Darfur’s Arabs Taking Arms against Khartoum

Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies Commentary (November 2007)

Dr. Andrew McGregor

November, 2007

In 1915 ‘Ali Dinar, the Fur Sultan of Darfur, sent a prominent Arab leader a message in which he called the tribal chief a nafah al-bugr’(‘one who blows under a cow’s tail to induce it to give milk’). To complete the insult the sultan included a pair of sandals the chief could use to run away. The chief, a seasoned desert warrior named Musa Madibbu, retorted that he would soon be watering his horses in the capital. The exchange was typical of the long and contentious relationship between the African Muslim rulers of Darfur (‘land of the Fur’) and their Arab subjects. Today many of their descendants are uniting against a common foe, Khartoum.


Janjaweed on the Move

The weakness of Darfur as a state was always the failure of most of the Arab tribes to ‘buy in’ to the idea of a multi-ethnic Fur-ruled sultanate. Arab tribes were perpetually in rebellion, defying the authority of the Sultan. Despite this, the Arabs and the African Muslims worked closely to make Darfur a wealthy conduit for the shipment of ivory and non-Muslim African slaves. Loyal Arabs formed the Sultan’s cavalry, and individual Arabs from all over Sudan served the regime at the highest levels. All official communications and government documents were written in Arabic. The ruling dynasties of Darfur,like most royal families of the region, held elaborate genealogies tracing their ancestry to the noblest clans of Arabia and Yemen. Yet when the sultanate finally fell in 1916, British-armed Arab tribesmen helped give it a push.

After the British conquered Darfur they devoted a great deal of time to creating maps in which the province was neatly divided into sections according to ethnic groups. In reality the many tribes of Darfur, Arab and non-Arab, have always lived in a wild patchwork of territories held by sedentary tribes,

Criss-crossed by corridors used by the nomads to move their herds to seasonal pasturelands. The local economy depends on the exchange of goods between nomads and farmers, and many Arabs are coming to realize that destroying relations with their African neighbours is not in their best long-term interest. In an unforeseen complication for Khartoum, several Arab and Arab-led militant groups have joined the fight against the government in Darfur. The spokesman for one of these groups rejected the acts of the Arab Janjaweed militia accused of atrocities, “even if they are Arabs… Arabs are part of Darfur, and are merged and inter-married with the people of Darfur.”

On the last point the rebel was absolutely right. The saddest moments of this manipulated conflict have come when Janjaweed killers have had to ask potential victims whether they are Arabs or zurqa (‘blacks’) before deciding to kill them. Most of the anti-Khartoum Arab rebels are drawn from the largely neutral cattle-rearing Baqqara Arab tribes of south Darfur, the Rizayqat, the Ta’aisha, and the Bani Halba. Their camel-rearing cousins in north Darfur are extremely poor and suffer greatly from desertification. After promises of fertile land from Khartoum, the northern Arabs became the backbone of the Janjaweed militias who follow Khartoum’s version of ‘Arab supremacism’. The Baqqara tribes do not see them-selves as subordinate to the Nile valley Arabs who rule in Khartoum; they can recall the time when the Baqqara ruled the entire Sudan from 1885 to 1898. Still there are many in Khartoum’s Arab elite who privately despise the Baqqara as little better than the zurqa..

By their neutrality in the conflict, the Arab tribes of the south have found themselves excluded from the peace settlement. Their leaders recently walked out of a meeting with African Union peace envoy Salim Ahmad Salim when they were informed they could only have five minutes of his time. Many of the Arab rebels claim they took arms against the government when they realized it was the only way to get a seat at the peace negotiations. However, not all Baqqara have avoided the conflict. Rebuffed by the traditional chiefs, Sudanese intelligence has subverted the traditional power structure by enticing younger leaders to join the Janjaweed with gifts of cash and promises of influence. Arab rebels claim that thousands of disenchanted Janjaweed are now joining the fight against Khartoum, though this figure is probably exaggerated. Allegiance to the Janjaweed in the northern Arab tribes remains very strong.

