Assessing the War in Sudan: Is an RSF Victory in Sight?

Andrew McGregor

Terrorism Monitor 21(24)

Jamestown Foundation, Washington DC

December 15, 2023

After eight months of brutal warfare, Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) now appear to have the upper hand against the better-armed Sudan Armed Forces (SAF). Led by Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemetti,” the RSF has conducted a highly mobile campaign against the SAF’s reactive and defensive posture, allowing the group to take the initiative in all regions of the conflict. With the Sudanese capital of Khartoum now a devastated battlefield, the ineffective government, led by SAF commander-in-chief General Abd al-Fatah al-Burhan, operates from a temporary base in Port Sudan, which suffers from power shortages and a chronic lack of fresh water.

Peace talks in Jeddah between the two military factions, assisted by Saudi, American, and African Union mediators, were indefinitely suspended earlier this month after both sides failed to meet commitments agreed upon in earlier negotiations (al-Taghyeer [Khartoum], December 4; Africa News, December 5). The animosity between the factions is severe and historically based in the rivalry between the poor Arab tribesmen of western Sudan (the RSF) and the Arab elites of the Nile region who have controlled Sudan and its military since the country gained independence in 1956.

RSF Commander General Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemetti”

Resistance to the RSF onslaught is weakening at all levels, placing Sudan’s diverse population at risk of rule by Arab supremacists with a record of savage conduct and a general ignorance of the means of development, administrative techniques, economic theory, and international relations.

The Impending RSF Conquest of Darfur

Four of Darfur’s five states, comprising nearly 80 percent of the western province, are now in RSF hands. North Darfur state and its capital, al-Fashir, may be the RSF’s next target. Al-Fashir is strategically and symbolically important as the former capital of the once powerful Fur Sultanate (c.1650-1916). Security in North Darfur is provided largely by the Joint Protection Force (JPF), an alliance of five non-Arab armed movements that has been busy recruiting in the region in anticipation of an RSF offensive. The RSF has also been recruiting from the region’s Arab population, setting the stage for a vicious ethnic conflict that will inevitably result in the mass slaughter and displacement of many of North Darfur’s civilians. Convoys bringing supplies to North Darfur from central Sudan have stopped, creating shortages of food, fuel, and medicines (Sudan Tribune, December 7).

JEM Leader Jibril Ibrahim (Sudan Tribune)

Two major armed movements, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Army of Minni Minawi (SLA-MM), abandoned their self-declared neutrality on November 16 to announce their support for the SAF. Both groups also declared their willingness “to participate in military operations on all fronts without hesitation” (Radio Dabanga, November 17). JEM leader Jibril Ibrahim also condemned the RSF’s use of Arab mercenaries from Chad and Niger who have been promised the right to settle on land cleared of its non-Arab residents. The declaration followed months of murder and rape inflicted by the RSF on the non-Arab Black population of Darfur. The most notable atrocity involved the murder of some 1,300 civilians (mostly Masalit, an ethnic group in western Sudan and eastern Chad) in a camp for displaced people in West Darfur. The RSF attack began on November 2 and only ended three days later (Al Jazeera, November 10). The non-Arab Masalit have been targeted by the RSF and Arab militias since the start of the war in what appears to be an effort to ethnically cleanse the region of its indigenous Black population (see Terrorism Monitor, June 26).

Zaghawa Nomads (X)

Despite their small numbers, the ambitious Black African Zaghawa ethnic group plays a leading role in Darfur’s anti-government opposition. SLA-MM leader Minni Minawi, JEM leader Jibril Ibrahim, and al-Tahir Hajar, leader of the Gathering of Sudan Liberation Forces (GSLF), are all Zaghawa. During the fighting for Nyala, RSF gunmen were accused of assassinating prominent members of the Zaghawa community (Sudan Tribune, September 16).

Darfur Governor and SLA-MM Leader Minni Minawi (AFP)

Minni Minawi, governor of Darfur since August 2021, remains wary of the SAF, which continues to be commanded by members of Sudan’s riverine Arab elite. The rank-and-file troops are composed of conscripts from other regions, including many non-Arabs. Without substantial reforms to the composition of the SAF, Minawi notes its victory might only mean a return to an oppressive status quo (Sudan War Monitor, December 4).

RSF’s Series of Conquests

Under pressure from the RSF, garrisons across Darfur have fallen like dominos. Nyala, Sudan’s second-largest city, is the capital of South Darfur and an important military strongpoint. It fell after a long siege followed by a four-day assault that ended on October 26, killing hundreds of civilians during the shelling of the city (Asharq al-Awsat, October 29).

Zalingei, the capital of Central Darfur, was lost after the SAF’s 21st Infantry Division fled on October 31, allowing the RSF to walk in. Al-Geneina, capital of West Darfur, was taken by the RSF on November 4 after most of the 15th Division garrison fled, leaving hundreds of troops and weapons behind. Masalit civilians and captured troops were abused, whipped, and forced to run barefoot through the rubble (Sudan War Monitor, November 6). Gathering smaller garrisons along the way, the remaining defenders fled to Chad, where they were disarmed and interned. Elsewhere in South Darfur, officers have changed into civilian clothes and made for the border with South Sudan (Sudan War Monitor, November 27).

SAF Leader General al-Burhan (BBC)

As it consolidates control of Darfur, the RSF is now poised to begin operations against al-Ubayd, the capital of neighboring North Kordofan. The RSF has already driven away the SAF’s garrison in the western Kordofan town of al-Mojalid and the nearby Balila oilfield (a joint Sudanese-Chinese project), despite intensive airstrikes by the SAF (Asharq al-Awsat, October 31; al-Taghayeer [Khartoum], November 27).

Where Do Armed Opposition Movements Stand?

The war of the generals has finally shattered the hard-won 2020 Juba Peace Agreement (JPA), which promised a new era of peace in Sudan by reconciling the government with the nation’s leading rebel movements. However, two of the most powerful movements rejected the process entirely. In practice, the JPA has been described as “a mechanism to disburse political patronage to a few key rebel leaders.” [1]

One of the principal armed movements in Darfur is the largely Fur-based Sudan Liberation Army of Abd al-Wahid al-Nur (SLA-AW). The group helped launch the 2003 rebel attacks on the SAF that sparked nearly two decades of war in Darfur (Darfur means “abode of the Fur”). The movement was not a signatory to the JPA and is not part of North Darfur’s Joint Protection Force. Nonetheless, General Yusuf Karjakula led a group of SLA-AW fighters from its Jabal Marra stronghold to al-Fashir in late November where they deployed to protect IDP camps from RSF assaults (Sudan Tribune, December 3). The general also met with SAF and JPF commanders, suggesting the SLA-AW may be considering joint operations to defend al-Fashir despite long-standing distrust of the SAF.

Many of the armed opposition movements have begun to split internally over the issue of alignment with the RSF or the SAF (for the rebel movements, see Terrorism Monitor, August 8). Even Minni Minawi’s faction of the SLA is experiencing divisions between its SAF-supporting leader and its military commander, General Juma Haggar, who supports the RSF (Sudan War Monitor, December 4). The Sudan Liberation Army-Transitional Council (SLA-TC), led by Al-Hadi Idris Yahya Farajallah, is considered close to the RSF, though the movement’s vice-president, Salah al-Din Abdel-Rahman al-Ma’rouf “Salah Rasas,” is considered to be a supporter of the SAF (Sudan War Monitor, December 4). A new faction of JEM under Sulayman Sandal Haggar split from the movement in August 2023 after some JEM members charged leader Jibril Ibrahim with backing the SAF (Darfur24, August 30).

Some rebel leaders are attempting to remain neutral, like Al-Tahir Abu Bakr Hajar, leader of the Gathering of Sudan Liberation Forces (GSLF), though some of his men were reported among the defenders of Nyala (Sudan War Monitor, October 26).

Foreign Intervention in the Sudan Conflict

There are allegations of foreign interference in the conflict, notably support for the RSF from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Russia’s Wagner Group, as well as Ukrainian support for General al-Burhan’s SAF.

Alleged Ukrainian Sniper on Ridge Northwest of Omdurman (Bellingcat)

Al-Burhan and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met in Ireland on September 23 to discuss responses to the pro-RSF activities of the Russian Wagner Group in Sudan (Kyiv Independent, September 23; Sudan Tribune, September 23). The meeting came days after the release of videos alleged to show Ukrainian drone attacks on RSF forces in the Sudanese capital (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, November 14). Since then, videos have emerged of Ukrainian snipers operating in the hills northwest of Omdurman, as geolocated by independent investigative collective Bellingcat (Bellingcat.com, October 7). There have also been videos released on November 6, allegedly showing personnel of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s Main Directorate of Intelligence engaging with RSF fighters, Wagner personnel, and members of Russia’s special forces in the Sudanese city of Omdurman (Kyiv Post, November 6; Sudan War Monitor, November 10).

Journalists seeking confirmation or denial of these activities have been referred to the words of Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence service HUR MOU (Holovne upravlinnja rozvidky Ministerstva oborony Ukrajiny), who stated last May that “we have killed Russians and will continue to kill Russians anywhere in the world, until the complete victory of Ukraine” (New Voice of Ukraine, May 17). RSF leader Hemetti has expressed his support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and his paramilitary force is alleged to have engaged in gold smuggling with Wagner operatives in exchange for arms and advisors.

Small operations of the type allegedly engaged in by Ukraine in Sudan ultimately have little influence on the outcome of the war. However, they do diminish the local reputation of Wagner operatives who have helped finance Russia’s war in Ukraine by smuggling gold from regions of western Sudan under RSF control.

General Yassir al-Atta

General Yassir al-Atta (deputy to al-Burhan) stated that military intelligence and diplomatic sources had confirmed that the UAE was shipping supplies to the RSF through neighboring countries, including Chad. The allegation was denied by authorities in the UAE (Radio Tamazuj [Juba], November 29). The UAE is Sudan’s main trading partner, has been a major investor in Sudan in recent years, and is the primary destination for gold smuggled out of western Sudan. Al-Atta’s description of the UAE as a “mafia-state” led to a breakdown in diplomatic relations between the two countries (Radio Dabanga, December 11).

Atta’s remarks also incensed Chadian authorities. On December 11, they demanded an official Sudanese apology for claiming the UAE had been allowed to ship weapons and munitions to the RSF through Chad. N’Djamena promised to take “measures” if the apology did not come within three days (Sudan Tribune, December 11). Darfur governor Minni Minawi had already accused Chadian authorities of allowing the passage of arms and mercenaries through Chad to the RSF in mid-November (Radio Dabanga, November 17).

There are further allegations that the Zaghawa generals who control Chad’s powerful military are annoyed by the UAE’s support of the mainly-Arab RSF and are providing clandestine support to their Zaghawa kinsmen in JEM and the SLA-MM (Sudan Tribune, December 7).

Destruction of Khartoum

Little remains in SAF hands in Khartoum other than the much-battered army headquarters and a small patch of Khartoum North (Bahri) connected by the SAF-controlled Blue Nile rail bridge. Khartoum’s al-Jaili refinery, the largest fuel production facility in Sudan, was destroyed in a bombing on December 6, the fourth such bombing of that location since the war began. Both the RSF and the SAF accuse the other of being responsible for the destruction (Sudan Tribune, December 6). RSF posts are dispersed throughout Khartoum; in the SAF’s attempt to find and destroy them, large parts of the city have been smashed by airstrikes and artillery, including many of its most notable buildings.

The RSF now controls all of Khartoum State, with the exception of the SAF-controlled pockets in Khartoum and northern Omdurman. RSF patrols have been spotted recently in eastern Sudan, possibly preparing the way for an occupation of that region. Twenty-five miles south of Khartoum, the strategic Jabal Awliya military base and airport fell on November 20 after a siege and two-day assault, removing a major obstacle to a RSF incursion into White Nile State (Radio Dabanga, November 21).

Conclusion

The SAF is highly demoralized and suffers from high rates of desertion and defection. Resistance to the RSF is collapsing in many parts of the country, diminishing hopes for a negotiated settlement. There are thousands of dead, soldiers and civilians alike. The country’s GDP is expected to decline by 18 percent this year due to the war (Africa News, October 12), with over half the population in need of humanitarian assistance. Six million Sudanese are displaced and cut off from normal avenues of support. As famine approaches, the only trade activity that still works is the import and distribution of arms, despite an international embargo.

Civilian groups that had previously discovered the power of the people when overthrowing President Omar al-Bashir in 2019 have now discovered that they have zero influence in the current military power struggle. Most alarming is the emergence of patterns of ethnic and tribal violence that have ways of resisting political settlement while perpetuating grievances both new and traditional. Focused on self-enrichment, the RSF’s barely literate leadership has no rational plan for reviving the state. There is little chance that the RSF’s military success can translate into a brighter future for Sudan’s 46 million people.

Note:

[1] Amar Jamal, “Key Actors in the Juba Peace Agreement: Roles, Impacts and Lessons,” Rift Valley Institute Research Report, September 14, 2023, p.16, https://riftvalley.net/sites/default/files/publication-documents/RVI%202023.09.14%20Key%20Actors%20in%20the%20JPA.pdf

“There Will Be No Dar Masalit, Only Dar Arab”: Sudan’s Ethnic Divisions Destroy West Darfur

Andrew McGregor

Terrorism Monitor, Washington DC

June 26, 2023

Arab Tribesman and RSF vehicle, West Darfur, June 2022 (AP)

The conflict between the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) in Sudan started on April 15. However, parts of Darfur were already experiencing ethnic and political violence, much of it dating back to the 1990s. While the clashes in Khartoum dominate international media attention, fighting in the more remote Darfur region has exploded in intensity and bloodshed, particularly in one of the region’s five states—West Darfur.

