Though its springs and rain-pools were known to the Ancient Egyptians, Jabal ‘Uwaynat was eventually forgotten for thousands of years by all but a handful of hardened desert dwellers who sought its fresh water and seasonal grazing. Since its “rediscovery” less than a hundred years ago, possession of this lonely massif has almost led to a war between Italy and Great Britain and is now at the heart of a security crisis involving Libya, Egypt and Sudan, whose borders meet at Jabal ‘Uwaynat.The Highway to Yam

The ancient importance of Jabal ‘Uwaynat is revealed in the rock art at the site depicting cattle, giraffes, lions and human beings, but no camels, which were only introduced into Egypt in roughly 500 BCE. The drawings suggest an occupation in the Neolithic period far earlier than the era of the Ancient Egyptians at a time when water was far more plentiful in the region. [1]

The Inscription of Mentuhotep II at Jabal ‘Uwaynat

Though ‘Uwaynat was long believed to lie beyond the regions explored by the Ancient Egyptians, the remarkable 2007 discovery of a depiction of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom king Mentuhotep II (11th Dynasty, 21st century BCE) promises to rewrite these perceptions. The portrayal of the seated king was accompanied by his name in a cartouche and an inscription mentioning the land of Yam, known as a destination for Egyptian trade caravans supplying exotic goods from the African interior from as early as the Old Kingdom reign of Merenre I (6th Dynasty, 23rd century BCE). [2] The exact location of Yam has never been determined, but the new evidence suggests it was somewhere south of ‘Uwaynat and further west into the African interior than previously thought by many scholars, possibly in Ennedi (modern Chad) or even Darfur (modern Sudan). The precise site of the inscription has been kept secret to avoid the ravages of “adventure tourism” that has led to the damage or destruction of many important Saharan monuments and rock art sites in recent years. [3]

Entering the Modern Era

The great mountain disappeared from the historical record until the early 19th century, when, according to English desert explorer Ralph Bagnold, an Arab from the Libyan oasis of Jalu and a resident at the court of Sultan Muhammad ‘Abd al-Karim Sabun of Wadai (1804-1815, modern eastern Chad), undertook to find a new trade route northwards through the Libyan Desert to Benghazi on the Mediterranean coast. The experienced Arab caravan leader, Shehaymah, headed northeast first to the remote springs at Jabal ‘Uwaynat, then worked northwest to Kufra and on through Jalu to Benghazi. [4] The fact that Shehaymah headed into this unknown wasteland suggested that he had some prior knowledge of ‘Uwaynat. Though this route was used by the Shehaymah and the Wadaians only once, this was the first known reference to the isolated mountain. From that time, caravan routes from Wadai bypassed ‘Uwaynat to the west on a more direct route north to the coast, while the famous Darb al-Arba’in caravan route from Darfur to Asyut in Egypt bypassed ‘Uwaynat far to the east, letting knowledge of ‘Uwaynat’s existence fade from all save the Tubu tribesmen of the eastern Sahara whose mastery of the desert and its mysteries was unparalleled.

Ahmad Muhammad Hassenein Bey

Nearly 3,000 years after its last known visit by the Egyptians, Jabal ‘Uwaynat was finally mapped by another Egyptian, the aristocrat Ahmad Muhammad Hassanein Bey, who “discovered” this “lost oasis” during an extraordinary 2200 mile trek by camel from the Mediterranean port of Sollum (near the Egyptian/Libyan border) to al-Fashir, the capital of Darfur. At the time of Hassanein Bey’s arrival, the mountain was the site of a settlement of some 150 Gura’an Tubu from Ennedi, relatively recent arrivals who did not wish to live under the rule of the French who had recently colonized the Chad region up to the Darfur border. Seven years later, only six remained; three years after that, the Gura’an settlement had disappeared forever. [5]

Two years after Hassanein Bey’s visit, Prince Kamal al-Din Hussein (son of Egypt’s Sultan Husayn Kamel, 1914-1917) visited ‘Uwaynat in a remarkable expedition using French Citröen Kegresse halftracks, supported by immense camel-borne supply convoys. This well-financed motorized journey by halftracks, as temperamental as camels in their own way, marked the beginning of the end of ‘Uwaynat’s ancient isolation.

The legendary English desert explorer Ralph Bagnold reached ‘Uwaynat by motorcar in 1930, inventing the techniques of desert-driving in the process. His atmospheric description of the place is still worth citing:

[‘Uwaynat] was by no means the flat-topped plateau it had looked from the plain; for the rock was hollowed out by a freak of erosion into spires and pinnacles over a hundred feet in height, separated by winding passages… Wandering through this labyrinth, we came out at unexpected places to the threshold, as it were, of a broken doorway high up in the battlements of some ruined castle, with nothing but a sheer thousand-foot drop beneath. From these openings the enormous yellow plain could be seen, featureless and glaring with reflected sunlight, reaching away and away in all directions (except to the south, where the peak of Kissu many miles distant rose like a lone cathedral) to a vague hazy horizon… With that little vision came a sudden overwhelming sense of the remoteness of the mountain – as if it included the whole world and was floating by itself, with Kissu peak as its satellite, in a timeless solitude. [6]