Some Baqqara Arabs suggest they are as impoverished and disenfranchised by the regime as the rebels, on top of which they now find themselves blamed for the savagery of the Janjaweed. After hundreds of years of holding themselves largely distinct from the rest of Darfur society, the Arab rebels now complain of Khartoum’s ‘divide-and-rule’ policy, designed, in their eyes, to keep the people of Darfur from sharing in the new resource wealth of Sudan. There are reports that 30,000 Chadian Arabs have crossed the border with the assistance of Arab leaders in Darfur to settle on lands from which the non-Arab tribes have been driven out. Many of the new arrivals belong to tribes divided by artificial colonial borders. Such a large-scale migration could only be carried out with the knowledge and permission of the Khartoum government. By the time the new UN peacekeeping force is deployed in January, there may be nowhere for the displaced to return to. Even West Darfur’s governor called it “a strategic attempt to occupy land.” In a demonstration of the ‘cycle of violence’ at work, many of the Chadian Arabs are fleeing retribution attacks from African groups originally hit by cross-border raids of the Sudanese Janjaweed. The continuing presence of Chadian Arabs in Darfur will make negotiations on land redistribution almost impossible.

Are Darfur’s Arabs finally ‘buying in’ to the idea of Darfur? Maybe not yet, but self-interest is a great motivator. Darfur’s Arabs have not benefited from their attacks on their African neighbours. Some feel they have been manipulated by an Arabist ideology foreign to Darfur. Identification with the Janjaweed and their violent Arabization of Darfur has brought once proud tribes into international disgrace, including those who have had little involvement in the conflict so far. At the moment the situation in Darfur remains extremely fluid. If significant numbers of Darfur’s Arabs decide their interests lie with their neighbours rather than the Khartoum government, the conflict may take on a very different form by the time UN peacekeepers deploy next January [2008].

This article first appeared in the November, 2007 issue of the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies’ Strategic Datalink.

Into the Somali Void: Somalia’s Islamists Target Uganda’s Peacekeepers

Andrew McGregor

Terrorism Research Initiative Perspectives on Terrorism

November 30, 2007

The 1,400 man contingent from Uganda represents the sole contribution so far to the African Union’s peacekeeping mission to Somalia (AMISOM). The mission was supposed to deploy 8,000 troops, but Nigeria, Burundi, Ghana, and Malawi have all failed to send detachments. AMISOM was originally intended to field nine battalions of African Union peacekeepers with air and military support. AMISOM has a mission to provide support to the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in establishing stability, facilitate the provision of humanitarian aid and create conditions for long-term reconstruction, reconciliation and development (Communiqué of the 69th meeting of the African Union Peace and Security Council, January 19, 2007). Approximately 1,500 Ugandan troops expecting to be the vanguard of the mission arrived in Somalia in March 2007. To date they remain the only element of AMISOM to actually deploy.

ugandans amisomPublic opinion in Uganda quickly turned against the mission due to the deaths of Ugandan peacekeepers in an attack in May, the impression that Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni was using the peacekeepers to gain favour with the United States, and a general feeling that the mission used military resources that could have been better employed in bringing a decisive end to the conflict with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda (VOA, May 19, 2007). The six-month Ugandan mandate ended in September. However, President Museveni has held to his initial word that the Ugandan force would remain in Somalia until stability has been restored, and indeed the Ugandan mandate has been renewed until January, 2008.

The “War against Foreign Forces”

The persistence of the Ugandan presence in Somalia is not without consequence. In this regard, Aden Hashi Ayro, a leading Islamic Courts Union (ICU) militant and al-Qaeda associate, issued a 20 minute audiotape on 14 November (Qaadisiya, November 14).Carried by an ICU affiliated Somali website, the message ordered al-Shabaab (a military wing of the ICU) militants to target Ugandan peacekeepers as well as the Ethiopian occupation force. Ayro, who trained with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, accused the Ugandans of invading Somalia. After opening with a greeting to Osama bin Laden, Ayro’s message described a “war against foreign forces…To us the Ugandans, Ethiopians and Americans are all the same; they have invaded us and I am telling the mujahidin, Ugandans must be one of our priorities”. Ayro continued his message with a threat directed towards Ethiopian civilians; “They beheaded our children, women and elderly people in Mogadishu and we must behead theirs in Addis Ababa”.

The tape contained essentially the same message ICU leader Shaykh Hassan Dahir Aweys gave in an interview with al-Jazeera last June, where he said that “it makes no difference to us whether [the occupiers] are Ugandans or Ethiopians. We will continue fighting with them as long as the foreign forces are on Somali soil” (East African Standard, June 23, 2007). At the time Shaykh Hassan was angered by what he perceived as the use of Ugandan troops and tanks in support of Ethiopian forces in April, claiming the Ugandans had “arrived in Somalia only to back up the Ethiopian occupation”. The AMISOM mandate to support the Somali TFG is similar to the proclaimed mission of the Ethiopians, leading many Somalis to believe the Ugandans are there to impose an unwanted government. In fact, Uganda’s government has a sincere desire for stability in Somalia, as it believes insecurity there is a major factor in the flow of arms into Uganda’s northeastern Karamoja region. This cattle-herding region is awash in guns, which are seen by locals as the only means of guarding against cattle raiding. A disarmament campaign that began in 2001 in Somalia may actually have spurred new shipments of modern arms into Karamoja.

In apparent response to Ayro’s appeal, Somali insurgents attacked the Ugandan base in Mogadishu’s K-4 neighbourhood on November 15 with rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire. With insurgents, Ethiopians, TFG forces and now Ugandans all involved in the fighting, Mogadishu is once again coming to resemble a battleground. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 60% of the city’s population has fled, with more leaving every day (BBC, November 20).

The May attack in Mogadishu

The raid on the K-4 base was not the first time Ugandan troops have been targeted in Somalia. Five Ugandan soldiers were killed and a number of others seriously wounded in May when a truck from an AMISOM convoy struck an improvised explosive device (IED) outside the Ministry of Finance in Mogadishu. TFG troops are known to frequent the area of the attack, and initially a Ugandan Army spokesman said al-Qaeda “definitely carried out the attack, not the insurgents.”(Shabelle Media Network, May 21, 2007)

In a subsequent joint press conference, Col. Iliyupold Kayanda (head of Ugandan military intelligence) and State Defence Minister Roth Nankapirwa rejected claims that al-Qaeda was involved in the attack, suggesting that the Ugandan truck struck an IED intended for Ethiopian or TFG troops. Alternatively, the bomb might have been set off by militants who mistook the Ugandans for TFG or Ethiopian forces; “The Ugandans did not reveal they were going to the area where the blast occurred and the bomb was not there for them, but it accidentally exploded while passing, according to our intelligence” (Shabelle Media Network, May 21, 2007).


After the K-4 attack, Ugandan army spokesman Major Felix Kulayigye vowed that the assault would not make the Ugandans “run away,” while strongly denying that the Ugandan forces were operating in cooperation with the Ethiopians or TFG. He stated that “we have maintained a neutral stance, so it will not change our position. However, should we get targeted, as [the militants] have done before, we shall defend ourselves.” (VOA, November 15, 2007)

The prospects of additional participation in AMISOM are less than positive. Malawi has withdrawn its offer of troops for AMISOM, while Burundi is “almost ready” to send several hundred peacekeepers (though this has been the case since last spring). There are also reports that Nigeria is preparing to send troops (The Reporter, Addis Ababa, November 17, 2007) but Nigeria’s military is busy fighting militants in the Niger Delta. Moreover, its resolve has probably soured on African Union peacekeeping missions after the slaughter of Nigerian troops in September at the African Union base in Haskanita, Darfur. The military sent a high-level delegation to investigate after reports emerged that the troops at Haskanita did not have enough ammunition to defend themselves from the rebel raid. Nigeria is unlikely at this point to commit to Somalia.

UN peacekeepers are also not likely to deploy in the near future. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon suggests the deployment of a vague “robust multinational force or coalition of the willing” to create conditions for an Ethiopian withdrawal. However, according to Ban Ki-moon, a UN peacekeeping operation is “not realistic or viable given the war-wracked African country’s security situation” (UN Security Council, Report of the Secretary General on the situation in Somalia, November 7, 2007).

While there were questions in May as to whether Ugandan troops were being deliberately targeted by Somali militants, this ambiguity no longer exists. The Ugandans are being pulled into the conflict, in part because AMISOM lacks an international character. Although a larger, multinational force might be able to command the respect and authority needed to complete AMISOM’s mission, Aden Hashi Ayro offered unveiled caution, stating “we will fight and assassinate [Ugandan] officers. All other African troops sent to Somalia will face the same fate.” (Qaadisiya, November 14)

Turkey’s Generals Speak out on Counter-Terrorism Strategies

Andrew McGregor

November 20, 2007

Turkish journalist Fikret Bila has just released an important work based on interviews with a number of retired Turkish military commanders. Komutanlar Cephesi (The Commanders’ Position) examines the generals’ views on Turkey’s past and present security efforts. Excerpts from interviews with five retired generals were first published by the Turkish newspaper Milliyet in the week of November 5-9, and later reprinted in an English translation in the Turkish Daily News, November 12-16. With tensions along the Turkish-Iraqi border at their peak, the generals’ comments provide useful insights on Turkish military policy in the region.

Turkey Generals 1General Hilmi Özkök

With at least two divisions of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) deployed along the Iraqi frontier, cross-border operations were naturally a topic of discussion for the generals. General Doğan Güreş (Chief of General Staff, 1990-1994) emphasized the need for secrecy in mounting successful cross-border operations, especially against the highly mobile PKK. In 1992 Güreş was able to bring 50,000 men up to the Iraqi border in relative secrecy. The efforts of Turkish military engineers in the following campaign allowed the TSK to insert armored units along PKK escape routes in mountainous areas, enabling the Turkish Armed Forces to deal a devastating blow to the Kurdish insurgents, which resulted in the ceasefire of 1993. General Ismail Hakkı Karadayı (Chief of General Staff, 1994-1998) also points out the value of surprise in making cross-border raids of the type made on northern Iraq during his command in 1995-1996. According to Karadayı, only an offensive posture is suitable in dealing with terrorism (Turkish Daily News, November 14).

General Hilmi Özkök (Chief of General Staff, 2002-2006) suggests that large-scale cross-border operations have a political value but cannot be regarded as the solution to the PKK problem. PKK bases lay deep within Iraq and the guerrillas receive support from the local population. Target selection presents another difficulty; Özkök notes that the PKK “do not have war operation centers, officers’ clubs, dormitories or training centers for us to hit and paralyze them” (Turkish Daily News, November 15). A further problem is presented by the rapid growth of communications and international news networks that make it increasingly difficult to mount surprise attacks. PKK leaders can learn of impending offensives simply by turning on the TV. Last Sunday’s TV announcement by Iraqi President Jalal al-Talabani that the Turkish army has “definite plans” to launch a limited operation against PKK bases in northern Iraq seemed to punctuate the general’s remarks (Al-Sharqiyah TV, November 17).

The development of asymmetric war techniques has also changed the tactical landscape. General Özkök described the growth of battlefield technology such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs) as going hand-in-hand with the development of asymmetrical warfare. Large-scale operations are no longer the preferred method for dealing with modern insurgencies, according to Özkök. General Güreş noted the importance of smaller units like the Turkish Special Forces, which are able to fight and operate in the mountains like a “Turkish PKK.”

General Aytaç Yalman (Commander in Chief of the Gendarmerie, 2000-2002; Commander of the Turkish Land Forces, 2002-2004) pointed out that Turkey’s powerful military gave it considerable weight in dealing with neighbors that sympathize with the PKK, like Syria. PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan was expelled from Syria in 1998 after it became clear that Yalman’s Second Army was prepared to cross into Syria. The Syrians hastened to sign and implement the one-sided Adana Agreement, in which Syria agreed to list the PKK as a terrorist organization and expel its leaders. Though Öcalan was not handed over to Turkey at the time, the loss of government protection and sponsorship led to Öcalan’s flight to several countries and eventual apprehension and deportation from Kenya to Turkey several months later. General Yalman credits U.S. intervention for ensuring Öcalan’s extradition as part of an effort to promote the standing of Iraqi Kurdish leaders Massoud Barzani and Jalal al-Talabani (Turkish Daily News, November 12). The U.S. goal, according to Yalman, was to eliminate Öcalan as a rival to Barzani and al-Talabani for the leadership of the region’s Kurds, while at the same time making the two Iraqi Kurdish leaders important clients and allies in the struggle against Saddam Hussein.

The Turkish military would also arm the Iraqi Kurds when it was deemed necessary, as in 1992, when Kurdish peshmerga militia attacks on the PKK began to falter. By 1995, however, General Karadayı decided not to involve peshmerga units in a massive raid by 35,000 Turkish troops. Helping Barzani and al-Talabani with arms and diplomatic assistance was a strategic mistake that only contributed to their goal of creating a Kurdish state, says General Özkök, who also acknowledges that the alternative could have been even worse.

General Güreş displayed the military’s suspicions of U.S. intentions towards Turkish territorial integrity through a reference to “maps depicting a divided Turkey” (Turkish Daily News, November 13). Güreş was alluding to a U.S.-produced map of a “new Middle East’ displayed at a NATO military college in 2006. Present Turkish Chief of General Staff Yaşar Büyükanıt received an official apology for the map, which showed a new Kurdish nation incorporating most of southeastern Turkey (Today’s Zaman, September 29, 2006).

General Karadayı also points to international support for Kurdish “separatism” as a complicating factor in the struggle against the PKK (Turkish Daily News, November 14). Because of this, even successful TSK operations against the PKK must be accompanied by political and diplomatic efforts to combat terrorism. Karadayı points to his own success in having British authorities ban a Kurdish television station by asking what the British reaction would be if Turkey allowed the IRA to broadcast from Turkish territory.

Turkey Generals 2General Kenan Evran

The war against Kurdish separatism was carried out with intense severity during the rule of General Kenan Evren. A Korean War veteran, Evren was for many years the commander of “Counter-Guerrilla,” the Turkish branch of NATO’s secret and highly-controversial “stay-behind” army in Europe, known as “Operation Gladio.” In 1980 General Evren led a military coup and later became president of Turkey from 1982 to 1989. The general still regards Turkey’s failure to hang PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan as a major mistake: “If he had been hung after the final verdict was issued, there wouldn’t be any trouble. But of course, a few protests would have taken place on his death anniversary. But he wouldn’t have been able to issue directives from prison.” After his arrest, Öcalan claimed that “it was the ‘Gladio’ arm of NATO, in fact, which imprisoned me” (Statement of Abdullah Öcalan on his abduction from Kenya, November 26, 1999 [1]).

Administrative aspects of Turkish counter-terrorist efforts also received the generals’ attention. In 1983 the Turkish government passed the State of Emergency Law, creating a civil-military structure to deal with national emergencies such as national disasters or insurrection. Before that time the military had generally been given a free hand to deal with crisis situations. The new law also provided for the designation of State of Emergency Regions (OHAL) with civil administrators to replace martial law. General Özkök criticized the use of OHAL, claiming that it was a mistake that had a negative impact on the war on terror and “caused chaos in the chain of authority” (Turkish Daily News, November 15). General Karadayı was also known for having little respect for OHAL structures, often overriding the authority of local governors. Security regimes have recently been re-imposed on the Iraqi border region and some districts of southeastern Turkey.

One aspect that comes through in the interviews is a general acknowledgement that successful counter-terrorism efforts must now have a political, diplomatic and social dimension, in addition to the exercise of military force. General Özkök sees improved educational facilities and economic innovations like micro-credit as the path to reduced tensions in Kurdish southeastern Turkey. With Turkey on a war footing along the Iraqi frontier, the reflections of the retired TSK commanders provide a historical dimension to the debate over how Turkey should deal with the PKK threat.


  1. Öcalan’s statement can be accessed at www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/51/162.html.

This article first appeared in the November 20, 2007 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus.

Last of the Redshanks: The Raid on Thurso, 1649

Dr. Andrew McGregor

November 8, 2007

In the far north of Scotland the Highland mountains grow smaller, eventually leveling out into vast stretches of rolling countryside that end abruptly with rocky cliffs lurching out over the cold northern seas. Before the Celts arrived these lands were ruled by Norsemen, the powerful ‘Sea-Kings of Orkney’. The names of their settlements in Scotland’s northeast county of Caithness reflected their beliefs, like the town of Thurso, named for the Norse god Thor.

Thurso 2Northern Scotland

Though the town still stands after all these centuries, it came perilously close to obliteration one day in 1649. That year’s raid on Thurso by a small group of veteran Irish fighters and a handful of Scottish highlanders is not found on any list of Scotland’s great battles, but the raid was significant largely for one reason – it marked the last gasp of the once powerful Irish brigade (known as ‘Redshanks’) that came to Scotland to aid the Marquis of Montrose and his Royalist forces during the British Civil War.

Combining innovative tactics with somewhat antiquated weapons the Irish won a resounding series of victories for a year after their arrival in Scotland in 1644. Warfare in Britain was in transition during the 17th century. Pikes and muskets dominated the battlefield but there was still a place for men like the Irish who were expert in the use of sword and shield. The matchlock musket was difficult and time-consuming to load and could only be used effectively in battle by highly disciplined troops performing a complicated drill.

In battle the musketeers commonly formed up in six ranks. After the front rank fired in volley they would ‘countermarch’ to the rear to begin reloading while the next rank moved to the front to fire their volley. Inexperienced troops found the maneuver difficult. Nervousness interfered with the dozens of steps involved in reloading the musket, while the men in the front rank tended to discharge their weapons quickly and without aim in order to take their place at the rear again as soon as possible. Many Civil War battles were lost because half-trained musketeers would have been more useful with pikes in their hands rather than firearms. Artillery was often present on the battlefield, but tended to be so poorly served that it had little impact. Unlike the romantic image of charge and counter-charge by valiant swordsmen against resolute defenders, many Scottish battles of the era degenerated into rock-throwing by both sides.

The trained swordsmen of the highland clans had a fearsome reputation, but in reality they were always few in number. Most of the clansmen formed an untrained rabble, useful only for pressing home an advantage already won by the professionals in the first rank. In the impoverished Highlands there were few who could afford the expensive tools of a Celtic warrior – a broadsword, a targe (shield), a dirk (short-sword), a musket and pistols. Each clan maintained a small group of professional fighters who kept close to the chief and led the rest of the clan into battle. Most of the barefoot men brought on campaign had to wait for someone to be killed in order to seize a weapon for themselves. Nevertheless, the highlanders achieved several notable victories serving under Montrose, but their desire to return home immediately with their loot resulted in an unfortunate tendency for the highland ranks to dissolve after a victory as surely as if they had been defeated.

In the end the total numbers brought to the battlefield mattered far less than the number of professional soldiers involved on each side. A small core of men skilled in the use of their weapons and tempered in the continental battlefields of the Thirty Years War could easily rout far larger numbers of inexperienced men. It was in this sense that the largely veteran Irish Brigade (which may have included many MacDonalds from the Western Isles) was able to have an immediate impact in the Scottish campaigns of the Civil War. Under their leader Alistair MacColla (sometimes known as ‘Colkitto’), the Irish perfected a tactic that came to be known as ‘the Highland Charge’ after its adoption by Scottish highlanders. The tactic involved getting in close to the enemy before letting off a single short-range volley from their muskets into the front ranks. The muskets were then tossed aside as the Irish and their highland allies took sword in hand to emerge screaming from the smoke of their musket-fire. With the hard-charging Celts bearing down fast only seasoned regulars could be expected to resist the urge to break and run at this point. Just as important to Montrose as the fearsome reputation of his Irish fighters was their discipline under fire and their willingness to fight defensive actions as well as charge headlong into the enemy. Between battles the brigade remained an organized, armed force while the highlanders came and went according to their needs and whims. To be fair, most of the highlanders had farms to tend to, animals to care for and families who were unlikely to survive long without male providers and defenders. Any booty that could be obtained through battle was desperately needed at home.

In mid-1646 Charles surrendered to the Scottish army campaigning in England. In a bizarre turn of events the King now made an alliance with his bitter foes, the Scottish Covenanters (so-named for their ‘national covenant’ against the King’s attempts to interfere with Scottish Protestantism). The latter insisted the King disband his forces. Many of the surviving Irish fighters in Scotland began to return home in small groups or joined up with armed groups in the Western Isles and Highlands. Alistair MacColla refused to lay down his arms but was soon bottled up in Kintyre with a group of Irish and highlanders (mostly MacDonalds) by the pro-government Campbells. MacColla was driven out the next spring, fleeing to Islay Island and eventually to Ireland. By February 1647 the Covenanters had tired of the King’s prevarications in fulfilling their demands. Charles was turned over to the English Parliamentarians and the Scottish army returned home, ready to mop up the last Royalist resistance. Isolated castles and their Royalist garrisons fell one by one. Captured highlanders were typically paroled, but the Irish were almost always massacred, sometimes by the hundreds. It quickly became routine to hang any Irishman captured in Scotland, encouraging those Irish Redshanks still at large to make their way back to Ireland. Many Catholic highlanders joined them to continue the fight in Ireland, but these groups were soon destroyed in a pair of disastrous battles.

On January 30, 1649, Charles I was executed by the Parliamentarians in London. By this time there were few Irish fighters left in Scotland. Those who remained at first fought on as bands of guerrilla fighters, but they eventually developed a taste for looting, robbery and extortion. One of these bands was led by Donald Macallister Mullich, a “powerful and ferocious” Irishman who fought under Montrose in the Civil War. The band’s activities gained notice after they became involved in a spectacular robbery with Niel MacKay, leader of the Abrach MacKays in Strathnaver (please note, “Niel” is not a misspelling).

In 1648 the Earl of Sutherland sent a large armed party under his chamberlain to collect the rents in Strathnaver. Niel MacKay disputed the Earl’s right to collect rents in parts of Strathnaver and was prepared to enforce his point of view with the sword. MacKay persuaded Donald Macallister’s band of a dozen Irishmen to help him; together they drove off the taxmen and relieved Sutherland’s chamberlain of all the rents he had already collected. The Earl went to Edinburgh to complain before Parliament personally, obtaining there a company of 100 soldiers to help bring Niel MacKay to justice. The government men could not find the fugitive in the forest, nor could they find the cave that became his temporary home. The latter was described by 19th century author Robert MacKay as being “in the side of a mountain, scarcely perceptible, and so narrow at the entry as only to admit of one on all fours, but so roomy within as to contain a great number of men, and admitting air at the top through a cranny in the rock.”

Thurso 1Old St. Peter’s Church (Caithness.org)

A year after the robbery Niel MacKay arrived in Thurso to visit Sir James Sinclair of Murkle. He seems to have been followed there by Macallister, who had added several Highland desperadoes to his band of hell-raisers. As was his habit wherever he went, Macallister sent a message the civic leaders of Thurso demanding coin and provisions. Outraged by their refusal, the Irish captain decided to help himself by raiding the town on a Sunday when everyone would be in St.Peter’s church. Macallister was also determined to wreak his revenge for the townspeople’s defiance by torching the church during services. When one of his ruffians objected to such blasphemy, Macallister replied in bold Gaelic; “In defiance of God and the Sunday, Donald will spill blood”.

At the time, MacKay was living with a handful of retainers in a house at a fair distance from Thurso. When the locals learned of Macallister’s arrival outside the church, they armed themselves and led by Sir James Sinclair (who habitually took his sword to church) they attacked the bandits. Driven from Thurso, Macallister headed to MacKay’s house with the enraged citizens close behind him.Despite being close friends with the Irishman, MacKay may have been unaware of Macallister’s plans for Thurso and was certainly unprepared for battle with only a small group of men at hand. The arrival at MacKay’s home of his recent ally Macallister and his raiding party was enough to convince the people of Thurso of MacKay’s connivance in a scheme to pillage the town and murder its people. It was not long before MacKay and his men were fighting side-by-side with Macallister’s bandits.

The fight was bitter and relentless, with the caterans defending the house falling one by one to the furious attackers. Having survived countless battles, there was a common belief that a lead bullet could not kill the Irish marauder Macallister. One of Sir James Sinclair’s servants cut a silver button from his master’s coat and loaded it into a pistol. Determined to slay Macallister, the would-be killer succeeded only in piercing the Irishman’s ear. Surprised but still on his feet, Macallister coolly exclaimed; “Hoot! The fellow, he’s deafened me!” Eventually steel, not lead or silver, brought down the notorious freebooter. Niel MacKay was killed in the early stages of the fight. Sir James, unaware of his friend’s death (and perhaps uncertain about his role in the attack), ordered his men “Let no man touch Niel MacKay!” When informed that MacKay had already fallen, Sinclair announced gravely; “Then spare none”.

The question of MacKay’s involvement remains open. Was it mere coincidence that Macallister’s men arrived at Thurso just behind him? There seems little reason for MacKay to contemplate such a desperate and despicable act as burning a church with its congregation still inside, particularly in his own region, where retribution would be swift and inevitable. Yet, when the going got rough for the freebooters in Thurso, they headed immediately for the house where MacKay was staying. They may have expected the help of MacKay and his men after aiding them against the Earl of Sutherland the previous year. Having realized that the bandits intended to burn them alive, the seething mob that poured out of Thurso in pursuit was probably not in the mood to listen to explanations of innocence. In any case MacKay and his men were of the professional fighting class, and once under attack would not have failed to respond in kind immediately.

None were spared to answer these questions. Only two of the bandits escaped the massacre, fleeing half a mile along the rocky sea-side cliffs to the village of Scrabster, where they were set upon and killed. In Robert MacKay’s 1829 history of the Clan MacKay, the author recalled seeing the place of their death marked by two large stones. The bodies of the rest were buried at the main entrance of the church (last used for services in 1832 and now a picturesque ruin). The remains of the caterans do not seem to have carried much respect with the locals; Robert MacKay records seeing in the possession of a Thurso merchant a remarkably large molar tooth recently pulled from one of the skulls. Niel MacKay’s mortal remains were another matter. Sir James was grief-stricken at the death of his friend who, moreover, had been his guest in the area. Sinclair ordered MacKay’s body to be interned in his own family plot, with the late chief’s coat-of-arms carved on the gravestone. It being the custom in the north at the time to take revenge for the death of any chief, Niel MacKay’s son, also named Niel, began the hunt for the men who brought down his father. The younger Niel killed a man closely involved, but the actual culprit eventually tired of being hunted and fled abroad.

With their days of victories under Montrose and Alisdair MacColla long behind them, the last of the ‘Redshanks’ met an ignoble death, their bones dumped in a pit outside the very church they intended to burn. In the following year, 1650, Montrose attempted a comeback from the Orkney Islands that lay within sight of Thurso across the northern sea. After crossing to the mainland with his hastily raised force of Orkney natives and Danish mercenaries (a poor substitute for MacColla’s Irish Brigade), Montrose was quickly defeated and sent on to Edinburgh to be hanged and quartered. His brilliant ally Alistair MacColla had already been killed at the 1647 battle of Knocknanuss in Ireland when his men made the fatal mistake of dispersing to loot the enemy’s baggage train after slashing their way through the Parliamentarian infantry. The massacre of Macallister and his men at Thurso brought a brutal end to the Redshanks in Scotland. It was not the end of Irish fighting men in Scotland, however. That would wait another hundred years for the end of Prince Charles Stewart’s failed rising of 1745-46.


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This article was first published by Military History Online, November 8, 2007

Suspects Arrested in Yemen for Supporting Somali Islamists

Andrew McGregor

November 8, 2007

Confusion continues to surround the case of eight foreign nationals and 15 Yemenis arrested in Yemen in October in relation to an alleged al-Qaeda plot to smuggle small-arms to Islamists in Somalia. The accused include three Australians, a Dane, a Briton, a Somali and an unidentified European. An eighth suspect, a German, was released on November 5. Although the detainees were arrested three weeks ago, charges have yet to be filed.

Yemen Suspects 1Muhammad Ayub in Syria in 2014 after joining the Islamic State (News Ltd.)

According to Yemeni security forces, the suspects were identified as al-Qaeda members (Saba News, November 1). Early reports claiming that all eight foreign suspects, including the Australians, were studying at Sheikh Abdul-Majid al-Zindani’s al-Iman University appear to be false. Sheikh al-Zindani is a controversial figure, a radical Islamist closely tied to the Yemen government, but wanted by the United States for terrorism offenses. Al-Zindani denies any connection to the arrested suspects (NewsYemen, October 31). The suspects were also said to be close to a Somali al-Qaeda operative known as al-Ansar and to Imam Anwar al-‘Awlaki (Abu Atiq), a lecturer at al-Iman University and a suspected al-Qaeda member who was arrested several weeks earlier.

The most prominent of the detainees are Muhammad and Abdullah Ayub, the Australian-born sons of Abdul Rahim Ayub, former co-leader with his twin brother Abdul Rahman of the Mantiqi 4 cell of Jamaah Islamiya, an Indonesian terrorist group tied to al-Qaeda. Abdul Rahim fled Australia for Jakarta days after the 2002 bombing in Bali. Their mother is Rabiah Hutchinson, an Australian who converted to Islam in 1984 when she married Abdul Rahim Ayub. Hutchinson was a frequent visitor to Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran before her passport was revoked at the urging of the Australian Security and Intelligence Organization (ASIO). She divorced Abdul Rahim Ayub in the mid-1990s and is reported to have been briefly married to Abu al-Walid al-Masri, a leading al-Qaeda member in Afghanistan. Hutchinson claims to have sent her two sons to study Islam in Yemen three years ago. Their sister Ramah is married to Khalid Cheikho, who is currently charged with conspiracy in a planned terrorist operation in Sydney.

Yemen Suspects 2Rabiah Hutchinson (ABC-TV)

The third Australian is Polish-born Marat Sumolsky (Abdul Malik), a 35-year old convert to Islam who took his wife and child to Yemen two years ago. Yemeni authorities suggest that Sumolsky may be released soon (Yemen Observer, November 4). All of the Australian suspects appear to have been subjects of interest for the ASIO, though Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer denies any government involvement in the arrests (Yemen Times, November 1). The Australian consul was not given access to the prisoners until November 4. Australian officials have been assured that the prisoners will not be transferred to Guantanamo Bay. The Danish suspect is Kenneth Sorensen (Abu Zakaria), a 24-year old convert to Islam who moved to Yemen with his wife and child.

The Australians moved to an apartment building in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa close to al-Zindani’s university. The Danish and British suspects also lived there and were already under U.S. and British surveillance as possible terrorists. The group became targets of an investigation that was unexpectedly disrupted by raids conducted by Yemeni security forces on October 17. According to one account, the sudden arrests infuriated American and British intelligence services (The Australian, November 4). Australian police firmly denied media accounts that the Australian detainees were tied to a plot to bomb a railway station in Sydney. The suspects in this case include another Australian convert to Islam, 26-year old Jill Courtney (The Age, November 2).

The arrests come at a time when the foreign minister of Somalia’s faltering transitional government, Ismael Mohamoud Hurreh, claims that al-Qaeda operatives from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Eritrea and Chechnya are pouring into Somalia to fight on behalf of the Islamic Courts Union (The Independent, November 3).

This article was first published in the November 8, 2007 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus