The Return of Ricin Fever – Discovery in Durham Raises New Fears

Andrew McGregor

June 18, 2009

Though it has never been used in a terrorist attack, the supposed usefulness of the deadly poison ricin in such operations continues to generate headlines and terrorism charges, the latest coming in Durham County, England.

Ricin Duham 1The Alleged Ricin Laboratory in Burnopfield

Dubious reports of ricin experiments conducted by Ansar al-Islam in northern Iraq in 2002 were followed by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s assertions to the U.N. Security Council in February 2003 that an al-Qaeda laboratory in Georgia was creating ricin-based weapons under the direction of the late leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The uneducated Zarqawi was given credit for doing in a rude shed what a number of well-funded and sophisticated Western weapons laboratories were unable to do in years of effort – weaponize ricin.

Since the poison cannot be absorbed by the skin, it is necessary to have victims either ingest or inhale the ricin. Since only the latter would be practical for a weapon, numerous attempts were made by weapons laboratories in the 20th century to aerosolize ricin, all meeting with disappointing results. Once Sarin gas and other nerve agents became available, further research into the use of ricin as a weapon was abandoned (apparently except for a KGB lab that developed a complex means of surreptitiously injecting ricin into a victim’s bloodstream – used only once on Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov in London in 1978).

A 41-year-old lorry driver and his 18-year-old milkman son were arrested under the UK’s Terrorism Act 2000 after June 2 raids on their homes in the Durham County villages of Burnopfield and Annfield Plain (Independent, June 5). Tests in a government laboratory in Edinburgh revealed traces of ricin in a sealed, airtight jam jar kept in a kitchen cupboard. The material was sent for further tests at the Ministry of Defence establishment in Porton Down. Police assured the public that “no one is believed to have been exposed to the substance or be at risk of any potential ill-effects. We do not believe that there is any risk to public health” (Independent, June 5). According to Durham’s assistant chief constable, “This shows that the terrorist threat in the UK is real” (Times, June 6).

The London tabloid Daily Express reported that the traces of ricin in the jam jar were “intended for use as part of a biological weapon against blacks and Asians” (Daily Express, June 6). The tabloid failed to mention that no such weapon yet exists, nor did it suggest how the suspects, of limited means and education, were to develop such a weapon. Nevertheless, the “biological weapon” was being reported the next day in India under the headline, “UK poison plot against Asians, blacks, busted” (Times of India, June 7).

Britain’s Independent linked the poison to al-Qaeda without mentioning the fascination right-wing extremists have with ricin, surely more relevant in the case of two alleged white supremacists. To underscore the alleged threat, the newspaper stated ricin as the agent used in the March 1995 attack on the Tokyo subway by the Aum cult that left 12 dead, when in fact the agent was Sarin gas (Independent, June 5).

Ricin Durham 2The 18-year-old suspect, Nicky Davison, was charged with possessing information useful to committing a terrorist act on June 9 and released on bail (BBC, June 9). The manual police described as containing information and instructions on the use or production of firearms, explosives and chemicals was a volume of The Poor Man’s James Bond, a four volume work by Kurt Saxon directed at American survivalists and militia members. First published in the 1970s, the volumes describe how to manufacture weapons, set booby traps, make explosives and develop poisons, including ricin. Davison has been charged with disseminating the work, though it is easily available from book-retailing websites and right-wing extremist sites alike (Northern Echo [Darlington], June 13).

Earlier this month a small pile of white powder found on a table near the ROTC office at Utah’s Salt Lake University caused a small panic due to fears it may have been ricin. Over 200 people were ordered out of the building while National Guard units and Hazmat crews tested for ricin. The powder was also tested for anthrax, radioactivity and various biological viruses, all coming up negative.  Early reports indicated the two teaspoons of powder looked similar to baby formula ( [Salt Lake City], June 4; Salt Lake Tribune, June 4; Deseret News [Salt Lake City], June 13).