In 1931 an Italian expeditionary force under General Rodolfo Graziani crossed the desert to take the oasis of Kufra (northwest of ‘Uwaynat), where they defeated a desperate resistance put up by the Zuwaya Arabs. Unsatisfied with his conquest, Graziani (“the Butcher of Libya”) urged his men to pursue the survivors into the desert, attacking refugee families with armored vehicles and aircraft. Many of the refugees headed towards ‘Uwaynat, dropping dead daily in large numbers due to lack of food and water. Not knowing the region, some tried to follow the tracks of Prince Kamal’s halftracks, but when these became obliterated by sand and wind there was little hope left. Many of the refugees were rescued by British desert explorer Pat Clayton, who abandoned his survey work in the region to cover some 5,000 total miles of desert in his vehicles ferrying exhausted and dying refugees to safety. His efforts earned him a British medal and a ban from Italian-held Libya.

The British-Italian Struggle over ‘Uwaynat

The pursuit of the refugees brought Jabal ‘Uwaynat to the attention of the Italians, who sent expeditions to the mountain in 1931 and 1932 with an eye to claiming it for Italy, though it was already claimed by the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan Condominium government. Suddenly this desert massif known to the Europeans for only less than a decade became a site of strategic importance – a base there would bring Italian forces within striking distance of the Aswan Dam (550 miles away) using aircraft or motor vehicles. The Italians busied themselves with naming all the mountain’s prominent features for prominent Italian fascists, but were deeply disappointed to discover Bagnold’s cairn at the highest point of Jabal ‘Uwaynat.

In the meantime, both the Italians and the British in the region remained wary of encountering the deadly but phantom-like Gura’an raiders led by the notorious Aramaï Gongoï.  These Tubu raiders could cross hundreds of miles of trackless and apparently waterless deserts on their camels without benefit of any kind of navigational equipment before descending on unsuspecting oases or desert convoys. Mystified by these skills, their oasis-dwelling victims even claimed the Gura’an camels left no tracks in the sand.

The British and Italians began sending aircraft and patrols to ‘Uwaynat and by 1933 it seemed, incredibly, that Britain and Italy could go to war over possession of a remote place only a select few had ever seen or heard of until that point. Saner heads prevailed in 1934 as diplomats defined the border, giving Italy (and later independent Libya as a result) sovereignty over much of the mountain (including ‘Ain Dua, the most reliable spring) as well as the “Sarra Triangle” to the southwest of the formation in return for Italy abandoning its claims to a large portion of northwest Sudan.  These claims had been based on Italy’s view of itself as the sovereign successor to the Ottoman Empire in the region, the Ottomans having once made optimistic but largely unenforceable claims to large tracts of the Saharan interior in the late 19th century.

What the British Foreign Office had overlooked was that Italy had taken control of the remote but valuable Ma’tan al-Sarra well inside the so-called “Sarra Triangle.” The site for the well was chosen in 1898 by the leader of Cyrenaïca’s Sanussi religious order, Sayyid Muhammad al-Mahdi al-Sanussi. Al-Sannusi wished to open a new trade route to equatorial Africa from his headquarters in Kufra, but was hindered by the nearly waterless 400 mile stretch between Kufra and the next major well at Tekro (northern Chad). Al-Sanussi said a prayer at the site, roughly mid-way between Kufra and Tekro, and ordered his followers to dig. Months passed with camel convoys ferrying supplies to the workers until they finally found, at a depth of 192 feet, an apparently unlimited supply of water. [7]

Lying two hundred miles west of ‘Uwaynat, the strategic value of Ma’tan al-Sarra would be realized by Mu’ammar Qaddafi, who used it as a staging point for a group of Sudanese dissidents and followers of Sadiq al-Mahdi (great-grandson of Muhammad al-Mahdi and two-time prime minister of Sudan) to launch a 1976 attack on his enemy President Ja’afar Nimieri in Khartoum. The force passed south of ‘Uwaynat but the coup attempt failed after several days of bloody fighting in the Sudanese capital, followed by a wave of executions of captured dissidents and their supporters.

Qaddafi later used the Ma’tan al-Sarra as a forward airbase in his unsuccessful attempt to seize the Aouzou Strip during the Libya-Chad war of 1978-1987. Chad’s largely Tubu army under Hassan Djamous seized the airbase in a devastating lightning raid on September 5, 1987, bringing an effective end to the war with a humiliating Libyan defeat.

‘Uwaynat in the Second World War

As World War II broke out, possession of ‘Uwaynat was contested between the modified Fords and Chevrolets of the Commonwealth Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), invented and commanded by Major Ralph Bagnold, and their motorized Italian counterparts in the Compagnie Sahariane, a largely Libyan force with Italian officers and NCOs. As the war began, Italian forces established posts at the ‘Uwaynat springs of Ain Zwaya and one at ‘Ain Dua, both equipped with airstrips and garrisoned largely by Libyan colonial troops under Italian command.