West Darfur is home to the Masalit people, Black Africans claiming ancestral origins in Tunisia. Historically, the region is known as “Dar Masalit” (dar meaning “abode of” or “home of”). Based in the historically volatile border region between western Darfur and eastern Chad, the Masalit took advantage of political upheavals in the region to establish an independent border sultanate in the late 19th century. The young sultanate, however, immediately faced invasion by Sudanese Mahdists and attacks from the Sultan of Darfur, who considered the sultanate his property.

Range of the Masalit People (Joshua Project)

Famed for their fierceness in battle, the Masalit also fought two major battles against the French in 1910, halting the eastward expansion of the French colonialists and the absorption of Dar Masalit into French-ruled Chad. The Anglo-Egyptian army that occupied Darfur in 1916 continued west into Dar Masalit, leading to its eventual formal absorption in 1922 into the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan (and later independent Sudan) following a border treaty between Britain and France. To this day, however, the Masalit and other tribes of the region have closer relations with their kinsmen in Chad than Sudan’s ruling Nile Valley Arabs. Al-Geneina (a.k.a. al-Junaynah), the capital of West Darfur, is 745 miles from Khartoum, but only 17 miles from Chad.

In all its turbulent history, the escalating conflict in West Darfur now represents the greatest threat in many years to the existence of the Masalit homeland.

Arabism vs. Traditional Society

As the Khartoum regime began to promote an Arab supremacist/Islamist ideology in the 1990s, it replaced the traditional administrative structure of the Masalit with appointees from the military and the Rizayqat Arabs of North Darfur. Persecution of Masalit community leaders followed, and soon Arab militias began to attack Masalit villages and burn their crops to force them into out-migration. By 1997-1999, the Masalit were suffering thousands of civilian casualties as government-armed Arab militias ran wild under the direction of national intelligence units. Khartoum staunched local resistance by disarming the Masalit and conscripting their young men to fight the rebels in South Sudan.

Sudan Minister of National Defense ‘Abd al-Rahim Muhammad Husayn

In 1999, then Sudanese Interior Minister ‘Abd al-Rahim Muhammed Husayn declared the Masalit to be outlaws and enemies of the regime, falsely claiming they had murdered all the Arab leaders in Dar Masalit. [1] Promoted to Minister of National Defense, ‘Abd al-Rahim found himself facing an International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant in March 2012 for war crimes and crimes against humanity. [2] Fighting between the Masalit and Arabs broke out again in January 2020 and again in April 2021, leaving 452 dead and over 500 wounded (Darfur24, July 21, 2021).

Sudanese Army Recruitment in Darfur

More recently, the Sudanese Army launched an intensive recruitment effort in Darfur a month before hostilities between the army and the RSF, which is composed mainly of Darfur Arabs, broke out in mid-April. The recruitment campaign targeted Arab tribesmen, focusing on the Mahamid clan of the Rizayqat Arabs. The chief of the Mahamid is Musa Hilal, the former leader of the infamous Janjaweed and a main rival of his cousin and former protegé, RSF leader Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemetti,” a member of the Mahariya branch of the Rizayqat.

Musa Hilal (Sudan Tribune)

Some Arab leaders suspect the military focused on recruiting followers of Musa Hilal in order to create a new border force that would rival Hemetti’s RSF (al-Jazeera, May 3). The new force could incorporate Musa loyalists returning from work as mercenaries in Libya. Mahmud Madibbo, who is the nazir (paramount chief) of the Rizayqat, declared “our total rejection of the campaigns of recruitment of tribal youth by intelligence agencies working to mobilize the tribes for more war and prolong the tribal conflict that has claimed a number of innocent lives” (Sudan Tribune, March 16). The latest in a long line of powerful Rizayqat chiefs, Mahmud is a supporter of Hemetti and vowed last year to protect him.

Rizayqat elders met in 2020 with leaders of the RSF, but were unsuccessful in working out the differences between Musa Hilal and Hemetti. Relations between their respective branches of the Rizayqat, the Mahamid and the Mahariya, became tense after the violent 2017 clashes between Musa’s Mahamid supporters and the RSF, in which Hemetti’s brother, Brigadier ‘Abd al-Rahim Juma’a Daglo, was killed. Musa Hilal served four years in prison after being charged with attacking government forces, although he was pardoned and released by the post-revolution transitional government in March 2021.

The Destruction of al-Geneina

Al-Geneina, the capital of West Darfur state, is home to nearly half a million people. Escalating violence, much of it ethnic-based, forced the West Darfur governor to declare a State of Emergency and a 7AM to 7PM curfew on April 10, five days before the conflict between the RSF and SAF broke out. Arab gunmen on motorcycles and camels were reportedly attacking the eastern part of al-Geneina, burning houses and shooting randomly at people. Security forces were conspicuously absent from the streets (Sudan Tribune, April 10).

Al-Geneina in Peacetime (UN News)

By late April, the police and much of the regular army had fled as armed Arab tribesmen began to pour into al-Geneina from north and central Darfur. Indiscriminate fire killed many, camps for displaced people were overrun and medical facilities, including the Red Crescent headquarters, were looted and burned, destroying blood banks and valuable medical equipment (Sudan Tribune, April 27). All dialysis patients in al-Geneina died after equipment and medicines were looted (Darfur24, June 10). Al-Geneina airport has since closed, which prevented the arrival of humanitarian assistance.

Al-Geneina Now (Mail and Guardian)

Doctors and other health workers have fallen victim to snipers and the generators needed to power emergency clinics have been stolen by gunmen. Markets, government buildings, schools and aid agencies remain closed after being looted and the water system, communications and power grid have been disabled (Middle East Monitor, May 26). Many private homes have been destroyed. Areas where residents have taken refuge in large numbers have come under attack by RSF forces firing RPGs (Radio Dabanga, June 14). Other African groups besides the Masalit are also being attacked in al-Geneina by Arab militias backed by RSF forces under the command of ‘Abd al-Rahman Juma’a. Hundreds of bodies lie in the streets as snipers prevent anyone from going outside. Rape, arson and armed robbery have become common (Darfur24, June 10). According to West Darfur’s deputy governor, al-Bukhari ‘Abd Allah, “The magnitude of suffering is inconceivable in El Geneina” (Radio Dabanga, June 8).

Masalit and RSF Responses

In the first days of May, Masalit residents were reported to have seized 7,000 weapons from an abandoned police armory in al-Geneina, though a Masalit leader denied responsibility (Sudan Tribune, May 2). Weapons are plentiful and arrive regularly from Chad. However, they are expensive, and only wealthy residents can afford the $1300 it costs to purchase a Kalashnikov (France24.com, May 19).

RSF Patrol, West Darfur (AP)

The RSF has attempted to obscure its part in the violence by insisting, as it has in Khartoum, that men were impersonating RSF personnel during attacks on civilians. The RSF used social media to condemn a May 14 SAF attack in al-Geneina using tanks and heavy artillery that allegedly killed 20 civilians and damaged the Nassim mosque (RSF Twitter, May 14). The paramilitary has also called for an independent investigation into the violence in al-Geneina, and is no doubt confident that no such inquiry can proceed under the current conditions.

Despite the RSF’s role in the fighting, Hemetti issued a message in late May calling on the people of al-Geneina to “reject regionalism and tribalism. Stop fighting amongst yourselves immediately” (Middle East Monitor, May 26). Nevertheless, by June 15, there were over 1,000 dead in al-Geneina, including women and children, with thousands more wounded and unable to receive treatment. Over 100,000 residents have fled across the border to Chad or other parts of Darfur (al-Hadath TV [Dubai], June 15; Darfur24, June 10).

The Murder of West Darfur’s Governor

Governor Khamis ‘Abd Allah Abkar

The governor of West Darfur, Khamis ‘Abd Allah Abkar, was murdered on June 14, only two hours after receiving an interview form al-Hadath TV. During the interview, Khamis denounced the killing of civilians by the RSF and Arab militants in West Darfur: “There is an ongoing genocide in the region and therefore we need international intervention to protect the remaining population of the region” (Sudan Tribune, June 14). Khamis led Masalit self-defense militias during the Arab attacks of the 1990s. Arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison, Khamis nonetheless escaped in 2003. He then joined the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) rebel movement but eventually left to form his own breakaway movement, the SLA-Khamis Abakr (SLA-KA) (Small Arms Survey, July 2010). In time, this became the largely Masalit Sudanese Alliance Forces. Khamis was appointed governor of West Darfur after this new group joined four other rebel groups in signing the 2020 Juba Peace Agreement (JPA).

Khamis’ arrest by RSF forces followed his interview, with a short video clip appearing on social media showing the governor being unloaded from a vehicle by armed men, one of whom appears to have tried to attack him with a chair as he was being led into a room (Twitter, June 14). A second video then appeared on social media showing the governor’s bloody body, while unseen individuals celebrate offscreen (Sudan Tribune, June 14). SAF commander General ‘Abd al-Fatah al-Burhan accused the RSF of the killing, noting “the dead man had nothing to do with the conflict” (al-Hadath TV [Dubai], June 15). The RSF condemned the murder of the governor. However, an RSF spokesman did not affirm or deny responsibility for the murder, stating only that, “We are in a state of war and there is no safe place in West Darfur” (The New Arab, June 15; Channels Television [Lagos], June 16; SUNA, June 14).

Masalit Sultan Sa’ad ‘Abd al-Rahman Bahr al-Din

West Darfur’s traditional leadership has been challenged as well as its political leadership. After Rizayqat gunmen carried out three major massacres of Masalit civilians between 2019 and 2022, killing a total of 378 people, the Sultan of Dar Masalit, Sa’ad ‘Abd al-Rahman Bahar al-Din, complained of the growth of government-sponsored “Arabism,” accompanied by the disarmament of the Masalit and the arming of Arab militias. As sultan (a largely symbolic but influential position), Sa’ad hinted in 2021 that it might be time to re-examine the Gilani Agreement of 1919, which saw Dar Masalit absorbed by Anglo-Egyptian Sudan rather than French-ruled Chad (Darfur24, May 14, 2021). The sultan later complained it would have been better for Dar Masalit to have been absorbed by Chad, which despite being one of the world’s poorest nations, “has a strong security apparatus.” (BBC, May 31, 2022). Masalit tribal leaders have been targeted in the fighting; among the victims is the Sultan’s brother, Amir Tariq. The sultan’s palace overlooking the city was looted and partly destroyed and an Arab fighter was filmed outside the damaged building declaring “There will be no Dar Masalit again, only Dar Arab” (Sudan Tribune, June 13).

Conclusion

With local support from Darfur’s Arab tribes (and across the board support is not guaranteed), the RSF could make Darfur a stronghold in the event that the paramilitary is driven from Khartoum and other Sudanese cities. Mustafa Tambour, leader of the breakaway Sudan Liberation Movement-Tambour (SLM-T), recently reported that goods, vehicles, and cash looted by the RSF in Khartoum are being shipped to parts of central and western Darfur (Radio Dabanga, June 13).

On the other hand, the assassination of Governor Khamis, as leader of one of the five Darfur rebel movements to sign the JPA, has the potential to draw the other rebel leaders into the conflict, especially as violence has spread across the rest of Darfur, where the joint patrols of the JPA signatories have helped, if not maintain security, at least prevent insecurity from becoming much worse. Such joint operations have had less success in West Darfur. When Darfur Governor Minni Minnawi tried on May 24 to deploy a joint force of former rebel groups to escort a commercial convoy into al-Geneina and stop the violence against civilians, for example, his forces were ambushed outside the city by RSF troops supported by armed Arabs (Sudan Tribune, May 24). For the moment, there appears to be little to prevent the further displacement of the Masalit from their traditional homeland.

NOTES

  1. Daowd Ibrahim Salih, Mohamed Adam Yahya, Abdul Hafiz Omar Sharief and Osman Abbakorah (Masalit Community in Exile): “The Hidden Slaughter and Ethnic Cleansing in Western Sudan: An Open Letter to the International Community,” Damanga.org, April 8, 1999.
  2. “Situation in Darfur, Sudan,” Case Information Sheet, The Prosecutor v. Abdel Raheem Muhammad Hussein, ICC-02/05-01/12, May 1, 2012, https://www.icc-cpi.int/sites/default/files/CaseInformationSheets/HusseinEng.pdf

This article first appeared in the June 26, 2023 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Sudan’s Fratricidal Conflict: An Assessment of SAF and RSF Strategies and Tactics

Andrew McGregor

Terrorism Monitor

May 27, 2023

Khartoum, May 2023 (Reuters)

The ongoing conflict in Sudan pits two very different wings of the Sudanese military in a struggle to control a population that would largely prefer democratic civilian rule over domination by either force after decades of political and economic stagnation under military rule. Differences in ethnic composition, training, and weapons have compelled the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF, led by General ‘Abd al-Fatah al-Burhan) and the rival Rapid Support Forces paramilitary (RSF, led by General Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemetti” ) to adopt different strategies and tactics in their search for victory (Terrorism Monitor, April 28). Although Sudan is the third-largest nation in Africa, with an area of nearly 720,000 square miles, the main battleground between SAF and RSF is the tri-city area of Khartoum, Omdurman, and industrial Khartoum North (or Bahri), which poses a problem for the combatants.

Troublesome Terrain

Neither the SAF nor the RSF have much experience in urban warfare. Sudanese warfare is combat in the desert, the bush, and the mountains. The last sieges of Sudanese cities occurred in the Mahdist campaigns of 1881-1885. Since then, the only fighting carried out in Khartoum consists of a couple of very brief mutinies during Anglo-Egyptian rule, a failed 1976 Libyan-backed coup attempt that killed 800 people, and a day of combat (mostly in northern Omdurman) when Darfuri rebels stormed the city in 2008 (Sudan Tribune, June 20, 2008).

Initially intended to operate in the great open spaces of Sudan and remote borders of strategic significance, the RSF’s main operational equipment consists of so-called “technicals,” which are open-bed 4x4s (the Toyota Hilux is preferred) armed with a 50-caliber machine gun. Though intended for use in the desert, the technicals are nimbler in urban warfare than the SAF’s armor. The RSF began with no armor of its own, but has captured much since, including Ukrainian-made tanks, though it does not have the trained crews needed to operate this armor. [1]

Map of important targets in the Tri-City Capital area (Torchlight.ai)

Rapid strikes on SAF bases allowed the RSF to seize large quantities of weapons and ammunition at the outset of the conflict and overcome the paramilitary’s usual reliance on government supplies. The RSF has continued to depend on quick hit-and-run strikes on military and civilian infrastructure rather than holding and defending territory, tactics more familiar to the regular army. Any RSF success is immediately documented on social media, a conflict forum in which the SAF appears to be lagging behind.

RSF in Khartoum

The RSF is able to pull in most of its forces to the capital as it currently assumes no responsibility for national security. The SAF, on the other hand, continues to be responsible for the borders (previously the responsibility of the RSF) and for containing rebel movements in South Kordofan, Darfur and Blue Nile State. The RSF’s strategy is to disperse its forces in civilian areas of the tri-city to negate the SAF’s advantages in armor, aircraft and artillery, while applying maximum political pressure on the SAF by depriving the civilian population of basic needs and services. The RSF is using the SAF’s aerial advantage against it; damage to residential areas and infrastructure from bombing alienates the SAF from the population. The RSF obtained anti-aircraft missile systems during its deployment in Yemen and may have seized more in the opening days of the conflict; it has since claimed to have downed several SAF aircraft (Arab News, October 10, 2022).

Saudi aircraft destroyed at Khartoum Airport (SamChui.com)

With no air power of its own, the RSF targeted airbases throughout Sudan in the first days of the conflict, many of which appear to have been unprepared for the RSF assault. Air facilities that have suffered heavy RSF attacks include the Geneina, Nyala and al-Fashir airbases in Darfur, Merowe airport in Northern State, Wadi Sayyidna north of Omdurman and the Jabal Awliya airbase 40 km south of Khartoum. The intention is not to hold these airbases or capture warplanes, but to damage runways and aircraft that subsequently cannot be used by the RSF. Lingering too long can invite devastating counter-attacks, such as the RSF suffered at Merowe when a fleeing convoy was struck by SAF warplanes (SAF/Facebook, April 20). Pro-Islamist media claim that hundreds of those killed at Merowe were foreign fighters recruited by the RSF (Tayba TV [Khartoum], May 1).

Map showing military airfields struck by the RSF (Middle East Eye)

Khartoum International Airport, which also hosts military aircraft, has been badly damaged in RSF attacks, though SAF Sukhoi and MiG aircraft continue attacks on various neighborhoods of the tri-city area believed to host concentrations of RSF fighters. SAF air superiority in Khartoum is ultimately of limited value, however, unless it chooses to obliterate large parts of the city of five million people in pursuit of mobile RSF units. With the army taking little apparent notice of gradual RSF deployments in the capital region in the weeks prior to the outbreak of fighting, the paramilitary struck fast to take the General Command headquarters and seize the SAF leadership. In this, they were only partly successful, with SAF leader, General Abdelfattah al-Burhan, escaping even though his home was occupied by RSF fighters. Many of his bodyguards were killed in the attack and the Inspector General of the SAF (number three in the command) and 130 others were captured (Al-Arabiya, May 10). Both sides have attempted to strike a decisive blow by taking out the other side’s leader. Neither have succeeded, with both the RSF and SAF leaders being forced to maintain low profiles to avoid assassins.

SAF Responses to RSF

To help address RSF tactics in Khartoum, the SAF command has brought in the Central Reserve Police (CRP, popularly known as Abu Tira). Similarly armed to the RSF, the CRP is accused of committing crimes and human rights violations in Darfur and in Khartoum during the 2019 anti-‘Umar al-Bashir protests (Sudan Tribune, April 29). The roughly 80,000 strong CRP is trained as a highly maneuverable paramilitary, whose main task will be to consolidate areas once the SAF has cleared them of RSF fighters. They will also assist in blocking RSF supply lines, especially in south Khartoum, where supplies by land do not have to deal with crossing the White or Blue Niles, which are controlled by the SAF.

Central Reserve Police on patrol in the south of Khartoum on 29 April 2023

The RSF claims that both the CRP and SAF regulars wear RSF uniforms to commit crimes in Khartoum, attack the headquarters of opposition politicians, and mislead the public (RSF/Twitter, May 16; RSF/Twitter, May 17). The RSF’s repeated accusations that their opponents commit grave crimes while wearing RSF gear predates the current struggle. For example, in January the RSF commander “Hemedti” denied reports of RSF involvement in a coup attempt in neighboring Central African Republic (CAR), claiming that “large quantities of RSF uniforms are being smuggled across the border” (Middle East Eye, January 18, 2023).

The SAF has also been accused of reviving the infamous Katayib al-Zili (Shadow Brigades), which are armed Islamist civilians associated with former president al-Bashir and the now-banned Islamist National Congress Party (NCP). During the 2019 revolution against al-Bashir, his vice-president, veteran Islamist ‘Ali ‘Uthman Muhammad Taha, threatened protesters with the notorious “Shadow Brigades,” which are known for running illegal detention facilities called “ghost houses,” where torture and murder were routine practices (Asharq al-Awsat, January 16, 2020). On May 16, the RSF claimed to have overrun SAF camps in Bahri used for training Shadow Brigades while capturing more than 700 individuals (RSF Twitter, May 16, 2023).

Conclusion

Beside troop concentrations and obvious military targets, government buildings, markets, bridges, factories, hospitals and places of worship have all been targeted in the urban fighting. Two-thirds of the nation’s hospitals have ceased functioning (much of Khartoum North’s East Nile Hospital was destroyed by an SAF bombing strike), with some even being converted into military bases (Asharq al-Awsat, May 19). The RSF has been accused of stealing ambulances and medical supplies while terrorizing patients (Radio Dabanga, May 15).

RSF Troops after Taking the State Broadcaster in Omdurman (RSF/Twitter)

Though the RSF claims to have no religious motivation and to even have Christians in its ranks, it appears to have attacked and looted Coptic, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, turning some of the well-built structures into military bases (RSF/witter, May 14; Radio Dabanga, May 15; Religionnews.com, May 15; Radio Dabanga, May 17). Both the Azhari and Bur’i al-Dereisa mosques in Khartoum were bombed in mid-May, apparently by SAF aircraft (RSF Twitter, May 13; Radio Dabanga, May 15).  Warehouses and factories in industrial Khartoum North have also been looted with economic consequences for Sudan. There is a serious danger of important state heritage institutions, such as the National Archives or the National Museum, becoming subject to looting, aerial bombing or accidental destruction.

The RSF, with a long reputation for using mass rapes as a tactic to break resistance in Darfur, has been accused of raping women in the capital, though the paramilitary insists the culprits are impersonating RSF personnel. Rights activists have also made unverified claims of rape by SAF personnel (Radio Dabanga, May 16).

The differing capabilities of the two antagonists in the Battle of Khartoum and their shared inexperience in urban warfare make it difficult for them to come fully to grips with each other. With a decisive military decision unlikely and negotiations complicated by tribal rivalries and the re-emergence of Sudan’s long-dominant Islamists, short-term prospects of a return to peace are growing ever more distant.

Note:

[1] On May 1, the RSF released a video to prove their seizure of all the armored vehicles of the Army’s 1st Infantry Brigade (RSF/Twitter, May 1).

This article first appeared in the May 27, 2023 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Gold, Arms, and Islam: Understanding the Conflict in Sudan

Terrorism Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 9

Andrew McGregor

April 28, 2023

Sudan Air Force Warplane Strikes Targets in Khartoum

Sudan ended over a quarter-century of Islamist-military rule with the 2019 overthrow of President Omar al-Bashir, whose rule was based on Islamism, Arab supremacy, and the ruthless application of military power. A joint civilian-military government was formed to lead the transition to a civilian-led democracy. However, an October 2021 coup led by Sudan’s military and security forces ended all progress toward civilian rule, severing at the same time most of Sudan’s economic and financial ties to the West.

The UN and international diplomats have been trying to guide negotiations for a democratic transition between the military and the civilian Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) coalition. The final version of the Framework Agreement on transition was to be signed on April 6. However, the deadline passed when the security forces indicated they were not prepared to sign due to the inability of two competing elements of the military to agree on integration and military reform provisions.

General ‘Abd al-Fatah al-Burhan (Reuters)

The Framework Agreement called for the integration of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF, or al-Quwwat al-Musallaha al-Sudaniya) and Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF, or al-Quwat al-Da’m al-Sari). The SAF is led by Lieutenant General ‘Abd al-Fatah al-Burhan, who is Sudan’s de facto leader as Chair of the Transitional Sovereignty Council (TSC), while the RSF is a 30,000-strong paramilitary led by the number two figure in Sudan, TSC Deputy Chair Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemeti.” The Framework Agreement was intended to lead Sudan to civilian rule. The SAF, however, is highly politicized, and many of its senior officers adhere to an Islamist ideology that rejects the idea of secular government. Rather than unifying the security forces, the Framework Agreement ultimately brought their differences to a head. Supporters of the former president in the SAF are seemingly using the dispute to create a state of political insecurity favorable for a return to Islamist-military rule. Nation-wide fighting finally broke out on April 15 between the two factions.

The RSF, which was loyal to al-Bashir until his overthrow, has sought international support by accusing the army of mounting a “coup d’état” and seeking “to repeat the failed experiences of the rule of the Islamic Movement that conquered our country and destroyed the dreams of our people for thirty years” (Facebook/RSFCommand, April 16). The paramilitary now refers to their former military partners as “fascist military leaders” supported by “a crowd of corrupt Islamic people thirsty for the blood of the Sudanese people” (Facebook/RSFCommand, April 17). In a February 19 televised speech, Hemeti described the 2019 military coup as a “mistake” that has become “a gateway for the return of the former regime” and warned of efforts by Islamists to restore the Bashir regime (Radio Dabanga, February 21; BBC, February 20).

RSF Commander Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemeti”

The RSF, much feared within Sudan, is a close-knit operation—the second-in-command is Hemeti’s brother, ‘Abd al-Rahim Hamdan Daqlo, while Hemeti’s commanders are all from his own Mahariya clan of the Rizayqat Arabs. The paramilitary has participated in UAE-funded operations in Yemen and in counter-insurgency operations in Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile State. It is especially active along the borders with Libya and the Central African Republic, and its brutal response to anti-regime demonstrations in Khartoum and elsewhere has made it widely unpopular. [1]

Ethnic Dimensions of the Conflict

Many Darfur Arabs, who comprise the RSF’s base, dislike the Khartoum ruling class, which consists mostly of members of Sudan’s powerful northern Nile-based Arab tribes, who have controlled the country since independence in 1956: the Ja’alin, the Danagla, and the Sha’iqiya (al-Bashir is Ja’alin, al-Burhan is Sha’iqiya). The riverine Arabs, in turn, regard the Darfur Arabs as backwards and “Africanized.” Like many Darfur Arabs, Hemeti, with nothing more than a Quranic school education, is likely to believe he will never be accepted by the riverine military and political elite. Al-Burhan, on the other hand, is regarded in Darfur as the prime architect of a genocide of non-Arab Muslims and is well-remembered for his threats to exterminate the Fur people, who were the former rulers of Darfur.

During a March “Security and Military Reform Workshop” in Khartoum, the RSF hinted at the longstanding rivalry between the Arab tribes of western Sudan and those of the Nile region (New Arab, April 17). Referring to the SAF as “an army composed of a specific militia belonging to certain tribes,” the RSF reminded those present of a struggle that dates back to the days of Mahdist rule (1885-1899). At that time, western Arabs, particularly the Ta’aisha, took power after the early death of the Mahdi in 1885 and the subsequent sidelining of his riverine relatives by the Mahdi’s Ta’aishi successor, Khalifa ‘Abd Allahi.

Violence returned to Darfur in the modern era with the growing influence of the Arab Gathering (Tajamu al-Arabi), an Arab supremacist group following an ideology developed by Mu’ammar Qaddafi and spread by the leaders of Libya’s Islamic Legion (Failaq al-Islamiya) in the 1980s. Clashes over land developed between the Arab and the non-Arab Muslim tribes of Darfur, particularly the Fur, the Zaghawa, and the Masalit. The latter groups united in outright rebellion in 2003, while the Bashir government responded by unleashing Janjaweed (a Sudanese Arab militia) gunmen and bandits on the non-Arab civilian population under military direction. The leader of the Janjaweed was Shaykh Musa Hilal ‘Abd Allah, the nazir (chief) of the Um Jalul clan of the Mahamid Arabs, a branch of the northern Rizayqat of Darfur. One of his deputies during the 2003-2005 period of the worst Janjaweed abuses (murder, rape, torture, arson) was Hemeti, who is a cousin from the Awlad Mansur clan of the Mahariya branch of the Northern Rizayqat. [2]

When the crimes of the Janjaweed began to attract unwanted international attention in 2005, the government integrated the gunmen into the Border Guards (Haras al-Hudud), a small camel-mounted unit. Integration into official security structures shielded the Janjaweed from prosecution and brought them under tighter government control. This formation would evolve by 2013 into the RSF, which was conceived as a counter-insurgency force composed mostly of former Janjaweed. The RSF came under the direct authority of the National Security and Intelligence Service (NISS, or Jihaz al-Amn al-Watani wa’l-Mukhabarat) rather than the army and became notorious for their human rights abuses and lack of discipline. Even at this early stage, the RSF became known for clashes with the SAF.

Factions Fail to Integrate

Since becoming Sudan’s de facto ruler in 2019, al-Burhan has displayed an inability to rein in the RSF. He has allowed it to become, as some suggest, a “state-within-a-state.” The RSF, with its young leadership, has for some time offered better training and greater opportunities to make money than enlistment in the SAF.

The SAF wants the RSF to be integrated with the army within a year or two at most. However, the RSF prefers a ten-year timeline (in other words, no real integration at all). UN mediators suggested a five-year compromise, which was swiftly rejected by both parties (New Arab, April 17).

SAF Soldiers at Khartoum Airport (Dabanga)

Hemeti’s power and influence will disappear if the RSF comes under the command of the SAF’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. The RSF leader has thus demanded his paramilitary report directly to a civilian government. This essentially preserved the RSF’s autonomy while allowing Hemeti to maintain a major political role.

Al-Burhan dissolved the RSF on April 17 and labelled it a “rebel” movement, adding that the matter is an internal one that does not require interference from the international community. There are, however, questions regarding al-Burhan’s legal authority to dissolve the RSF (Radio Dabanga, April 18). As noted by Dr. Jebril El-Abidi, it was a mistake to try to integrate the RSF into the national military as a complete unit, encouraging continued loyalty to RSF leaders rather than the general command (Asharq al-Awsat, April 20).

When Gold Makes Things Worse

Sudan is now the third-largest gold producer in Africa. However, as much as 80 percent of production is smuggled out of the country, and much of it to Russia. This contributes nothing in the way to state revenues that are already badly diminished by the separation of oil-rich South Sudan.

Joining existing US sanctions, EU sanctions were imposed in March on M-Invest and its subsidiary Sudan Meroe Gold, mining companies tied to Russia’s Wagner Group, for illegally trading in gold “looted by force from local traders” (Sudan Tribune, March 2). In March 2022, an executive with a Sudanese gold mine informed The Telegraph that Russia was smuggling 30 tonnes of gold from Sudan every year to build its reserves and weaken the effects of sanctions imposed on Russia for its ongoing invasion of Ukraine. The gold is transported in small planes from military airports not subject to customs inspections (The Telegraph, March 3, 2022). Sudan’s Minerals Minister, an ally of the RSF, described the allegations as “baseless” (Sudan Tribune, March 11, 2022).

Remote mines operated by Meroe Gold were guarded by Wagner Group personnel who were also involved in training the RSF (Sudan Tribune, March 21, 2022). It is unclear if Wagner continues in these roles; Wagner Group owner Yevgeny Prigozhin insists there has been no Wagner presence in Sudan for two years. US authorities have claimed the Wagner Group is now providing weapons to the RSF through bases in Libya and the Central African Republic (CAR) (The New Arab, April 22).

Documents obtained by an anti-corruption NGO revealed the RSF has its own bank account in Abu Dhabi that it has used to obtain vehicles suitable for conversion to machine-gun mounted “technicals.” Financing comes from al-Junaid Gold Company, which is officially owned by ‘Abd al-Rahim Hamdan Daglo and his two sons (Global Witness, April 5, 2020). Al-Junaid has since diversified into numerous other economic activities, its revenues providing independence for the RSF.

In Darfur, gold was discovered in 2012 at Jabal Amer (northwest of Kabkabiya). In July 2015, Musa Hilal and his Mahamid followers took control of Jabal Amer after slaughtering hundreds of Bani Hussayn Arabs working the artisanal mines. This reaped enormous profits until Musa’s arrest in November 2017, at which point control of the mines was transferred to Hemeti and the RSF. The SAF in turn seized control of Jabal Amer in October 2020.

Smuggled gold is typically exported through the Wagner Group-occupied CAR or by air to the Russian base in Latakia, Syria. Wagner elements have been accused of attacks on artisanal gold miners close to the border with the CAR (Radio Dabanga, August 1, 2022). Moscow has little interest in a return to civilian rule in Sudan as one of the first tasks of a new government would be to take control of gold exports to ensure revenues wind up in the public treasury instead of private hands.

“Admiral Grigorovich” Frigate, Port Sudan, 2021 (al-Arabiya)

Beyond gold, a deal was reached in February between Russia and Sudan’s military rulers for the establishment of a Russian naval base on the Red Sea coast in return for arms and military equipment, although it awaits ratification by a new civilian government (al-Arabiya, February 11; Sudan Tribune, February 11). The 25-year deal, with automatic 10-year extensions if neither side objects, would allow a base of 300 Russian military personnel capable of accommodating four Russian ships at a time, including nuclear-powered vessels. [3] Egypt and Saudi Arabia are both unhappy about the deal, which would see a long-term Russian naval presence in the strategic Red Sea. French, American, British, and Norwegian diplomats have all expressed concerns about the growing involvement of Wagner Group companies and personnel in Sudan, much of it facilitated through the RSF. [4]

Islamism in the Regular Army

The RSF has accused the army’s “fascist military leaders” of “religious mania” (Facebook, April 17; Facebook, April 18). Many Islamist al-Bashir loyalists, known as keizan, are prominent in the high ranks of the army. Loyalists of al-Bashir and the banned Islamist National Congress Party (NCP, now operating under the name “Islamist Movement”) have stepped up activity in recent weeks, calling for the assassination of UN envoy Volker Perthes and attacking pro-democracy demonstrators in Khartoum North (Reuters, April 11). The Islamists describe pro-democracy activists as secularists intent on attacking Sudan’s traditional Islamic faith (Middle East Monitor, April 9, 2019).

Airstrike Damage, Khartoum (NBC)

Before the current fighting broke out, the FFC and its partners warned of NCP efforts to provoke a confrontation between the army and the RSF that would create conditions favorable to a return to Islamist rule. Leading Islamists and NCP members (including those held on human rights violations) began leaving detention facilities and returning to government posts (especially Military Intelligence and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) after the 2021 military coup, while al-Burhan dissolved a committee looking into corrupt arrangements between the NCP government and the army. General Ahmad Ibrahim Mufaddal, an NCP loyalist, was appointed last November to lead the General Intelligence Service (GIS, or Jihaz al-Mukhabarat al-‘Amma), successor to the powerful NISS that held an iron grip on political dissent during the Bashir regime. The RSF, seen as traitors for their failure to prevent the overthrow of al-Bashir, is especially disliked by the Islamists.

In recent days, prisons across the country have been emptied of thousands of criminal and political inmates, either through release or escape. Among those to have walked out of the notorious Kober prison are Ahmad Haroun, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court, and leading Islamists of the al-Bashir regime, including former vice-president ‘Ali ‘Uthman Muhammad Taha, Awad al-Jaz, and Nafi al-Nafi. Both the FFC and the RSF allege an army plan to restore leading Islamists to power. Al-Bashir himself is still believed to be in a military prison hospital (Darfur 24, April 25; Darfur 24, April 26; Al Jazeera, April 26; Radio Dabanga, April 26).

Map produced by Thomas van Linge showing territory held by the Army (red), the RSF (mustard yellow) and rebel movements (green).

Conclusion

Fighting is underway in most parts of Sudan, but is especially intense in Darfur, the home of Hemeti’s power base but also the source of much of the SAF’s rank-and-file. Long-standing tribal clashes in West Darfur have intensified with the breakdown of security. Khartoum has experienced looting, street-fighting, and aerial bombing.

A SAF victory would likely allow an entrenchment of Islamist military rule, while an RSF victory might find room for a civilian government, but only under RSF influence. The paramilitary would still absorb the arms and facilities of the SAF and become the sole security organization in Sudan. The ambitious Hemeti is likely to seek a leading role in any new government, possibly as head of state.

Any war in Sudan has a high chance of spilling over into its unstable neighbors, such as Chad, the Central African Republic, Libya and South Sudan. The Wagner Group is already involved in the last three of these nations.

Hemeti is having trouble selling his new image as a champion of democracy as he attempts to portray al-Burhan as the figurehead of a radical Islamist movement and uses slogans like “power belongs to the people” and “what is happening now is the price of democracy.” Hemeti has even tried to claim the RSF are fighting al-Burhan “and his Islamist gang” (the keizan) within the SAF, and not the army itself (Radio Dabanga, April 17). Al-Burhan has similarly suggested he was prepared to negotiate only with “parties within the RSF” seeking dialogue, and not the current RSF leaders (Sudan Tribune, April 20).

If the Framework Agreement is signed and free elections follow, the Islamist faction will lose any chance of retaking control of Sudan, short of mounting yet another coup, one that, in the current environment, would meet with massive resistance in the streets as well as in the international arena. Despite their rhetoric, Hemeti and his private army will not provide a road to a democratic transition and civilian rule. For the Islamists, therefore, this may be their last chance to seize power.

Notes 

[1] See “Army for Sale: Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces and the Battle for Libya,” AIS Special Report, August 4, 2019.

[2] The northern Rizayqat Abbala (camel-breeding Arabs) include the Mahamid, Mahariya, and Irayqat groups. The core of the Janjaweed was from the Mahamid and Mahariya branches of the northern Rizayqat. The southern Baqqara Rizayqat (cattle-breeding Arabs), had little to do with the Janjaweed. The meaning of the term Janjaweed is disputed, but is commonly given as “Devils on Horseback.” The term was not used by the Arab militias themselves or by the government.

[3] For Russian mercenaries in Sudan and Moscow’s search for a naval base on the Sudanese Red Sea coast, see: “Russian Mercenaries and the Survival of the Sudanese Regime,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, February 6, 2019.

[4] For details, see “Putin’s New Russian Empire is Suddenly on the Rocks: How the War in Ukraine Threatens Russian Interests in Sudan,” AIS Special Report on Ukraine No.3, March 24, 2022.

This article first appeared in the April 28, 2023 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor, Washington, DC.

Army for Sale: Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces and the Battle for Libya

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, August 4, 2019

RSF Patrol (al-Jazeera)

With their barely literate leader General Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemetti” in full control of Sudan (though nominally only number two in the ruling military council), Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary has attracted international attention through its brutal repression of civilian demonstrators seeking civilian rule. [1] Now an estimated 30,000 strong, the RSF is deployed in the cities of Sudan, the goldfields of Darfur, the northern borders with Libya and Egypt, the battlefields of South Kordofan and Blue Nile State and even in Yemen, where they serve as part of the Saudi-led coalition battling Houthi rebels.

Good Days for African Warlords: General Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemetti”

Though Sudan has little interest in the internal struggle for control of Yemen, the RSF’s deployment of as many as 10,000 men since 2015 was clearly made in return for Saudi and Emirati cash badly needed to prop up the flailing regime of ex-president Omar al-Bashir. Following the coup that overthrew al-Bashir, Sudan’s ruling Transitional Military Council (TMC) has accessed $500 million from the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with pledges of another $2.5 billion in commodities to follow. Both nations see military rule as an effective way of keeping Muslim Brotherhood members (known as “Ikhwan” in Sudan) out of the Sudanese government.

Mercenaries for Sale

The TMC and its new civilian partners are in need of Saudi funds to keep new waves of economic protests from breaking out. Thus, the deployment to Yemen continues, but with the precedent of soldiers-for-dollars already set, the TMC is looking for new revenue streams as well as ways to keep Darfur’s Arabs of military age busy abroad rather than pursuing grievances against Khartoum at home.

The answer? A May 17 $6 million contract between the TMC and Dickens & Madson, a Montreal-based firm run by former Israeli intelligence agent Ari Ben-Menashe. Among other things, the contract stated Dickens & Madson would counter unfavorable media coverage of the TMC and (presumably) the RSF, arrange a meeting between President Trump and TMC leaders, and, most ambitiously, create a union with South Sudan and a joint oil project “within three months.”  With only days to go before three months are over, no such union or joint project has emerged.

Dickens & Madson also pledged to obtain financing for the TMC from the United States, the Russian Federation and other countries, including “funding and equipment for the Sudanese military.” Most importantly for the cash-strapped TMC, was the intent to “obtain funding for your Council [TMC] from the Eastern Libyan Military Command in exchange for your military help to the Libyan National Army (LNA).” [2]

The New Qaddafi? Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar (Reuters)

One thousand RSF members began arriving in eastern Libya in the last days of July, the beginning of a Libyan deployment that might eventually reach as many as 4,000 fighters. Their new employer is Libyan warlord “Field Marshal” Khalifa Haftar, whose self-styled “Libyan National Army” (a loosely disciplined collection of militias) has spent the last few months in a so-far frustrated attempt to seize the Libyan capital of Tripoli from the UN-recognized Presidency Council/Government of National Accord (PC/GNA).

According to al-Jazeera, leaked documents revealed that the UAE began picking up Sudanese military personnel in military aircraft from Khartoum in May. The agency further claimed that Hemetti had recruited 450 additional Arab mercenaries from Darfur, Chad and Niger. According to a source, Hemetti specified they should be “light-skinned and speak Arabic” (al-Jazeera, July 24, 2019). Hemetti would have had connections with the Arab tribes in these lands from his days in the Janjaweed, when Khartoum invited regional Arabs to fill areas where indigenous African Muslims had been displaced by state-sponsored violence. The UAE is one of Haftar’s major backers, providing military air support from their eastern Libyan base in al-Khadim.

The RSF is expected to provide security for the Libyan oil facilities that are expected to provide the funds needed to buy the RSF’s services, enabling Haftar to concentrate his forces for a final push to take Tripoli from the collection of militias that have aligned themselves with the PC/GNA.

The Montreal Connection

Ari Ben-Menashe, who arranged the rental of the RSF, is an arms dealer with a checkered business career and a controversial claim to have played a central role in the Iran-Contra affair. Ben-Menashe served a year in an American prison for his role in supplying arms to Iran before being acquitted on the grounds that he was working under orders from Israel. After failing to obtain refugee status in Australia, Ben-Menashe moved to Montreal in 1993, where he obtained Canadian citizenship and set up the Dickens & Madson consulting agency, though his American partner was deported in 2008 to the United States, where he was wanted on multiple racketeering and fraud charges in two states.

While secretly working for Zimbabwean despot Robert Mugabe in 2002, Ben-Menashe helped implicate Mugabe’s main political rival in charges of treason. There are allegations that Ben-Menashe was paid for his services by a Zimbabwean drug lord who wished to maintain his cozy relationship with Mugabe. In 2014, Ben-Menashe signed a $2 million deal with Libyan warlord Ibrahim Jadhran to promote the latter’s attempt to create an autonomous Cyrenaïcan state in eastern Libya. As in other deals Ben-Menashe had with Sierra Leone and the Central African Republic, the former intelligence agent pledged to work towards obtaining economic and military support from Russia. The fixer thus encouraged an existing trend to greater Sudanese-Russian cooperation that began with a January 2019 draft military agreement between the two countries that could lead to “a Russian naval base on the Red Sea” (Sputnik, January 12, 2019; Sudan Tribune, January 13, 2019). [3]

Ben-Menashe moved on to another Libyan warlord in 2015, signing a $6 million contract with Khalifa Haftar. Besides promising to improve Western media coverage of Haftar’s campaign against Libya’s UN-recognized government, Ben-Menashe again agreed to seek grants from the Russian Federation “for security equipment and technical support.” Haftar’s campaign received a huge boost in April when Haftar discussed “ongoing counterterrorism efforts” with President Trump by phone. The White House followed up with a statement recognizing “Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources” (Reuters, April 19, 2019). Despite multiple accusations of war crimes and human rights violations including summary executions of opponents and the indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets such as hospitals, refugee centers and residential housing, Haftar has already received covert military and open diplomatic support from Russia, Egypt, France, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. [4]

Hemetti’s Revenue Streams

Renting out young Darfuri fighters is a proven revenue source for Hemetti. Musa Hilal, Hemetti’s former mentor and Janjaweed commander, opposed the deployment to Yemen and encouraged Arab tribesmen in Darfur not to volunteer. Hilal also accused Hemetti and his patron, former Second Vice President Hasabo Muhammad ‘Abd al-Rahman (like Hemetti, a member of the Mahariya Branch of the Rizayqat Arabs), of siphoning off millions of dollars donated to Sudan by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in exchange for the use of the RSF in Yemen (al-Jazeera, September 10, 2017).  Hemetti was reported to have been paid directly, and told a press conference he deposited $350 million in Sudan’s Central Bank, but was not clear on how much he may have kept for personal or political uses (African Arguments, August 1, 2019).

An RSF Column in the Desert (AFP)

An April 2018 New York Times investigation of the traffic in migrants through Sudan, based on separate and confidential interviews with known smugglers, suggested that the RSF was, according to the smugglers’ testimony, the main organizer of the cross-border trade, supplying vehicles and sharing in ransom revenues obtained from the detention of the migrants in Libya (NYT, April 22, 2019).

Hemetti’s control of much of Sudan’s newly discovered gold reserves (some of it wrested from Musa Hilal by force) provides him with the financial clout needed to make the former camel trader a candidate for Sudan’s presidency. Darfur, Sudan’s “Wild West,” is already producing enough gold to make it Africa’s third-largest producer, though a remarkable 70% is believed to be smuggled of the country via remote air strips.

Notes:

  1. For RSF commander Hemetti, see: “Snatching the Sudanese Revolution: A Profile of General Muhammad Hamdan Daglo ‘Hemetti’,” Militant Leadership Monitor, June 30, 2019, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=4455
  2. The contents of the contract were revealed under the requirements of the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). The document can be seen in full at: https://efile.fara.gov/docs/6200-Exhibit-AB-20190617-8.pdf
  3. For Russian mercenaries in Sudan and Russia’s search for a naval base on the Sudanese Red Sea coast, see: “Russian Mercenaries and the Survival of the Sudanese Regime,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, February 6, 2019, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=4356
  4. For LNA war crimes, see: “Libya’s Video Executioner: A Profile of LNA Special Forces Commander Mahmud al-Warfali, Militant Leadership Monitor, July 6, 2018, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=4214

“Old Wine in Old Bottles?” A Security Q and A on Post-Coup Sudan

Andrew McGregor

April 19, 2019 Yasir Arman (Reuters)

Veteran opposition politician Yasir Arman called the April 11 military coup in Sudan nothing more than “old wine in old bottles.” Arman suggested it had preserved “the political and economic structures of the old system,” the military-Islamist alliance that has ruled Sudan since an Islamist-backed military coup brought Brigadier Omar al-Bashir to power in 1989 (Sudan Tribune, April 12). Al-Bashir’s regime was based on three pillars: Islamism, military governance and Arab supremacy.

Despite the coup, demonstrations and sit-ins continue at military facilities beyond the capital, in places such as Port Sudan, al-Gedaref, Kadugli, al-Obeid, and camps for the internally displaced in Darfur (Radio Dabanga, April 16).

Lieutenant General ‘Abd al-Fatah al-Burhan (Daily Nation)

The coup leaders have formed a Transitional Military Council (TMC) under Lieutenant General ‘Abd al-Fatah al-Burhan, who commanded Sudanese forces in Yemen, where he formed ties to the Saudi military and its Gulf allies. Most recently he was Inspector General of the Sudanese Army. Al-Burhan replaced the first leader of the TMC, Lieutenant General Muhammad Ahmad Awad ibn Awf, who lasted less than 24 hours. Ibn Awf is a prominent Islamist and al-Bashir loyalist who has worked closely with Darfur’s Janjaweed militias (al-Jazeera, April 20). Under U.S. sanctions for his activities in Darfur, Ibn Awf was unacceptable to both Washington and the protesters. The former chief of Sudan’s Joint Staff, Lieutenant General Kamal ‘Abd al-Maruf al-Mahi (a leading Islamist suspected of having political ambitions), was relieved of his post as deputy chief of the TMC at the same time General Ibn Awf was replaced. [1]

The Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), a leading force in the demonstrations, is demanding nothing less than a civilian government (Asharq al-Aswat, April 13). The SPA is part of the Alliance for Freedom and Change, which includes the leftist National Consensus Forces and Nidea Sudan, a Paris-based group including opposition politicians and the leaders of armed movements (Middle East Online, April 16). The army is unlikely to clean house, which will continue to frustrate those demanding significant change.

What is al-Bashir’s fate?

Al-Bashir and his two brothers have been moved to the notorious Khobar Prison in Khartoum North (al-Jazeera, April 17). The military council has stated it will prosecute al-Bashir inside Sudan (APA News, April 12). The military has been repeatedly purged until the officer corps consists mostly of men whose fortunes and views are closely aligned with the ex-president’s. These officers may seek to send al-Bashir to a safe haven outside Sudan and avoid a nasty and public prosecution of regime misdoings. Uganda has said it is willing to consider offering asylum to al-Bashir (Monitor [Kampala], April 16).

Al-Bashir still faces two ICC arrest warrants for “massive human rights violations” including war crimes and genocide. However, the ICC lacks the means to detain the former president, and 33 nations (including China and Russia) have ignored the warrants by allowing al-Bashir to make visits to their countries. The ICC is demanding that the new government in Khartoum must surrender al-Bashir as well as four other individuals wanted on charges related to the Darfur conflict, including NCP leader Ahmad Muhammad Harun, Janjaweed leader ‘Ali Muhammad ‘Ali ‘Abd al-Rahman (aka ‘Ali Kushayb), former minister of defense Abd al-Rahim Muhammad Hussayn and Darfur rebel ‘Abdallah Banda Abakr Nourain (Al-Ahram [Cairo], April 12; for Harun, see AIS Special Report, March 3 ). The military council will not take action on these demands and it would require a massive and unprecedented power shift in Sudan for a future civilian government to surrender these individuals for ICC prosecutions.

What happens to the National Congress Party (NCP)?

Recognizing the hold the ruling NCP had over the Sudanese political system, the SPA has demanded its dissolution and the arrest of its leaders. The TMC has said NCP representatives will not be part of the transitional government (Sudan Tribune, April 15).

What happens to the Rapid Support Force (RSF)?

The RSF (Quwat al-Da’m al-Seri), was created by the NISS in 2013 to absorb Janjaweed gunmen into a more manageable unit with a central control (Terrorism Monitor, May 30 2014). The intent was to deploy the RSF as a counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism force composed mostly of Darfur Arabs. The unit is led by Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemeti” a member of the Mahariya branch of the Northern Rizayqat Arabs of Darfur. Daglo is now the deputy chief of the TMC.

Ahmad al-Harun, Omar al-Bashir and Muhammad Daglo Hamdan

Though reviled by many Sudanese for its methods, the RSF has had some success in counter-insurgency operations in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile State. It operates in large numbers along the border with Libya, where it hunts Darfuri rebels and interrupts the flow of illegal migrants from east Africa through Sudan to Libya and on into Europe. It has also been deployed in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, where Daglo served under al-Burhan, who may now rely on the RSF’s support.

There have been calls in Sudan to disband the RSF since its creation and its use of violence in the streets of Khartoum to repress the anti-regime demonstrations has not made it any more popular.

The appointment of Hamdan as deputy leader of the TMC does not indicate major change in the power structure and will anger the Darfur rebel movements who accuse him of ordering atrocities. Nonetheless, Daglo has been meeting with US and UK diplomats as the TMC’s representative (Anadolou Agency [Ankara], April 14).

What happens to the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS)?

The SPA and many demonstrators have called for the dissolution of the much-feared NISS (Jihaz al-Amn al-Watani wa’l-Mukhabarat) and the regime’s paramilitaries, such as the RSF, the Popular Defense Forces (PDF) and the Haras al-Hudud (Border Guards) (Reuters, April 16). NISS director Salah ‘Abdallah Muhammad Salah (Salah Gosh) resigned on April 13 but was not detained. He was replaced by Lieutenant General Abu Bakr Mustafa, putting the intelligence agency under military control for now. (Reuters, April 14; AFP/France24, April 14).

Ex-NISS Director Salah Gosh (al-Arabiya)

Gosh was NISS director from 2004 to 2009 but was suspected of plotting against al-Bashir in 2012. He was brought back into the fold in February 2018, when he was once again made chief of the NISS to subdue dissent. The NISS used rubber bullets, tear gas and live ammunition to disperse the demonstrators (Al-Jazeera, April 8). Roving squads of agents in pick-up trucks seized individuals and took them away to “ghost houses” where their unrecorded detention usually included torture. The NISS announced the release of all political prisoners on April 11, but there are reports that many protesters remain in detention (Radio Dabanga, April 16).

The snipers who continually took shots at demonstrators from buildings outside the army’s compound in Khartoum were believed to be NISS agents who defied the army by engaging in firefights with soldiers (Middle East Monitor, April 9). The clashes were indicative of the serious differences the NISS has with the military. The NISS was given extraordinary and extrajudicial powers to act as al-Bashir’s personal protection and enforcement unit. The opportunities for enrichment presented by NISS membership created a sore point with the poorly paid military.

There is no consensus in the opposition as to what should be done with the NISS. The Islamist Popular Congress Party (PCP), led by Dr. ‘Ali al-Haj, is calling for the dissolution of the NISS and the transfer of its responsibilities to the police (Radio Dabanga, April 16). However, the Umma Party of two-time Sudanese prime minister Sadiq al-Mahdi and the center-left Sudanese Congress Party (SCP) of Omar Yusuf al-Digair have called for only a change in the NISS leadership (Sudan Tribune, April 16).

The U.S. will watch Salah Gosh’s fate carefully – the notorious NISS director cooperated closely with the CIA on counter-terrorism issues and was even welcomed in Washington.

Will armed opposition continue?

Since independence, Sudan has been dominated by three powerful riverine tribes from Sudan’s north, the Ja’alin, Danagla and Sha’iqiya (al-Bashir is Ja’alin). This has created enormous internal tensions as Khartoum tries to control restive non-Arab ethnic groups in guerrilla-friendly regions such as Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile State. While a host of armed opposition groups operate in Darfur, the armed opposition in Blue Nile State and South Kordofan consists of two factions of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), led by Malik Agar and ‘Abd al- Aziz al-Hilu respectively (for al-Hilu, see MLM, July 2011).

Most of the major rebel movements have refused to engage with the regime for years and appear ready to wait for a new civilian government to renew negotiations, likely under AU mediation.

Malik Agar, leader of the rebellion in Blue Nile State (Sudan Tribune)

Al-Burhan’s appointment as head of the TMC has angered many in Darfur, who accuse him of being “the architect of the genocide” in Darfur and regard his new role as “a play of the Islamists to retain power” (Radio Dabanga, April 15). Burhan is well known in Darfur for his threats to exterminate the Fur people. A leading Darfur rebel, ‘Abd al-Wahid al-Nur (Fur), said that the Sudan “we dream of, cannot come through these racists like ‘Abd al-Fatah al-Burhan, Awad Ibn Awf, Omar al-Bashir and their ilk” (Sudan Tribune, April 16).

‘Abd al-Aziz al-Hilu, leader of the rebellion in South Kordofan (Nuba Reports)

The South Kordofan and Blue Nile factions of the SPLM/A-N declared a unilateral three-month ceasefire on April 17 to give the military “a chance for a peaceful and quick transfer of power to civilians” (al-Jazeera, April 17). Nonetheless, there are reports of escalating violence in Darfur, where hundreds of thousands of displaced indigenous Africans see an opportunity to take revenge on regime associates and reclaim land seized by the regime and given to Arab settlers, many from outside Sudan (al-Jazeera, April 17).

Darfur’s rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) has demanded the release of all war-related detainees from Darfur, Kordofan and Blue Nile State, saying that a refusal to release them “Is a call for the continuation of the war” (Radio Dabanga, April 15).

What about the Army?

The Army has invited the opposition groups to nominate a new civilian prime minister, but the question is whether the PM would serve under or above the TMC, which is unlikely to relinquish control until arrangements have been made for leading military and security figures to make a post-coup “soft-landing.”

During the demonstrations outside military headquarters in Khartoum, low-ranking troops and junior officers emerged at times from the military headquarters to interact with the demonstrators or offer refuge from NISS snipers. Al-Burhan listened to the demonstrators, but he and other officers will view their ongoing role as preventing the disintegration of the country, by whatever means necessary.

The military says it is only interested in holding the defense and interior ministries, which could remove the security sector from civilian oversight and bring the police and intelligence services under military control (Africanews, April 15).

Can the Islamists use the coup to their advantage?

Much of the Islamist political elite has been put under arrest, including al-Bashir loyalist and former prime minister Muhammad Tahir Ayala, leading NCP member Awad al-Jaz and two former vice-presidents, Berri Hassan Saleh and ‘Ali ‘Uthman Muhammad Taha, the latter a powerful Islamist who can call on his own supporters for political muscle. It should be recalled, however, that such arrests are often for show – the Islamist behind al-Bashir’s 1989 coup, Dr. Hassan al-Turabi, was sent to prison for several months after al-Bashir’s coup 1989 to disguise the Islamist nature of the new regime.

‘Ali al-Hajj, leader of the Islamist Popular Congress Party (PCP) (Alleastafrica)

The military has excluded Islamist parties from talks on Sudan’s political future. Islamists and supporters of the old regime are painting the demonstrators as secularists intent on attacking Sudan’s traditional Islamic faith. (Middle East Monitor, April 9). The dissolution of the NCP would weaken the Islamist grip on Sudan, but the movement has proved to be highly resilient in the face of setbacks.

Besides hosting Osama bin Laden and his followers in the 1990s (they were eventually expelled), religious extremists outside of Khartoum’s control were kept largely in check through most of al-Bashir’s rule. Neighboring states fear a new regime might allow extremists to operate in Sudan, whether deliberately or through negligence. According to an Egyptian government source, Cairo “cannot afford a leadership emerging in Libya or Sudan that tolerates, or even worse condones, militant Islamic activity. This is why we… are keeping a close eye on any possible transition of power in Sudan” (Al-Ahram [Cairo], April 10).

What of the Economic Crisis?

The security situation in Sudan cannot be eased until the uncertainty created by the ongoing economic crisis is resolved. The problems are many, and include a declining currency, raging inflation, massive unemployment, inability to replace oil revenues lost with the separation of South Sudan and the cost of fighting endless rebellions in the provinces.

If the general staff possesses any economic skills, they have yet to be revealed. Unfortunately, most of the TMC’s attention will be drawn to carefully watching their colleagues and rivals for signs of a counter-coup, a persistent danger in these conditions. The generals will also be concerned for their own future; as indicated by their demand for the defense and interior ministry portfolios in a future civilian government, they will work hard to ease their own safe transition into a new regime.

Note

1.The TMC, as announced by General al-Burhan, consists of:

General ‘Abd al-Fatah al-Burhan, President

Lieutenant General Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemeti,” Vice President

Lieutenant General Shams al-Din Kabbashi Ibrahim Shanto, member and spokesman

General Omar Zine al-‘Abdin Muhammad al-Shaykh, member

General Jalal al-Din al-Shaykh al-Tayib, member

General Mustafa Muhammad Mustafa Ahmad, member

General Yassir ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Atta, member

Airforce General Salah ‘Abd al-Khalig Said ‘Ali, member

Police General al-Tayib Babikir ‘Ali Fadl, memberRear

Admiral Engineer Ibrahim Jabir Ibrahim, member (Sudan Tribune, April 16).

This article first appeared in the April 22, 2019 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Musa Hilal: Darfur’s Most Wanted Man Loses Game of Dare with Khartoum… For Now

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, December 12, 2017

Khartoum is using an Arab paramilitary under the direct command of President Omar al-Bashir to clean up resistance to its rule amongst Darfur’s northern Rizayqat Arabs, once the core of the notorious Janajaweed militias that wreaked havoc on the region’s non-Arab population in the 2000s.

Shaykh Musa Hilal (Sudan Tribune)

The campaign has included the violent arrest of Shaykh Musa Hilal Abdalla, a member of the Um Jalul clan of the Mahamid Arabs. Hilal is the nazir (chief) of the Mahamid, a branch of the northern Rizayqat tribal group (the northern Rizayqat includes the Mahamid, Mahariya, and Ireiqat groups). Once the leader of the Janjaweed, Hilal was arrested on November 26, 2017 by the government’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF – al-Quwat al-Da’m al-Sari) after spending the last few years building a fiefdom in northern Darfur funded by illegal gold mining. Hilal remains subject to travel and financial sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council in 2006 in connection to his leadership of the Janjaweed.

Also arrested in the RSF raid were Hilal’s sons Habib, Fathi and Abd al-Basit, three brothers and a number of aides. At the time of the RSF’s arrival in his hometown of Mistiriyha, Hilal was still receiving condolences from visitors after the death of his mother (Radio Dabanga, November 27, 2017).

RSF Commander Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemetti” (Anadolu Agency)

Commanding the RSF forces was Hilal’s cousin, Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemetti,” a member of the Mahariya branch of the northern Rizayqat and Hilal’s former Janjaweed deputy. Daglo is leading the government’s six-month disarmament campaign in Darfur, intended to confiscate weapons held by civilians, rebel groups and government-controlled militias such as the Popular Defense Forces (PDF) and the Central Reserve Police (CRP).

The clashes began when a RSF disarmament unit was ambushed near Mistiriyha, killing nine. Hilal’s men then attacked and killed RSF Brigadier Abd al-Rahim Gumma when he arrived to investigate the ambush (Sudan Tribune, November 27, 2017). The RSF has deployed 10,000 men and an armored regiment in North Darfur to deal with the threat posed by Hilal and his followers (Sudan Tribune, November 5, 2017).

Terrible conditions were described in Mistiriyha after the raid, with mass arrests of male residents, the flight of women and children to barren hills nearby without water or food and bodies left to decompose in the streets (Sudan Tribune, November 29, 2017). Government sources admitted the loss of between nine-to thirteen men with 35 others wounded (Sudan Tribune, November 29). Reports of heavy civilian losses were denied by General ‘Ali Muhammad Salim, who claimed only a single child was hit by a stray bullet (Sudan News Agency, November 29, 2017).

The list of weapons seized from Hilal’s forces included 25 “technicals” (Land Cruisers mounted with heavy machine guns), a SAM-9 anti-aircraft system and a variety of “Dushkas” (the Russian-made DShK 108mm machine gun) and other automatic weapons commonly found in the region (Sudan Tribune, December 5, 2017).

Daglo insisted the arrest of an Algerian with “sophisticated communications equipment” and several other foreign nationals at Mistiriyha confirmed “the participation of foreign parties in destabilizing the security [of] Darfur” (Radio Dabanga, November 27, 2017; November 30, 2017; AFP, November 27, 2017).

Hilal was the official commander of the government’s Border Guard Force (BGF), once a small camel-mounted unit that was greatly expanded as a means of absorbing former Janjaweed into more tightly controlled government structures. Hilal spent several years in Khartoum as a senior government advisor before a dispute with the regime led to his return to Darfur in 2014. To further his own personal and tribal agenda, Hilal began to transform the BGF into the Sudanese Revolutionary Awakening (Sahwa) Council (SRAC). Composed largely of members of Hilal’s Mahamid clan, SRAC began to drive over-stretched government forces from northwest Darfur and established administrations in the region’s major centers and at the artisanal gold fields of Jabal Amer.

RSF Officers after a Raid on the Gold Mines at Jabal Amer (Radio Dabanga)

The Defense Ministry announced its intention to integrate the BGF into the RSF under Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) command in July 2017. The decision was immediately opposed by Hilal, who had no intention of serving under his former Janjaweed lieutenant and tribal inferior, General Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemetti.” [1]

A major quarrel broke out between Hilal and what he described as “these Nile Valley Arabs,” the Ja’ailin, Danagla and Sha’iqiya tribes that have controlled Sudan since independence. Hilal announced his refusal to cooperate with the government’s disarmament campaign and accused Daglo and his patron, Vice-President Hasabo Abd al-Rahman, of siphoning off millions of dollars intended for the Sudanese treasury in return for the deployment of RSF fighters in Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen (al-Jazeera, September 10, 2017). [2]

As commander of the Border Guards (part of the SAF), Musa Hilal was flown to Khartoum for questioning by military intelligence, to be followed by a military trial for turning Mistiriyha “into a hideout for fugitives and outlaws,” according to Minister of State for Defense General ‘Ali Muhammad Salim (AFP, November 29, 2017). Fifty Border Guards were taken prisoner, with 30 sent immediately to Khartoum and the remainder to follow (Sudan Tribune, November 30, 2017).

The Northern Rizayqat – Defections and More Arrests

Hilal’s detention followed the arrest earlier in November of former Border Guards Lieutenant Colonel ‘Ali Abdullah Rizqallah “Savanna.” Rizqallah (Mahamid clan of the Rizayqat) split from the Border Guards in August to form his own Sudan Army Movement – Revolutionary Forces (SAM-RF) after Khartoum declared its intention to merge the Border Guards into the RSF. The commander was arrested after two days of clashes with the RSF around Korma (12 km west of al-Fashir) and in the area south of Kutum (Radio Dabanga, November 10, 2017). Rizqallah was removed to Khartoum for questioning and may face charges carrying the death penalty (Anadolu Agency, November 12, 2017).

Lieutenant Colonel ‘Ali Abdullah Rizqallah “Savana” after his capture (Radio Dabanga)

The RSF claimed a week earlier that it had absorbed some 300 SAM-RF fighters after they defected from Rizqallah’s movement with their weapons and vehicles (Sudan Tribune, November 4, 2017; November 12, 2017; Radio Dabanga, November 5, 2017). Rizqallah is reported to have feuded with General Daglo’s Mahariya clan, responding to a 2016 ambush by Mahariya gunmen with an attack on the home of a Mahariya National Security and Intelligence Service (NISS) colonel and governor of East Darfur that killed two NISS agents. [3] More recently, the RSF claimed to have repelled a SAM-RF attack on the North Darfur city of Kutum (Sudan Tribune, November 4, 2017).

Three days after the RSF assault on Mistiriyha, Adam Khatir Yusuf, leader of the Awlad Eid clan of the Rizayqat, died in a medical facility belonging to Sudan’s security services. The tribal leader was wounded while in Mistiriyha to offer condolences to Musa Hilal and was seen in a poor and bloodied condition being taken off a plane in Khartoum. His family claimed that Adam Khatir died while undergoing torture by military intelligence (Radio Dabanga, November 29, 2017). RSF commander Daglo claimed Adam Khatir had deceived them regarding the possibility of acting as a mediator between the RSF and Hilal: “We thought he [could] serve as a good-faith mediator, but unfortunately we were surprised to see him carrying a gun and fighting with Musa Hilal” (Sudan Tribune, November 29, 2017).

On November 26, the RSF announced the capture of SRAC spokesman Harun Mahmud Madikheir south of Mistiriyha where he was reported to be on his way to Chad with his bodyguards (Radio Dabanga, November 27, 2017).

Government security forces have also raided camps for internally-displaced persons (IDPs) in Darfur as part of the disarmament campaign. President al-Bashir (a Ja’alin Arab) has declared his intent to empty the camps over the objections of the UN and the African Union and Darfuri rebel groups claim the disarmament efforts are just a pretext to clear them of IDPs (AFP, November 21, 2017; Sudan Tribune, September 24, 2017).

Conclusion

Khartoum must still deal carefully with Hilal; there are many members of his Mahamid clan in the RSF who could turn against the government and he can describe the exact type and level of involvement of many leading Sudanese politicians and officials in the ethnic cleansing of Darfur. Al-Bashir himself is subject to International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrants issued for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity in Darfur. Hilal has been in contact with rebel movements looking to integrate Arab groups into the ongoing rebellion. The former Janjaweed leader may also be able to call on powerful friends beyond Darfur’s borders – Khartoum believes he has been in contact with the commander of Libya’s “Libyan National Army (LNA),” Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Hilal is as well the father-in-law of Chad’s Zaghawa president Idriss Déby Itno, a former foe of al-Bashir.

SLM/A-MM Rebel Commander Minni Minawi (Radio Dabanga)

Hilal’s arrest has also met with internal opposition. Old enemy Minni Minawi, leader of a largely Zaghawa rebel movement and current chairman of the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) rebel coalition, denounced the government’s disarmament campaign for inciting a new round of violence in Darfur and called for the immediate release of Hilal and his sons.  He further described the alleged RSF killings of women and children in Mistiriyha as “a crime against humanity” (Sudan Tribune, November 29, 2017). The disarmament campaign has also been condemned as nothing but a new war in the name of disarmament by the Islamist opposition Popular Congress Party (PCP) and the still-influential Sudanese Communist Party (SCP) (Radio Dabanga, November 29, 2017).

In Sudan, prosecutions and detentions depend a great deal upon the importance of the individual to the regime’s tribal relations, his own connections to leading members of the regime, or his future value to the regime. Hilal was previously imprisoned in 2002 on charges of inciting ethnic violence, but was released the next year when the regime needed a leader for an Arab supremacist militia that would punish Darfur’s non-Arabs for their resistance to the government – the Janjaweed. With few political cards to play in Darfur and influence with the region’s Arab tribes in a state of decline, Khartoum is likely to hang on to Hilal as a potential future asset, however uncomfortable his stay may be made in the meantime.

NOTES

  1. For a detailed account of Musa Hilal’s resistance to the disarmament campaign and conflict with the RSF, see: Andrew McGregor, “Why the Janjaweed Legacy Prevents Khartoum from Disarming Darfur,” AIS Special Report, October 15, 2017, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=4027
  2. For the RSF’s campaign in Yemen, see: Nicholas A. Heras, “Sudan’s Controversial Rapid Support Forces Bolster Saudi Efforts in Yemen,” Terrorism Monitor, October 27, 2017, https://jamestown.org/program/sudans-controversial-rapid-support-forces-bolsters-saudi-efforts-yemen/
  3. Jérôme Tubiana, “Remote-Control Breakdown: Sudanese Paramilitary Forces and Pro-Government Militias,” Small Arms Survey, May 4, 2017, http://www.css.ethz.ch/en/services/digital-library/articles/article.html/571cdc5a-4b5b-417e-bd22-edb0e3050428

Why the Janjaweed Legacy Prevents Khartoum from Disarming Darfur

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, October 15, 2017

Ten thousand members of Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF – al-Quwat al-Da’m al-Sari) have been transferred from Kordofan to North Darfur to help implement a mandatory disarmament campaign in the region. Almost exclusively Arab in composition, the RSF will attempt to disarm not only non-Arab rebel forces still in the field, but also Arab elements of the government’s Border Guard Force (BGF) that are in near rebellion and nomadic tribesmen who rely on their weapons to protect their herds from thieves and predators.

Sudan Armed Forces Armor in Darfur (Nuba Reports)

Both the RSF and the BGF are products of Khartoum’s efforts to make the infamous and internationally reviled “Janjaweed” disappear. Absorbing these ill-disciplined Arab militias into better defined government formations helped support a government narrative that the Janjaweed were not government-backed marauders, but rather unaffiliated bandits that had been removed from Darfur through the efforts of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF). In theory, transforming these militias into salaried employees of the state would bring them under tighter state control at a time when many Janjaweed and their commanders were beginning to have second thoughts about having sacrificed their reputation in return for empty promises from Khartoum. In practice, the RSF has transformed itself into a border control force reducing migration flows to Europe with ample funding from the European Union, while the BGF has evolved into a new formation, the Sudanese Revolutionary Awakening (“Sahwa”) Council (SRAC), which has slipped from government control with the help of enormous profits from its domination of artisanal gold mining in northwestern Darfur.

Both RSF and BGF are composed of members of the semi-nomadic Abbala (camel-raising) tribes of northern Darfur, the main source of Janjaweed manpower after the ongoing Darfur rebellion began in 2003. Some of the Abbala tribes, including the northern Rizayqat, had not been allotted specific lands for their use by the old Fur Sultanate (c. 1600-1916) or the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium administration (1916-1956).

Darfur (Human Rights Watch)

While customary arrangements between the semi-nomadic Arabs and sedentary non-Arab groups regarding land-use and migration routes continued into the independence period, these accommodations began to fall apart in the 1980s as drought and an encroaching desert placed new pressures on traditional systems. Possessing useful pastures became essential for the pastoralist Arabs, but after centuries of land allotments by Fur Sultans (the feudal hakura system) and their colonial successors, there was no unclaimed land to be had; dispossessing others was the only means of establishing a new dar, or tribal homeland.

The Baqqara (cattle-raising) Arabs of southern Darfur, whose dar-s were legally and traditionally defined, had little involvement with the depredations of the Janjaweed. Unfortunately for the Baqqara, this distinction is little understood outside of Sudan. It is also important to note that not all the Abbala tribes were involved with the Janjaweed; the Janjaweed was primarily drawn from sections of the northern Rizayqat (who were much affected by lack of land-title) and elements of Arab groups from Chad and Niger who had migrated to Darfur with the encouragement of the Khartoum regime, which suggested they carve out their own land-holdings from territory belonging to non-Arab tribes the regime viewed as supporters of the rebellion.

The progress of Khartoum’s disarmament campaign will have important consequences for the future of the Darfur rebellion, the regime’s continuing efforts to centralize power in Sudan and even the European Union’s campaign to reduce illegal migration into Europe.

Musa Hilal: From Janjaweed to Border Guard

With the possible exception of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes in Darfur, no individual is more closely associated with the deeds of the Janjaweed than Shaykh Musa Hilal Abdalla, a member of the Um Jalul clan of the Mahamid Arabs.

Sudan President Omar al-Bashir (center) with Musa Hilal (right of of al-Bashir)      (al-Jazeera)

Hilal is the nazir (chief) of the Mahamid, a branch of the northern Rizayqat tribal group (the northern Rizayqat includes the Mahamid, Mahariya, and Ireiqat groups. The southern Rizayqat are baqqara with little involvement in the Janjaweed). From his home village of Misteriya, Hilal became involved in the 1990s with the Arab Gathering (Tajamu al-Arabi), an Arab supremacist group following an ideology developed by Mu’ammar Qaddafi and the leaders of Libya’s Islamic Legion (Failaq al-Islamiya) in the 1980s. The Um Jalul began to clash with non-Arab Fur and Zaghawa tribesmen in the 1990s, leading to Hilal’s eventual arrest and imprisonment in Port Sudan in 2002 on charges of inciting ethnic violence.

Hilal’s prison term was brought to an abrupt end by the shocking April 2003 raid on Darfur’s al-Fashir military airbase by Fur and Zaghawa rebels retaliating against growing waves of government backed Arab violence against non-Arab communities. An unnerved government realized the SAF might not be capable of containing the mobile hit-and-run tactics of the rebels developed during fighting in Chad in the 1980s. After deciding to turn to local tribal militias to carry the counterinsurgency campaign, suddenly Shaykh Musa was just what the regime needed. Consequently, Hilal was released in June 2003 to organize a counterinsurgent force infused with pro-Arab ideology and armed, supplied and directed by SAF intelligence units. This was the “Janjaweed.” [1]

The strategy employed to hobble the militarily powerful insurgent forces was to cripple their support base and supply system through the destruction of defenseless Fur and Zaghawa villages. Tactics typically involved an initial bombardment by the Sudanese Air Force (usually crude “barrel-bombs” rolled out from Russian-built Antonov transport aircraft), followed by waves of horse and camel-borne Janjaweed and a final “mopping-up” force of Sudanese regulars and intelligence agents. Murder, torture, rape and looting were all part of a process intended to punish relatives of insurgents and even those with no connection to the rebels other than a shared ethnic or tribal background. Incitement of ethnic hatred, promises of immunity and a license to loot freely helped give free rein to the basest instincts of the Janjaweed; those reluctant to join in such activities were subject to imprisonment and the collective punishment of their families.

One of Hilal’s leading lieutenants during the 2003-2005 period of the worst Janjaweed abuses was Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemetti,” from the Awlad Mansur clan of the Mahariya branch of the northern Rizayqat, though by this time the Awlad Mansur were resident in South Darfur, having moved there in the 1980s where they seized Fur lands in the southern Jabal Marra region.

Hilal’s notoriety brought largely meaningless sanctions from the UN Security Council in April 2006. Instead of ostracism, Hilal was brought to Khartoum, where he was integrated into the government as a special advisor to the Ministry of Federal Affairs and a member of parliament in the ruling National Congress Party (Hilal later repudiated his membership in the NCP).

By 2005 the government’s campaign in Darfur had begun to attract unwanted international attention, including ill-informed but nonetheless damaging accusations of “genocide” from various media sources and celebrity activists. However useful to the regime, the “Janjaweed” had to go. The solution was integration into the Border Guards, previously a small and little known camel-mounted unit. Arab tribesmen serving in the Janjaweed for loot were now given salaries and government ID cards which helped shield the new Border Guards from prosecution for war crimes while bringing them under tighter regime control. Musa Hilal was made a top commander in the expanded BGF.

The Return of Musa Hilal

Following a dispute with the government, Musa Hilal returned to northwest Darfur in January 2014, where, despite remaining commander of the BFG, he established the 8,000 strong Sudanese Revolutionary Awakening (Sahwa) Council (SRAC) as a vehicle for his personal and tribal political agenda. By March 2014 he had brought the northwestern Darfur districts of, Kutum, Kebkabiya, al-Waha and Saraf Omra under SRAC’s administrative control by the exclusion of government forces. Clashes between Hilal’s mostly Mahamid followers and government security forces began to occur with regularity.

Musa Hilal’s SRAC is also involved in a struggle with the RSF over control of Jabal Amer (northwest of Kabkabiya), where gold was discovered in 2012. The SAF withdrew from the area in 2013 under pressure from Hilal’s forces, which then defeated the rival Bani Hussein Arabs in a bloody struggle for control of the region. In 2016, the UN Panel of Experts on Sudan reported that Hilal was making approximately $54 million per year from SRAC’s control of the artisanal gold mining at Jabal Amer, though the report was not publicly released due to Russian objections. Gold is now the largest source of revenue in Sudan since South Sudan and its oil fields separated in 2011, though much of it is smuggled out of the country to markets in the Gulf States (Radio Tamazuj, April 27, 2016; Radio Dabanga, April 5, 2016).

In May 2017, SRAC spokesman Ahmad Muhammad Abakr called for “all Arab tribes in Darfur, Kordofan, and Blue Nile state to disobey the government’s military orders and refrain from participating in its war convoys.” Suggesting their cause had been “stolen by the government,” Abakr declared:

The ongoing wars are now fabricated for the purpose of a divide-and-rule policy of which the ruling elite in Khartoum is the ultimate beneficiary rather than the people of Sudan… If there is a need for war, we ask you to point weapons against those who employ you to fight on their behalf in order to take your political, economic and military rights instead of fighting a proxy war (Radio Dabanga, May 31, 2017).

The Rapid Support Forces

Prior to Hilal’s return to Darfur, Khartoum had detached the BGF’s Fut-8 Battalion (based in Nyala, South Darfur and commanded by Muhammad Hamdan Daglo) from the rest of the force and used it as the core of a new paramilitary, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The move was partly a response to internal tensions in the BGF between Fut-8 and the Hilal-commanded Fut-7 Battalion, which claimed Fut-8 was favored by Khartoum in terms of supplies of weaponry, vehicles and supplies. [2] At the same time, Daglo and his followers complained that Hilal was not distributing BGF resources fairly, especially the all-important Land Cruisers. [3]

RSF Troops, Darfur

The RSF came under the direct authority of the National Security and Intelligence Service (NISS – Jihaz al-Amn al-Watani wa’l-Mukhabarat) and continues to enjoy the patronage of Second Vice President Hassabo Muhammad Abd al-Rahman, a Rizayqat. [4]

The RSF was integrated into the SAF in 2016, but with an unusual semi-autonomous status under the direct command of President Bashir (a Nile Valley or “riverine” Ja’alin Arab). Saying that the establishment of the RSF was the best decision he had ever made as president, Bashir recently told a graduating group of 1450 RSF recruits in Khartoum that their aim must be to “show force and terrorize the enemies” (Sudan Tribune, May 14, 2017).

Despite government claims that Darfur was stabilized, the RSF took a leading role in May 2017 alongside the SAF in a bitter four day battle around Ayn Siro in the Kutum district of North Darfur last May against the Zaghawa-led Sudan Liberation Movement – Minni Minawi (SLM-MM) and the allied Sudan Liberation Movement/Army – Transitional Council (SLM/A-TC), led by Nimr Abd al-Rahman. [5]

Several leading prisoners, including veteran rebel Muhammad Abd al-Salim “Tarada,” military commander of the Sudan Liberation Movement – Abd al-Wahid (SLM-AW) until June 2014 and then a commander in the SLM/A-TC, were reported to have been killed by NISS agents following their capture. The defeated rebels fled westward along the Upper Wadi Howar into Chad, though they later issued a joint communiqué making an unlikely claim to have driven off the government forces. The heavy losses suffered by the SLM/A-MM marked a disappointing return to Darfur after the movement had spent nearly two years fighting as mercenaries in Libya (Sudan Tribune, May 29, 2017; May 23, 2017; Sudan Vision, May 22, 2017; Radio Dabanga, May 23, 2017; IRIN, August 2, 2017).

RSF Commander Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemetti”

RSF commander Daglo claimed the Darfur rebels were aided at Ayn Siro and Wadi Howar by Chadian opposition fighters (who have also been fighting as mercenaries in Libya) [6] and insinuated that the Chadians were harbored and supported logistically by Musa Hilal, though he did not elaborate on the reasons for this new support by Hilal for Darfur’s non-Arab rebels (Sudan Tribune, June 4, 2017).

By January 8, 2017, the RSF announced the capture of over 1500 illegal migrants in the last seven months following the interception of 115 migrants several days earlier (Sudan Tribune, January 9, 2017). RSF activity along the Libyan border is intended to intercept traffickers in humans and narcotics and to demonstrate Sudan’s commitment to reducing flows of illegal migrants after the European Union made a grant to Sudan of €100 million to deal with the issue.

Most of the illegal migrants making their way through Sudan to Libya and on into Europe hail from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Yemen. The EU is funding the construction of two RSF camps equipped with modern surveillance equipment and electronics for intercepting and detaining illegal migrants. [7]

Rejecting Integration

Defence Minister Lieutenant General Ahmad Awad Bin Auf announced a reorganization of the SAF’s “supporting forces” on July 19, 2017. A central part of the reorganization was the planned integration of the BGF into the RSF. Within days, SRAC spokesman Haroun Medeikher announced the BGF would refuse to allow its integration, saying the decision was “ill-considered and unwise” and had been taken without consulting the BGF leadership (Radio Dabanga, July 23, 2017).

On news of the refusal, one of Hilal’s old opponents, Abd al-Wahid al-Nur (leader of the largely Fur SLM-AW), used radio to reach out to the Arab militia leader, stating that while Musa Hilal’s “awakening conscience may be belated,” it was “time for all the Sudanese people to stand united against the regime” (Radio Afia Darfur, via Sudan Tribune, August 20, 2017). Abd al-Wahid has always been the rebel commander most likely to seek terms with Darfur’s Arab community, recognizing the symbiotic relationship between pastoralists and farmers as well as the existence of a common enemy in the Khartoum regime.

Hilal has also stepped up his anti-government rhetoric, urging his tribesmen not to volunteer for the SAF’s campaign in Yemen, claiming Vice-President Abd al-Rahman and General Daglo have stolen millions of dollars given to Sudan by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in return for their participation in the intervention against the Zaydi Shiite Houthis in Yemen’s ongoing civil war (al-Jazeera, September 10, 2017).

Turmoil on the Libyan Border

On September 22, 2017 the RSF claimed to have killed 17 human traffickers a day earlier with a loss of two RSF men. The encounter took place in the Jabal ‘Uwaynat region where the Sudanese, Libyan and Egyptian borders meet. [8] An RSF field commander, Lieutenant Colonel Hassan Abdallah, described the intercepted group as “the largest armed gang operating in human trafficking and illegal immigration” on the Libyan-Sudanese border. The RSF also claimed to have detained 48 illegal migrants being shipped to Libya (Radio Dabanga, September 24, 2017).

A SRAC spokesman insisted those killed were SRAC members involved in trading but not trafficking, adding that the men had initially only been detained by the RSF, but were killed after three days of negotiations failed to reach an agreement on a ransom  (Radio Dabanga, September 25, 2017). One of those killed was a Hilal bodyguard, Sulayman Daoud. Leading SRAC member Ali Majok al-Momin counter-charged the RSF with “trading and smuggling vehicles over the borders with Chad and Libya” (Radio Dabanga, September 25, 2017).

The incident was not the first involving the RSF and SRAC on the Libyan border. Seven SRAC members, including leading member Omar Saga and Muhammad al-Rayes, another of Musa Hilal’s bodyguards, were arrested near the border by the RSF on their return from Libya on August 11, 2017.

Behind the RSF’s vigilance against Hilal supporters on the Libyan border is Khartoum’s fear that Hilal is establishing cross-border contacts with “Field Marshal” Khalifa Haftar, leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA – actually a strong coalition of militias under Haftar’s command that oppose the internationally recognized Libyan government in Tripoli). Hilal also has important ties to militarily powerful Chad, whose president, Idriss Déby Itno (a Zaghawa), is Hilal’s son-in-law. Further complicating matters for the government is the high probability that many Mahamid and other Arab members of the RSF could defect to the BGF in the event of a full-scale conflict between the two.

Musa Hilal reportedly sent 200 vehicles full of armed fighters to besiege the RSF camp until those RSF members involved in the September 22 killings were turned over to the BGF (Sudan Tribune, September 26, 2017). A battle between the BGF and the RSF was averted when the two sides agreed to third-party mediation. The process favored the BGF, with the RSF making concessions over control of the gold workings at Jabal Amer and handing over vehicles, military equipment and BGF members detained in the attack (Radio Dabanga, September 29, 2017).

SRAC claimed on October 7, 2017 that two columns of armed RSF Land Cruisers, one from Ayn Siro and one from Kabkabiya, had been sent to “punish Hilal” by defeating his forces and bringing him in to Khartoum “dead or alive” (Radio Dabanga, October 9, 2017; Sudan Tribune, October 8, 2017). The accusation was not new; Shaykh Musa has claimed for years that Khartoum is intent on his assassination.

Conclusion

According to SRAC spokesman Haroun Medeikhir, Musa Hilal met in August with BGF commanders and traditional leaders across Darfur to discuss what he termed Khartoum’s attempt to “dismantle the Arab tribes” (Sudan Tribune, August 14, 2017). Key to bringing the Arab tribes to heel would be disarmament. It was no surprise then that the tribes were alarmed when Vice-President Abd al-Rahman announced a new six-month campaign to disarm Darfur’s militias beginning on October 15.

The SAF and RSF are also taking over 11 military bases being abandoned by the United Nations/African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID). [9] The world’s second-largest peacekeeping force is in the first phase of a withdrawal prompted largely by international exhaustion with the complex Darfur issue and UNAMID’s annual budget of $1.35 billion. Khartoum, which never wanted the mission in the first place, began to push for an early UNAMID exit after the mission called for an investigation of the mass rape of 221 women and underage girls by SAF troops in the Fur village of Tabit in October 2014. [10] Khartoum maintains that Darfur has been stabilized and rebel fighters either expelled or neutralized.

Khartoum’s new effort to consolidate its power in Darfur raises renewed possibilities of an alliance of Arabs and non-Arabs against Khartoum, but the events of the last three decades have left a massive and deeply ingrained distrust between the two. Arab and non-Arab rebel groups in Darfur have toyed with the idea of an alliance against the center since 2007, when some Arab factions began to realize their international reputation had been irreversibly stained from manipulation by an insincere Khartoum regime that never had their interests in mind. [11] In addition, the services and development programs promised to the Arabs for their participation in the Janjaweed campaigns never materialized, leaving the Darfur Arabs no better off than they had been in 2003. Tension between the Darfur Arabs and the riverine Arab groups that control the government (the Ja’ailin, the Danagla and the Sha’iqiya) tend to bring out the strong prejudices that exist between the two Arab groups. The riverine Arabs regard the Darfur Abbala and Baqqara as backwards and “Africanized.” The Darfur Arabs, however, claim descent from the great Juhayna tribe of Arabia; some extremists seeking to shed the control of the riverine Arabs have described the latter as “half-caste Nubians.” [12]

Even Musa Hilal has at times demonstrated a broader understanding of Darfur’s ethnic make-up and the methods used by Khartoum to create and exploit racial and ethnic divisions. In 2008, Hilal told a gathering of Baqqara and Abbala tribal leaders that all Darfuris were “Africans” of mixed Arab and African origin who needed to work on restoring their traditionally cooperative social fabric. [13] In a private meeting with U.S. diplomats that followed, Hilal said “We found out that we have more in common with the Africans of Darfur than with these Nile Valley Arabs,” and even made a surprising recantation of the Arab supremacist philosophy he had followed for decades, suggesting that, based on their better education and moderation, “the Fur should lead” in Darfur, a return to the leadership structure of the old Fur Sultanate. [14]

Complete faith in Daglo’s loyalty does not exist in Khartoum, where conciliation is common when it is in the regime’s interests but indiscretions are never completely forgotten. In this case the issue is Daglo’s mutiny against the government in 2007 over RSF salaries, land and a dispute with Musa Hilal. Unable to assert its authority in Darfur and unwilling to see large numbers of armed Arabs join the rebels, the regime was forced to make major concessions to keep Daglo’s forces onside. When the salaries still went unpaid, Daglo threatened to storm Nyala, the capital of South Darfur. Money and arms eventually brought an end to the mutiny, but not the suspicion. [15]

While some Arabs and non-Arabs may discover they have a common enemy in Khartoum, they are still far from having common goals. In recent years, Khartoum has shown little interest in mediating disputes between Arab groups in Darfur that leave these groups weak, preoccupied and unable to unite against the center, especially at a time when budget cuts related to the loss of oil-rich South Sudan make it difficult for the regime to buy cooperation. The consequent environment of perpetual tension and suspicion does not bode well for the success of a campaign to seize the weapons of Darfur’s armed factions by force. In making the attempt the regime will encounter the consequences of its long-standing cynicism and duplicity on the Darfur file and a divide-and-rule policy that has left it with fewer friends in the region than when the rebellion and counter-insurgency began in 2003.

NOTES

  1. The term “Janjaweed,” which predates the counter-insurgency, was used colloquially in reference to armed bandits. The term was not used by the Arab militias themselves or the government.
  2. “Border Intelligence Brigade (Al Istikhbarat al Hudud) (AKA Border Guards)” Sudan Human Security Baseline Assessment (HSBA), Small Arms Survey, Geneva, November 2010, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/facts-figures/sudan/darfur/armed-groups/saf-and-allied-forces/HSBA-Armed-Groups-Border-Guards.pdf
  3. Julie Flint, “Beyond ‘Janjaweed’: Understanding the Militias of Darfur,” Small Arms Survey, Geneva, 2009, fn.78, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/working-papers/HSBA-WP-17-Beyond-Janjaweed.pdf
  4. For the RSF, see, “Khartoum Struggles to Control its Controversial ‘Rapid Support Forces’,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor, May 30, 2014, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=852
  5. The SLM-MM is named for its Zaghawa commander, Minni Minawi (a.k.a. Sulayman Arcua Minawi). Like Hilal, Minawi joined the government in Khartoum from 2006 to 2010 as Senior Assistant to the President of the Sudan before returning to the rebellion in Darfur. Nimr Abd al-Rahman was captured by government forces in the battle and replaced as SLM-TC head by al-Hadi Idriss Yahya.
  6. See Jérôme Tubiana and Claudio Gramizzi, “Tubu Trouble: State and Statelessness in the Chad-Sudan-Libya Triangle,” Small Arms Survey, Geneva, 2017, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/working-papers/SAS-CAR-WP43-Chad-Sudan-Libya.pdf; “Rebel or Mercenary? A Profile of Chad’s General Mahamat Mahdi Ali,” Militant Leadership Monitor, September 7, 2017, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=4010 .
  7. See Suliman Baldo, “Border Control from Hell: How the EU’s migration partnership legitimizes Sudan’s ‘militia state’,” Enough Project, April 2017, https://enoughproject.org/files/BorderControl_April2017_Enough_Finals.pdf
  8. For Jabal ‘Uwaynat and RSF activity in the area, see: “Jabal ‘Uwaynat: Mysterious Desert Mountain Becomes a Three-Border Security Flashpoint,” AIS Special Report, June 13, 2017, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3930
  9. The UNAMID bases are located at Eid al-Fursan, Tullus, Muhajiriya, al-Malha, Mellit, Um Kedada, Abu Shouk, Zamzam, al-Tine, Habila and Foro Baranga.
  10. “Mass Rape in North Darfur: Sudanese Army Attacks against Civilians in Tabit,” Human Rights Watch, February 11, 2015, https://www.hrw.org/report/2015/02/11/mass-rape-north-darfur/sudanese-army-attacks-against-civilians-tabit
  11. See Andrew McGregor: “Darfur’s Arabs Taking Arms against Khartoum,” Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies Commentary (November 2007), https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=559
  12. Julie Flint and Alex de Waal: Darfur: A New History of a Long War, Zed Books, London, 2008.
  13. “Iftar with the ‘Janjaweed’,” U.S. Department of State Cable 08KHARTOUM1450_a, September 25, 2008, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/08KHARTOUM1450_a.html
  14. Ibid.
  15. “Border Intelligence Brigade (Al Istikhbarat al Hudud) (AKA Border Guards)” Sudan Human Security Baseline Assessment (HSBA), Small Arms Survey, Geneva, November 2010, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/facts-figures/sudan/darfur/armed-groups/saf-and-allied-forces/HSBA-Armed-Groups-Border-Guards.pdf; Julie Flint, op cit, 2009, pp.34-36, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/working-papers/HSBA-WP-17-Beyond-Janjaweed.pdf

Khartoum Struggles to Control its Controversial “Rapid Support Forces”

Andrew McGregor

May 30, 2014

Since independence in 1956, Sudan’s central government has formed a habit of using tribal-based (usually Arab) militias and paramilitaries to squash regional rebellions.  Usually well-armed but poorly disciplined, these groups have operated under the light hand of various security agencies willing to ignore atrocities and war crimes to re-establish central government control. Now, however, this long-standing policy has begun to backfire on the Islamist-military regime in Khartoum, with the recently formed “counter-terrorist” Rapid Support Forces (RSF) begins to operate outside the control of government authorities, creating even greater resentment against the government in Sudan’s numerous regions of unrest.

Major General Abbas Abd al-Aziz Reviews RSF Fighters

The RSF commander is Major General Abbas ‘Abd al-Aziz, a Ja’alin Arab from North Sudan and a trusted relative of President Omar al-Bashir as well as a senior member of the National Security and Intelligence Service (NISS – Jihaz al-Amn al-Watani wa’l-Mukhabarat), Sudan’s much-feared internal security organization, under whose command the RSF operates. His deputy and field commander is Muhammad Hamdan Daglo (a.k.a. Hemeti), a member of the Mahariya branch of the Northern Rizayqat of Darfur. The paramilitary of 5,000 to 6,000 men is believed to have the patronage of Sudanese Second Vice President Hassabo Muhammad ‘Abd al-Rahman, a native of Darfur and the political secretary of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP). The commander of the South Kordofan-based RSF-2, Colonel Hussein Jabr al-Dar, was killed in a mid-May battle with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army Northern Command (SPLM/A-NC) near the South Kordofan capital of Kadugli (Sudan Tribune, May 24; Radio Dabanga, May 26).

A common demand of much of Sudan’s armed and political opposition is the dissolution of the RSF. The creation of a large, well-armed militia under its own command and officially tasked with “counter-terrorism” activities is an important step in entrenching itself within the larger national administration (Middle East Online, May 21).

According to General ‘Abd al-Aziz, the RSF includes in its ranks retired and experienced military men as well as recruits from various parts of the country who receive four months of training before deployment on the battlefield, including lessons on international human rights and the rights of civilians in war zones (Sudan Vision, May 29; AFP, May 21). However, there is widespread concern that former members of Darfur’s notorious Janjaweed militias implicated in serious war crimes are being brought into more formal formations such as the Border Guards and RSF to shield them from prosecution.

The leading rebel movements still active in Darfur, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army of ‘Abd al-Wahid al-Nur (SLM/A-AW) and the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army of Minni Minnawi (SLM/A-MM) urged the UN Security Council in April to launch an “immediate investigation of the recent escalation of genocide in Darfur by the Rapid Support Forces from February 28 this year to date” (Radio Dabanga, April 23).