Unilateral Referendum in Contested Oil Producing Abyei Region Overwhelmingly in Favor of Joining South Sudan

Andrew McGregor

October 31, 2013

Ngok Dinka residents of the oil-rich but disputed border territory of Abyei have voted by a margin of more than 99% to join the Bahr al-Ghazal region of South Sudan rather than the South Kordofan region of Sudan in a three-day vote (October 27-29) that defied many predictions by being carried out peacefully and without major disturbances despite being boycotted by the other main ethnic group in the region, the Arab Missiriya tribe. Only 12 voters were reported to have cast a vote to join Sudan in a process to which foreign media were granted full access in order to verify transparency , though no international observers were present (Sudan Tribune, October 31).

(Africa Confidential)

Many Ngok Dinka displaced by attacks by the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) in May 2008 and May 2011 were reported to have returned home to take part in the vote (Reuters, October 31). The borders of Abyei were redrawn by an international arbitration tribunal in 2009 to neither side’s satisfaction, though the most productive oil fields (the Heglig zone) were separated from a diminished Abyei and attached to Sudan’s South Kordofan province (RFI, July 22, 2009).

The semi-nomadic Missiriya spend much of the year in the Sudanese province of South Kordofan, but rely on the 10,000 square kilometer region of Abyei for dry-season grazing for their herds as part of a centuries-old migratory pattern. The Missiriya include a core of well-armed and experienced fighters who are determined not to allow new borders to interfere with their traditional way of life. Missiriya tribal leader Mukhtar Babo Nimr described the vote as “an illegal process,” adding that “We in the Missiriya tribe are committed to the official position of the Sudanese government…Abyei is a northern land that belongs to Sudan and we are on it and will continue to live there because it is our land” (Reuters, October 31). The Missiriya have promised to hold their own referendum in response to the vote by the Ngok Dinka (Sudan Tribune, October 31). Missiriya militias known as Murahileen have been armed and sponsored by Khartoum since the 1970s, initially as a means of applying pressure on South Sudanese separatists by attacking agricultural communities along the north-south border.

The vote was not supported by either Khartoum or Juba, nor was it recognized by any element of the international community. The vote was initially backed by the African Union, which later withdrew its support over complaints of “obstruction” by Khartoum, which opposed the vote (Reuters, October 29). The referendum was intended to replace a scheduled 2011 vote on Abyei’s future allegiance meant to be coincidental to South Sudan’s vote on independence that was cancelled due to unrest in the region, questions over who would be allowed to vote and tensions between Juba and Khartoum. 65,000 Ngok Dinka were registered for the vote, which was non-binding. The vote was carried out by the Abyei Referendum High Committee.

Abyei’s location in the Muglad Basin once made it one of Sudan’s most productive regions for high-quality oil production, but reserves are now in decline due to intensive production in the 1990s.  The dispute over Abyei’s status dates to 1905, when the Anglo-Egyptian administration of Sudan transferred the “area of the nine Ngok Dinka chieftains” from the southern Bahr al-Ghazal province to the northern province of South Kordofan. Relations between the Ngok Dinka and the Missiriya were amicable until the outbreak of the 1956-1972 North-South civil war, when the Ngok Dinka sided largely with the southern Anyanya separatist movement. When the conflict resumed in 1983, the Ngok Dinka again sided with the Southern opposition, this time in the form of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M).

Security in Abyei is currently provided by the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNIFSA), a mostly Ethiopian contingent of over 5300 troops commanded by Ethiopian Major General Yohannes Gebremeskel Tesfamariam. [1] The force was established by UN Security Council resolution 1990 on June 27, 2011 in response to widespread violence in the region.

Though the results of the unilateral referendum are entirely symbolic, they may help provide the impetus necessary to attract the interest of the UN Security Council in working out a final solution for the disputed territory.


1. For UNIFSA, see http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/missions/unisfa/

Sudanese President Declares South Sudan’s Oil Will Never Pass Through Sudan Again

Andrew McGregor

June 27, 2013

Only three months after a long and bitter dispute over South Sudanese oil flows through Sudan was resolved, the pipeline from the South is in danger of being cut off once again, to the mutual disadvantage of both states. The earlier dispute, which saw oil flows from South Sudan suspended for 16 months, was based on a dispute over pipeline fees. Now political considerations have come to the fore, with Khartoum demanding that South Sudan stop its alleged support of forces belonging to the rebel Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF) in the Darfur, Kordofan and Blue Nile regions.  Khartoum’s decision comes at a time when it has been unsettled by rebel advances in North Kordofan province that could eventually open the road to a strike on the capital itself.

South Sudan PipelineRoute of Proposed New Pipeline (ENR)

In a June 8 rally in Khartoum, Bashir announced he had told his oil minister to “direct oil pipelines to close the pipeline and after that, let [South Sudan] take [the oil] via Kenya or Djibouti or wherever they want to take it… The oil of South Sudan will not pass through Sudan ever again” (Sudan Tribune, June 17). The Sudanese government has said the pipeline must be shut down in a gradual 60-day process and that all oil within the pipeline are already in Port Sudan will be shipped out as usual (Sudan Tribune, June 15). The affected oil shipments belong to the China National Petroleum Corporation, India’s ONCG Videsh and Malaysia’s Petronas.

Even if the current dispute was resolved quickly (which looks unlikely), it will still have the result of encouraging plans to develop a new pipeline to carry South Sudan’s oil to Djibouti or Kenya’s Lamu Port instead of Port Sudan. The planned pipeline to Lamu Port would be joined by another new line from Uganda, which has been determined to have a commercially viable three billion drums of oil (Daily Nation [Nairobi], June 18).

However, for the pipeline to Lamu Port to become a reality, new oil discoveries are needed in South Sudan. Most of these hopes are centered on potential discoveries in the massive but promising Jonglei B Bloc that was formerly a concession of French oil firm Total. The B Bloc has now been divided into three parts, with Total joining in a partnership with U.S. Exxon Mobil and Kuwait’s Kufpec in at least two of these blocs (Reuters, June 4). Unfortunately, eastern Jonglei is the home of the Yau Yau rebellion, an obstinate challenge to South Sudan’s success that Juba believes is supplied and organized by Khartoum (for rebellion leader David Yau Yau, see https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=278 ).  South Sudan president Salva Kiir Mayardit is reported to have discussed construction of the new pipeline with the Toyota Corporation of Japan during a visit to that country (al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 20).

Nafi Ali Nafi 2Sudanese Presidential Advisor Nafi Ali Nafi (Sudan Tribune)

The previous dispute over oil transfers was solved by a Cooperation Agreement signed in September, 2012 and implemented in March that covered oil and other issues, such as border security, citizenship, trade, banking and even the creation of a buffer zone between the two nations. Following Khartoum’s decision to suspend the Cooperation Agreement with South Sudan, Washington postponed an already controversial visit to the U.S. capital from Sudanese presidential adviser Nafi Ali Nafi, one of the most powerful men in the regime and a possible future presidential candidate, but also a figure many believe should be charged by the International Criminal Court for his role in various human rights abuses (al-Sanafah [Khartoum], June 19).

Efforts to reconcile the two Sudans have been led by former South African president Thabo Mbeki, currently chairman of the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel. China, which stands to lose a major source of oil over the tensions between Khartoum and Juba, has joined the AU in seeking a resolution to the dispute. Khartoum has indicated its acceptance of an African Union proposal that would see the re-implementation of the cooperation agreement once the South Sudanese army was removed from the demilitarized zone between the two nations, but with both Khartoum and Juba still accusing the other of maintaining proxy forces within their respective territories, there are still important issues to be resolved if South Sudanese oil is to continue being pumped to Port Sudan after the two-month warning period ends in early August. South Sudan vice-president Riek Machar has been assigned to visit Khartoum to discuss means of resolving this latest crisis, but a date for the visit has yet to be set (al-Sahafah [Khartoum], June 16; al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 20).

South Sudan’s Foreign Minister, Nhial Deng Nhial, insists that his government is ready to fully implement all the conditions of the Cooperation Agreement: “The Republic of South Sudan does not support rebels fighting Khartoum. It is in our interest not to destabilize the government of Sudan” (Sudan Tribune, June 23). Deng Alor, minister of cabinet affairs of South Sudan, remarked: “We do not want to enter into a military confrontation with Khartoum; not owing to weakness, but in order to maintain peace and its achievements… However, this does not prevent us from exercising our right to self-defense” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 20).