After the Italians had been driven from the region by British and Free French offensives, the British-led Sudan Defence Force (SDF) used the route past ‘Uwaynat for regular convoys of arms and supplies to the Free French garrison in Kufra.  This oasis had been taken by General Phillippe Leclerc’s Free French forces with the assistance of the British Commonwealth’s Long-Range Desert Group (LRDG) on March 1, 1941. [8]

A Libyan SIAI-Marchetti SF-260

When a Libyan National Army-operated SIAI-Marchetti SF.260 light aircraft disappeared in the region in May 2017, it was a reminder that extreme heat and sudden sandstorms can make aerial surveillance of the border region around ‘Uwaynat a perilous undertaking. The aircraft left Kufra airbase to investigate reports of armed Sudanese crossing the border in vehicles. Its pilot and co-pilot were discovered dead the next day (Libya Observer, May 24, 2017).

It was not the first. In 1940, a Bristol Blenheim light bomber being used for reconnaissance by Free French forces was forced down near Jabal ‘Uwaynat. Its crew wandered in the desert for 12 days before being picked up by an Italian patrol and packed off to Italy as prisoners. A second Free French Blenheim went missing on February 5, 1942 after a bombing mission on the Italian-held al-Taj fort at Kufra. The plane and the remains of its crew were discovered by a French patrol in the Ennedi region of Chad in 1959. [9]

A French Patrol Discovers the Lost Blenheim in Ennedi, 1959

Less fortunate were the crews of three South African Air Force Blenheims that became lost in May 1942 and were forced to land in the desert between Kufra and ‘Uwaynat when their fuel ran out. Only one man survived to be rescued; the others perishing in agony from heat, thirst and misguided attempts to preserve themselves through drinking the alcohol in their compasses and spraying themselves with blister-inducing foam from their fire-extinguishers. [10]

There are some surprising peculiarities to aerial surveillance in the open desert. Stationary vehicles can be extremely difficult to spot from the air, as patrols from the LRDG discovered while operating in the Libyan Desert in World War II. It became common practice to simply stop when the approach of enemy aircraft was heard, a tactic that saved many patrols no matter how counter-intuitive it might have seemed.

Modern Gateway for Rebels, Traffickers and Mercenaries

In the Qadddafi-era, a trans-Saharan desert road connecting Kufra through ‘Uwaynat to Sudanese Darfur was promoted as a means of establishing trade between the two regions. The collapse of security in southern Libya after the 2011 anti-Qaddafi revolution brought the route to the attention of smugglers, human traffickers and members of Darfur’s multiple rebel movements who were being slowly squeezed out of Darfur under pressure from Sudan’s security forces.

A June 1, 2017 report of the UN Libyan Experts Panel described how Darfuri rebel movements received offers for their military services from both rival governments in the Libyan conflict, broadly the Bayda/Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) and its military arm, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), versus the Tripoli-based Presidency Council/Government of National Accord (GNA) and their allied Islamist militias. Due to a presence in Libya dating back to the Qaddafi-era (when the Libyan leader acted as a sponsor in their war against Khartoum), commanders such as Abdallah Banda, Abdallah Jana and Yahya Omda from Darfur’s largest rebel movement, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), were able to access Libyan networks to their benefit.

Rebel fighters from the rival Sudan Liberation Army – Minni Minnawi (SLA-MM) began operations in Fezzan in 2015 before joining LNA operations in the northern “oil crescent” in 2016. Fighters from another major rebel faction, the Sudan Liberation Army – Abdul Wahid (SLM-AW), were cited as being aligned with the LNA (Libya Herald, June 11, 2017). Through 2014-2015, there were numerous accusations from Haftar and his supporters that Khartoum was using the desert passage past ‘Uwaynat to send arms and fighters to reinforce Islamist militias in Benghazi, Kufra and elsewhere, resulting in a short diplomatic crisis. [11] Haftar recently claimed Qatar was funding the entry of Chadian and Sudanese “mercenaries” into Libya through the southern border (al-Arabiya, May 29, 2017).

Some 30 members of JEM, allegedly supported by Tubu fighters, were reported killed in two days of fighting north of Kufra in February 2016 (Reuters, February 5, 2016; Libya Observer, February 4, 2016; Libya Prospect, February 7, 2016). Some of the fighting took place at Buzaymah Oasis, 130 km northwest of Kufra, where the Darfuri rebels had attempted to set up a base. The Darfuris were attacked by Kufra’s Subul al-Salam Brigade, a Salafist militia formed in October 2015 and composed largely of Zuwaya Arabs, the dominant group in the Kufra region. Led by Abd al-Rahman Hashim al-Kilani, the militia was allied with Khalifa Haftar, who is reported to have supplied the unit with 40 armored Toyota 4x4s in September 2016 (Libya Herald, October 20, 2016). After a number of kidnappings and highway robberies committed by the alleged JEM fighters, the Subul al-Salam group again engaged the Darfuris in October 2016, killing 13 fighters. An October 23, 2016 Sudanese government statement claimed the Darfuris were supporters of Khalifa Haftar. [12] Subul al-Salam also clashed with Chadian gunmen 400 km south of Kufra on February 2, 2017, killing four of the Chadians, possibly Tubu from the Ennedi mountain range south of the border (Libya Observer, February 2, 2017).

