Analysts say Sudan’s Islamist government has been redefining its world image in recent months – but not always successfully. Recent media reports have shown it both condemns terrorist attacks on the United States, but approves suicide bombings against Israel.
Shortly after the attacks on Washington and New York, Sudan’s president General Omar Hassan al-Bashir was among the first to pledge to cooperate with the United States in its war on terrorism. Khartoum promised to hand over information on some of those involved in the Islamist network – including the mastermind of the Al Qaeda terror outfit, Osama Bin Laden. He had lived in Sudan as a businessman and financial supporter of the government for five years in the mid-nineties.
But early this month, the commander of Sudan’s Popular Defense Force announced that it would train volunteer fighters to support the Palestinian uprising against Israel. Sudanese television said the camps were set up according to a directive of the president.
To some, the announcement is inconsistent with Sudan’s new pledge to work closely with the United States – and to renounce sponsoring violence. The White House has condemned Palestinian suicide bombings against Israeli civilians and has also criticized neighboring states, including Iraq and Iran, for providing support for the Palestinian uprising.
But for others, Sudan’s position is not an about-face. Instead, it’s part of the battle between moderates and hard liners in the country’s 12-year-old Islamic government of General al-Bashir.
Mohammed Salih is a Professor of Politics of Development at the Institute of Social Studies. He says Sudan’s Popular Defense Force is a paramilitary group that had once included mujahadin fighters who fought against the Soviets. The P-D-F’s main war has been against southern Christians and animists who want autonomy from the Islamic north.
Professor Salih notes that Sudan is closely involved in the Middle East. President Bashir has said that he does not consider Islamic armed outfits like Hamas or Hezbollah to be terrorist groups – but freedom fighters. Since 1998, the Palestinian movement Hamas has had a permanent base in Khartoum. Professor Salih says the group’s founder -- Sheikh Ahmad Yassin -- visited Khartoum in May 1998 at a time when there were training camps there for Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and the military group linked to Arafat, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.
Also, Professor Salih says Sudan’s Islamic government is a mixture of sometimes competing voices. He says President Bashir – and many military men – received training in the United States, and may support the United States fight against those who attacked Washington and New York. But he also says President Bashir’s government lacks popular support – and so depends on radical Islamist groups for legitimacy. Professor Salih says that may be another reason why various officials issue sometimes contradictory statements regarding Khartoum’s stand on terror: “It’s a reflection of the government of Sudan today. It consists of different political forces, some of which are Islamic and fundamentalist and militant – like the vice president. Some are moderate like the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of Health. [There is] also a group of people who are army officers who are secularists in their ideas. So you have a lot of political trends that are playing out.”
Others remain suspicious of Sudan’s efforts to moderate its image. They note that the Saudi mastermind of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network, Osama bin Laden, operated many businesses in Sudan. Their profits helped finance the building of Sudan’s Islamic government – and to finance al-Qaeda operations from Yemen to Chechnya and Malaysia.
Gill Lusk of the Africa Confidential newsletter in London says the same hardline Islamist system is intact in Sudan today that was in power 12 years ago. She disagrees with those who say there are moderates in the government or military. In fact, she says the first thing the government did when it came to power 12 years ago was to purge two score senior officers. She says there are few military men left who are not Islamist.
Ms. Lusk says the most obvious manifestation of bin Laden’s presence for ordinary Sudanese is the number the so-called “Afghan Arabs” – the foreign Arabs from other countries who came to Sudan -- who remain in the country today. She says many are still very visible – running businesses like long distance trucking – which often employs former mujahadins as drivers. In addition, she says there are still Hamas and Hezbollah cafes that also came with bin Laden.
Analysts say Sudan still plays a key role in the military wing of Islam. Professor Mohammed Salih says several Sudanese institutions train Africans to contribute to the creation of Islamic states, including the Islamic University and the University of the Holy Koran and Islamic Sciences in Ondurman and the Islamic University for Africa in Khartoum. Sudan also founded four Islamic Fronts in Eastern Africa, and funds numerous national groups devoted to the violent overthrow of established governments, including the Islamic Party of Kenya, the Islamic Jihad groups of Zanzibar, Eritrea, and Somalia.
Gil Lusk says the Sudanese government also plays an active role in Islamist organizations: “They are also very low profile but essential to the running of it in Africa and in other countries. You will often find that key people are Sudanese within Islamic charities or parties used as fronts. The Sudanese have an exceptionally large number of skilled people. “
There are only two countries seen to support the radical Islamist agenda in the world today – Iran and Sudan. But for the world Islamist movement, analysts say Iran may be less dependable. It is undergoing its own fight between appointed hard-liners from its revolution and elected moderate reformers. In addition, Iran practices Shia Islam in a world that mostly follows the Sunni sect. For many in that segment of the world’s Muslims, Khartoum is the assumed leader.
Other analysts have a more benign view of the Bashir government.
John Prendergast is the co-director of Africa program of the Washington-based International Crisis Group. He says Sudan remains committed to internal jihad -- or holy war -- against domestic opponents, and still supports radical groups like Hamas and Hezbollah in their fight against Israel. However, he says in other areas, Khartoum has generally moderated its foreign policy. Mr. Prendergast attributes the change to the discovery of oil: “As a revenue base, it changed the nature of Sudan’s external alliances because the Sudan government no longer had to rely on Middle Eastern sources of particular terrorist organizations or those who support terrorist organizations.”
Mr. Prendergast says that for a number of years, Sudan relied on even Iran and Iraq as alternative forms of investment and sustenance. But as this internal stream of revenue came on line from oil, it became less important for Khartoum to associate with these forces, and so there was a reduction of support for terrorist organizations, including the departure in the mid-nineties of Bin Laden from the country. According to Mr. Prendergast, “I think the regime would have survived either way, it just would have been more extreme regime but because of independence with oil, it has become less reliant on the relationships in the Middle East.”
The southern Sudanese are fighting for self-determination – many want to separate from the Islamic and Arabicized north. Observers wonder if that is likely now with the discovery of the oil in the south. Analyst John Prendergast says the drive for oil may make the government more anxious to reach a peace agreement than ever before: “ Most of the [newly discovered oil deposits are] further south than where they are exploiting it now, which they can not get to because of the conflict. So the imperative to get to those oil reserves further south may drive the government to the peace table because they are not going to be able to pacify the region no matter how brutal their military tactics become. They will have to have a peace deal to get at that oil.”
In recent months, the United States has made progress as a mediator in the war. U.S. Special Peace Envoy John Danforth helped broker a ceasefire in the Nuba mounts of Sudan, as well as an agreement requiring the government to allow in international monitors to protect civilians. Speaking for his organization, the International Crisis Group, John Prendergast wants a revitalization of the peace process that would bring together what he calls a traffic jam of initiatives by different groups. Instead, he says there should be a partnership between the East African sub-region together with the United States, U-K and Norway.
Mr. Prendergast sees the current time as a window of opportunity – with the current Khartoum government as a reliable partner. He does not think that the Islamic government – with its history of radicalism – will embrace democracy. He says free and fair elections would likely lead to its demise. On the other hand, he says negotiations would likely lead to a more inclusive government – which could eventually evolve into a more democratic one.