Dr. Khalil Ibrahim – Darfur Rebel Challenges Sudan’s Power Structure

Andrew McGregor

January 30, 2010

Dr. Khalil Ibrahim Muhammad Achar Foudeil Taha is the chairman of Darfur’s Justice and Equality Movement (Harakat al-Adl wa’l-Muswaa – JEM), the most powerful and determined of the many armed movements in Darfur challenging the authority of the military/Islamist regime in Khartoum. A former Darfur Minister of Education and member of Hassan al-Turabi’s National Islamic Front (NIF), Khalil enjoys asylum status in France but is often found in the field in Darfur, unlike many of his rivals in Darfur’s other rebel movements. Given the effectiveness of his fighters and the national aspirations of his movement, Khalil Ibrahim is unquestionably the most important of the rebel leaders active in the Sudan.

Khalil Ibrahim 2JEM Leader Dr. Khalil Ibrahim

Khalil specialized in community medicine in the Netherlands while studying at the University of Maastricht and worked as a doctor in Saudi Arabia and Sudan (al-Hayat, December 15, 2009). As a physician leading a military/political movement, Khalil has been ably assisted on the battlefield by a cohort of experienced desert fighters, mostly veteran Zaghawa commanders with experience fighting Libyans in northern Chad.

JEM has its origins in meetings in al-Fashir in the 1990s of a cell of non-Arab members of the National Islamic Front (NIF), led by Dr. Hassan al-Turabi, a veteran Islamist and the architect of Sudan’s Islamic legal system as Attorney General in the government of dictator General Ja’afar al-Numeiri (1969-85). Al-Turabi was determined to bring non-Arab Islamists into the government, but many of those he recruited, like Khalil Ibrahim, were infuriated by the impenetrability of the existing power structure, based on the Ja’aliyin, Shaiqiya and Danaqla riverine Arab tribes (representing less than 5% of the population) that have ruled Sudan since 1956.

The intellectual foundation of the movement is found in a May 2000 manifesto entitled The Black Book: Imbalance of Power and Wealth in the Sudan. Based on extensive statistics, charts and graphs, the work argued that power and wealth in the Sudan had been monopolized by the riverine Arabs since independence. Khalil announced the existence of the JEM shortly afterwards in August 2001. The movement then announced its physical presence in a successful raid on the military airport at al-Fashir in April 2003, carried out jointly with forces of the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/M).

After five years of steady fighting, Khalil’s movement made international headlines with a daring 600 km, 400 vehicle raid on the national capital of Khartoum-Omdurman in May 2008, suddenly transforming the movement from a regional resistance group to a serious threat to the continued existence of the Sudanese regime.. When most of his column was stopped by government resistance in Kordofan, about 75 km west of the capital, a smaller group of JEM vehicles headed straight for the unprepared capital. The attack crested in the suburbs of Omdurman as the remaining JEM vehicles careened through deserted streets until their eventual destruction by ad-hoc units of police and secret service members. Reports at the time that Khalil was in hiding in Omdurman after his truck had been disabled by gunfire led to a government reward of $250,000 for information leading to his capture, but the JEM leader soon resurfaced in Darfur. Khalil regards the attack as a notable success for his movement:

On that day we confirmed to the Sudanese people and the world that our movement has military and political capabilities and has the strong willpower to change the regime in Khartoum. We gained the respect of our people and the world… With our attack on Omdurman, we undermined the regime, which was deceiving the international community that it possessed military power – army, popular defense militias, security services, and the Janjaweed. We confirmed to them that this regime was just a paper tiger” (Asharq al-Awsat, May 13, 2009).

The JEM leader is a member of the Zaghawa Kobe, one of the three main branches of the Zaghawa tribe, which straddles the border between Chad and northern Darfur. The Zaghawa are an indigenous semi-nomadic tribe that maintained their own petty sultanates less than a century ago. Despite small numbers, the Zaghawa now dominate both the government and the opposition in Chad, as well as dominating JEM and several other Darfur resistance groups. JEM’s detractors point to what they allege is the continued domination of the movement’s leadership by the Zaghawa despite its aspirations to be an inclusive organization, but Khalil points to the many Arab and African leaders who have left rival movements for membership in JEM; “The remaining movements should either join us or join the government. There is no third choice in Darfur” (Asharq al-Awsat, May 13, 2009).

Khalil disputes assessments coming from United Nations and United Nations – African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) officials that the conflict in Darfur is dying down, charging instead that such statements are the result of large cash payments made to the officials by al-Bashir’s regime (Asharq al-Awsat, September 26, 2009).

Khalil points to the growing number of political and tribal leaders who have abandoned the regime in favor of JEM as proof of the movement’s appeal beyond Darfur; “The Justice and Equality Movement is a general revolution. It is a revolution for all those who are marginalized and for all the Sudanese people who are demanding freedom, equality, and change. It is not only a revolution for Darfur” (al-Hayat, December 15, 2009). The JEM commander claims the movement also has support in the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan (once a stronghold of the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army – SPLA) and the mountainous region along the Red Sea (another area of discontent with the Khartoum regime). A number of high-ranking Kordofan members of al-Bashir’s ruling National Congress Party defected to JEM in December.

JEM does not recognize the ever-expanding number of “resistance movements” in Darfur, many of which do not carry out military operations against the regime. Khalil suggests many of these groups are creations of Khartoum’s intelligence service. There is some acknowledgement of Abd al-Wahid Muhammad Nur’s largely Fur Sudan Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/M), but Khalil suggests they have become largely irrelevant by keeping to fortified positions in the Fur heartland of Jabal Marra rather than attacking government positions (al-Hayat, December 15). JEM has carried out a number of military operations in cooperation with the Sudan Liberation Army – Unity (SLA-Unity), one of many SLA/M breakaway groups.

Khalil sees no opportunity for political change in the forthcoming general elections, saying they will be “a complete crisis and a catastrophe”; “[The elections] are a foregone conclusion in favor of the National Congress [Party]. They are a scenario [to extend] Omar al-Bashir’s presidency.”  If al-Bashir returns to power, Khalil sees the separation of the South as inevitable, but suggests unity could be preserved if all the Sudanese political parties agreed for Sudan to be ruled by a southern president (al-Hayat, December 15).

Within Darfur, Khalil’s archrival is fellow Zaghawa Minni Arko Minnawi, who took his faction of the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/M) over to the government’s side after the Abuja Accord of 2006. JEM benefited from Minnawi’s decision when many of his fighters began to abandon his movement in favor of continued resistance with JEM; “We are supported by many tribes while Minnawi is surrounded by individuals that are defending his position for which he sold the cause of Darfur. He has become a mercenary while we are fighting for the interests of all of Sudan” (Asharq al-Awsat, September 26, 2009). For his part, Minnawi maintains that JEM “wants to be in control and take charge of other movements. This can never be accepted by a revolutionary movement… The behavior of the Justice and Equality Movement shows that that if they gain power they will annihilate people. The proposals by the Justice and Equality Movement have become Nazi and Fascist-like” (Asharq al-Awsat, September 24, 2009).

In the past, Khalil has accused the Khartoum regime of “an arrogant and patronizing attitude and superficial thinking” and threatened a “second Omdurman,” but with JEM and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) having reached something of a stalemate in Darfur, there are reports that Khalil has entered into direct talks with the Sudanese president’s adviser on Darfur, Dr. Ghazi Salah al-Din, in the Chadian capital of N’Djamena (Asharq al-Awsat, September 26, 2009; May 13, 2009; January 19, 2010). However, there is a deep level of distrust between the two parties and such talks have produced little in the past. While Khalil Ibrahim insists JEM’s preferred strategy is a negotiated settlement with Khartoum that will establish a new and equitable sharing of power and revenues, there is no question he will use JEM’s military strength to press home any advantage that may appear in the political instability that may precede the general elections and the 2011 referendum on Southern independence.

This article first appeared in the January 30, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor

Saudi Military Operation along the Yemen Border Repels Houthist Incursion

Andrew McGregor

January 28, 2010

After a two-month Saudi military offensive along the Saudi Arabia-Yemen border, the Houthist rebels of northern Yemen appear ready to abandon their brief occupation of small areas of Saudi Arabia’s Jizan province. In an audiotape message, the leader of Yemen’s Zaydi Shiite rebels, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, offered a ceasefire and a withdrawal from Saudi territory. However, al-Houthi warned of consequences if his offer was ignored. “If [Saudi Arabia] insists on continuing its aggression after this initiative, this gives us the legitimacy to open new fronts and to wage an open war” (al-Jazeera, January 25).

Saudi troops on Y borderSaudi military outpost near the Yemen border

Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz rejected the offer, however, suggesting the Houthists could not be trusted. “We must remember history when it comes to Abdul-Malik al-Houthi and his people. They have gone to war with the Yemeni government on five occasions. They have also signed five agreements with the Yemeni Authorities. However, they broke those agreements after a year or two” (BBC, January 27). The Prince rejected the Houthist claim of a complete withdrawal, insisting the rebel fighters had been driven out of their positions by Saudi forces (al-Alam, January 26; BBC, January 27). Earlier this month Prince Khalid turned down a Houthist offer to withdraw on the condition that Saudis stop supporting the Sana’a government, saying, “We should not talk to infiltrators and subversives… Our talks must be with the Yemeni government” (Yemen Post, January 13).

Though Sana’a believes Iran is the main supporter of the six-year Houthist rebellion, Riyadh has been reluctant to join the Arab world’s general condemnation of Iran as the secret hand behind the Houthist revolt. Though the claim is popular, little has been offered in the way of proof. The Saudis instead make an even more surprising claim: the Houthists are in league with al-Qaeda. According to Prince Khalid, “We have noticed it on the battlefield, but it is proven by various bodies that there are contacts and coordination between them, and that they have a common interest, which is sabotage” (Saudi Press Agency, January 23). Yemen’s national security chief Ali Muhammad al-Ansi has similarly claimed the Zaydi Shi’a are working with the virulently anti-Shi’a al-Qaeda organization, while simultaneously claiming the Houthists are supported “financially, politically and through the media” by Iran (Asharq al-Awsat, December 13; Yemen Post, December 15). Yemen’s counterterrorism chief General Yahya Salih has also stated “there is no doubt” Iran is supporting the Houthist rebellion (al-Jazeera, November 16, 2009).Yemen’s controversial Islamist leader Shaykh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani insists that Iran is trying to “export the Shi’a ideology by force” (al-Jazeera, October 5, 2009).

Houthist rebels crossed the border into southwest Saudi Arabia in November in retaliation for what they claimed was Saudi support of Yemeni military operations against the Houthists. Fighting began after the insurgents killed two Saudi border guards and occupied several villages along the Saudi side of the border. Though Saudi military officials said their orders were not to cross the border with Yemen, the Saudis admitted their intention of establishing a ten kilometer deep buffer zone inside Yemen (Reuters, November 12).

Most of the fighting took place in the mountainous border region of Jizan, Saudi Arabia’s smallest province. Fighting was especially heavy around Jabal Dukhan, where the conflict started. Saudi forces battled the army of Yemen’s Imam Yahya in the same region in 1934. The terrain is well-designed for defensive warfare and the Saudis made several premature claims of victory before finally clearing the Houthists from their positions. Fighting was bitter, with 133 Saudi soldiers killed according to southern region commander General Ali Zaid al-Khawaji (al-Riyadh, January 21). Houthist losses are unknown, but are likely to have been significant in light of the Saudis’ superior firepower. According to Prince Khalid, Saudi mountain troops have learned important lessons during the intense fighting (Saudi Press Agency, January 23). The Prince added that the slow pace of the Saudi offensive was deliberate. “Time is with us. There is no need to hurry. We could have controlled all the areas in a month, or two weeks, but we opted not to rush in order to preserve [civilian] souls” (Arab News, January 24).