On June 20, the Khartoum government announced sweeping changes to the military leadership, including the top positions in the army, air force, navy and intelligence service. The new chief-of-staff is Lieutenant General Mustafa Osman Obeid Salim, who succeeds Colonel General Ismat Abd al-Rahman. While government sources described the replacement of 15 senior officers as routine, it is widely believed the broad changes in the command structure reflected a lack of confidence in the existing commanders, who were unable to prevent the Sudanese Revolutionary Front from taking the town of Abu Kershola in South Kordofan and attacking the North Kordofan town of Um Rawaba in a lightly-resisted spring offensive that embarrassed government leaders.  The SRF even fired four shells on a military airbase outside the North Kordofan capital of Kadugli on June 14, though the shells actually fell on part of the facility used by the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA), killing one Ethiopian peacekeeper and wounding two others (Sudan Tribune, June 14; Akhir Lahzah [Khartoum], June 18).

Military developments in North Kordofan have clearly alarmed the regime in Khartoum, which has set up 27 checkpoints at entrance points to the capital to prevent the infiltration of SRF fighters (al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 20). Nafi Ali Nafi made an unusual public criticism of the army afterwards, saying its low combat capability meant it was struggling to deal with the rebels and was in need of new recruits. His remarks were taken poorly by the Army, whose spokesman Colonel al-Sawarmi Khalid Sa’ad proclaimed that “if it wasn’t for the Sudanese Army… these [rebel] movements would have now seized the city of Khartoum and the regime would have totally collapsed” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 20; Sudan Tribune, June 20). Nonetheless, the president’s adviser appears to have come out on top in this struggle – most of the officers newly appointed to command positions are believed to be Nafi loyalists. The widespread changes to Sudan’s military leadership also appear to have weeded out some senior officers whose loyalty was suspect after being charged and then pardoned by the president in connection with an alleged coup attempt last November. [1] Only a few of those detained remain behind bars, including Major General Salah Ahmed Abdalla and Lieutenant General Salah Abdallah Abu Digin (a.k.a. Salah Gosh),a former head of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS)  known for his political rivalry with Nafi Ali Nafi and his close cooperation with the CIA in counterterrorism matters.


  1. For the coup, see Andrew McGregor, “Sudanese Regime Begins to Unravel after Coup Reports and Rumors of Military Ties to Iran,” Aberfoyle International Security Special Report, January 7, 2012, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=141.

This article first appeared in the Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor on June 27, 2013.

The Hunt for Mali’s Missing Islamists: Have Tuareg Rebels Returned to Darfur?

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report – February 13, 2013

A century after West African Tuareg rebels fled from French forces to Darfur, various reports suggest that the Tuareg Ansar al-Din Islamists of northern Mali have again fled a French military offensive to take refuge in Sudan’s western province.

Jabal MarraJabal Marra (Kylie de Castro)

Numerous but unconfirmed reports are filtering out of Sudan’s western province of Darfur regarding the sudden arrival in the mountainous region of Jabal Marra of hundreds of Islamists escaping the French and Chadian offensive in northern Mali. Most of the armed men are said to be from the largely Tuareg, partly Arab Ansar al-Din movement led by veteran Tuareg rebel Iyad ag Ghali (a.k.a. Abu al-Fadl). If an Ansar al-Din convoy managed to escape to Darfur, it would most likely have followed a route taking it along the desert track in northern Niger and through poorly secured southern Libya before dropping down into northern Darfur via the road running south from Kufra Oasis. For the rebels, it would be important to avoid the territory of Chad, France’s main military partner in the intervention.

Sudan Liberation Movement-AW leader Abd al-Wahid al-Nur announced on February 8 that Islamists from northern Mali had arrived “to make our stronghold, Jabal Marra, as their base.” Al-Nur put their numbers in “the hundreds” and said they stood out locally by virtue of their dress, language and skin color (AFP, February 8).

One source provided a detailed deployment of the Islamists, who are alleged to have arrived in North Darfur in approximately 200 Land Cruisers since the start of February. Since then, the Islamists are reported to have set up three camps near Kutum; one  near the IDP camp at Kassab, one at Jabal Mari, seven or eight kilometers north-east of Kutum and one at Sijana, ten kilometers north of Kutum. The Islamists, who are reported to speak French and use Central African francs and U.S. dollars to buy provisions in the Kutum market, have covered their weapons and vehicles with large green tarps to conceal their position (Radio Dabanga, February 11).

The reports were apparently confirmed by Abul Gasim Imam, spokesman for the rebel umbrella group, the Sudanese Revolutionary Front, who reported the presence of Islamist militants at Mulagat, some 15 kilometers north-east of Kutum. SLM-MM leader Minni Minawi claimed that Khartoum was working with the new Libyan government to establish Ansar al-Din in the Sudan-Libya border region in north Darfur (homeland of Minawi’s Zaghawa tribe) (Sudan Tribune, February 6).

Yet another confirmation came from Gibreel Adam, a spokesman for Darfur’s rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), the most powerful of Darfur’s rebel groups. According to Adam, the fighters had entered Darfur in armored Land Cruisers through the lawless rural bushlands of the Central African Republic (CAR) (New Vision [Khartoum}, February 9). The route through the CAR would require passing through Niger, the Borno region of Nigeria and northern Cameroon if Chad is to be avoided on the way to the CAR. It seems unlikely that the heightened Nigerian security presence in Borno during the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency would miss hundreds of armored battle-wagons topped up with Tuareg and Arab fighters. There remains the possibility, however, that some kind of deal could be cut in crossing these borders by convoys with enough cash.

Another senior JEM leader, Tahir al-Faki, noted that JEM fighters had spotted the Islamists in the Um Sidr and Kutum areas, but added that JEM operatives who watch desert traffic near Jabal al-Uwaynat on the route from Libya’s Kufra Oasis to Darfur had not seen any unusual movement towards Darfur in recent days, leading al-Faki to describe reports that the Islamists may have used this route to enter Darfur as “not accurate.” Al-Faki speculated that Khartoum might demand a reward for extraditing the Islamists to Western countries, but might also “plan to use them to control areas of Golo and Kutum and force the indigenous population to leave their land in Jabal Marra” (Sudan Tribune, February 12).

Hama ag Sid Ahmed 2Hama ag Sid Ahmad

When asked earlier this week to speculate on the location of the missing Islamists, Hama ag Sid Ahmad, spokesman of the largely Tuareg Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA), did not mention Darfur as a possibility: “Some think they are between the Niger-Mali, Algeria-Mali and, finally, the Mauritania-Mali borders. Others have left heading toward Libya. A goodly portion of the groups is still present in Gao, Timbuktu and Tessalit” (Le Temps d’Algérie, February 12). Despite Bamako’s objections, the separatist MNLA is working together with French and Chadian troops in the hunt for Islamist rebels in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains.

Jabal Marra is not exactly a haven of peace these days. Rebels belonging to the Sudanese Liberation Movement – Abd al-Wahid (SLM-AW, drawn largely from the indigenous Fur tribe and named for movement leader Abd al-Wahid al-Nur) claim to have scored recent successes in a campaign that began in western Jabal Marra in late December. Jabal Marra is the ancestral homeland of the Fur and the center of a Fur dynasty that ruled the region for two and a half centuries until it was overthrown by the British-led Egyptian Army in 1916. After a two-day battle last week, the rebels claimed to have taken the town of Golo and a nearby military base in Derbat, a serious reversal for Khartoum’s military (AFP, February 5; Radio Dabanga, February 7). The SLM-AW claims to have killed eleven Malians fighting alongside Sudanese troops in the battle for Derbat and to have captured one Islamist militant from Mali, a badly wounded individual named Abu Ala al-Issawi (Radio Dabanga, February 8). Fighting also continues in eastern Jabal Marra, where villages have come under aerial bombing from the Sudanese air force combined with attacks by pro-government militias operating out of al-Fashir (Radio Dabanga, February 6).

The Qatari Connection?

One of the most bizarre explanations for the disappearance of northern Mali’s Islamist commanders came in a report carried by an Algerian daily that described two Qatari planes landing in northern Mali to carry the jihadists away to safety. The account did not provide any details regarding the source of this information (Le Temps d’Algérie, February 5).

There is growing speculation in France that Qatar has provided covert support to the Islamists in northern Mali (particularly Ansar al-Din), but so far there is little evidence to support such allegations (France24, January 21; Le Canard Enchaine, June 6, 2012). Support for al-Qaeda and its affiliates would not seem to be in the interests of Qatar, which depends entirely upon the United States and other Western nations for its defense. Qatar nevertheless supports the international spread of Salafism and was the only foreign nation to provide humanitarian assistance to northern Mali during the Islamist occupation. Qatar vigorously opposed the French military intervention, calling for a process of dialogue instead.

