Khartoum should tackle its terrorist problem before it spins out of control

Recent developments explain why Washington has been reluctant to remove Sudan from its list of sponsors of terrorism.
Sunday 05/04/2020
President of the Sudanese Transitional Council General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan (C) walks alongside military officers during an army exercise on the outskirts of the capital Khartoum, last October (AFP)
Many fronts. President of the Sudanese Transitional Council General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan (C) walks alongside military officers during an army exercise on the outskirts of the capital Khartoum, last October. (AFP)

CAIRO--Security assessments predicted that Sudan, during the reign of the Islamists, would turn into the ideal platform for intense activity by all Islamist currents. The Islamist movement in Sudan proved to be flexible ideologically and opened Sudan quite early to Islamists around the world.

Even when former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir had to expel some Islamist leaders, it was essentially for opportunistic reasons so other leaders could survive in peace.

The Sudanese transitional Sovereignty Council’s priority has been its battle with remnants of the previous government and its extensions in the Islamic movement and parties that flourished under al-Bashir.

The declared goal was sometimes to safeguard the nascent revolution and, other times, to uproot the former deep state and dry up its sources or even cutting off possible resources of a potential coup. These were areas in which the government made some strides but it has not completely closed these files for reasons related to capacity, desire, political will and the priority given to reaching a balance between visible and hidden powers.

Amid these developments, there has been a very dangerous issue concerning the various movements of the Islamist nebula that have taken refuge in Sudan. The issue of these organisations has disappeared from the public radar even though it is vital for Sudan and other countries.

The failed March 9 assassination attempt on Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok revealed a significant aspect of the submerged part of the iceberg. Khartoum began to pay attention to dangers lurking in various parts of the country and gladly accepted the cooperation of security teams from numerous countries, the most important of which were from Egypt and the United States.

Solving the puzzle

These developments shed light on the reasons behind Washington’s keeping Sudan on its list of sponsors of terrorism despite Khartoum’s many concessions. Washington praised Khartoum for political progress but it seems that the United States’ concern about Islamist movements in Sudan was greater than its readiness to remove Sudan from the terror list. Washington fears that Sudan will again become an incubator for terrorist groups.

The steps by the Sovereignty Council after the assassination attempt did not touch the Islamists.

Hamdok, speaking to the Wall Street Journal last December, pointed out that Sudan borders seven countries where terrorist organisations are active. “We have Boko Haram to the West and the Somali youth movement to the east, [the Islamic State] ISIS in the north and the outskirts,” he said.

Regardless of the significant threat these movements pose to the Sudanese state, Hamdok’s statements are not commensurate with the slowness of Khartoum’s actions in this regard. Previous statements made it clear that Hamdok envisioned that Washington would undertake a counterterrorism operation in Sudan, similar to support it provided to the Sahel.

As the time of the arrival of the UN political mission that Hamdok requested nears, beginning in May, other aspects of the picture become clear. For all practical reasons, Sudan will be monitored and supervised by the United Nations, facilitating the participation of the international community in combating terrorism that entrenched itself in Sudan.

The danger coming from the West

On December 6, Sudanese authorities said they thwarted an attempt by Boko Haram to cross the border from Chad. The operation came about two months after reports of similar infiltrations into Sudan.

Sudanese intellectual Al-Hajj Warraq said infiltrated elements “resorted to waving Islamic sharia law in an attempt to win over the general sympathy of Muslims.” Security services were warned of the dangers of having the Darfur region in western Sudan become a destination for Boko Haram, which was expanding in the Lake Chad region, which borders Cameroon, Niger, Nigeria and Chad.

Among measures taken by Khartoum was forming a special army and police task force to confront threats along the borders with Chad, Libya and the Central African Republic. Boko Haram’s terror reached deep in Chadian territory. Scores of Chadian soldiers were killed by Boko Haram. It is likely the organisation’s expansionist ambitions will not stop at traditional geographical borders.

Because the transitional authority in Sudan has focused mainly on the political situation, security in the vast territory along the western borders has been neglected, which presents difficulties for Sudanese forces to secure those areas.

On January 29, the military governor of North Darfur, Major-General Malik al-Tayeb Khojali, closed the borders to suspicious vehicles from neighbouring countries and impounded any vehicle that crossed the border.

Two weeks after the governor’s decision, the Customs Police in North Darfur State said it had registered about 15,000 vehicles that had entered Sudan illegally, the majority of which were of the four-wheel-drive type belonging to Boko Haram.

The move came after a considerable number of such vehicles entered North Darfur at almost the same time. It was suspected that Boko Haram was trying to establish a base in Sudan. As the transitional authority focused on addressing remnants of the al-Bashir regime at the expense of ignoring the danger posed by religious extremist groups, Boko Haram increased its activities in neighbouring countries.

ISIS has also shown interest in Sudan. Its leaders are convinced that the country is a fertile hotspot to restore the organisation’s lost lustre. ISIS’s late leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had expressed interest in Sudan as a “future battleground.”

Recently, a message was released by ISIS-affiliated Al Wafa, under the title “An Appeal to the People of Sudan,” which hinted at seizing the opportunity to establish an Islamic State there.

Tensions in eastern Sudan about two months ago confirmed the presence of Islamist forces from Eritrea and Somalia. The region had been a smuggling route for terrorist elements and weapons from the Red Sea, crossing into Sudan and towards Egypt.

Politics, history and geography have played important roles in placing Sudan in this difficult situation. A heavy past of political manoeuvring, cooperation, alliances and coordination by the Islamist front in Sudan with other parties gave its leaders valuable experience in the art of dirty tricks and manoeuvres. Three decades of power enabled it to bulldoze competing forces and penetrate the deep fabric of the country and create networks of economic interests.

Geography, too, played a trick on Sudan. The country borders seven other countries and has a long Red Sea coastline. Each direction carries political, security and social contradictions. So, it is natural that these factors contribute to making Sudan the focus of Islamist forces.

The challenge facing Sudan is growing. The country needs to deal more efficiently with the various forces in its territory. Most of those forces have external sponsors, which makes dealing with them delicate. Such a task requires frank cooperation with countries involved in combating terrorism at regional and international levels.

Inaction by the transitional authority will feed the flames of crises in the country and prepare the ground for more severe crises.

Time is not on its side because, the longer it does not deal with this file, the more opportunity extremist political forces have to reposition themselves and their armed wings in Sudan. Countries protecting these forces, such as Turkey and Qatar, will not hesitate to pump more blood into their bodies because they are pawns in the hidden battle in Sudan.

Directly confronting these forces is more productive than bending with the winds and treating crises with sedatives. At some point, the sedatives cease to have effect and a storm that the transitional authority will not be able to weather will come. That’s when things will spin out of control.