Soon after hostilities began in November, the Saudi Royal Navy’s French-built frigates imposed a blockade of Red Sea ports to prevent supplies from reaching the Houthists. The frigates belong to the Saudi navy’s Western Fleet, operating out of Jeddah. Houthist forces made a desperate attempt to seize the Red Sea port of Maydi on Yemen’s north coast in November, but were repelled by the Yemeni army (Asharq al-Awsat, November 22, 2009). The Saudi frigates fired on two boats they suspected of smuggling arms to the Houthists in December. After a chase with helicopters, the crews of both boats were reported to have been killed in massive explosions caused by the arms and ammunition they were carrying (Arab News, December 10). Shortly before the Houthist incursion into Saudi Arabia, ships of Yemen’s navy announced the seizure of an Iranian ship (the Mahan-1) carrying anti-tank weapons to a port in northwest Yemen for distribution to Houthist rebels (al-Arabiya, October 26). Iran denied any official involvement (Fars News Agency, October 28).

The Houthists’ main weapons are small arms and landmines. They have a small number of military vehicles captured from government forces, though many of these appear to have been destroyed in the fighting with the Saudis. When a single Katysusha rocket was fired at a Saudi military base, the movement felt the action worthy of an announcement (Al-Arabiya, November 16, 2009). On the other side, Saudi artillery joined ground attack planes of the Royal Saudi Air Force in targeting Houthist positions and vehicles continuously throughout the conflict. In early December, Saudi frontline forces received new Swiss-built Piranha III wheeled armored vehicles and U.S.-built Bradley infantry fighting vehicles (Arab News, December 10, 2009). Saudi paratroopers have played a leading role in the fighting since it began last November, though they have not participated in any airborne operations (Saudi Gazette, January 25, 2010).

The Houthists claimed Saudi warplanes dropped phosphorus bombs in night raids on villages as far as seven kilometers inside the Yemen side of the border, though Saudi authorities claimed what the rebels saw was merely flares (Hamsayeh.net, January 24; AFP, November 9, 2009; BBC, November 5, 2009). The rebels have also accused government forces of using phosphorus shells, though Sana’a says it does not have any such weapons in its arsenal (Gulfnews, November 9, 2009). Earlier this month the Houthists claimed to have shot down a Saudi AH-64 Apache attack helicopter near the Saudi border town of al-Khouba, though this was denied by Saudi authorities (Yemen Post, January 16; Press TV [Tehran], January 16).

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently condemned the Saudi role in Yemen, saying, “Saudi Arabia was expected to mediate in Yemen’s internal conflict as an older brother and restore peace to the Muslim states, rather than launching military strikes and pounding bombs on Muslim civilians in the north of Yemen” (Press TV [Tehran], January 16). Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Sa’ud al-Faisal rejected Ahmadinejad’s criticism and alleged Iran was responsible for the unrest in Yemen (Sana, January 14).

Though the Houthist rebels displayed tenacity and resilience in resisting over two months of attacks by Saudi Arabia’s professional army and air force, the movement is incapable of resisting intensified attacks by Yemeni government forces engaged in “Operation Scorched Earth” while fighting off the Saudis in their rear.

This article first appeared in the January 28, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Reclusive Leader of Haqqani Network Speaks to Press as U.S. Urges His Elimination

Andrew McGregor

January 28, 2010

Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the dangerously effective and independently operated “Haqqani Network” of Taliban insurgents, terrorists and suicide bombers gave a rare interview to al-Jazeera on January 19. Based in the Miran Shah district of North Waziristan, the network’s operations straddle both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.. During a January 21-22 visit to Islamabad, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates urged Pakistan’s political and military leadership to expand military operations into North Waziristan, a Haqqani Network stronghold (AFP, January 21).

Sirajuddin Haqqani 2Sirajuddin Haqqani

The secretive Taliban commander revealed little about future activities in the short videotaped interview, but the occasion may have marked a decision to take a more visible role in the conflict. Despite being strongly anti-American, Sirajuddin gave an email and telephone interview to the Wall Street Journal last December (Wall Street Journal, January 20). With U.S. forces scheduled to begin withdrawal next year, Sirajuddin may be attempting to increase his political profile, though not his visibility – Sirajuddin covered part of his face with a head cloth at all times during the al-Jazeera interview.  Nevertheless, at one point Sirajuddin appears to complain that his group is not receiving sufficient media attention. “The world is covering up our operations; they know well who we are. I cannot tell you anything before it happens. God willing, the day will come when they will admit who we are…”

Though there have been questions about Sirajuddin’s apparent independence from the core Taliban leadership under Mullah Omar, the Taliban commander insists coordination between the various components of the Taliban is greater than ever:

Thank God, the mujahideen are getting more advanced. The war is now being dictated by them. I can guarantee you that in the future their fighting will be even better. At the beginning of this war the coordination between our fighters was useless, but now there are so many attacks that even we cannot count them ourselves. But it’s still not enough. The future will show what I mean.

Perhaps in anticipation of a Pakistani crackdown, Sirajuddin recently downplayed his activities in North Waziristan, emphasizing that he was concentrating on military operations in Afghanistan’s Khost and Paktika provinces (Nawai Afghan Jihad, November 11, 2009).

Sirajuddin Haqqani is a dominant presence in Afghanistan’s Khost province. It is unlikely that the complicated operation that resulted in a Jordanian triple agent blowing up seven CIA agents and a Jordanian intelligence operative in Khost on December 30, 2009 could have been carried out without his cooperation or approval.


This article first appeared in the January 28, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Rebel Movement Suggests Malian Government Deliberately Driving Tuareg to al-Qaeda

Andrew McGregor

January 21, 2010

In a recent interview with an Algerian newspaper, a spokesman for the Tuareg rebel group Alliance Démocratique du 23 mai pour le Changement (ADC) suggested that the Malian government’s failure to implement a two and one-half year-old peace agreement was a direct cause of the growth of al-Qaeda forces in the Tuareg-dominated Kidal region of northern Mali (El Watan [Algiers], January 14).