Attempts to Secure Darfur’s Borders

Libya and Sudan agreed on February 2 to both move troops up to their mutual border to control movement along the “Libyan Road” that leads south from Kufra, past Jabal al-Uwaynat and into Darfur. The Kufra region was designated a military zone and the border with Sudan closed on December 15, 2012. [1] Libyan warplanes are monitoring the Kufra region from the border with Chad to Jabal al-Uwaynat and Jabal al-Malik near the border with Egypt and have already struck a smugglers’ camp in the region (Libyan News Agency, December 19, 2012). Even given the Libyans’ limited military capacity, it is hard to imagine a large number of armed vehicles passing through this region unobserved and unchallenged, especially by the Tubu militias operating in the area. Avoiding the customary route through the Kufra-Darfur border would require local guides and a challenging drive through trackless wastes.

Chad and Sudan have operated joint border patrols to restore security along the traditionally volatile border with Darfur since agreeing to end a long-standing proxy war in the region in 2010. Prior to that agreement, the Zaghawa political elite in Chad were major backers of the largely-Zaghawa leadership of Darfur’s rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). This relationship appears to have deteriorated greatly since N’Djamena withdrew its support for the rebels after the 2010 rapprochement with Khartoum, with JEM claiming to have repulsed an attack on their fighters in late January by Chadian forces near Um Dukhun in South Darfur (Sudan Tribune, January 31). JEM’s account of a major clash with Chadian troops was refuted by a Sudanese Army spokesman. (The Citizen [Khartoum], February 7).

Reasons to Question Ansar al-Din’s Presence in Darfur

Despite the multiple accounts seeming to confirm the arrival of Ansar al-Din in Darfur, there are still several reasons to remain wary. Most of the accounts originate with rebel groups who would be happy to embarrass the Khartoum government by suggesting some type of collusion between the Islamist/military regime and al-Qaeda associated jihadists. The way to Darfur from northern Mali is extremely long and difficult, roughly 2,000 miles through some of the most forbidding terrain on Earth.  Getting all the way to Jabal Marra would mean passing by more inviting refuges in southern Libya, where government control barely exists.  Many Ansar al-Din are familiar with southern Libya through their military service in Qaddafi’s armies; Darfur, however, is terra incognito, a land where language and appearance would quickly mark the fugitives and prevent them from melting into the local population. Jabal Marra is a highly militarized zone where operations are carried out regularly by the Sudanese Army and a variety of rebel groups pursuing the decade-old insurgency against Khartoum. Confrontations with other armed groups would be inevitable unless a number of deals could be quickly worked out. Khartoum would also appear to have little to gain by granting the Islamists refuge on Sudanese territory, a necessity if the Islamists intended an extended stay in Darfur. Khartoum has invited West African Arabs to migrate to Darfur in the past with the intention of displacing the indigenous non-Arab population, but none of these arrived with the kind of international heat that will follow Ansar al-Din and other Islamists escaping northern Mali. If Ansar al-Din elements have actually succeeded in making it to Darfur, they may find it more difficult to get out than to get in.

Tuareg Rebels in Kutum: Not for the First Time

The movement of Tuareg rebels from West Africa to Darfur, if independently confirmed, would oddly parallel a similar flight of Tuareg rebels from French troops to Darfur a century ago. Having taken the worst of it in several engagements with French colonial troops in what is now Mali, Niger and southern Algeria, a large number of Tuareg warriors moved east to the Fezzan (southern Libya) and the Ennedi region of modern Chad, where they joined with the forces of the Sanusi confederacy, an emerging Islamic proto-state led by the Sanusi Sufis of Cyrenaica (eastern Libya). The Sanusis welcomed the Tuareg fighters, recognizing that their defeats at the hands of the French had come not from lack of fighting ability, but from a reliance on the now antiquated “white arms” – swords, spears, knives, etc. Retrained by the Sanusis in the use of firearms, the Tuareg acquitted themselves well in several battles with the French over Saharan wells and ancient forts, but ultimately were forced to give way before French artillery and the seemingly inexhaustible number of well-trained Malian and Senegalese tirailleurs (colonial riflemen) France could continue to throw at the Tuareg and their Sanusi allies.

By 1909 the surviving Tuareg were exhausted by war and began to move east to Darfur to seek the protection of its Sultan, Ali Dinar. Though Ali Dinar ruled independently, the British had made a claim of sovereignty over Darfur in 1899. This and the Sultan’s substantial army provided the roughly 10,000 Tuareg refugees some reassurance that they would not be pursued there by the relentless French colonial forces. Unfortunately, the Tuareg could not resist returning to the raiding lifestyle they had enjoyed before the intrusion of the French. An infuriated Sultan ordered the Tuareg expelled for “their deeds of wickedness and immorality,” but after protests from the Sanusi, Ali Dinar settled for disarming and despoiling the Tuareg. A number of Tuareg women were taken off to the royal harem and the Tuareg slaves were impressed into the Sultan’s own army. Most of the remaining Tuareg (known in Darfur as Kinin) were disarmed and resettled near the lead mines of Kutum in Jabal Marra, the same region cited in nearly all reports of a Tuareg Ansar al-Din presence of the last few days.  In 1913, the Sultan softened his position and allowed the Tuareg to resettle a half-a-day south of the capital of al-Fashir. While small units of Tuareg joined the Sultan’s army, most of the tribesmen did not, nor was any effort made to impress them, the Sultan being as wary of the Tuareg as they were of him.

When Ali Dinar decided to flee al-Fashir in the face of the approaching British-led Egyptian Army in 1916, he took with him his soldiers, slaves, concubines, relatives, retainers, eunuchs and most of the royal court – in other words, a good part of the town of al-Fashir. By the time the invaders entered the capital, the “Kinin” had already ridden in to begin the looting of the nearly deserted city. They were quickly joined by the Egyptian, Sudanese and British troops of the “Government Army.” In the following days, groups of veiled Kinin featured strongly in the photograph collection of most British officers armed with a camera.  A British intelligence report suggested that the Tuareg of Darfur “would be valuable allies since they are reputed good fighters and fearless.” [2] At home, however, the French defeat of the last great Tuareg revolt, the Kaoçen Rebellion of 1917, meant that a form of peace, if not freedom, now prevailed and the Tuareg began to drift home rather than ally themselves with the Anglo-Egyptian government of Sudan.


1. See Andrew McGregor, “Tribes and Terrorists: The Emerging Security Threat from Libya’s Lawless South,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor, January 25, 2013, http://www.jamestown.org/programs/gta/single/?cHash=fef93e8be833fe81ae780167cb8da26c&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=40367

2. National Records Office, Khartoum: NRO INTELL 5/3/38, H.A. MacMichael, “Notes on the Tribes of Darfur,” October-December, 1915.

Sudanese Regime Begins to Unravel After Coup Reports and Rumors of Military Ties to Iran

Andrew McGregor

January 7, 2013

The Sudanese capital of Khartoum is currently the center of a web of intrigue involving an alleged coup attempt, bitter divisions in the Islamist movement, a mysterious airstrike on the capital by Israeli warplanes and what appears to be a possible shift in foreign policy that would involve greater military and diplomatic cooperation with the Iranian-led “Resistance Axis.”

Most worrisome for the ruling Islamist/military alliance led by President Omar al-Bashir is the alleged coup attempt, which reflects growing divisions within the ruling National Congress Party (NCP). Rather than being the work of outsiders to the power structure, the attempted coup appears to have been the work of a combination of members of the powerful National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), Islamist officers of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the Popular Defense Forces (PDF) and possibly a number of Islamist politicians and businessmen. With an ailing Bashir possibly ready to step down later this year after 24 years of rule, there is a growing tendency for political contenders to act peremptorily to secure their accession to power in a nation roiled by multiple rebellions and the economically devastating separation of South Sudan in 2011.

“Corruption and Deviance from the Islamic path”

National Congress Party officials disclosed that 13 individuals had been arrested in a November 21 NISS round-up on charges of planning the overthrow of the government, including some of the most powerful men in the country. Most of the detainees may be characterized as hardline Islamist military and intelligence officers who are said to oppose the “corruption and deviance from the Islamic path” of the current regime. The alleged plotters are charged with targeting “the stability of the state and some leaders of the state” (AFP, November 29). The suspects face repercussions ranging from a presidential pardon to death sentences, though the latter would certainly be seen as provocative by many within the Islamist power structure (al-Mashhad al-An [Khartoum], December 6, 2012).

