War in Sudan: The Shadow of the Islamists

While the fighting continues, especially in Khartoum and the Darfur, the two protagonists, Abdelfattah Al-Burhan and Hemetti appear determined to pursue their bout down to the last Sudanese. But behind these clashes we can detect the ‘fine Italian hand’ of the ousted Omar Al-Bashir and his Islamist accomplices.

In southern Khartoum, 19 May 2023

The ‘Kober gang’ have decamped. On 23 April 2023, some persons unknown unlocked their cells in the historic Khartoum prison and the prisoners took to the streets of the Sudanese capital. It might have been a minor incident in the tumult of war were it not for the fact that the Kober gang is made up of a rather special brand of criminals. Three of them are wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and among them are several high-ranking dignitaries of Omar Al-Bashir’s regime. It seems that the fallen autocrat himself was not in the penitentiary at the time: he had just been sent to a military hospital in Omdurman, Khartoum’s twin city on the opposite bank of the Nile. But even if the big boss was not among them, those who did take a powder were anything but small fry.

Wanted by international justice

Abdelrahim Hussein, former Defence Minister is wanted on seven counts of crimes against humanity and six war crimes perpetrated in Darfur during the early years of the war, 2003 and 2004. Ahmed Haroun, accused of the same crimes, was Minister of Humanitarian Affairs and left bloody memories in South Kordofan when he was its governor. Ali Osman Taha and Bakri Hassan Saleh, former vice-presidents and Omar Al-Bashir’s putative successors, Nafi Ali Nafi, former chief of the notorious political police (National Intelligence and Security Services, NISS), Awad Al-Jaz, Petroleum Minister under Bashir and Al-Fatih Ezzedine, Minister of Parliament were all among the most prominent members of the National Congress Party (NCP), the backbone of the regime.

Which is to say that during the air strikes, the looting and the shell fire may be glimpsed today the spectres of those Islamists, led by the ideologue Hassan Al-Turabi, who tried to make the whole society conform to their ideal of political Islam. These same Islamists who were rejected by the 2018 revolution and whom the Sudanese have since discovered were behind most of their misfortunes.

Who set the Kober gang free? The interim Minister of Interior Affairs – Sudan has had no government since the October 2021 military coup – accuses the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), commanded by General Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemetti. The latter reject this accusation and blame the Islamists who manipulate the army high command and who are their real opponents in the ongoing war. Suliman Baldo, a political analyst and executive director of Sudan Transparency and Policy Tracker (STPT) points out that other prisoners have been released since the first clash between the two generals in Khartoum on 15 April.

Each time, amid a hoard of common law criminals there have been veterans of Al-Bashir’s regime, especially members of the NISS. The analyst believes a carefully planned operation is being carried out:

An armed grouped invaded Omdurman Prison and freed the members of the NISS who were locked up there and sentenced to die. They were set free and told the others to set themselves free. I heard this from one of those prisoners. It is quite clear that the idea was to camouflage the liberation of a particular group of 35 veterans of the NISS. It is therefore quite plausible that some of their former comrades were involved, reactivated as soon as the fighting began. Al-Burhan has reconstituted the NISS Special Forces who had been dismantled.

In this war, which is pitting it against Hemetti’s SFR, the national army’s general staff has reactivated all the parallel forces, intelligence services and auxiliary militias linked to the former military-Islamist regime: the NISS indeed, but also the People’s Defence Forces (PDF), an Islamist militia created following Omar Al-Bashir’s 1989 coup and which answers only to him and his party, as well as the ‘Shadow Brigades’, originally linked to the National Islamic Front (NIF) led by Hassan Al-Turabi, a staunch advocate of the Islamisation of Sudanese society until his fall from grace after the year 2000, and finally to Omar Al-Bashir’s NCP. A video posted on the social networks on 15 April, the day the war began, showed men in arms claiming to be Islamists and prepared to fight.

The impossibility of reforming the security sector

In Khartoum it has long been understood that the national army is largely under the sway of the Islamists, at least its officers are. ‘In thirty years, they have had plenty of time to make sure that no-one who was not involved in their movement was recruited by the officer’s training school. That was how they turned the army into an Islamist brigade,» Suliman Baldo explains. Army officers were involved in two failed coups, in July 2019 and September 2021.

‘The tension between the national army and the SFR, fuelled by institutional and personal rivalries, was already on the rise,’ says Amgad Farid, former executive assistant of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and long a pro-democracy activist. ‘The disagreements over the incorporation of the SFR into the national army as to who would be in command and how long the process would take were decisive. But the Islamists also played a key role in the heightening of tensions.’ The reform of the security sector and the military institution was an important aspect of the political process begun in December 2022 and meant ultimately to bring the civilians back to power. The two generals, formerly allies but now rivals, fell out over the procedure.: Al-Burhan wanted to move quickly – two years, while Hemetti demanded ten years and the right to keep command of his troops even after they had been incorporated into the regular army. ‘Of course, the SFR sparked the conflict by deploying their troops at Meroe airport and around Khartoum,’ Amgad Farid goes on. ‘But I doubt very much that it was national army soldiers who fired the first shot on the morning of 15 April in Khartoum.’

At the origin of the escalation on 15 April

And yet several accounts of those events confirm that version: when the tension peaked on 13 and 14 April, negotiators had managed, after several round trips between the two generals, to arrange for a de-escalation. A meeting between them was even planned for 15 April at 10 a.m. It never took place, because two SFR camps in Khartoum were attacked just before then and the paramilitaries responded. The war was on. ‘Why only two camps when the SFR had eleven in the capital? A well-informed person wonders. “Because the Islamists just wanted to light the fuse.” This source also claims to have been warned several hours earlier by one of his contacts who was liaising with hard-line Islamists that the war was about to begin.

‘It is impossible to dissociate the national army’s actions from the political orientation given by the Sudanese Islamic Movement,’ to quote an article in the Sudanese investigative paper Ayin, published just before the war broke out. ‘The Islamic movement is thought to have a profound political and economic influence on the army and on the institutions connected with the SAF [Sudanese Armed Forces] through their shared loyalties and the overlapping of their funding networks.’

So, it would seem indeed that Omar Al-Bashir’s followers, whom the Sudanese call the kanzan1, are at the helm. They have never really disappeared even though the institutions associated with the former regime were partly junked after the revolution. ‘They have always been active; they have always sought to sabotage the democratic transition. From the very beginning, they tried to disrupt the economy, they spread fake news under the two Hamdok administrations,’ Amgad Farid recalls. As ministerial executive assistant, he had an inside view. ‘They were behind the attempted assassination of the Prime Minister in March 2020.’ And here we must add a further touch of complexity to a situation which is already anything but simple: Sudanese Islamists are divided. On the one hand, there are those who subscribe to the policies of the late Hassan Al-Turabi ’s Muslim Brotherhood, an ideologue who sought to in-depth changes in that movement, and, on the other hand, those who remain faithful to Omar Al-Bashir’s party, the NCP, which mingles a large dose of profiteering with its Islamist ideology…

A return to the former regime

The October 2021 coup bore the stamp of both. It clinched an alliance between General Al-Burhan, head of the Transitional Sovereignty Council at the time, and Ali Karti, an historic figure in Al-Turabi’s Islamic National Front, later a high-ranking dignitary in the CPN. The presidential party was dissolved in 2019 at the time of the democratic transition and its holdings confiscated. When they had not been arrested, its cadres had followed the Party’s orders and left the country, many going into exile in Turkey. ‘Even so, the party’s structures did not disappear,’ Clément Deshayes explains. He is an anthropologist and research fellow with the Institut de recherches stratégiques de l’École militaire (Irsem); «Among the exiled groups in Turkey, the one led by Ali Karti prevailed. In the nineties, he had been coordinator of the PDF, Minister of Justice, and Foreign Minister. Right after the October 2021 coup, the Party had ordered them all to go home. And that is what they did". So, Ali Karti showed up in Sudan, scot-free, even though he is under an arrest warrant since 2019.

Soon after the interruption of the democratic transition, General Al-Burhan, de facto ruler of the country, reversed the purges carried out in the administration after the revolution. Day after day, the Sudanese discover that this or that person, appointed by Abdallah Hamdok’s civilian government, has been dismissed and replaced by his Islamist predecessor. ‘The junta needed those CPN cadres to run the country after the coup,’ says Clément Deshayes.

Most importantly, the military has given back its power to the civilian wing of the Islamist movement, embodied by Ali Karti, allowing them to open all their associations, all their semi-public organisations such as those receiving a share of the zakat [a legal form of alms, one of the five pillars of Islam] which maintained the regime’s social base by handing out jobs and performing charitable activities.

Quite unobtrusively, they have regained their foothold in the country.

‘Just before this war broke out, they fuelled tensions, on the social networks, on the ground,’ Angad Farid deplores. Indeed, in the weeks preceding 15 April, Islamist personalities were heard calling for ‘armed action.’ Certain sources explain that they had not forgiven Abdelfattah Al-Burhan for agreeing to take part in the Jeddah talks, arranged by Saudi Arabia and the United States and dealing with the application of human rights, even though the agreement that came out of those meetings was never respected in practice. Similarly, the release of the Kober gang exacerbated the conflicts which already existed within the Islamist movement. These are perhaps rare bits of good news for the Sudanese people. After the disaster of this new war, nobody imagines a return to power of the armed forces and the Islamists once the guns are silenced.

1Plural of koz, which is a tin goblet used to drink water. As Hassan Al-Turabi, ideologue of Omar Al-Bashir’s regime before being set aside in the first years of the new century, had explained: ‘Religion is the sea and we are its kazan.’