A May 2017 Sudanese intelligence report repeated nearly year-old claims that elements of the Darfuri Sudan Liberation Movement – Minni Minawi (SLM-MM) under local commander Jabir Ishag were active in the Libyan south around Rabaniyah and around the oil fields north of Kufra. The report also claimed the presence of SLM-Unity and SLM-Abd al-Wahid (SLM-AW) units northeast of Kufra and JEM forces under commander al-Tahir Arja in the north, near Tobruk, where they were alleged to be supporting Khalifa Haftar (Sudan Media Center, May 22, 2017; Libya Observer, October 10, 2016; GMS-Sudan, July 27, 2016).

Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces Deploy at ‘Uwaynat

Sudanese troops were reported to have moved up to the Jabal ‘Uwaynat region on June 2, 2017 (Libyan Express, June 3, 2017). Most of these were likely to belong to Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF – Quwat al-Da’m al-Seri), a 30,000 strong paramilitary that was integrated into the Sudanese Army in January 2017. Prior to that, the paramilitary had operated under the command of the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS –Jiha’az al-Amn al-Watani wa’l-Mukhabarat ) and became notorious for the indiscipline and human rights abuses common to the infamous Janjaweed, from which much of the strength of the RSF was drawn at the time of its creation in 2013. The disorderly RSF has even been known to clash with units of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF).

Besides recruitment from a variety of Arab and non-Arab tribes in Darfur, the RSF also employs many Arabs from Chad, former rebels against the Zaghawa-dominated regime of President Idriss Déby Itno. Designed for high mobility, the RSF claims it can reach the Libyan border within 24 hours of an order for deployment (Sudan Tribune, January 17, 2017). [13] The RSF leader is Lieutenant General Muhammad Hamdan Daglo (a.k.a. Hemeti), a member of the Mahariya branch of the Darfur Rizayqat. The RSF enjoys the patronage of Sudanese vice-president Hassabo Abd al-Rahman, who is, like Daglo, a member of the Mahariya branch of the Rizayqat. Hemeti is nonetheless despised by many SAF officers as an illiterate with nothing more than a Quran school education (Radio Dabanga, June 4, 2014).

A June-July 2016 deployment of the RSF in the ‘Uwaynat region led to the arrest of roughly 600 Eritrean and Ethiopian illegal migrants, most of whom were attempting to reach Europe or the United States. The RSF activity was in step with a European Union grant of €100 million to deal with illegal migration that followed a Sudanese pledge to help stop human trafficking to Europe (Sudan Tribune, July 31, 2016). The funds were intended to construct two detention camps for migrants and to provide Sudanese security services with electronic means of registering illegal migrants. The traffickers, however, do not always go quietly; in April 2017 the RSF engaged in “fierce clashes” with human traffickers, leading to the arrest of five of their leaders and the capture of six 4×4 vehicles. According to one smuggler of migrants, the presence of the RSF has changed the situation on the border:  “The road to Libya is still working, but it’s very dangerous” (The Economist, May 25, 2017).

The RSF commander has suggested Europe does not appreciate the RSF’s efforts in fighting illegal migration on their behalf, stating that despite a loss of 25 killed, 315 injured and 150 vehicles in the fight against illegal migration, “nobody even thanked us” (Sudan Tribune, August 31, 2016). Daglo went on to warn his troops could easily abandon their positions and allow the migrants and traffickers free passage. Whether Daglo was speaking for the government or on his own behalf is uncertain.

RSF commander Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemeti”

Only days after Daglo’s complaints, Yasir Arman, secretary-general of the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement–North (SPLA/M-N), claimed to have received details of a European operation to directly supply the controversial RSF with funds and logistical support. Arman maintained that this “Satanic plan” was intended to cover up the RSF’s participation in atrocities and genocide. The EU issued a prompt denial (Sudan Tribune, September 7, 2016). [14]

Rising Tensions between Egypt and Sudan

Egypt’s army has been engaged in a constant effort to prevent Libyan arms crossing its 1000 km border with Libya, the preferred route being to cross the border through the Libyan Desert and then on to the Bahariya Oasis in Western Egypt, connected by road with the Nile Valley. In late May 2017, Egypt’s president Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi announced that Egypt’s military had destroyed some 300 vehicles carrying arms across the Libyan border in the last two months alone (Ahram Online, May 25, 2017).

Last October, LNA chief-of-staff and HoR-appointed military governor of the eastern region, Abd al-Raziq al-Nathory, announced that Egyptian forces guarding the border with Libya had in some cases established positions as far as 40 km inside Libya (Libyan Express, October 15, 2016).

The issue of Darfur rebel groups entering Sudan from Libya, the possible establishment of a buffer zone on the border triangle between Egypt, Libya and Sudan, and a Sudanese proposal to create a joint border patrol force were addressed in a meeting between the Sudanese and Egyptian foreign ministers in Cairo on June 3, 2017 (Sudan Tribune, June 3, 2017). Tensions between Egypt and Sudan have flared up in recent weeks with new friction over the disputed status of the Halayib Triangle west of the Red Sea coast, Khartoum’s support for Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam construction (which Egypt claims will violate long-standing Nile Basin water-sharing agreements) and accusations from Khartoum of Egyptian material support for Darfuri rebels re-entering Sudan. Less than two weeks before the meeting, Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir announced that the RSF had seized Egyptian armored vehicles used by Darfuri rebels crossing the border near ‘Uwaynat from Libya, while Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and NISS Facebook pages posted photos of captured or destroyed Egyptian vehicles allegedly used by the rebels (Sudan Tribune, May 24, 2017).