Nafi Ali NafiNafi Ali Nafi

Among the suspects are:

  • Former Presidential advisor and former NISS director Lieutenant General Salah Abdallah Abu Digin (a.k.a. Salah Gosh). Well known throughout Sudan, Salah Gosh was national intelligence director until he was sacked in 2009 following the failure of the Sudanese intelligence forces to discover and deter an attack by Darfur rebels on the national capital. He then served as a presidential advisor for security affairs for three years until losing that position in a 2011 power struggle with NCP vice-chairman Dr. Nafi Ali Nafi. Privately, Gosh’s family is reported to have claimed Nafi Ali Nafi is behind the charges against the former NISS director (Sudan Tribune, December 22, 2012). Following his surprise dismissal, Gosh went into business by opening a number of trading companies but was still reputed to be influential in regime circles. Gosh was taken to hospital with heart problems shortly after his arrest, where he underwent successful heart bypass surgery (AFP, November 29, 2012; al-Watan [Khartoum], December 2, 2012; Akhbar al-Yawm [Khartoum], December 6, 2012). Despite U.S. sanctions, Sudanese intelligence worked closely with its U.S. counterparts during Salah Gosh’s time as intelligence chief, with Gosh regarded as Sudan’s point man for contacts with the CIA. It was reported that Sudanese intelligence took a closer look into Gosh’s activities after noting he had gradually moved 25 members of his family to the United States earlier this year (al-Akhbar [Khartoum], November 24, 2012). Since his arrest, Gosh has had his immunity from prosecution revoked and his assets frozen by the Central Bank of Sudan.

Salah GoshFormer NISS director Lieutenant General Salah Abdallah Abu Digin (a.k.a. Salah Gosh)

  • Brigadier General Muhammad Ibrahim Abd al-Jalil (a.k.a. Wad Ibrahim), a veteran of 12 years of fighting in the South Sudan and once considered the Amir of the “Mujahideen” movement in Sudan, dedicated to transforming the Sudanese civil war into a “jihad” against Christians and animists in the South. Known for his modest lifestyle and so far untainted by charges of corruption, Wad Ibrahim is reputed to be a popular figure in the Sudanese officer corps. He was in charge of the president’s security for seven years.
  • NISS Major General Adel al-Tayib, a cousin of Wad Ibrahim (Sudan Tribune, November 22; al-Intibaha [Khartoum], November 29, 2012).
  • Former commander of the Sudanese-Chadian Border Force Colonel Fath al-Rahim Abdallah Sulayman, who is alleged to be the go-between for Wad Ibrahim and Salah Gosh.
  • Khalid Muhammad Mustafa, a former mujahideen commander operating in the Blue Nile region. Khalid is believed to be close to Wad Ibrahim.
  • Businessman Mustafa Nur al-Dayim, who is alleged to have ties to Dr. Hassan al-Turabi’s Popular Congress Party (PCP) (al-Intibaha [Khartoum], November 29, 2012; December 6, 2012).
  • Lieutenant Colonel Amin al-Zaki, a well-known Islamist and deputy director of the NISS in White Nile Province.
  • Lieutenant Colonel Mustafa Mumtaz of the Signal Corps, based in White Nile province and thought to be an associate of Wad Ibrahim (al-Intibaha [Khartoum], November 29, 2012).
  • Colonel Muhammad al-Zaki of the Armored Corps.
  • Colonel Hassan Abd al-Rahim of the Armored Corps. Abd al-Rahim is alleged to have provided contacts between the plotters and the Darfur-based Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) (al-Intibaha [Khartoum], December 6, 2012).
  • Dr. Ghazi Salah al-Din – Head of the NCP bloc in parliament and formerly a close advisor to the president, entrusted with important files such as the Darfur issue. Ghazi Salah al-Din is a leader of the reform movement within the NCP that has mobilized behind the issues of corruption and economic deterioration (al-Akhbar [Khartoum], November 24, 2012).
  • Major General Musa al-Amin (al-Ahram al-Yawm [Khartoum], December 4, 2012).
  • General Abd al-Mula Musa Muhammad Musa – The retired general and commissioner of the White Nile State was arrested on December 3 after his name emerged during interrogation of the other suspects (al-Ahram al-Yawm [Khartoum], December 4, 2012; Sudan Tribune, December 5, 2012).

Two prominent politicians have been implicated in the plot, though solid evidence has not been presented and both men remain free for the moment. Both men have a history of antagonism to the regime and could be considered to fall into the “usual suspects” category whenever Khartoum is faced with political disturbances:

  • Dr. Hassan al-Turabi: The leader of the Islamist Popular Congress Party and former leader of the National Islamic Front (NIF). Though Turabi was not specifically named in connection to the coup, presidential advisor Nafi Ali Nafi’s reference to the plotters receiving assistance from “Islamists who have personal ambitions” was widely thought to be a reference to al-Turabi (Sudan Tribune, December 2, 2012). Dr. Hassan Abdallah al-Turabi was the first Secretary-General of the Islamic Movement, but underwent a split with the faction led by President Omar al-Bashir in 1998, leading to the formation of al-Turabi’s Islamist opposition party, the Popular Congress Party (PCP).
  • Sadiq al-Mahdi, a former two-time Prime Minister of Sudan (1966-1967, 1986-1989) was overthrown by the military/Islamist alliance of Colonel Omar al-Bashir and Dr. Hassan al-Turabi in 1989. Sadiq is the great-grandson of Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi, the 19th century Sufi leader who overthrew Egyptian rule of the Sudan in 1885. Sadiq is the Imam of the Ansar Sufi movement and leader of its political wing, the Umma Party (a.k.a National Umma Party – NUP).

After meeting with the Sudanese press during a visit to Cairo, al-Mahdi was initially quoted as saying Salah Gosh had met with him over dinner to ask the Umma Party leader to head the post-coup regime, though al-Mahdi later claimed he had been quoted out of context (al-Sudani [Khartoum], December 4, 2012; al-Qarar [Khartoum], December 5, 2012; Sudan Vision, December 31, 2012). Presidential Assistant Nafi Ali Nafi asked: “Is it logical that Sadiq al-Mahdi [would] disclose what went on between him and Gosh in the past without meaning it?” (Sudan Tribune, December 15, 2012).

Al-Mahdi has also been described as having extensive contacts with the rebel Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) coalition by media sources unfriendly to the NUP. Presidential advisor Nafi Ali Nafi has said he is “confident that the Umma party knew the zero hour [of the coup attempt]” (Sudan Tribune, September 22, 2012). NUP leaders and members of al-Mahdi’s Ansar religious movement have warned against attempts to implicate al-Mahdi in the alleged coup (Sudan Tribune. December 3, 2012; Akhbar Alyoum [Khartoum], December 4, 2012). A recent sermon by the leader of the Ansar council decried the presence of foreign UN and AU troops in the country, the absence of democracy and the alleged usurpation of the nation’s resources by the ruling circle (al-Sudani [Khartoum], December 22, 2012).

While the regime has attempted to implicate the opposition, the episode instead suggests the military/Islamist coalition that has ruled Sudan since 1989 is experiencing another split as the coalition’s strongman, Bashir, begins to show signs of physical weakness that could imperil his grip on the regime. Bashir has also suffered political blows in recent years by being indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and failing to triumph in the battle against Southern secession.

Jockeying for Political Supremacy

Within the so-called “loyalist” faction of the NCP there are several possible successors to President-Field Marshal Bashir, who is expected to resign later this year or by 2015 at the latest:

  • Dr. Nafi Ali Nafi – NCP vice-chairman, former major-general and current presidential advisor. Nafi is one of the most powerful men in Khartoum and is regarded as being extremely close to the president. As a former Iranian-trained chief of military intelligence, Nafi was entrusted with overseeing controversial security operations in Darfur and South Kordofan that have been described by observers as crimes against humanity. Nafi emerged as the victor in a power struggle with Salah Gosh when the latter was dismissed as NISS director. Nafi is seen by some as al-Bashir’s bulwark against the ambitions of First Vice President Ali Uthman Muhammad Taha. Nafi and al-Bashir are both members of the riverine Ja’aliyin tribe.
  • First Vice President Ali Uthman Muhammad Taha – A leading member of Sudan’s Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) and a former Turabi loyalist who abandoned his mentor when the latter fell out with Bashir. Taha was rewarded with the vice-presidency and often acts as the public face of the government while building a powerful constituency as the deputy chairman of the NCP. Taha is a lawyer and judge by profession and a member of the Shaiqiya, one of the three riverine Arab tribes (Shaiqiya, Ja’aliyin and Danagla) that have monopolized power in Sudan since independence.  Taha is deeply implicated in unleashing the Janjaweed forces of Musa Hilal in Darfur. A two-time Amir of the Sudan Islamic Movement (SIM), Taha is an NCP insider regarded as a frontrunner and will likely have the backing of the SIM’s new leadership in any run at the presidency.
  • Speaker of the National Assembly Ahmad Ibrahim al-Tahir – A leading hardline member of the NCP who has described the late Osama bin Laden as “a holy warrior” and describes the separation of South Sudan as an “international conspiracy” (al-Ra’y al-Aam [Khartoum], June 26, 2011; Sudan Tribune, May 3, 2011).
  • Lieutenant General Bakri Hassan Salih – Minister of Presidential Affairs and former Minister of Defense, General Bakri is deeply implicated in the abuses committed by pro-government militias and government security forces in Darfur. He has been close to al-Bashir ever since he played a crucial role in the 1989 coup that brought al-Bashir to power.