And in Washington State a man has been charged with trying to poison his wife with ricin after traces were found in her urine. The suspect explained to police he had bought the ricin to exterminate moles in the family yard (UPI, June 9). Though newspapers are often fond of noting ricin is 6,000 times more poisonous than cyanide, most internet recipes for homemade ricin from castor beans produce, at best, a highly diluted concentration of ricin that would need to be consumed in large amounts to create a fatal dose.

This article first appeared in the June 18, 2009 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Leeds Man Convicted of Possessing Terrorism Manual Published by U.S. Department of Justice


Andrew McGregor

March 25, 2008

34-year-old Khalid Khaliq, a resident of Beeston, Leeds (UK), confessed in court to owning a copy of I’alan al-Jihad ‘ala al-Tawaghit al-Bilad (Declaration of Jihad against the Country’s Tyrants), a 180-page training manual copied to CD format. The document was seized in a 2005 raid on the suspect’s home. Khaliq was charged under the Terrorism Act of 2000 with possessing “a document or record containing information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism” (Daily Telegraph, March 16). Khaliq indicated the document had been downloaded from an internet website, but claimed it had been brought into his house by an unnamed friend and that he had not looked at it (Daily Mail, March 11; Independent, March 11). After conviction, Khaliq, an associate of London’s “7/7” bombers, was sentenced to 16 months in prison.

The handwritten Arabic language manual was first seized in an MI5 raid on an abandoned flat in Manchester in 2000. MI5 translated the document and supplied a copy to U.S. officials for use in a terrorism-related trial in 2001. After being used in evidence the manual was declassified and released to the public by the New York Southern District Court under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (Daily Mail, March 15).

The document contains information on weapons, assassination methods, torture techniques, the use of safe houses, security measures, behavior in prison, communications, transportation, poisons, counter-interrogation techniques, use of counterfeit currency and forged documents, and overt and covert methods of information-gathering. Only the chapter on bomb-making was withheld from publication on the Department of Justice website. Some of the manual’s information appears to have been clipped from American militia movement publications.

According to the manual’s preamble: “The confrontation that we are calling for with the apostate regimes does not know Socratic debates, Platonic ideals, nor Aristotelian diplomacy. But it knows the dialogue of bullets, the ideals of assassination, bombing, and destruction, and the diplomacy of the cannon and machine-gun.” ( ).

Judge James Stewart of the Leeds court declared the U.S. Justice Department’s decision to publish the document on the internet “extraordinary” and “not something that would be done in this country” (Daily Mail, March 11).

This article first appeared in the March 25, 2008 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus

Expelling the Infidel: An Historical Look at Somali Resistance to Ethiopia

Andrew McGregor

February 21, 2007

The U.S.-supported Ethiopian invasion of Somalia has an unsettling resemblance to the British-supported Ethiopian incursions in the early years of the 20th century. In both cases, the Western powers became involved because of perceived strategic considerations, while their proxy, Ethiopia, went to war as a result of Somali resistance to Ethiopian domination of the ethnic-Somali Ogaden region. Last December’s invasion succeeded in bringing the Ethiopia-friendly Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmad to power in Mogadishu. Although the Islamists have been dispersed for the moment, there are signs that a guerrilla campaign is in the making.

Sayyid Muhammad 1Sayyid Muhammad ‘Abdullah Hassan

Like the late 20th century, the late 19th century witnessed an international Islamic revival, spurred in part by the military occupation and economic domination of Muslim nations by the Western world. The Egyptian withdrawal from its short-lived occupation of the Somali coast in the 1880s and the failure of the Ottoman Empire to press its claims on the region opened the region to the advances of Britain, Italy, France and Ethiopia. In Somalia, there was a rare shift in public affairs as religious leaders became involved in traditionally secular Somali politics, using their unique position to transcend traditional clan divisions. The most notable of these leaders was Sayyid Muhammad ‘Abdullah Hassan, who led his “dervishes” in a 21-year struggle against foreign domination.

