The fragile nature of the security situation in Sudan was exposed by a deadly gunfight in Gabra earlier this week. Authorities arrested 11 alleged terrorists following the battle in which five Sudan General Intelligence Service members were killed.
Analysts blamed the violence on the presence of foreign insurgents in the country and the transitional nature of the military-civilian government that has governed Sudan since 2019, when President Omar al-Bashir was ousted by the military after months of protests.
Khalifa Sidiq, a professor at the International University of Africa in Khartoum and an expert on Islamist groups, told VOA that Sudan’s proximity to other troubled states contributes to the problem.
“The Gabra incident,” Sidiq said, “is not removed from that context. During this transitional period, Sudan is experiencing a security crisis with open borders to hot spots in the region.” As examples, Sidiq pointed to Libya and to Somalia, where the jihadi group al-Shabab operates.
“Sudan’s borders with Chad and the Central African Republic are also porous,” he said.
Sudan’s history of terrorism goes back to the 1970s and was amplified during the 1990s, when it harbored al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and was found to have assisted al-Qaida in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Only after the ouster of al-Bashir and the payment of $335 million in compensation to the victims of several terror attacks did Washington remove Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terror.
Sidiq pointed out several factors prompting extremist groups to operate in Sudan.
“Among them is the presence of United Nations [and] African Union troops under UNAMID and its successor UNITAMS,” which he said were “foreign multinational forces operating in a Muslim country” that encourage “extremist groups to rise and combat them.”
Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center who was formerly with the U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan as well as the former White House Africa director, agreed with Sidiq.
“There are genuine security threats in the country and those security threats require a competent, capable and professional security service to confront them. That much is not in doubt,” he said, adding, “I think the challenge that Sudan faces today is beyond these legitimate threats.”
Role of armed forces
This week’s killings in Gabra and an attempted coup last week, Hudson said, should not be used as an excuse by Sudan’s military to undermine the civilian-led government of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.
“This will likely be used by the military to demonstrate that they need to have a prominent role in running the country again,” he said. And this week’s shootings “just further underscore the need for a comprehensive conversation on security sector reform and the role of the military in the country going forward.”
As military and civilian officials in Sudan’s transitional government have traded accusations about what led to last week’s coup attempt, observers said the situation exposed the fragile military-civilian partnership in Sudan’s government.
No clear link to IS
Last year, Hamdok survived an assassination attempt when his motorcade was targeted with explosives while he was on his way to his office. Hudson said it wasn't clear whether the most recent events were connected to the assassination attempt.
Officials have not released information about the nationalities and motives of the terrorists connected to the latest events in Sudan.
“My sense is that [the Gabra incident] is separate, that there are former regime elements, [including] Islamists, which remain present in the country. I do not think that they are the same as Islamic State cells,” Hudson said. “I think that there’s been no demonstration that there’s overlap between elements of the former regime and more hard-core terrorists — you know, international terrorist elements. That link has not been established.”