Divisions in the Sudanese Islamic Movement

The growing differences between factions of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) began to erupt in January with the release of a memo calling for urgent reforms and an end to institutionalized corruption. The memo was signed by a thousand party members and associates (Sudan Tribune, January 11, 2012).

Splits in Sudan’s Islamist movement between those favoring the political status quo and those seeking political reform emerged at the 8th General Conference of the Sudanese Islamic Movement (SIM) in November. With the resignation of Sudanese vice-president Ali Osman Muhammad Taha as SIM chairman, a struggle emerged for control of the movement. The conference quickly deteriorated into a confrontation between Bashir regime loyalists and those seeking substantial reforms within the failing Sudanese administration. Among those groups in the SIM calling for reform was al-Saihun (“the Travelers”), an NCP-associated faction based upon a core of veteran military officers and paramilitary jihadists embittered by the loss of South Sudan after a long and bloody civil war. Some NCP loyalists maintain that al-Saihun is a front for members of the PCP (Alwan [Khartoum], November 29, 2012). Al- Saihun and PCP leader Hassan al-Turabi backed NCP parliamentary leader Ghazi Salah al-Din in an unsuccessful bid for the leadership of the SIM. However, NCP loyalists assumed control of the movement with the election of economist al-Zubayr Ahmad al-Hassan as the new secretary-general of the SIM after Ghazi withdrew from the contest. Ghazi was accused a short time later of being one of the alleged coup plotters. Under al-Zubayr’s leadership, many Islamists contend the SIM has now been reduced from an advisory body to the NCP to a movement whose views will be dictated by the regime. SIM reformers were ultimately unable to push through their demands that the movement be separated from the NCP.

After the conference, al-Saihun issued a statement calling for the dismissal of Minister of Defense Abd al-Rahim Muhammad Hussein. The reformers cited the minister’s disputes with senior army officers (some ending in dismissals), failure to respond to alleged Israeli attacks on Sudan and an inability to provide Sudanese troops and paramilitaries with the means to end rebellions in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile Province. The statement followed an earlier appeal in January, 2012 by 700 officers of the Sudan Armed Forces calling for an end to corruption in the arms procurement process, citing as an example the purchase of over 100 defective Ukrainian tanks in 2010 (Sudan Tribune, January 20, 2012). The officers also called for a greater degree of separation between the NCP and the Army command structure.

Motivations for Overthrowing the Bashir Regime

Speculation is rife in Khartoum over the motivation of the alleged putschists, with some suggesting the move was meant to preempt other attempts to seize power (a common justification for coup attempts in the Sudan). Speculation on the future of the regime has been fuelled by rumors that the president may be terminally ill. Al-Bashir has had two tumor-related surgeries on his throat in Qatar and Saudi Arabia since August, 2012 despite international sanctions against his travel connected to an ICC indictment for war crimes (BBC, November 30, 2012; Sudan Tribune, December 22, 2012).

There is also the possibility that the alleged plotters represented an Islamist faction within the military that felt that Khartoum’s ongoing military campaigns against various rebel movements were suffering from government corruption and the policies of Defense Minister Abd al-Rahim Muhammad Hussein. Besides the seemingly intractable conflict in Darfur, fighting has again flared up along the border of the South Sudanese state of Northern Bahr al-Ghazal (Sudan Tribune, December 10, 2012). Khartoum maintains that Juba continues to command and control troops of the SPLA-Northern Command now fighting the NCP regime in Sudan’s Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan provinces.

A Khartoum daily considered close to the Bashir regime provided details of the videotaped confessions presented by NISS director Muhammad Atta and Dr. Nafi Ali Nafi to a select group (al-Intibaha [Khartoum], December 6, 2012). According to the report, Wad Ibrahim and other coup plotters confessed to organizing the coup in cooperation with the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), a Darfur-based rebel movement that came close to seizing the capital and deposing Bashir in 2008 and has remained a regime bogeyman ever since. [1]  JEM’s participation was made conditional on the deportation to Europe for trial of the “List of 51,” a UN-generated sealed list of 51 Sudanese citizens suspected of war crimes in Darfur that was handed to the ICC in 2005. By mutual consent the coup would take place while Bashir was out of the country for medical treatment in recognition of the popularity of the president in some quarters and the difficulty of ultimately deporting Bashir to face his own ICC indictment. The detainees described Wad Ibrahim rather than Salah Gosh as the intended leader of a 15-member post-coup command council. Salah Gosh’s confession was not shown, raising questions as to whether the former intelligence director has in fact made a confession.

The videotaped confessions apparently included that of a “sorcerer” said to have been engaged by one of the generals involved in the plot to cast an immobilizing spell over certain regime figures. Pressed as to why he did not report the incident, the “sorcerer” claimed a dream revealed the coup would be unsuccessful, so he felt no further action was necessary.

Muhammad AttaNISS Director Lieutenant General Muhammad Atta al-Mawla

Dealing with the “Traitors”

Having rounded up the coup suspects, the regime is now divided as to how to deal with them, a new dispute that is proving as divisive as any of the others facing the regime. The Director of the powerful National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS), Lieutenant General Muhammad Atta al-Mawla, described the plotters as “traitors” who had even drafted a proclamation announcing themselves as “counter-revolutionaries” who intended to supersede the “Salvation Revolution” of 1989. Al-Atta has pledged that the suspects will face justice without leniency (Sudan Tribune, December 5, 2012; Sudan Vision, December 7, 2012). Vice-President Taha says that the suspects will be prosecuted without special treatment: “We have no double standards… the way with us is working within the ranks, not treachery and treason and destabilizing the ranks” (Sudan Tribune, December 2, 2012). Presidential advisor Nafi Ali Nafi has been especially vocal in his demands that the suspects face trial, saying some of them had already been detained on similar charges in the past. This time, according to Nafi, there is ample evidence to mount a full prosecution (Sudan Tribune, December 22, 2012). A group of Khartoum lawyers led by government critic Nabil Adib has pledged to form a committee to defend the suspects while some NCP members have warned that action against the alleged plotters would be “costly” (Sudan Tribune, November 24, 2012; November 26, 2012).

On the other hand, prosecuting the still influential suspects could tear the ruling NCP apart at a time it can ill afford disunity in the ranks. According to the Sudan Tribune, an al-Saihun Facebook page claimed NCP parliamentarians organized a candid meeting between al-Bashir and the leading detainees on December 19 that ended with “hugging and tears,” though this could not be verified (Sudan Tribune, December 22, 2012). Bashir has been placed in a difficult position as prosecutions would likely generate new attempts to depose him. It might well be to the ailing president’s benefit to offer a grand gesture of forgiveness, with the quiet promise that further such dissent in the NCP will not be endured with magnanimity.  However, with the prospect that Bashir might be president for only a short time longer, other ranking figures in the regime such as Taha and Nafi may see a purge as a means of reshaping the NCP going into the post-Bashir era.

Meanwhile, the streets of Khartoum have been the scene of massive and occasionally violent student demonstrations in recent weeks. The protesters, who call for the overthrow of the regime, initially flooded into the streets following the apparent murder of four students from Darfur by NCP members on December 7 (Sudan Tribune, December 10, 2012; Al-Sahafah [Khartoum], December 9, 2012).

The net continues to be cast wider and wider in the aftermath of the initial interrogations with the arrests of dozens of Saihun members as well as two “Islamist” media members, one a cameraman for al-Jazeera, the other an employee of the al-Fida Media Center, which used to produce videos promoting the jihad in South Sudan (Sudan Tribune, December 5, 2012).

The fallout from the alleged coup attempt has even reached various research centers, cultural centers and NGO’s active in Khartoum that are now alleged to be engaged in actions “prejudicial to national security” financed by foreign sources. Prominent among these are institutions receiving funds from the American National Endowment for Democracy, whose financing originates with the U.S. State Department The pro-government newspaper Akhir Lahzah reported in its Sunday’s edition that the authorities would launch a broad campaign against a number of “research centers, and those labeled cultural centers” (Akhir Lahzah [Khartoum], December 22, 2012; Sudan Tribune, December 29, 2012; Reuters, December 31, 2012).   Dr. Nafi recently criticized American NGOs for their alleged contacts with rebel forces in Sudan, claiming that three American Jewish organizations had held meetings with the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) to identify ways in which they could help the rebels overthrow the Khartoum government (Citizen [Khartoum], December 23, 2012).