Introducing Political Islam

As a young man in Mecca, Muhammad adopted the austere teachings of the Salihiya sect of Islam. Like today’s Somali Islamists, Muhammad rejected foreign influence and enforced the strict observance of Islamic law. The uses of alcohol and tobacco were forbidden, as was the use of Qat, a narcotic leaf widely consumed in Somalia. In Somalia’s devastated economy, the Qat trade continues to be one of the most reliable ways for entrepreneurs to make money. The prohibition of the trade by the Islamic Courts Union damaged local support for these modern Islamists only weeks before the Ethiopian invasion (Terrorism Focus, November 28, 2006). Sayyid Muhammad was a harsh critic of Somalia’s dominant (but relatively tolerant) Qadiri Sufi order, who in turn called the renegade holy man “the Mad Mullah,” the name by which he is best known to history.

Like many modern Islamist leaders in Somalia, Muhammad cut his teeth as a political militant in the Ogaden region, preaching resistance to the Christian Ethiopians who were steadily occupying the area. One of Muhammad’s greatest strengths was his mastery of oral poetry, a powerful social and political tool in Somalia, where a man could be ruined by an effective attack in verse or a tribe brought to war by skillful alliteration. At first, the British imperialists who occupied his native northwestern Somalia tolerated Muhammad’s preaching, believing that adherence to Sharia law would help bring order to the wild tribesmen of the interior. It was not long, however, before Muhammad turned his attention to the British because of their support for Ethiopia. By 1899, he had broken with British rule and enraged the Ethiopians with a ferocious but ultimately unsuccessful attack on their forces in the Ogaden. With Britain’s colonial army forced to concentrate on the concurrent war in South Africa, British authorities invited Ethiopia to join the campaign against this troublesome preacher.

Sayyid Muhammad grew concerned that the Ethiopian and Western Christians sought to destroy Islam in Somalia, a fear shared by Somalia’s modern Islamists. In the period 1901-1904, the dervishes repulsed four Anglo-Ethiopian expeditions, although their own losses were often severe. Sayyid Muhammad’s stern and often ruthless measures in dealing with rivals cost him the opportunity of uniting the Somalis against foreign rule.

Somalia’s social structure is also a major obstacle in the development of a unifying Islamist cause. Muhammad never quite succeeded in overcoming the reluctance of Somalia’s many clans and subsections to join a movement that was not directly devoted to enriching or empowering their own group. Military success brought supporters, while failure led to desertions. The problem persists to this day, accounting in large part for the quick collapse of the Islamic Courts Union when an Ethiopian victory became obvious in December.

The Ethiopian and British Campaigns

The first Ethiopian campaign against Muhammad was a disaster. A massive army of 14,000 men chased the dervishes around the near-waterless Ogaden in 1901, its numbers shrinking daily from heat, hunger, thirst and disease. With typical Somali fractiousness, some Ogaden Somalis accompanied the Ethiopian forces against their would-be liberator. To the British authorities, the lesson was obvious, and it was decided in typical colonial fashion that Somalis must fight Somalis. Thousands of tribesmen were recruited under Indian NCOs and British officers to destroy Muhammad’s army. Similarly, the United States engaged Somali warlords under the guise of the “Anti-Terrorist Coalition” to depose of the Islamists last summer. The strategy was a complete failure, with the warlords being driven from most of the country.

A second Ethiopian expedition to the Ogaden in 1903 killed only a few of Muhammad’s men, while suffering terrible losses of their own from lack of food and water. In familiar language, the dervishes were at one point characterized as “terrorist thugs,” and joint British/Ethiopian campaigns continued until the devastating loss of 7,000 dervishes at the 1904 battle of Jidbaale. During these four campaigns, Ethiopian troops were accompanied by British advisers. There are reports that British SAS units are now acting as advisers to Kenyan border forces in an effort to trap fleeing Islamists (Sunday Times, January 14).