Conclusion: From Isolation to Insecurity

Jabal ‘Uwaynat’s magnificent isolation is quickly becoming a romantic memory. Today it has become a focal point for modern scourges such as human-trafficking, narcotics smuggling and militancy-for-hire. Its apparent future is one of more frequent clashes, greater surveillance and the introduction of more imposing barriers to movement. To some degree, this undesirable future can be averted if Libya’s political house can be put in order in the near future, thereby reducing the demand for foreign guns-for-hire, enabling the imposition of proper border controls to deter human-trafficking and allowing the introduction of more effective cooperative security efforts between Libyan, Sudanese and Egyptian security services.

Notes

  1. For the Rock Inscriptions at Jebel ‘Uwaynat, see: Francis L. Van Note, Rock Art of the Jebel Uweinat (Libyan Sahara), Akadem. Druck- u. Verlagsanst, Graz, Austria, 1978; András Zboray, Rock Art of the Libyan Desert, Fliegel Jezerniczky Expeditions, Newbury, 2005 (DVD); Maria Emilia Peroschi and Flavio Cambieri, “Jebel Uweinat (Sahra Orientale) et l’Arte Rupestre: Nuuove Prospettive di Studio Dalle Recente Scoperte,” XXIV Valcomonica Symposium, Art and Communication in Pre‐literate societies, Capo di Ponte, Italy, 2011, pp. 339-345, http://www.academia.edu/30404525/The_rock_art_of_Jebel_Uweinat_Eastern_Sahara._New_perspectives_from_the_latest_discoveries.pdf
  2. For the Jabal ‘Uwaynat inscription of Mentuhotep II and its implications, see: Joseph Clayton, Aloisia De Trafford and Mark Borda, “A Hieroglyphic Inscription found at Jebel Uweinat mentioning Yam and Tekhebet,” Sahara 19, July 2008, pp.129-134; Andrés Diego Espinel, “The Tribute from Tekhebeten (a brief note on the graffiti of Mentuhetep II at Jebel Uweinat),” Göttinger Miszellen 237, 2013, pp.15-19, http://www.academia.edu/8699848/2013_-_The_tribute_of_Tekhebeten ; Julien Cooper, “Reconsidering the Location of Yam,” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 48, 2012, pp.1-21,http://www.academia.edu/5646190/Reconsidering_the_Location_of_Yam_Journal_of_the_American_Research_Center_in_Egypt_48_2012_1-22 ; Thomas Schneider, “The West Beyond the West: The Mysterious “Wernes” of the Egyptian Underworld and the Chad Palaeolake,” Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections 2(4), 2010, pp. 1-14, https://journals.uair.arizona.edu/index.php/jaei/article/view/82/86 ; Thomas Schneider, “Egypt and the Chad: Some Additional Remarks,” Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections 3(4), 2011, pp.12-15, https://journals.uair.arizona.edu/index.php/jaei/article/view/12651/11932
  3. For example, the roughly 7,000 year-old Nabta Playa stone circle (northwest of Abu Simbel in Egypt’s Western Desert) has been subject to pointless damage, theft and even re-arrangement by unauthorized “New Age” tourists to better correspond to their own theories regarding its purpose. Rubbish dumps around the site attest to the thoughtlessness of these visitors and their unlicensed guides.
  4. Ralph A. Bagnold: Libyan Sands: Travel in a Dead World, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1941 edition (orig. 1935), pp.188-189.
  5. A.M. Hassanein Bey: The Lost Oases, Century Co., New York, 1925, pp. 219-234.
  6. Bagnold, op cit, p.173.
  7. Michael Crichton-Stuart, G Patrol, Wm Kinder and Co., London, 1958, pp.54-55.
  8. For the SDF convoys on this route in WWII, see “The Kufra Convoys,” http://www.fjexpeditions.com/frameset/convoys.htm
  9. See http://aviateurs.e-monsite.com/pages/de-1939-a-1945/morts-de-soif-dans-le-desert.html
  10. See http://www.fjexpeditions.com/frameset/convoys.htm
  11. “Are Sudanese Arms Reaching Libyan Islamists through Kufra Oasis?” Tips and Trends: The AIS African Security Report, April 30, 2015, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=1482
  12. http://www.sudanembassy.org/index.php/news-events/1258-report-new-information-on-the-involvement-of-darfuri-rebels-in-the-conflict-in-libya
  13. For the RSF, see Andrew McGregor, “Khartoum Struggles to Control its Controversial ‘Rapid Support Forces’,” Terrorism Monitor, May 30, 2014, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?tag=rapid-support-forces; 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
  14. For Yasir Arman, see Andrew McGregor, “The Pursuit of a ‘New Sudan’ in Blue Nile State: A Profile of the SPLA-N’s Yasir Arman,” Militant Leadership Monitor, June 30, 2016, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3652

“A Doctorate in Fighting”: A Profile of Shilluk Militia Leader General Johnson Ulony Thubo