A statement from al-Mahdi’s religious followers, al-Ansar, saw a more nefarious intent behind the security crackdown: “We doubt there was a coup attempt to begin with, and we believe it was an attempt to liquidate rivals and a move aimed at pre-empting dissent from the disgruntled youth of the Islamist movement” (Sudan Tribune, December 4, 2012). The post-coup crackdown seems to have had little success in restraining the growing number of calls for political reform and changes to the leadership. Al-Turabi’s PCP called for the president to step down, citing the government’s claim that Sadiq al-Mahdi and the National Umma Party were behind the coup attempt as “the last card” of a desperate regime (The Citizen [Khartoum], December 4, 2012).

The regime has also been embarrassed by the late December release on jihadi websites of video footage of the June 2010 escape by tunnel from Sudan’s most secure prison of four Islamist militants sentenced to death for the 2008 murder of a U.S. Agency for International Development official and his Sudanese driver (GIMF/al-Hijratain Media, Ansar1.info, December 28, 2012). [2] Apparently inspired by the similar escape of al-Qaeda militants from a Yemeni prison in February 2006, the chained convicts were apparently able to dig a 38 meter tunnel to freedom without interference from prison staff. [3]

Economic pressures in the wake of South Sudan’s separation are fueling growing discontent with the Khartoum government. Oil revenues have declined steeply, inflation is at over 40%, food supplies are soaring in price, professionals are fleeing the country and currency reserves are drying up. Khartoum continues to devote much of its spending to the repression of various uprisings in parts of the country.

Iranian Ships in Port Sudan

In the early hours of October 24, 2012, the Yarmuk small-arms factory in a southern suburb of Khartoum was attacked by Israeli fighter jets in what appeared to be a relatively risk-free practice run for an Israeli airstrike on Iranian targets. Israel has justified previous attacks on Eastern Sudan by claiming Iran ships arms through Sudan to Gaza, though even a basic knowledge of the distances involved, the exposed, waterless terrain and the fact that such overland shipments would require bypassing tight Egyptian border controls before crossing through several restricted military zones on the Egyptian Red Sea coast suggest that such claims have no basis in reality. [4] There are now claims from Israel that the Yarmuk arms factory was controlled by Iranian Revolutionary Guards and was engaged in producing arms for Hamas that were then shipped by the improbable overland route through Egypt to Gaza. Though new Egyptian president has adopted a more supportive stance towards Gaza than his predecessor, the overland arms route is alleged to have existed through several years of the Mubarak regime, which had no interest in arming the Gaza militants.

In the aftermath of the Yarmuk attack, the Sudanese Foreign Ministry said production at the factory had no connection to Iran, describing Israel as “an outlaw state… trying its best to pass fabricated information through different sources that have a link with Israel” (AFP, November 27, 2012; al-Arabiya/AFP, October 30, 2012). Opposition parties pointed out that the ease with which the Israelis were able to strike the capital confirmed Sudan’s military capacity was dedicated to the suppression of opposition movements rather than the defense of the nation (Sudan Tribune, October 30, 2012).

In light of the Israeli accusations, a visit to Port Sudan on October 28 by Iran’s “22nd Fleet” generated further speculation over the nature of relations between Tehran and Khartoum. Consisting of the supply ship Kharg (with three antiquated Sea King helicopters) and the Admiral Naghdi corvette (launched in 1964), the 22nd Fleet docked in Port Sudan after carrying out anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and the Mandab Strait. After three days in port the Iranian ships left on October 31 (Suna Online [Khartoum], October 31, 2012; Mehr News Agency [Tehran], December 9). Though uneventful, the visit was heavily criticized in the Saudi Arabian media as a threat to regional security and a danger to Sudan’s relations with Gulf countries. The Iranian ambassador to Khartoum rejected assertions from Tel Aviv that the mission of the Iranian ships was to offload containers of weapons intended for Hamas, pointing out that the ships were open to the public on all three days of their visit to Port Sudan (al-Watan [Khartoum], November 1, 2012).

Sudanese Foreign Minister Ali Karti, who has opposed greater cooperation with Iran on the grounds it would come at the expense of good relations with Arab Gulf countries, later revealed that his recommendation to reject a visit by Iranian ships in February, 2012 was accepted and acted on by the government, but the attack on the Yarmuk defense factory appeared to have produced a dramatic reversal in this policy (Sudan Tribune, November 27, 2012).

A second Iranian visit to Port Sudan came from the 23rd Fleet on December 8, though Sudanese officials maintained the visit was pre-planned and routine. The detachment included the supply ship Bushehr and the guided missile frigate Jamaran, the domestically-built pride of the Iranian Navy (though described inaccurately by Iran as a destroyer). Sudanese naval commander Abdallah Matari took the occasion to urge expanded Iranian-Sudanese military cooperation (Fars News Agency [Tehran], December 8, 2012).

The Sudanese Foreign Ministry insisted the visit was pre-planned and not intended as a reaction to the Israeli airstrike on Khartoum, though some Sudanese questioned the wisdom of allowing a second Iranian naval visit so shortly after the controversy generated by the first visit (Sudan Tribune, December 5, 2012; al-Ayam [Khartoum], December 10, 2012). Foreign Minister Ali Ahmad Karti confirmed divisions within the regime over Khartoum’s apparently growing relations with Iran when he revealed he had not been informed of the arrival of the two Iranian warships, saying he would have opposed the visit if he had been aware of it (al-Sudani [Khartoum], November 4, 2012; Sudan Tribune, November 4; The Citizen [Khartoum], November 5, 2012).

Since 2008, the Iranian Navy has been expanding its presence in the region through anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, deployments to the Indian Ocean and the dispatch of two ships through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean in February 2011. Taking his inspiration from remarks made by the Supreme Leader of Iran, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the commander of the Iranian Navy, Rear-Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, has described the role of a “Strategic Navy” in securing Iranian waters, protecting Iranian shipping in international waters and projecting influence abroad (Vision of the Islamic Republic of Iran Network 1, November 29, 2012). Sayyari has emphasized Iran’s growing regional importance, noting that the Islamic Republic was now “a decision-maker in South Asia” that has reached a point where “no world power can ignore its influence in the region” (Fars News Agency [Tehran], December 12, 2012). Admiral Sayyari has elsewhere responded to alarmist news reports of the Iranian Navy’s activities by insisting that access to international waters belongs to all the people of the globe (IRNA, December 3, 2012). According to a major pan-Arab daily, Tehran offered Khartoum an alliance designed to “protect the Red Sea,” but Foreign Minister Ali Karti denied any knowledge of such a proposal (al-Hayat, November 2, 2012; Sudan Tribune, December 13, 2012). Karti is alleged to have opposed the alliance at a heated meeting of the NCP’s foreign relations committee.

Nevertheless, in defending the two visits by Iranian warships as “routine,” Karti claimed that American warships had made a similar stop in Port Sudan in November (Sudan Tribune, December 5, 2012). However, the Foreign Minister’s claim was challenged by U.S. Navy spokesmen, who insisted they “didn’t have any record” of American ships visiting the Sudan in November (Sudan Tribune, December 6, 2012).

A spokesman for the Darfur-based rebel Justice and Equality Movement (always eager to embarrass the regime) claimed that Khartoum and Sudan had discussed a deal to build an Iranian naval base, a base that some Israeli journalists fancifully maintain already exists in Sudan, allegedly employing hundreds of Iranian Revolutionary Guards offloading arms shipments for Hamas from Iranian cargo ships with to Iranian-run warehouses (Hurriyat [Khartoum], December 11, 2012; al-Rakoba [Khartoum], December 9, 2012, December 11, 2012; Yedi’ot Aharonot [Tel Aviv], October 25, 2012). The alleged Revolutionary Guards’ base in Port Sudan presumably cooperates with other phantom Iranian naval bases claimed to be in Eritrea. [5] Following the allegations, Sudanese foreign ministry undersecretary Rahmatallah Uthman asserted that Khartoum has a policy of not allowing foreign military bases on its soil, adding that Iran was “no exception” (The Citizen [Khartoum], December 10, 2012).

Israeli businessman are engaged in establishing an economic base in newly independent South Sudan, another point of contention with Khartoum, which has no desire to see Israeli influence grow in a neighboring nation, particularly one still as closely tied to (north) Sudan as South Sudan. Israel has a long but covert relationship with South Sudan, having begun providing military training to South Sudanese insurgents shortly after the nation gained independence in 1956.


If the alleged coup is grounded in fact, it would not be the first attempt to overthrow al-Bashir in the 24 year history of his regime and possibly not the last. It is the first, however, to be mounted by figures so close to the president and until now considered to be among the pillars of the regime.  Democracy has never quite taken hold in Sudanese society, which remains afflicted with a tendency for certain individuals to decide it is they alone who have the answer to Sudan’s complex problems. The nation is in dire need of financial assistance but recent efforts to obtain financial aid from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have been unsuccessful. Iran is also suffering financially from economic sanctions against it, but a demonstration by Khartoum that it is considering closer ties to the Islamic state (such as hosting Iranian warships) may be one way of putting pressure on the Sunni states of the Gulf to reconsider their position. Khartoum is also in need of military assistance, having blown its chance to make significant upgrades to its military by indulging in a corrupt procurement process. China once seemed a promising partner in this regard, but the separation of the South Sudan now means that Beijing must maintain cordial ties with both north and south Sudan to ensure the continued flow of oil from Chinese owned wells in the south to the export terminal in the north. The Iranian dalliance is a dangerous gambit, however, as it poses both internal and external risks that may be greater than the possible benefits from a closer alliance with the Islamic state.

After 24 years of Islamist/military rule in Khartoum, the secular and non-Islamist opposition has been effectively marginalized, but emerging divisions within the Islamist camp will make it more difficult for the regime to resist the armed groups that threaten to tear the remaining state apart. A divided security structure also presents opportunities for Salafist-Jihadist cells (such as the one dismantled in Dinder National Park in December) to exploit the situation to their advantage. For the moment, the likelihood of a democratic succession in the Sudan appears increasingly remote

Andrew McGregor is the Director of Aberfoyle International Security, a Toronto-based agency specializing in security issues in the Islamic world.


1. For the raid on Omdurman, see Andrew McGregor, “Darfur’s JEM Rebels Bring the War to Khartoum,” Terrorism Monitor, May 15, 2008) http://www.jamestown.org/terrorism/news/article.php?articleid=2374172 and Andrew McGregor, “Traitors or POWs? Khartoum Sentences JEM Rebels to Death,” Terrorism Focus, August 6, 2008, http://www.jamestown.org/programs/gta/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=5105&tx_ttnews[backPid]=246&no_cache=1

2. For the trial of the assassins, see Andrew McGregor, “Alleged Assassins of U.S. Diplomat Claim Khartoum Regime Incites People to Jihad,Terrorism Focus, February 6, 2009, http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=34508

3. For the “Great Escape” in Yemen, see Andrew McGregor, “Al-Qaeda’s Great Escape in Yemen,” Terrorism Focus 3(5), February 7, 2006, http://jamestown.org/terrorism/news/article.php?articleid=2369888 and Andrew McGregor, “Yemen Convicts PSO Members Involved in February’s Great Escape,” Terrorism Focus 3(29), July 25, 2006, http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=847

4. See Andrew McGregor, “Strange Days on the Red Sea Coast: A New Theater for the Iran-Israel Conflict?” Terrorism Monitor 7(8), April 3, 2009 http://www.jamestown.org/programs/gta/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=34807&tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D=412&no_cache=1

5. For Eritrean reaction to such claims, see “Eritrea: Phantom Israeli and Iranian Military Bases,” Eritrean Centre for Strategic Studies, December 27, 2012, http://www.capitaleritrea.com/eritrea-phantom-israeli-and-iranian-military-bases/

Sudanese Security Forces Raid Islamist Training Camp

Andrew McGregor

December 14, 2012

A raid earlier this month on what was described as a Salafi-Jihadist training camp in a remote part of Sudan’s Dinder National Park indicated Sudan’s growing vulnerability to armed Salafist groups ready to take advantage of the Sudan’s deteriorating political conditions.

dinderDinder National Park

Sudanese sources say 13 individuals were killed and 24 arrested after an eight-hour gun battle in Dinder while others suspects managed to flee into the bush (Sudan Tribune, December 1, 2012; December 3, 2012). Dinder is a massive national park in Sinnar Province (eastern Sudan), roughly 400 km southeast of Khartoum.

Authorities were first alerted to the presence of the militants in October when the latter attacked wildlife police at the Galgu post in Dinder and seized their weapons. The attack was initially believed to have been the work of poachers, but authorities later determined it was the work of Islamist militants running a training camp in Dinder for would-be jihadists bound for Somalia or Mali (Sudan Tribune, December 1, 2012).

Sudanese authorities said the suspects belonged to a “Salafist-Jihadist group” and would face charges of murder, incitement and the formation of a criminal network. The detainees were described as university students between the ages of 19 to 25 who were supplied from Khartoum (Sudan Tribune, December 3, 2012). Despite being an imported ideology in the Sudanese context, Salafism has made significant inroads in Sudan’s universities and has steadily gathered more adherents in the larger community, particularly in the capital. Authorities in Sinnar Province said the takfiri group had no known links to al-Qaeda (Akhir Lahza [Khartoum], December 4, 2012).  Ahmad Abbas, the governor of Sinnar, said the leader of the group was a chemistry professor, though he declined to name him (Blue Nile TV, December 3, 2012). There was speculation that two young men who tried to attack a prominent Sufi shaykh in Khartoum on December 9 were tied to the Dinder Park extremists (al-Sudani [Khartoum], December 10, 2012).

The raid came only days after Khartoum again requested that Sudan be removed from a U.S. list of states sponsoring terrorism, though Washington has been largely unsympathetic to such efforts so far. When South Sudan separated, Khartoum lost most of the oil wealth that once allowed it to ride out U.S. financial sanctions, leaving the regime in Khartoum desperate to find some means of rescuing its faltering economy in the face of growing public dissatisfaction. Though counter-terrorist raids might help restore relations with the United States, Khartoum’s increased military cooperation with Iran works against such restoration.

This article originally appeared in the Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor

Sudanese Islamist Hassan al-Turabi Predicts Islamic Government Will Replace Military Regime

Andrew McGregor

November 15, 2012

al-turabi 2Dr. Hassan Abdullah al-Turabi

In a recent interview with a pan-Arab daily, Dr. Hassan Abdullah al-Turabi, the former leader of the Sudanese Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) and the nation’s leading Islamist, predicted the sudden and imminent collapse of Sudan’s current military/Islamist regime and its replacement with an Islamist government:

My personal assessment is that [the regime in Khartoum] is going to collapse and fall. The country is torn up, there are threats of severing other parts of it, and there is no freedom. Suppression leads to explosion, and the economic crisis is exerting severe pressure on the people. This kind of tension in most cases brings in revolution. The situation of the regime is very bad; it is abject, hunted down, politically isolated, and criminally accused by the world; and internally it is as you can see. I expect it to collapse suddenly… I beseech God that the opposition is prepared, because if the regime collapses, we will move from an odious regime to chaos, and the situation will be worse than it is in Somalia, because of the lack of something that unites the Sudanese (al-Sharq al-Awsat, November 1, 2012).

Al-Turabi is the Sorbonne-educated pioneer of modern political Islam in the Sudan and the former sponsor of Osama bin Laden’s presence in that country in the 1990s. Today, he is the leader of the People’s Congress Party (PCP), an Islamist faction that broke away from the ruling National Congress Party (NCP), headed by President Field Marshal Omar al-Bashir (wanted by the International Criminal Court) and effectively managed by al-Turabi’s former Ikhwan deputy, Ali Osman Muhammad Taha.

One of Sudan’s most controversial political figures, al-Turabi is disliked by many Sudanese for his central role in introducing Islamic law in Sudan in the early 1980s as Attorney General in the government of dictator General Ja’afar Nimieri. Turabi’s Islamic legal code, the notorious “September Laws,” were strongly criticized within Sudan for their emphasis on punishments such as amputations and crucifixions and their failure to address issues of social justice, the establishment of which is generally regarded as a necessary precursor to the implementation of harsh huduud punishments. Al-Turabi’s push for nation-wide Shari’a is often cited as one of the main causes behind the Sudan’s return to civil war in 1983, a conflict in which over two million Sudanese perished.

Al-Turabi also revealed he fears he is the potential target of a Western assassination attempt. “The West hated Islam and hence it killed Bin Laden and it only has al-Turabi [left] now. They have hit me in Canada, but it was not yet my time of death” said al-Turabi, referring to a 1992 assault on the Islamist by a Sudanese karate champion in an Ottawa airport that left al-Turabi hospitalized for a month. Though his attacker claimed the assault was a spontaneous reaction to seeing the Islamist leader in the airport, al-Turabi now seems to have woven the attack into a larger Western conspiracy to eliminate him.