sayyid muhammad 2After the defeat at Jidbaale, Sayyid Muhammad agreed to settle peacefully in Italian Somaliland, but within months he and his followers were again raiding the Ogaden and British territory in an attempt to drive out the “infidels.” Ethiopia had dropped out of the fighting, leaving Britain to carry on alone. Today, there is a danger of U.S. forces meeting the same fate, as Ethiopia is seeking only a brief occupation and most African Union states (except for Uganda) are very reluctant to commit peacekeepers to a conflict they view as intractable. As Under Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1908, Winston Churchill pointed out the enormous expense involved in holding this deeply impoverished wilderness and the unlikelihood of British-led Indian and Somali troops ever providing security in the interior. Churchill suggested withdrawing to the coast and leaving the barren interior to the dervishes. It was two years before this policy was implemented, but the withdrawal did nothing to end the fighting.

A strong blow was dealt to Sayyid Muhammad’s movement when two defectors succeeded in obtaining a letter in 1908 from the leader of the Salihiya movement in Mecca condemning Muhammad as a heretic and an infidel. Despite this, Muhammad’s call for an anti-colonial jihad continued to spread and his quick-moving horsemen dominated the desert wilderness. As the First World War broke out in Europe, fierce fighting continued in Somalia, almost unnoticed by the outside world. The conflict continued as Sayyid Muhammad grew older and ever more corpulent, no longer able to perform the feats of horsemanship for which he was once known, but still able to use his poetic oratory to inspire his dervishes. Sayyid Muhammad’s army was finally broken in a combined infantry and Royal Air Force assault on their fortresses in the Somali desert in 1919. Most resistance collapsed with Muhammad’s death from influenza in 1921.


The dervish war with Britain was a direct result of the empire’s cooperation with Ethiopia, which sought to use British support to solidify their rule of the Ogaden region. Although Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi speaks of the importance of joining the “war on terrorism,” it was threats from the modern Somali Islamists that they intended to “liberate” the Ogaden that brought Ethiopia to war. There are signs that Ethiopia is taking advantage of its occupation to round up members of the Oromo and Ogaden rebel movements (Garowe Online, January 13). Others have been intercepted trying to flee into Kenya (Ethiopian News Agency, January 8).

With growing opposition to his government at home and international criticism of his regime’s human rights abuses, Zenawi has strengthened himself by achieving the inviolable status that comes with being a “vital partner” in the U.S. war on terrorism. His power base in the Tigrean-dominated army has improved through U.S. funding, training, intelligence cooperation and the practical (if limited) experience of mobile warfare gained through the invasion of Somalia. The war is also seen as an antidote to recent defections in the officer corps to the Oromo Liberation Front (an Ethiopian resistance movement). The Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) declared on January 7 that “the ONLF will continue to resist the presence of Ethiopian troops in Ogaden and we shall resist the use of our territory as a logistical and planning center for Ethiopian occupation troops in Somalia” (ONLF Statement on Ethiopian Occupation of Somalia, January 7). With political unrest in his own country, Zenawi cannot spare the best units of his army for long.

Despite an al-Qaeda video released on January 4 urging Muslims to go to Somalia to fight the Ethiopians (“the slaves of America”), there is little indication that any have done so. Somalia has always provided an inhospitable environment to foreign adventurers. Popular support for the Islamists was not an expression of approval by Somalis for international terrorism, and Ethiopian/American suggestions that al-Qaeda fugitives had usurped the leadership of the Somali Islamists seem highly unlikely in light of the traditional patterns of Somali power structures.

The United States, like Britain, often tends to regard militant Islam in any form as “fanaticism,” directed by irrational religious impulses. Too frequently, however, foreign intervention is the fuel that allows political Islam to grow in an otherwise hostile environment. TFG Minister of the Interior Hussein Aideed (a former U.S. Marine) provided the Islamists with a rallying point by urging Somali integration with Ethiopia, including the use of a single passport (Shabelle Media Network, January 7). Sharif Hassan Sheikh Adan, the TFG speaker, does not share President Abdulahi’s pro-Ethiopian position, stating “I believe that the security created by the [Islamic] Courts during their six-month rule cannot be recreated by Ethiopian troops, even if they stay in Somalia for another six years” (Garowe Online, January 13).