Hama ag Sid AhmedHama ag Sid Ahmed

Spokesman Hama ag Sid Ahmed claims al-Qaeda forces in the area have grown from 250 to 800 members in the last year alone. At the same time, the Malian government has little presence in the region despite the commitment of vast sums of money for development projects. The absence of development efforts has been exacerbated by the return of drought to the area. The Tuareg “have a hard time understanding where their money has been spent.” The ADC claims the devastation brought by the drought has been subject to a news blackout orchestrated by Bamako. The result has been a steady alienation of the Malian Tuareg, especially the youth.  The failure to provide development or security appears to the ADC to be a “premeditated wish to push these young people towards drugs, smuggling, or terrorism.” Hama ag Sid Ahmed says he and others have warned young Tuareg against allowing their dissatisfaction with the government to lead them into a trap that will result in their destruction.

According to the ADC spokesman, forces belonging to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) now consist of 800 full-time members and 200 auxiliary members. Hama Ag Sid Ahmed warns that AQIM’s tactic of kidnapping Westerners in the region has understandably drawn the attention of numerous Western intelligence agencies concerned with terrorism.

The non-Arab Tuareg (a branch of North Africa’s indigenous Berber people) have traditionally been rivals of the Arabs for control of large swathes of the Sahara. Sufi rather than Salafist, the Tuareg have until now had little reason to identify with the dominantly Arab and Salafist al-Qaeda movement. Asked how it was possible for Mali’s Tuareg to allow the growth of AQIM forces in their own region, Hama ag Sig Ahmed explained that such growth was impossible when the Tuareg maintained security in the region before the Algiers Agreement of 2006. Since then, however, Bamako has taken over security for the region under the terms of the agreement, without, however, creating the Tuareg special security units called for by the agreement. While AQIM could not previously have been active in the region without the permission of the Tuareg, the latter have changed from “actors to observers”: “The Tuareg have always wanted to chase the terrorists out of the region, but the army officers prevented them from acting, telling them: ‘These matters do not concern you. You are citizens, stay far away. We will catch the terrorists. That is why we are here, and if you play at being the police we will arrest you.’ That is how the Malian Army reacts each time the Tuareg try to chase the Salafists.”


This article first appeared in the January 21, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Armed Opposition Groups Redeploy in Wake of Chad-Sudan Border Security Pact

Andrew McGregor

January 21, 2010

Recent talks in N’djamena seem to confirm both Sudan and Chad have realized that their use of proxies in a long-standing dispute is a dangerous game that threatens the existence of both regimes.

TimaneRFC Leader Timani Erdime (Tchadoscope)

An agreement was reached during talks on January 8-9 that committed both parties to cease the hosting or supporting of armed opposition groups, basically reviving the March 2008 Dakar Agreement between Chad and Sudan (see text at Sudan Tribune, March 18, 2008).  A statement issued by the Chadian Foreign Ministry said N’djamena was prepared to allow all participating bodies, including the Khartoum government, to “verify on the ground the absence of any anti-Sudan presence in Chadian territories” (AFP, January 11). Chad and Sudan have also agreed to stop using their respective media to launch attacks on each other (SUNA, December 29, 2009). The Sudanese Foreign Ministry was adamant that the negotiations were strictly “tactical” and had nothing to do with the ongoing Darfur peace negotiations in Doha.

Sources at the Chadian Foreign Ministry told the French press that a government delegation had been sent to eastern Chad to tell Dr. Khalil Ibrahim that he and his Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) forces would have to leave the country (AFP, January 11). JEM is the most effective opposition group in Darfur and the only one with national aspirations. Its largely Zaghawa leadership has maintained close ties to the Zaghawa president of Chad, Idriss Déby. While the Zaghawa of northern Chad and northern Darfur represent only 2 to 4% of the total population in both countries, they have developed a political and economic importance far greater than their numbers would indicate. A JEM spokesman stressed that the movement was not concerned by the rapprochement, insisting that JEM forces were “in Darfur, not in Chad” (Sudan Tribune, January 12). Nevertheless, JEM and other rebel groups in Darfur draw recruits from the over 250,000 Darfur refugees living in camps in eastern Chad.

On January 14, JEM reported that government planes were bombing the rebel stronghold at Jabal Mun in West Darfur, forcing hundreds of civilians to flee across the border to Chad (Sudan Tribune, January 14; AFP, January 13). JEM has also complained that Chadian rebels newly based in the Sayah district of North Darfur are “committing crimes against our people there” (Sudan Tribune, January 11).

Residents of al-Sayah have complained to aid groups that the Chadians were raping, beating and looting locals, mostly members of the non-Arab Berti tribe, as well as helping themselves to scarce quantities of water, livestock, food and firewood without compensation (Reuters, January 11). The United Nations/African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) reported the arrival of the Chadian fighters at al-Sayah on December 3, 2009. The appearance of an estimated 5,000 fighters in some 700 vehicles has put a severe strain on available resources. A Berti appeal to the regional governor to withdraw the rebels was met with a firm refusal, with the governor reportedly saying the rebels were there as part of an agreement to withdraw Chadian opposition groups from the border (al-Sahafa [Khartoum], December 19). JEM deputy chairman Muhammad Adam Bakhit claims the redeployment is designed to make the forces available for the defense of al-Fashir if it is threatened by the Darfur rebels (Sudan Tribune, January 20).

The Chadian forces belong to the Union des Forces de la Résistance (UFR), an umbrella group of rebels based in Darfur. The principal component of the UFR is the Rassemblement des Forces pour le Changement (RFC), whose Zaghawa leader, Timane Erdimi, is also leader of the UFR. Though Timane and his twin brother Tom are nephews of Chadian president Déby and former cabinet ministers in his government, they are now among his strongest opponents. Timane was sentenced to death in absentia in August, 2008. Most RFC fighters are Zaghawa defectors from the Garde Républicaine.

N’djamena and Khartoum have agreed to deploy a joint border patrol designed to prevent cross-border infiltration of armed groups. Enforcement of the terms of the new agreement may prove more difficult for the Chadian opposition groups than JEM. While JEM forces have bases within Darfur, the Chadian groups are based solely in Darfur and only emerge onto Chadian territory to carry out raids. JEM is largely armed from stocks captured from the Sudanese Armed Forces, while the Chadian groups rely on Khartoum for their arms. Expelling these groups from Sudan could result in the permanent loss of a potential asset that could be used against N’Djamena should relations falter once more in the pattern typical of Chadian-Sudanese relations. Khartoum will likely prefer to keep such forces away from the border for the time being and deploy them against Darfur rebel groups to earn their keep.