The Sudanese Islamic Movement split in 1999, leading to the existence of two wings, the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and al-Turabi’s Popular Congress Party (PCP). Since the split, al-Turabi has had a contentious relationship with the regime, leading to several terms of imprisonment, most notably in 2009, when al-Turabi supported the ICC indictment of President Omar al-Bashir on war crimes charges.

According to al-Turabi, the Sudanese opposition has agreed that this regime is hopeless, and we have to work to remove it completely. Now, our priority is to overthrow the regime, and our methods are peaceful. We have learned a lesson from the military coups d’état, as whoever stages a coup d’état [finds] it is turned against him” (al-Hayat, October 19, 2012).

Elsewhere, al-Turabi has maintained that of Sudan’s opposition groups, only the Islamists have the organization and grassroots support needed to take power in the aftermath of an impending popular revolution (al-Jazeera, October 14, 2012). Reflecting on the 1989 coup that brought Omar al-Bashir into power with the support of al-Turabi and the Ikhwan, the Islamist leader concedes that “with hindsight we have said: ‘This was wrong, wrong;’ change ought to have happened through a popular revolution.” Al Turabi’s enthusiasm for a popular revolution in Sudan is not shared by all the opposition elite; former prime minister and leader of the Umma Party Sadiq al-Mahdi has warned that such a revolution would lead to the breakup of what remains of the country (Sudan Tribune, October 15, 2012).

While al-Turabi foresees an Islamist takeover in Sudan, the ruling NCP is busy replacing Sudan’s transitional 2005 constitution with one that would establish Sudan as an Islamic state, a change promised by al-Bashir in the event that the largely non-Muslim South Sudan voted for separation. The opposition has refused to partake in talks regarding the creation of an Islamic constitution until the NCP is replaced by a more representative transitional government, but the NCP has warned it “doesn’t want any disagreement” over the issue (Sudan Tribune, October 31, 2012).

This article was originally published in the Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor

Border Clashes Shut Down Oil Production as the Two Sudans Prepare for New Round of War

Andrew McGregor

April 19, 2012

In response to South Sudan’s surprise occupation of its northern neighbor’s most productive oilfields, Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir announced on April 12 that South Sudan had “chosen the path of war” (Sudan Tribune, April 12).

Heglig MapWith the support of the United States, South Sudan declared its independence in July 2011 without having first reached an agreement with Khartoum on vital issues such as oil revenues, transfer fees and border demarcation. Juba’s occupation of the Heglig field goes well beyond applying pressure on Khartoum; it deprives its northern neighbor of revenues, foreign currency reserves and fuel. It also places an already unpopular regime in a corner from which it may feel it necessary to return to a state of war for its own survival. Khartoum might be able to buy peace with Juba and the return of Heglig by looking favorably on Southern claims in other border disputes, but this would be a humiliating response by a military/Islamist regime that cannot afford to show any weakness. In the meantime, the Sudanese pound is rapidly dropping in real value and lineups for petroleum products are growing longer by the day.  However, South Sudan, which possesses no refineries, is also suffering a rapid decline in the value of its currency and is running short of hard-currency reserves needed to purchase refined petroleum products, much of these reserves having already been spent on Juba’s massive re-armament program and expansion of its military.

Chinese-made APCs in Mombasa Port awaiting shipment to South Sudan

The South Sudan maintains that Heglig was part of the southern region according to administrative divisions existing at the time of independence in 1956 and now appears to be rejecting a 2009 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague that Heglig lies inside the northern Sudan rather than the South. The Heglig oil fields, which are in gradual decline but still provide over half of Sudan’s remaining oil production, are operated by the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Co. (GNPOC), a Chinese, Malaysian, Indian and Sudanese consortium. China, a major arms supplier for Khartoum, is reported to be shipping arms and other equipment to South Sudan through the Kenyan port of Mombasa (Nairobi Star, April 8).

The occupation of Heglig is the latest stage in a growing battle over Sudan’s oil wealth. Khartoum lost roughly 75%of its oil production with the separation of the South Sudan, where most of the oil is found. However, the only outlet for this oil is via pipeline through the north to Port Sudan, which gave Khartoum the idea of replacing its lost revenues by charging transfer fees of $36 per barrel rather than the going international rate of $1 per barrel as well as siphoning off significant amounts of southern oil for its own use. Juba turned off the taps in January in protest even though oil exports account for 98% of South Sudan’s budget (see Terrorism Monitor, March 22). Khartoum has not backed down on the transfer fees, so Juba has apparently decided that if South Sudan must do without oil, so must Sudan.

South Sudan’s information minister has indicated a withdrawal of Khartoum’s forces from the disputed Abyei region would be among the conditions required for a South Sudanese pullout from Heglig (al-Jazeera, April 12; for Abyei see Terrorism Monitor Brief, May 27, 2011). On March 15, South Sudan President Salva Kiir told an audience in Wau that border demarcation cannot begin until Khartoum acknowledges the Abyei region belongs to South Sudan. [1] President Kiir has been unresponsive to international pleas to pull his forces back, complaining that he has been unable to sleep because of telephone calls from international leaders: “The UN secretary-general [called] yesterday; he gave me an order… to immediately withdraw from Heglig. I said, “I’m not under your command” (al-Jazeera, April 12; Sudan Tribune, April 12).

The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) maintains their advance into Heglig came in response to an incursion into the oilfields of South Sudan’s Unity State with two brigades of Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) regulars, 16 tanks and various pro-Khartoum militias. The SAF were defeated by the SPLA’s 4th Division under General James Gatduel Gatluak and pursued as far as Heglig, where they have remained (Sudan Tribune, April 11). Sudanese forces are reported to be moving on Heglig gradually, with SAF spokesmen citing delays caused by mines laid by South Sudanese troops (Sudan Tribune, April 15).  

Sudan’s military maintains that the SPLA were joined in the April 10 attack on Heglig by fighters belonging to Darfur’s Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). An AFP reporter said they had observed dead bodies in Heglig bearing JEM insignia and two destroyed land cruisers with JEM emblems. JEM denied the allegations, providing the unlikely suggestion that the SAF may have dressed their own dead in JEM uniforms (AFP, March 28). In June, 2011 the Darfur-based rebels claimed to have carried out a long-distance raid on the Heglig Airport.

The SPLA claims to have shot down one of Khartoum’s Russian-built Mig-29 fighter jets during an April 6 air raid in the Heglig region, though this was denied by an SAF spokesman (al-Jazeera, April 6). According to South Sudanese intelligence and other sources, Mig-29 air strikes targeted a strategic bridge in Abiem-nhom County in Unity State, a target at Ajakkuac in Warrap State and the main bridge in Bentiu (capital of Unity State), killing five people and wounding five others (Sudan Tribune, April 11; April 14; April 15). The SPLA does not yet possess a combat-capable air force, but is believed to have plans to develop an air arm for their military.

Sudan’s defense minister, Abd al-Rahim Muhammad Hussein, says the SPLA offensive is part of a cooperative effort with components of the recently formed Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) to occupy Heglig and the South Kordofan capital of Kadugli (Sudan Tribune, April 11; for the SRF, see Terrorism Monitor, November 11, 2011). The SRF includes JEM and the SPLA-North, which operates in Sudan’s South Kordofan and Blue Nile States. Hussein said SPLA-North forces in South Kordofan consist of 22 battalions of 500 men each, while JEM and Darfur’s Sudan Liberation Movement – Minni Minnawi (SLM-MM) have a combined 125 Land Cruisers across the South Sudan border in Bahr al-Ghazal preparing to launch cross-border attacks (Sudan Tribune, April 11). While the deployment of large numbers of Darfur rebels in the border region of South Sudan cannot be confirmed, it is consistent with Khartoum’s claims of greater cooperation between the rebels and the SPLA over the last year. If JEM actually was involved in the attack on Heglig, it would be the first sign that the SRF alliance was becoming a military reality with the support of Juba.


1. “The Crisis in Abyei,” The Sudan Human Security Baseline Assessment Project, Small Arms Survey, March 28, 2012, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/facts-figures-abyei.php

This article was first published in the April 19, 2012 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

The Strange Death of Dr. Khalil Ibrahim and the Future of the Darfur Insurgency

Andrew McGregor

February 10, 2012

Khartoum scored a major victory in its nearly nine-year-old conflict with Darfur rebels with the December 24 killing of Dr. Khalil Ibrahim, leader of Darfur’s Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), the best armed and most organized of the Darfur rebel groups. Khalil rose to the top of Sudan’s most-wanted list after his fighters made an audacious cross-country raid on Khartoum/Omdurman, bringing Sudan’s civil war to the national capital for the first time. Though the raid was repulsed in the streets of Omdurman, the bold attack and the military’s failure to rally to the regime left the government badly shaken. [1]