Despite their desperate position, Somalia’s Islamists remain defiant: “If the world thinks we are dead, they should know we are alive and will continue the jihad against the infidels in our country” (Shabelle Media Network, January 7). Their words are a modern echo of Sayyid Muhammad’s verse: “And I’ll react against the malice and oppression unleashed upon me, Yes, I am justified to smite, to sweep through the land with terror and fury, And I’ll go out to make the country free of infidel influence” (Quoted in Said S. Samatar: Oral Poetry and Somali Nationalism, Cambridge, 1982, p.192).

This article first appeared in the February 21, 2007 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Subverting the Sultan: British Arms Shipments to the Arabs of Darfur, 1915-16

Dr. Andrew McGregor
June 10, 2006

In recent years the Sudan government has been responsible for pouring weapons into Darfur at a time when territorial and environmental tensions were already high. Rather than encourage and supervise resolutions to these issues the government has chosen to inflame ethnic and racial divisions in the region. The well-known devastation created by this policy has a precedent in British activities in the region in 1915-16 as part of the buildup to the Anglo-Egyptian invasion that brought the independent Sultanate of Darfur under the control of the Khartoum government.

Anglo-Egyptian Rule in the Sudan

Darfur’s independence was first shattered by an invasion led by the powerful slave-trader and freebooter Zubayr Pasha in 1874. Zubayr’s conquest was quickly taken from him by the Turko-Egyptian government,[1] which controlled the rest of the Sudan at the time. The Egyptians in turn were expelled by the forces of the Mahdi, whose Islamic movement took control of most of the country except for a small strip of the Red Sea coast.

Subverting Sultan 1An Embassy from Sultan ‘Ali Dinar to Khartoum, 1907

(Sudan Archives, Durham University)

After the Mahdist government of Sudan was crushed at Omdurman by the British-led Egyptian Army in 1898 a so-called British-Egyptian Condominium government was created to administer the Sudan. Though a partnership in theory, government decisions were made exclusively by the senior partner, the British. Units of Sudanese and Egyptian troops were available to enforce the government’s writ, but the senior officers were all British soldiers on loan to the Egyptian Army. The Governor General of the Sudan was also exclusively British, creating friction with Egyptian nationalists who justifiably questioned the balance of this ‘partnership’. Added to this were civilians of the Sudan Political Service, powerful and independent men who often worked in isolation from other Europeans for long stretches of time. Almost exclusively drawn from Oxford and Cambridge universities, they were fluent in Arabic and expected to make most decisions in the field without having to refer everything to the Governor General in Khartoum. For over five decades this low-cost and, indeed, low-interest, form of administration worked surprisingly well, in large part because of British willingness to apply overwhelming force to any sign of defiance, especially in the early days of the Condominium.

Darfur remained outside the Condominium. It had been intended that it would form part of the Sudan in 1898, but a member of the Fur royal family, ‘Ali Dinar, beat the British back to the capital of al-Fashir after the battle of Omdurman, deposing a British-supported pretender while re-establishing the Fur Kingdom. The British recognized ‘Ali Dinar as sovereign of distant Darfur in exchange for an annual tribute and a nominal acceptance of the Sudan Government as the suzerain power.

Most of the British inspectors were trained in Arab language and culture, and had little sympathy for what they saw as backwards and ignorant Black Africans, regardless of their skills or achievements. For the Fur these achievements were considerable. For three centuries they had ruled a prosperous trading nation with a rich culture, building political unity from a nearly impossible ethnic and linguistic diversity.