Andrew McGregor

October 5, 2016

South Sudan achieved independence in July 2011 but the era of peace most citizens had hoped the event would initiate remains elusive, thanks in large part to the ravages imposed by both a tribally oriented government and a slew of warlords with outsized personal ambitions. One of the most active of these warlords is General Johnson Ulony Thubo, a self-proclaimed defender of the Shilluk people, South Sudan’s third largest ethnic group (the Dinka are the largest, while their perpetual rivals, the Nuer, are second-largest).

ulony-1General Johnson Ulony Thubo (Gurtong)

In a land of extraordinarily tall people, Johnson Ulony’s size still makes him stand out. By repeatedly playing off one side against the other in Upper Nile State and threatening the young nation’s oil supply (nearly its only source of revenue), Ulony has cynically but successfully made himself a major player in the continuing struggle for South Sudan. In the process, Ulony has drawn the critical attention of the United States and been accused of war crimes by the UN and a former British Prime Minister.

The Situation in South Sudan

Fighting broke out in the Upper Nile State capital of Malakal between Dinka and Nuer elements of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA – the national army controlled by the Dinka-dominated Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement – SPLM) in December 2013 after President Salva Kiir Mayardit claimed Nuer Vice-President Riek Machar Dhurgon had attempted to overthrow the government in the capital, Juba. Machar fled north to rally Nuer and other allied troops under the name SPLA In Opposition (SPLA-IO).

Since then, the conflict has been complicated by President Kiir’s unilateral creation of 28 states from the original ten in October 2015, a move seen by many groups as an attempt to transfer traditionally held tribal lands to Dinka control. The decision is regarded as illegitimate by both the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC – an international peace monitoring group) and the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). In the case of Ulony and his personal Shilluk militia Agwelek, the changes are seen as “a naked power grab” and an attempt to transfer Shilluk lands on the east side of the Nile (including Malakal) to the Dinka Padang group (Radio Tamazuj, May 4). Kiir’s decree divided Upper Nile State into three new administrative territories; Western Nile State (dominated by Shilluk), Eastern Nile State (with a significant Shilluk population) and Latjoor State (mainly Nuer). Agwelek controls the west bank of the White Nile, while government forces control the east bank, including the regional capital of Malakal, an important Nile River port.

The Shilluk

With a population of 1.5 to 2 million people, the Nilotic Shilluk (a.k.a. Chollo, or Collo), the Shilluk are divided into kwari (clans) who trace their lineage to some contemporary of the kingdom’s legendary mid-16th century founder Niyakang, who established a kingdom at the confluence of the Sobat River and the White Nile after being exiled by his twin brother from a kingdom in the region of Bahr al-Ghazal. The clans are all under the authority of the Reth, a king traditionally regarded as a descendant and spiritual incarnation of Niyakang. The Reth is regarded as a form of “divine kingship,” in which the health and prosperity of the king is an instrumental and necessary element in the success of the community as a whole.[1]

ulony-sobatThe Sobat River in the Shilluk Heartland

The Shilluk built a navy of dug-out canoes and made themselves a regional power through control of long stretches of the White Nile and by sending boat-borne warriors to raid Arab communities to the north. This situation changed dramatically when Turco-Egyptian forces occupied the Shilluk kingdom in the 1820s and initiated large-scale slave raids and cattle-raiding expeditions enabled by possession of firearms.

ulony-shilluk-warriorLate 19th century Shilluk Warrior

The Shilluk capital of Fashoda (Pachodo) was established around 1700 CE as a royal residence and center for mediation activities and religious/political rituals. The Reth was not obliged to live there full time, but spent most of his time within the Shilluk Kingdom. A French attempt to claim sovereignty over Fashoda and the Upper Nile region in 1898 (the “Fashoda Incident”) nearly led to full-scale war between France and Great Britain, which was in the process of consolidating its control of the Sudan. Fashoda was renamed Kodok by the British in 1904 as part of an unsuccessful attempt to eliminate memory of the incident at a time of improving Anglo-French relations.

Though most Shilluk are today Christians (both Roman Catholic and Protestant) or Muslims, traditional religion is still a strong influence in Shilluk society.

Disarmament Campaign of 2010

Ulony, who hails from Panyakang County in Upper Nile Province, first came to prominence in the course of a nation-wide disarmament campaign in 2010 in which the SPLA was accused of massive human rights abuses in Shilluk territory. Despite persistent local rivalries over land ownership between Dinka and Shilluk, the government ill-advisedly sent Dinka troops to disarm Shilluk communities. Resistance followed, led by a former wildlife officer, Colonel Robert Gwang (Pachodo.org, July 27, 2010). Gwang joined the SPLA in late 2010, but his lieutenant Ulony and his men spent months waiting in a camp for integration into SPLA’s 7th Division before the alleged rape of a Shilluk fighter’s wife by an SPLA soldier sparked a battle that killed 14 on both sides.[2]

After initial clashes with the SPLA in Panyikang County in early March 2011, Ulony attacked Malakal on March 12, 2011.[3] Ulony’s militia was driven off by the SPLA, but it was only the first of a series of battles Ulony would fight in Malakal.

With integration now impossible Ulony led his men across the border into South Kordofan and joined a new armed movement opposed to the Government of South Sudan (GoSS). Formed by Dinka Lieutenant General George Athor Deng, the South Sudan Democratic Movement/Army (SSDM/A) attracted rogue commanders from several ethnic groups.[4]

When Athor was killed by South Sudanese border guards in December 2011, he was succeeded by Peter Kuol Chol Awan, who came to terms with Juba in February 2012. As led by Ulony and fellow Shilluk rebel Alyuak Ogot Akol, the SSDM/A’s Upper Nile faction rejected the peace agreement, with Ulony taking control of the dissident fighters still in the field. Ulony claimed Chol had already resigned as the movement’s leader due to health reasons and thus had no authority to negotiate an agreement with the ruling SPLM (Sudan Tribune, March 1, 2012).   Ogot accepted the amnesty in September 2013.

By early 2012, Ulony’s troops were active on Khartoum’s behalf against rebel forces of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army – North (SPLA-N – Sudanese rebels abandoned by the South’s 2011 independence) in Southern Kordofan and participated in the seizure of Jau, a town in the disputed oil-rich region of Unity State. Ulony continued to campaign in the South Kordofan region into 2013.

Conciliation with Juba – 2013

In April 2013, President Kiir issued another amnesty offer, which was accepted by several Nuer and Shilluk rebel movements (Sudan Tribune, April 27, 2013). Ulony rejected the offer, but an order from the Reth to accept the amnesty brought Ulony into the SPLM/A fold.[5]

After his arrival in Juba in June 2013, Ulony appeared on state media to declare his 3,000-man militia had received full support from Khartoum, including training, logistics and “any support we need.” Now, however, it was time to join the SPLA’s 7th Division and forget the past as President Kiir had urged (Sudan Tribune, June 6, 2013). Ulony joined the SPLA’s bloated general staff as a major-general as his men crossed into South Sudan from Sudan. However, when clashes between Dinka and Nuer forces erupted in Juba in December 2013, Ulony’s Shilluk militia had still not been fully integrated into the SPLA.

During his unsuccessful defense of Malakal against SPLA-IO attacks in February 2014, Ulony was shot and wounded in the neck by the rebel forces and was evacuated to Juba for treatment (Sudan Tribune, February 20, 2014) Having recovered, Ulony took a shot In July 2014 at the ineffectual but well-educated Shilluk politicians who had been unable to secure Shilluk territory, announcing he had “a doctorate in fighting” (African Arguments, October 6, 2014).

Child Soldiers and Terrorism Accusations

In February 2015, UNICEF accused Ulony of recruiting 89 (or “possibly hundreds”) of child soldiers between 12 to 15 years of age. Ulony was summoned to Juba to answer these charges but failed to appear as he was involved in offensive operations alongside the Presidential Guard (the “Tiger Division”) against SPLA-IO forces in Manyo County at the time (The Insider [Kampala], March 16, 2015; Radio Tamazuj, February 28, 2015; March 9, 2015). Possibly unaware that Ulony was at the time a Major General in South Sudan’s national army, former UK prime minister Gordon Brown described Ulony’s unit as a “terrorist group,” adding that they were “a cynical, hypocritical group of people” (Radio Tamazuj, March 19, 2015).

Following clashes at Malakal in April 2015, Ulony was ordered to report to SPLA headquarters in Juba. When he failed to appear, SPLA chief of general staff General Paul Malong Awan was forced to admit he was no longer in contact with Ulony and no longer received reports from him. Ulony, however, claimed there was “no problem,” stating that he was “still part of the government” (Sudan Tribune, May 14, 2015).

Defection to the SPLA/M-IO

Ulony’s April 2015 defection to the SPLM/A-IO was spurred in part by the April 1 killing of his deputy Major General James Bwogo Olieu (a.k.a. Johnson Bwugo) by a Dinka militia allegedly under the supervision of SPLA military intelligence (Nyamile.com, April 19, 2015; Sudan Tribune, April 6, 2015). At the time, however, Ulony publicly maintained that the Dinka youth militia had confused General Bwogo’s entourage with a Shilluk youth militia they had been fighting sporadically for several days, adding that his forces remained under SPLA command and were not a separate Shilluk militia as some (including SPLA-IO leader Riek Machar) had alleged  (Sudan Tribune, April 7, 2015)

ulony-shilluk-mapMap Source: Joshua Project / Global Mapping International

Formation of the Agwelek Militia

Having taken SPLA-issued heavy weapons with him during his defection, Ulony formed Agwelek, a Shilluk militia, on May 15, 2015. Agwelek accuses the “tribally-oriented” South Sudan government of grabbing Shilluk land and handing it over to the Dinka (Southsudannation.com, July 3, 2015). The movement’s declared objectives include:

  • The unification of all opposition groups in South Sudan
  • Implementation of federalism
  • Establishment of a reconciliation commission
  • Proportionate representation of all states in a “truly national army”
  • A complete overhaul of the police and all security services
  • Diversification of the economy as part of a socio-economic revival
  • The establishment of an Upper Nile/Fashoda Trust Fund of $500 million, 60% of which will come from international donors.
  • An allocation of 50% power sharing in Upper Nile State and the right to appoint the governor (com, July 3, 2015).

In June 2015 the SPLA-IO declared it had retaken Malakal in cooperation with Agwelek forces, though by this time the city was largely a depopulated ruin, most residents having fled for the protection of a squalid UNMISS camp on the outskirts of town (Radio Tamazuj, June 28, 2015).

In early July 2015 a government offensive pushed Agwelek troops from the Kodok (Fashoda) region on the west bank and retook Malakal from Agwelek and the SPLA-IO on the east bank without meeting significant resistance (Radio Tamazuj, July 11, 2015).

Hassan Otor, a commander in Aguelek, denied September 2015 reports from Khartoum that Ulony had defected from the SPLA-IO (Radio Tamazuj, September 17, 2015). Other Shilluk forces under the command of Major General Ogot’s deputy, Yohanis Okeich, defected from the SPLA to the SPLA-IO the next month (Radio Tamazuj, October 30, 2015).

The U.S. proposed a UN travel ban and asset freeze on Ulony in September 2015 on the grounds of perpetuating a conflict that was causing needless civilian deaths and displacement. The sanctions were ultimately blocked by Russia and Angola (BBC, September 16, 2015). Hassan Otor, described the sanctions as “illogical” and maintained that Ulony was only defending civilians from aerial and chemical attacks by Juba (Radio Tamazuj, October 2, 2015).

An International Incident

In late October 2015, Ulony and his militia sparked an international incident by detaining three barges on the White Nile hired by UNMISS to deliver fuel to a UNMISS base in Renk. Aboard the barges were 12 South Sudanese crewmen, 18 UN peacekeepers and 55,000 liters of fuel. The shipping company that owned the barges was also used by the SPLA, which was involved in operations on the river against Shilluk rebels at the time. Ulony’s spokesman insisted that some of the detainees were SPLA troops and agents of the National Security Service, proof of local collusion between UNMISS and the Juba government.

ulony-nile-bargeTypical White Nile Barge Transport

On October 30, 2015 a U.S. State Department spokesman condemned the seizure of the UN barge and suggested the action could constitute a war crime (Radio Tamazuj, November 2, 2015). Meanwhile, the failure of UNMISS to respond to the seizure for three days led the SPLA to believe UNMISS was in collusion with Ulony. The UNMISS chief finally condemned the detention as a war crime and the personnel were released, though Ulony’s men kept the fuel, the peacekeepers’ weapons and some communications equipment (African Arguments, November 4, 2015; Radio Tamazuj, October 30, 2015).

In the same month, General Yohannes Okich (or Okij) split from Agwelek, forming the Tiger Faction New Forces (TFNF).

Deposing the Reth

On January 13, 2016, conspirators including General Ulony overthrew Reth Kwongo Dak Padiet, the long-standing 34th king of the Shilluk, citing his support for Kiir’s creation of 28 states and the Reth’s extended two-year stay in Juba during a time of crisis in the Shilluk homeland. The king was replaced by a prince of the royal lineage. A statement issued by Shilluk elders asserted that Shilluk leadership customs don’t “allow absence of the king from soil of the kingdom for a long period as this could open gaps for bad luck to the people with the spirit of founder Nyikango and other ancestors deserting the land” (Sudan Tribune, January 17).

The Shilluk king is seen as the community’s guarantor of law and order, so deposing the king is not an action to be taken lightly, as it threatens the stability of the community as a whole. Was deposing the king, in Shilluk terms, an outrageous and revolutionary act? It’s difficult to say, as there seems to be no precedent of a Shilluk Reth abandoning his people to live elsewhere, a primary cause of his overthrow. Given the Reth’s spiritual importance to the survival of his people (and the presumption that he would continue to live amongst them), the idea that he would live elsewhere seems inconceivable, and the same reaction may have occurred at any time in the Shilluk past. In any case, the move appeared to have the support of many Shilluk.

Conclusion

General Ulony’s proclivity for changing sides in South Sudan’s seemingly interminable civil conflict suggests that his interests lie in his own personal advancement rather than the improvement of the Shilluk community of the success of South Sudan’s efforts at nation building. Ulony is hardly alone in this; indeed, a long list of South Sudanese warlords who look mainly to their own fortunes could be compiled with little effort. Nonetheless, Ulony’s machinations have now made him the commander of SPLA-IO Sector 1, which includes the 1st and 7th Divisions as well as the Aguelek militia, all located dangerously close to the heavily defended Paloich oil fields, South Sudan’s last remaining source of revenue.

Notes

[1] See E. E. Evans-Pritchard, The Divine Kingship of the Shilluk of the Nilotic Sudan, Cambridge, University Press, 1948.

[2] “SSDM/A-Upper Nile Faction,” Small Arms Survey, November 6, 2013, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/facts-figures/south-sudan/armed-groups/southern-dissident-militias/ssdma-upper-nile.html

[3] SPLM/A-Shilluk Conflict in Upper Nile, Small Arms Survey, April 2011, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/archive/other/armed-groups/HSBA-Armed-Groups-Shilluk-Conflict-Upper-Nile-April-2011.pdf

[4] See “Renegade Generals Threaten Unity of South Sudan’s SPLA as Independence Referendum Approaches,” Terrorism Monitor, May 20, 2010, http://www.jamestown.org/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=36404&no_cache=1#.V-xEwiRqnIU

[5] Op cit, Small Arms Survey, November 6, 2013.

This article first appeared in the September 2016 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor