Khartoum’s Islamist Perspective on Libya’s Internal Conflict

Andrew McGregor

June 13, 2014

Though Sudan’s shared border with Libya is relatively small and remote, it does include an ancient but still important cross-Saharan trade route that passes by Jabal Uwaynat, a small mountain complex at the meeting point of Egypt, Libya and Sudan. The route, used by commercial traffic, smugglers and human traffickers, leads to the oasis of Kufra in southeastern Libya after cutting through territory largely controlled by Tubu militias. Sudanese troops were active in securing the region during the Libyan revolution. Though Sudan has officially closed the border during the current troubles in Libya, African migrants are still being trafficked through the area on their way to the Libyan coast and a final attempt to reach Europe.

Jabal Uwaynat – Where Three Borders Meet

This overland connection and various improvements made to it during the rule of the late Libyan leader Mu’ammar Qaddafi give Libya an important commercial presence and, at times, even political influence in western Sudan’s Darfur region. Khartoum’s relations with Qaddafi’s Libya were in a constant state of flux, with the former Libyan leader pursuing various unwanted unification schemes with his larger southern neighbor. Qaddafi’s patronizing attitude irked a succession of Sudanese leaders, and when his advances were rejected, Qaddafi could quickly turn to supporting various elements of Sudan’s armed opposition. Since Qaddafi’s demise, however, Khartoum has adopted a cautious approach to the political chaos in Libya, though it is the sudden current effort of Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar to install himself as that nation’s latest strongman through “Operation Dignity” that has created alarm in Khartoum. Though Sudan’s intelligence apparatus has developed close ties with the American CIA, it is Haftar’s own association with that agency that disturbs Khartoum. Haftar is also supported by various interests in the Gulf region that are often at odds with Khartoum, which some Gulf states regard as being unduly close to Tehran.

Following the lead of newly-elected Egyptian president Field Marshal Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, Haftar’s campaign has focused on Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood and radical Islamist groups such as Ansar al-Shari’a, the latter believed to have been responsible for the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Al-Sisi has even warned of the danger posed by Islamist terrorists operating out of eastern Libya, with these groups being involved in arms trafficking across the network of oases in the Egyptian part of the Libyan Desert (Tripoli Post, May 28). According to Haftar, the Islamist trend in Libya is a growing international threat:

The security problem is a major issue that has shaken our country in a frightening manner after the GNC allowed all the terrorist forces across the world to come to Libya and coexist with the Libyan people. We know that these terrorists can never coexist with the people of Libya. The Muslim Brotherhood is leading this move. They are being granted Libyan passports and are coming to our country from abroad. There is now a large group of Brothers here, and that is why our neighbors are raising questions about this situation… When terrorist operations began to take place in Egypt, and the Egyptian authorities announced that the Muslim Brotherhood were leading these [terrorist] groups, this opened the eyes of many Libyans to the true nature of the Brotherhood (al-Sharq al-Awsat, May 22).

In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Haftar named Sudan as one of the countries (along with Chad and Egypt) from which armed Islamist groups are infiltrating Libya (Washington Post, May 21). On June 7, Haftar’s expanding military forces were joined by the largely Tubu 25th Brigade (a.k.a. the Ahmad al-Sharif Brigade). The brigade regards itself as part of Libya’s regular army and controls the important al-Sarir oilfield and several other oil facilities and border points in southeastern Libya. According to brigade commander Major Ali Sida, “We have always kept away from political issues and regional divisions… We’ve joined the Operation Dignity because Libyan army members are being attacked and murdered. It’s our duty to protect ourselves and enforce law in our country” (Libya Herald, June 8). Recently resigned Tubu military leader Isa Abd al-Majid Mansur was accused of bringing Sudanese mercenaries to southeastern Libya to establish an independent Tubu state after the collapse of the Qaddafi regime, charges he denies: “We have connections here and there, but that does not mean that we bring in fighters to Libya” (al-Jazeera, May 9).

Abd al-Hakim Belhaj  (Guardian)

On May 19, Sudan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement urging international respect for Libya’s sovereignty while calling on the Arab League, the African Union and other elements of the international community to support Libya’s “democratic transformation” (Sudan News Agency, May 20, Sudan Vision, May 21). Reports of a recent visit to Khartoum by Libyan al-Watan Party leader Abd al-Hakim Belhaj, a veteran jihadist turned politician, were quickly followed by accusations from Haftar’s Libyan National Army that Khartoum was using air assets to deliver Qatari-funded arms shipments to fighters loyal to Belhaj (Youm al-Sabe’a [Cairo], June 6; Sudan Tribune, June 6). Though Khartoum declined to comment on Belhaj’s alleged visit, a spokesman for the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) denied charges it was supplying arms to Islamist factions in Libya and pointed to the military training a number of Libyan officers are receiving at Sudan’s Karari military college and the work of joint Libyan-Sudanese border forces as proof of military cooperation between Tripoli and Khartoum (Sudan Tribune, June 9).

Though many leading figures in the military-Islamist coalition that rules Sudan have their political origins in Sudan’s Ikhwan movement (an independent Sudanese branch of the Muslim Brotherhood), Sudan’s Foreign Minister, Ali Karti, has taken steps to distance the regime from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates in the Gulf states: “Some people in the Gulf states believe that we have feelings towards the Muslim Brotherhood in any country in the Gulf or even Egypt. Sudan was the first state that refused to join the Muslim Brotherhood movement.” Karti also denied reports that Qatari ruler Shaykh Tamim bin-Hamad used a recent visit to Khartoum to request Sudanese assistance in relocating fugitive Muslim Brotherhood leaders from Doha to Khartoum (al-Hayat, May 29).

The situation in Libya has been complicated by the disputed designation of Ahmad Mu’aytiq, a Misratah-based politician viewed as close to the Muslim Brotherhood, as the nation’s new Prime Minister. Misratah’s Central Shield Force militia is responsible for protecting the ruling General National Council’s facilities in Tripoli, but are at odds with the Zintan militia, which has lined up behind General Haftar and also operates in parts of Tripoli (al-Sharq al-Awsat, May 21).

The foreign relations secretary for Sudan’s influential Islamist opposition party, the Popular Congress Party (led by veteran Islamist Dr. Hassan al-Turabi after a split with the ruling National Congress Party) issued a statement in late May warning against military intervention in Libya by Sudanese, Chadian or Egyptian forces, citing the negative consequences that would follow such an intervention. While Bashir Adam Rahma insisted these nations should play a role only as “neutral reformers,” he emphasized that direct intervention by Khartoum could result in new military operations by the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and other Darfur-based rebel movements. Rahma also warned that if the enemies of political Islam triumphed in Libya, Khartoum would be the next target of “anti-Islamic” forces (Sudan Tribune, May 29). Similar suggestions appeared in a report carried by the government-connected Sudan Vision news agency on June 8. According to the report, Sudan’s border with Libya was now regarded as “unsafe,” and “will continue to be more unsafe with the rising of General Khalifa Haftar as a potential leader in his strong military campaigns against the Islamic movements in the east of Libya.” Khartoum expects that Haftar will cooperate fully with al-Sisi in Egypt in his “ruthless campaign against the Islamic Brotherhood movement” (Sudan Vision, June 8).

This article was first published in the June 13, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.