Creating Divisions

The Arabs were never enthusiastic about Fur rule, but the centralized authority of the region created a tense but workable relationship between the tribes and the Sultan, who had recourse to a large professional army. Tribute was usually paid, and a degree of order prevailed between African and Arab tribes who might otherwise raid each other to their mutual impoverishment. What had changed by the late 19th century was the encroachment of European imperialists, the French to the West, and the British to the East. The Arab leaders realized that they now had a new card to play by manipulating this presence to their advantage. A similar phenomenon occurred in the Sultanate of Dar Sila on Darfur’s western border, where the nomadic Arab tribes besieged the French with complaints about the ‘African’ Sultan Bakhit. The Sudan government’s relationship with Darfur began to change in 1914, when the British became interested in using the Arabs against the African tribes who dominated Darfur.

The security of the Darfur border region was placed in the hands of one of the Sultan’s most trusted lieutenants, Khalil ‘Abd ar-Rahman. Determined to put an end to the insolence of the Arabs, Khalil pursued an active policy of force against the tribes, creating an incident in 1913 when he attacked a large party of Zaiyadia Arabs fleeing the Sultan’s troops. The attack took place on the Kordofan (Sudanese) side of the border, causing a great deal of anxiety amongst the handful of British administrators who regarded this as a direct challenge to government authority in the region.

The problem was that there was no uniform policy in dealing with the Arab tribes, especially those that routinely crossed the border to seek refuge from the Sultan or the Khartoum government, depending on the circumstances. The generally pro-Arab inspectors were divided on the timing and degree of support to be offered to the Arabs, while the Inspector-General, Rudolf von Slatin Pasha (who knew ‘Ali Dinar from their mutual captivity in Omdurman during the days of the Mahdist government) favoured a conciliatory relationship with the Sultan. Before the Mahdist revolution Slatin had been governor of Darfur in the old Turko-Egyptian regime. Under the Condominium government Slatin was given nearly total control over the nomadic tribes and the appointment of their leaders, mostly men known personally by Slatin and regarded by him as loyal to the government.

With the outbreak of a European war in August 1914, the Austrian-born Slatin was expelled from the Sudan as a security risk despite having been a member of the Egyptian Army since 1879. No European had such intimate knowledge of the peoples of Darfur as Slatin. Tribal policy in the western Sudan now passed into the hands of less-experienced British officials. In November 1914 the Ottoman government declared war on the Allied Powers, followed soon after by a declaration of jihad for all Muslims by Ottoman Sultan Muhammad Rashad V in his role as Caliph of Islam. From this point on a religious dimension emerged in the deteriorating relations between ‘Ali Dinar and the Khartoum government. Governor-General Wingate (an experienced intelligence hand in the Egyptian Army) began to make funds available to the Kordofan inspectors to mount espionage and other secret operations against Darfur.

Preparing the Grounds for War

The Ottoman Sultan’s proclamation of jihad had no impact on the Arabs of Darfur. The bitter legacy of the Turko-Egyptian 19th century occupation of the region meant that the Arabs had no interest in supporting the Ottomans. The survival and growth of the tribe remained paramount, and the key to this was seen to be cooperation with the British.

With the Kababish Arabs raiding the eastern frontier of Darfur in 1915 the Sultan appealed to the Government for arms and ammunition to defend his territory, a natural request to make of the suzerain power. The Kordofan-based Kababish were the largest nomadic tribe in the Sudan. In 1911 they had been bold enough to strike into western Darfur to raid one of the Sultan’s own caravans carrying a large shipment of arms. The tribe’s loyalty was more important to the Khartoum government than ‘Ali Dinar’s satisfaction, so the Sultan’s request for arms was denied. In the end the British relented to sending 1,000 rounds, a ridiculously small amount. Larger considerations were at play here; ‘Ali Dinar had for years battled French encroachment on his western border and had repeatedly requested arms from the government, only to be denied in every case. The British did not wish to create an incident with their wartime French allies by giving a Fur army the means of defeating a French expedition.[2] The British and the French had already been negotiating the limits of the western border of Darfur before the war, but put off a decision until the war was over.

Subverting Sultan 2Rizayqat Herders (Dabanga)

By May 1915 ‘Ali Dinar was sending threatening letters to the leader of the Kababish Arabs. He accused them of joining the infidels but suggested they follow the path of jihad instead. The Kababish chief, ‘Ali al-Tum, immediately dumped the letters on the closest British inspector with a warning that the government should take care of this ‘fanatic’. The British inspectors in Kordofan now began to realize the thinness of their rule, and broached the idea of a pre-emptory invasion of Darfur.

Governor-General Wingate and most of his fellow officers in the Sudan were refused in their applications to transfer to the fighting on the Western Front on the grounds of their experience and irreplaceability in the Sudan. These were all professional soldiers who began to realize that their own efficiency in keeping Sudan quiet during the war was cutting them out of the opportunities for promotion and decorations they could get in Europe. Once planted, the idea of creating a new battleground for the Great War began to take on steam. Rumours of German officers in al-Fashir and diabolical cruelties committed by the Sultan began to circulate. Eventually these rumours and other fantasies were all packed off to London labeled ‘Intelligence’.

Musa Madibbu and the Rizayqat

Normally Arab complaints of the Sultan’s hostility were grounded in the Arab tribes’ own prevarication in paying the annual tribute. Therefore the Government usually responded with a few words of sympathy and a suggestion to pay the tribute more promptly. In July 1915 the Governor-General instructed his agents to advise Musa Madibbu, chief of the Rizayqat tribe, to avoid paying the tribute, advice sure to result in fighting. It was thought that any government invasion of Darfur would benefit greatly from having the Sultan’s army ’embroiled with the Rizayqat’. Wingate, whose experience in intelligence work included what may be called ‘dirty tricks’, suggested that in his correspondence with the Sultan, Madibbu should name any supporters of ‘Ali Dinar in his own tribe as the individuals preventing him from collecting the tribute.

Musa Madibbu was interested in enlisting the aid of the Sudan Government in a growing struggle between his tribe and the Fur Sultan. In 1913 the Rizayqat had narrowly beaten a Fur punitive expedition, but losses were heavy and Madibbu did not believe the Rizayqat could duplicate their win. In September 1915 British Inspector John Bassett offered to loan the Rizayqat arms and ammunition to defend themselves from the Sultan. The total amount came to 300 rifles and 30,000 rounds, enough to turn the Rizayqat into potent challengers to Fur rule. In December a similar loan of 200 rifles and ammunition was made to ‘Ali al-Tum and the Kababish. Musa Madibbu had no intention of taking on the Sultan himself, however, and wrote to the Government that ‘we are poor Arabs and have no power to resist this man’. By this point both the Arabs and the Government were trying to manipulate each other. The dispute grew as the Sultan sent Musa Madibbu a pair of sandals to run away with, while Musa replied that he would soon be watering his horses at the Sultan’s capital of al-Fashir.

The new Government policy was a reversal of its long-standing efforts to disarm the Arab tribes of Kordofan. The region was still awash with 35-year old rifles seized by Mahdist fighters from the ill-fated Hicks Pasha expedition of 1883, but many of these had lost their sights or seen their barrels sawed off to make them easier to carry. Even those still intact commonly used pebbles for ammunition in lead-poor Sudan. The supply of modern weapons and ample ammunition was a dramatic change to the strategic situation in Darfur.

Nomadic Maelstrom

By April 1916 460 Arabs of the Kababish, Kawahla, and other Arab tribes had been deployed in a string of eight posts along the Darfur frontier. All were armed and paid by the Government. The Arabs were ordered to carry out scouting forays into Darfur, but, as one inspector wryly put it, ‘their vigorous interpretation of the term reconnaissance’ took them some 300 miles right across Darfur. The new British-supplied weapons were used by the Arabs to attack their old rivals in French territory, the Bidayat and the Gura’an. There were suggestions that a Government man be sent to the Arabs to reign in their excesses, but eventually it was decided it was better to look the other way, as a government representative would simply be a witness to ‘enormities’ that he could do nothing to prevent.

As the Egyptian Army crossed Kordofan ‘Ali Dinar sent a strange report to Sultan Muhamad Rashad in Istanbul that reflects his agitation and a great deal of wishful thinking besides:

We beg to inform Your Majesty that the Moslems who have abandoned Islam and embraced Christianity have been punished in a miraculous way never heard of on this earth – except during the time of the Prophets… It fell on a tribe called Rizayqat, subjects of ours who had abandoned the light of Islam and followed the advice of the Christians, the dogs – The heaven rained fire on them and they ran to the river and diving therein, turned into black coal – In another place Heaven rained red blood.[3]

‘Ali Dinar failed to meet the British at the border with his army, fearing that if he moved his troops up, Musa Madibbu would sweep in behind him and loot al-Fashir (presumably with those Rizayqat who had not been turned into coal). The Sultan now took on a more friendly tone in his communications with the Rizayqat chieftain. The Sultan announced that he was satisfied with Musa, and in a mix of threat and encouragement informed the Arab chief that the Fur army had already met the Anglo-Egyptian invasion force, and that though each of his men was hit at least ten times by the infidels’ bullets, there were no injuries.

In May 1916 the Sultan’s army was defeated at the battle of Birinjia, followed several months later by the Sultan’s own death at the hands of an Anglo-Egyptian mounted infantry task force. While this put an end to Fur resistance the nomads of Darfur were just getting started. By the middle of 1916 the nomadic African Bidayat, Gura’an and Zaghawa tribes were all raiding from French territory into northwest Darfur. ‘Ali al-Tum led the Kababish against the Berti in northern Darfur, defeating them and seizing their herds on the pretext that they were ‘enemies of the government’. From there they turned to raiding Dar Zaghawa (a territory straddling the Chad/Darfur border). At the same time the Bani Halba of southern Darfur were looting herds without any concern for whether their owners were pro or anti-government.

In October a raiding party of 200 Kababish was in the Ennedi region (modern north Chad) seizing women and children. In retaliation the Bidayat and Gura’an raided the Arabs of northern Darfur in November, then turned south to take 3,500 head of cattle and 50 women and children from the Fur. In December, 1916, a column of the Egyptian Army Camel Corps was sent to northwest Darfur to cooperate with French units against the Bidayat and the Gura’an. The provision of arms had unleashed a storm of retaliatory violence that the government had great difficulty reigning in over the next several years.


The Darfur campaign never achieved recognition as part of the Great War. This was a great disappointment to the expedition’s British officers, but designation as a part of the World War meant that London would be responsible for the costs of the conquest. Although the invasion was justified as a strike against German and Ottoman forces in Africa, the conflict received the official designation ‘Patrol 16 of the Egyptian Army’ making it a purely local affair. This revisionist slight of hand allowed the entire bill to be sent to Cairo instead.

In the end, the Arab tribes contributed almost nothing to the conquest of Darfur. The violence of raid and counter-raid swept across northern Darfur long after the campaign of 1916. Even the Great War had come to an end by the time French and British colonial officials cooperated to bring an end to the destruction of life and property. Like the current situation in Darfur the Sudan government had introduced modern arms into the region while aggravating ethnic and territorial conflicts that were usually resolved by traditional methods of conciliation. As the chaos spiraled out of control the colonial government (like today’s regime in Khartoum) chose to disclaim any responsibility. Unfortunately the lessons of history have little attraction for today’s policy-makers.

[1]. So-called since the entire ruling class of Egypt at the time was composed of Turks, Circassians, and other races of the Ottoman Empire. Turkish rather than Arabic was the language of both the elite and the military.

[2]. I have used the term ‘Fur army’ in this paper in reference to the Sultans’s forces, but the army was in fact composed of many different tribes and ethnic groups. The two senior commanders were both slaves from the southern hinterland, named Sulayman ‘Ali and Ramadan ‘Ali.

[3]. National Records Office, Sudan: NRO INTELL 2/2/11, pt.2; Letter from ‘Ali Dinar to His Majesty Sultan Muhammad Rashad, 1334 (1916)


This article first appeared on Military History Online, June 10, 2006,