This article first appeared in the January 21, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Somali Islamists Target Army Chief in Assassination Attempt

Andrew McGregor

January 14, 2010

Somalia’s al-Shabaab movement attempted to kill General Muhammad Gele Kahiye, the new leader of the government’s military forces, on January 7 in a pre-emptive strike.  The assassination attempt comes before a much-anticipated government offensive to retake Mogadishu from the Islamist militants who now control most of the city. Kahiye escaped the blast in Mogadishu’s Hodon district, but two bodyguards were killed and six others wounded (Horseed Media, January 7). Somali police spokesman Abdullahi Hassan Barise later denied Kahiye was in the car when it was hit by the mine (Radio Simba, January 7).

General Yusuf Hussein DhumalGeneral Yusuf Hussein Dhumal

Colonel Kahiye replaced General Yusuf Hussein Dhumal as commander of the Somali Armed Forces on December 6 after several weeks of debate at the highest levels of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of President Shaykh Sharif Shaykh Ahmad (Raxanreeb, December 6, 2006; Reuters, December 6, 2009). The move finally came three days after a suicide bomber killed three government ministers and many others at a Mogadishu graduation ceremony. National security minister Abdullahi Muhammad Ali remarked at the time, “This is a part of a national plan to activate the army and the security institutions ahead of intended government military operations to restore law and order” (AP, December 6, 2009).

Al-Shabaab spokesman Shaykh Ali Dheere claimed responsibility for the attack, saying the group’s intention was to kill the military’s commander. “We wanted to kill the military chief to counter government planned offensives on our positions in Mogadishu and its environs” (Radio Gaalkacyo, January 7; Garowe Online, January 7). On the same day, a spokesman for al-Shabaab’s Islamist rivals, Hizb al-Islam, denounced the government at a Mogadishu press conference for what he described as an impending government military offensive designed to retake Mogadishu, which several TFG ministers have promised to do by the end of the month (Shabelle Media Network, January 7). The spokesman, Shaykh Muhammad Moallim Ali, suggested that the government forces planned to begin with assaults on Mogadishu’s Bakara arms market and the Elasha Biyaha settlement south of Mogadishu (Mareeg, January 7).

Several hours after the failed assassination, al-Shabaab militants launched a mortar attack on the presidential palace in Mogadishu. Government forces retaliated with artillery fire directed at Mogadishu’s Yaqshid neighborhood, a reputed al-Shabaab stronghold (AFP, January 7). Some 20 civilians were killed in the shelling, which was reported to have hit a number of houses and some children playing soccer (Mareeg, January 7; AFP, January 7).

This article first appeared in the January 14, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Taliban Military Commander in Zabul Province Discusses Tactics and Strategy

Andrew McGregor

January 14, 2010

The sparsely inhabited Afghan province of Zabul is nevertheless a strategic concern for U.S. and Coalition forces in Afghanistan, due to its location and majority Pashtun population. Zabul shares a border with Pakistan to the south and another with the unsettled Taliban hotbed of Kandahar to the west. Taliban activity is on the rise in Zabul and the Taliban publication Al-Sumud recently took the opportunity to interview a prominent military commander in Zabul province, Mullah Abd al-Qahhar (Al-Sumud, January 2010). The interview is dated December 23, 2009.

ZabulMullah Abd al-Qahhar is described as a prominent leader of the 1980s jihad against the Soviets and the Afghan communist regime. His religious studies were interrupted by the conflict. After being wounded four times he joined the Taliban in 1994 and has been fighting Coalition occupation forces in Zabul for several years.

During the interview, the Taliban commander discussed the tactics used in Zabul province and the overall strategy of the Taliban forces. Abd al-Qahhar claims Taliban forces control most of the districts of Zabul, save for the “district capitals where enemy forces have their posts.” The mujahideen also control “all roads of enemy transport, including the Kabul-Kandahar highway. Whenever they try to move from one point to another, they face ambushes and landmines planted by the roadside.” Assembling and planting mines effectively required the establishment of specialized training courses to teach the skills needed for the remote control of explosives. All mujahideen units in the province now have expertise in these areas.

American forces are engaged against the Zabul Taliban, aided by a battalion of Romanian troops in the Shinkay and Shah Joy districts. Romania pulled out its 520 troops in Iraq last year while pledging to reinforce its battalion in Zabul by 108 soldiers in 2010 to better enable it to carry out its mission (Xinhua, June 30, 2009). Much of the Romanians’ Soviet-era equipment would be familiar to mujahideen veterans like Mullah Abd al-Qahhar.

Abd al-Qahhar says an expansion of Taliban influence and operations in the province prevents the Coalition from establishing new military bases. These operations include “planting mines, preparing obstacles, martyrdom-seeking campaigns on enemy convoys, rocket attacks on enemy posts, and offensive attacks on enemy garrisons.”

When asked about President Obama’s decision to send additional forces to Afghanistan, the Taliban commander suggested that the president have a close look at former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s remarks last November, when the ex-Soviet leader pointed to the Soviet failure in Afghanistan as a lesson for President Obama. In his remarks Gorbachev suggested that the current conflict was unwinnable and the United States should begin withdrawing troops rather than raising their numbers, stating, “I believe that there is no prospect of a military solution” (Bloomberg, November 10, 2009). Abd al-Qahhar sees the Afghanistan “surge” as only part of an American plan to establish a semblance of security in the country before beginning an evacuation. “I believe that sending more troops is only intended to expedite the mission of withdrawal and rehabilitation of the collaborating government to bear responsibility. However, at the same time, they do not conceal their fear that the collaborating government will fall less than one week after the exit of the Crusader forces.”

In classic guerrilla warfare fashion, Abd al-Qahhar states that “the citizens are the mujahideen themselves.” The Taliban have managed to ingratiate themselves into the local population by providing parallel administrations in each district that offer an alternative to the corrupt system managed by Kabul. The Taliban settle local disputes and offer a speedy and honest judicial system; in return the people provide the mujahideen with all of their needs.

Nevertheless, Abd al-Qahhar sees the greatest strength of the Taliban’s “Islamic Emirate” in its steadfastness against the global “Crusader union”; “The Emirate has never felt weak, never surrendered, never bargained, and never had any internal disputes or dissensions, despite all the ordeals and hardships it has gone through in its jihad against the Crusaders.”

Abd al-Qahhar also stressed the usefulness of suicide attacks, citing the suicide bombing of a military convoy in Shah Joy that he claims killed eight Romanians (possibly referring to the August 27, 2006 attack on an Afghan military prisoner convoy in which the Romanians took casualties when they came to assist) and a suicide car-bomb attack on an American base that he claims killed 23 Americans (the Mullah apparently refers here to the November 19, 2009 attack on an American base in Shah Joy that killed an American NCO of the 82nd Airborne Division) (Afghan Islamic Press, August 27, 2006; AFP, August 27, 2006; Xinhua, November 19, 2009). According to U.S. military sources, U.S. troops are “often met with outright hostility” in Shah Joy district (Stars and Stripes, November 12, 2009).

This article first appeared in the January 14, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Mystery Surrounds Devastation of Karachi Markets after Ashura Blast

Andrew McGregor

January 7, 2010

The terrorist bombing that struck an Ashura Shiite religious procession in downtown Karachi on December 28 was followed by a wave of arson attacks that destroyed most of the commercial market district of that city. The apparent organization of the arsonists and the failure of security forces and the local fire department to restrain the arsonists or suppress the conflagration until most of the market area had been destroyed has raised serious questions about the government’s declaration that the arson attacks were a spontaneous reaction by Shiites to the bombing that killed 43 people.

Karachi AshuraArsonists Strike Karachi’s Commercial Market District

The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has claimed responsibility for the bombing, which it says was carried out by a suicide bomber, though a police investigation says the bomb was an improvised explosive device (IED) detonated by remote control (AFP, December 30; Onlinenews.com.pk, January 5). Shortly before the attacks, reports emerged of CDs being distributed in Karachi that demonstrated the use of weapons and bomb-making methods (Daily Times [Lahore], December 22, 2009).

A respected Islamabad daily reported “the Rangers [a paramilitary under the Ministry of the Interior] and the police were simple bystanders watching the looters with folded hands” as apparently well-trained young men “methodically burnt one building after another, turning goods and property worth billions into ashes” (The News [Islamabad], January 2). Following the mass arson attacks, both the Sindh-based Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) accused each other of failing to provide security and failing to check the fires. There were reports that local authorities sought permission to open fire on the arsonists, but authorization was denied (The News [Islamabad], January 2). There are accusations that the objective of the unknown arsonists was “not only to destabilize the city, but to pave the way for the mighty land mafia that is adamant to demolish all old, historical buildings and replace them with skyscrapers” (The News, December 31, 2009).

Interior Minister Rehman Malik provided a rather shocking explanation of the security collapse that allowed the markets of Karachi to be destroyed when he explained to Karachi business leaders, “The police and the Rangers do not know how to fire their guns. They have no training and the business community must contribute to a fund to provide training to these forces” (The News, January 2). A government suggestion that temporary markets could be built elsewhere was rejected by the business community on the grounds that acceptance might evolve into a final settlement as developers and influential politicians demolish the damaged markets and construct new commercial plazas with exorbitant rents.

The leader of the Sunni Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami political party, Syed Munawwar Hasan, suggested that India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW- Indian external intelligence) and U.S. private security firm Blackwater (now Xe Services LLC) may have played a role in the bombing. Blackwater (Xe) is commonly blamed for terrorist attacks in Pakistan. Noting that security forces did not act to prevent the arson and fire brigades did not respond for four hours, Syed Munawwar asked President Asif Ali Zardari whether the state “actually existed anywhere and why it did not act in time” (The News, December 31). Most notably in a city known for Sunni-Shi’a sectarian tensions, Syed Munawwar clearly stated that the arson attacks had been carried out by “conspirators” rather than the Shi’a community.

The Grand Mufti of Pakistan, Muhammad Rafi Usmani, stated at a press conference days after the destruction that Blackwater was responsible for the bombing of the procession of Shiite mourners celebrating Ashura (The News, December 30). The Interior Minister blamed “certain powers” (India is most likely to be understood here) for the destruction of Karachi’s markets, but denied the presence of Blackwater (Xe) private security forces in Pakistan (Daily Times [Lahore], January 2; The News, January 2).

The National Assembly leader of the Sindh-based Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), Dr. Farooq Sattar, appeared at a press conference alongside Interior Minister Malik to state that “land and drug mafias” were behind the Ashura violence (The News, January 1). Malik said the bombing was not a suicide attack and the markets had been set aflame in an organized rather than spontaneous manner (Daily Times, January 2; The News, January 1). An investigation is expected in order to inquire why several hours passed before any effort was made to extinguish the blazes.

The blast was followed by the alarming news that the alleged mastermind of the December 28 Ashura bombing, Sirajullah (a.k.a. Zeeshan, a.k.a. Shani), had been in police custody since December 23 and had revealed details of the bombing (including planning and the type of explosives) before the attack was carried out (Daily Times [Lahore], January 1, January 3; The Nation [Islamabad], December 31, 2009).

This article first appeared in the January 7, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Algeria Introduces New Military Strategy to Combat Terrorism in the Sahara

Andrew McGregor

January 7, 2010

As al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) terrorists grow more active in the Saharan region, Algeria has introduced a new military strategy designed to restrict movement through the volatile border regions that Algeria shares with Niger, Mali and Mauritania. Algeria has deployed an additional 3,000 troops to the force of 15,000 men along the southern borders. Algerian military forces in this region fall under the command of the 6th military region, headquartered at Tamanrasset.

Algeria MapTogether with border guards and the gendarmerie, the army will restrict movement in a number of regions of southern Algeria to those with a security permit. Eight border gates have been created along Algeria’s southern borders, intended to reduce the free movement of smugglers in the region. Individuals making unauthorized crossings through the border region will be given a single warning before being shot at by Algerian security forces. Vehicles moving at night through restricted zones will also be fired on by patrols equipped with night vision equipment. Wells and other water sources in the region will continue to be tightly controlled (El-Khabar [Algiers], December 22, 2009).

Algeria and Mali have also formed a joint military technical committee to address common security concerns. The committee held a three day meeting last month to discuss military coordination and cooperation with Western security services in dealing with the growing number of kidnappings of Westerners in Saharan Africa (El-Khabar, December 21).

Three Malians alleged to be associates of al-Qaeda were recently arrested in Ghana in a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) sting operation. The suspects told undercover DEA agents that they were working with Colombia’s Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – FARC) to ship cocaine through Algeria, Libya and Morocco to Spain under the protection of al-Qaeda operatives (Bikya Masr [Cairo], December 20, 2009; Los Angeles Times, December 19, 2009; AFP, December 18, 2009).

The discovery of a burnt out Boeing 727 airliner in the Malian desert in the region of Sinkrebaka, 125 miles north of the town of Gao, has reinforced the belief that South American drug smugglers are now actively involved in shipping drugs through West Africa into Europe (Air Cargo News, November 17, 2009; AFP, December 11, 2009).

This article first appeared in the January 7, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Opposition Group Promises Attacks Following Sanctions on Eritrea for Support of Terrorism

Andrew McGregor

January 7, 2010

Tensions continue to rise in the volatile Horn of Africa as Eritrean insurgent groups promise a new wave of political violence following the imposition of UN sanctions against Eritrea for its alleged support of terrorism in the region. Eritrea is strategically located on the Red Sea, sharing borders with Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti. A former Italian colony, Eritrea was annexed by Ethiopia in 1962, sparking a long and bitter struggle for independence that concluded in 1991 with the expulsion of Ethiopian forces. According to the 1997 constitution, Eritrea is supposed to be a parliamentary democracy with an elected president, but the constitution has not been implemented and elections have never been held. In practice, Eritrea is a one party state, ruled by the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) under President Isaias Afewerki, an Orthodox Christian and former leader of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). Afewerki has been the nation’s sole president since 1993.

Eritrea 1Ethnic Map of Eritrea

The Security Council Sanctions

The text of the December 23 Security Council resolution accuses Eritrea of “efforts to destabilize or overthrow” the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia. The resolution also calls on Eritrea to withdraw its troops from the border with Djibouti, where they are deployed to pressure Djibouti in a longstanding territorial dispute, calling their deployment “a threat to international security.”  Resolution 1907 was approved with 13 votes in favor, one vote against (Libya), and one abstention (China). The sanctions provide for travel restrictions for Eritrean political and military leaders, the freezing of Eritrean assets abroad and an arms embargo on Eritrea. An earlier Security Council resolution, no. 1862, followed fighting between Eritrean and Djiboutian forces in June 2008 and called on Asmara to withdraw its forces from the disputed region along the border, but no action was taken by Eritrean military forces to comply.

The new resolution was drafted by the Ugandan government. Uganda is the main source of troops for the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which is now nearly the only armed support of consequence for the TFG. Isaac Musumba, the Ugandan Minister for Regional Cooperation, said Eritrea “provided sanctuary to international criminals. It is a rogue state” (New Vision [Kampala], December 29).

According to Dr. Ilmi Ahmad Du’alem, the UN envoy to Somalia, the sanctions were based “on proof that Eritrea supports terrorism… Eritrea supports [terrorist groups opposed to the Somali government]. Arms, material and moral support to these groups are delivered through Eritrea. Eritrea is the headquarters, and most of the [Somali] opposition is still in Eritrea… There were resolutions before the current one, warning Eritrea to end these actions” (Radio HornAfrik, December 29, 2009).

Eritrea’s Role in Somalia

Islamist opposition group Hizb al-Islam (composed largely of the Asmara-based Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia led by Shaykh Hassan Dahir Aweys), a former partner of al-Shabaab, condemned the sanctions, noting that while other countries were intervening in Somalia, no sanctions had been imposed on them (Mareeg.com., December 24, 2009).

An Ethiopian government spokesman suggested the “international delinquent state of Eritrea” was “promoting and abetting terrorist forces in the region.” A statement from the Eritrean Foreign Ministry described the resolution as a “brazen act” based neither “on fact nor on the provisions of international law. It constitutes a travesty of justice and amplifies the dangers inherent in a unipolar world.” The statement identified Britain, the United States and Uganda as the principal forces behind the resolution:

“It must be stressed that the accusations against Eritrea for involvement in Somalia have never been substantiated or verified… Indeed, how can Eritrea provide logistical support to armed groups in Somalia when it does not have a contiguous border with that country? Eritrea has neither the political will nor the financial clout to bankroll armed groups in Somalia… The United States has simply employed its preponderant influence to ram through unjustifiable sanctions against a small country” (Shabait.com, December 23, 2009).

The Eritrean ambassador to the UN, Araya Desta, said, “The Security Council has decided to impose sanctions on Eritrea based on fabricated lies, mainly concocted by the Ethiopian regime and the US administration” (New Vision [Kampala], December 28).

Strangely enough, the sanctions imposed on Eritrea for supporting al-Shabaab came after senior Shabaab member Shaykh Mukhtar Robow “Abu Mansur” issued a threat to Asmara in October, saying Eritrea opposed the implementation of Shari’a law in Somalia because its leaders were not Muslims. The shaykh added that the non-Muslim regime was ruling the Muslim majority in Eritrea by force (AllPuntland.com, October 31, 2009). It is difficult to assess the reasoning behind this threat, though there are several possibilities:

• Eritrea has ended its support to al-Shabaab in favor of rival Islamist group Hizb al-Islam.

• Al-Shabaab may be doing a favor to the Eritrean regime by publicly denouncing it before the sanctions proposal could be introduced at the UN Security Council.

• The threat may be yet another in a series of self-defeating moves by the increasingly fanatic Shabaab movement.

Eritrea’s envoy to the United Nations described the allegations of military support for groups fighting in Somalia as “lies and propaganda,” indicating that it is archrival Ethiopia that is responsible for fueling the conflict in Somalia, as well as causing instability in the region by occupying lands belonging to its neighbors, including Eritrea (Dayniile, December 20; AllPuntland, December 2, 2009).

Eritrea 2DMLEK Leader Cornelius Osman

Eritrea’s Armed Opposition Threatens the Regime

One of the many Eritrean opposition groups saw an opening in the UNSC sanctions. Cornelius Osman, leader of the Democratic Movement for the Liberation of the Eritrean Kunama (DMLEK) said, “This is a good opportunity for us. We are preparing our military forces to launch more attacks. We are inside Eritrea and will hit selected targets and institutions.” The DMLEK chief added that the freeze on foreign assets and travel ban on Eritrean political and military leaders would isolate the regime and “deter it from receiving the hundreds of millions of dollars it gets” annually from the Eritrean diaspora (AFP, December 29, 2009).

DMLEK is a member of the Eritrean Democratic Alliance (EDA), an opposition umbrella group based in Ethiopia. The movement, based on the Kunama people, was formed after Eritrea gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1991.The Kunama are a Nilotic people related to the Nilotic tribes of South Sudan, but in Eritrea they represent only 2% of the population. The Kunama live near the Ethiopian border between the Gash and Setit rivers, an area that has placed them between opposing Eritrean and Ethiopian forces. Another even smaller Nilotic group known as the Nara has formed its own opposition movement – the Eritrean Democratic Resistance Movement Gash-Setit, under Ismael Nada.

DMLEK has claimed a number of small attacks against Eritrean government forces or facilities. Some sense of the scale of these attacks can be gained from examining DMLEK statements:

• In November 2007, DMLEK forces attacked a military outpost at Melezanai, claiming to have killed 15 soldiers and wounding five others. An administrative office at Shambaco was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade (DMLEK Military communiqué, November 8, 2007).

• In January 2008, DMLEK claimed to have destroyed the government’s agricultural office in the town of Binbilina along with goods stored in a warehouse. In the same operation, a water truck and tanker were set ablaze in the town of Barentu (Walta Information Center, January 30, 2008).

• In March 2009, DMLEK claimed to have destroyed a military hospital in the southwest region of Gash-Barka with RPGs, hand grenades and small arms (Sudan Tribune, March 23, 2009).

A North American-based Kunama group has undertaken a campaign to depose Cornelius Osman as the movement’s leader. The group accuses Osman of “kidnapping, imprisoning, torturing and killing a lot of innocent, educated and knowledgeable Kunama” and acting as an agent of the Eritrean government. They claim many Kunama fighters have deserted the organization. [1] Osman addressed the accusations in a Paltalk discussion with members of the Eritrean diaspora. While he did not deny the extra-judicial killings, he identified the victims as “rogue elements” working for the PFDJ regime to sabotage the Kunama movement (Awate.com, November 8, 2009).

The Armed Opposition

There are strong regional, religious, cultural and linguistic divisions in Eritrea. This situation is reflected in the many national and diaspora opposition groups. The Eritrean regime is dominated by members of the Tigrinya ethnic group, who form 50% of the population in Eritrea. Most Tigrinya are Christians, though a minority are Muslims. Many of the opposition groups are based on ethnic minorities that feel excluded from the Eritrean power structure, such as the Afar, the Kunama and the Nara. Regardless of the extent of their military activities, all such opposition groups are termed “terrorists” by the Asmara regime. Most opposition groups oppose what they regard as the “Tigrinization” of the country as well as the nationalization of lands traditionally held by ethnic minority groups.

The large number of opposition groups has so far prevented the emergence of an effective armed opposition to the Asmara regime, but lately this problem has been addressed by the formation of three larger coalitions (Gedab News/Awate.com, February 25, 2007). Last June, DMLEK joined the Red Sea Afar Democratic Organization (RSADO) to form the Democratic Front of Eritrean Nationalities (DFEN). At the conclusion of a two-day congress, DFEN declared its intention to work under the umbrella of the Eritrean Democratic Alliance (EDA) and called on all of Eritrea’s armed opposition groups to coordinate their efforts. The new alliance also called on Eritrea’s Tigrinya to turn against the regime (Gedab News/Awate.com, June 19, 2009). The three main opposition coalitions are preparing a unity conference in Addis Ababa with the intention of forming a single armed opposition front with the aid of Ethiopian authorities (Nharnet, December 25, 2009; Sudan Tribune, December 30, 2009).

Eritrea maintains a massive defense establishment at considerable cost. Universal conscription of both men and women is used to provide the numbers that the government feels necessary to maintain in expectation of a further conflict with Ethiopia. Nevertheless, conscription is unpopular and desertion is common. DMLEK maintains that the Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF) have been “weakened by the economic and political crisis in the country as well as internal resistance” and are fleeing to neighboring countries whenever they get the chance (Walta Information Center, November 21, 2007). There are roughly 180,000 Eritrean refugees living in Sudan, which occasionally sends some asylum seekers back to Eritrea (Sudan Tribune, September 25, 2008).


Opponents of the government make regular efforts to tie the regime to Iran and its alleged support for terrorism in an effort to depict Eritrea as a regional threat (see Terrorism Monitor, April 3, 2009).  Typical of this is a recent and unconfirmed story carried on an Arabic-language opposition website that described the offloading of a weapons cargo from an Iranian ship in the port of Massawa under the supervision of representatives of al-Shabaab, the Houthist rebels of northern Yemen and an unnamed Djiboutian insurgent group (Adoulis, December 24). Such efforts are likely to increase as the opposition seeks international support beyond the usual support it receives from Addis Ababa.

For the moment, none of the Eritrean insurgent groups or coalitions appear strong enough to topple the PFDJ government, which has built a strong security structure to ensure its survival. If the opposition succeeds in forming a single front, it may receive military and financial support from the many enemies of the Eritrean government. An outbreak of political violence and even civil war in Eritrea has the potential to drag in Eritrea’s neighbors (particularly Ethiopia) and further inflame the conflict in Somalia and the low-level Afar insurgency in Djibouti, the site of a major American military base.

This article first appeared in the January 7, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor