Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 37


The future of the Sudan may lay in Abyei, a relatively small district on the border between Sudan’s North and South. Its status as part of either North or South Sudan will be determined in a plebiscite on January 9, held simultaneously with a referendum in the South that is expected to lead to the secession of the Southern provinces. Though the Abyei region is rich in high-quality crude oil, a conflict with the potential to ignite a new round of civil war may actually be fought over grazing rights.

Sitting atop the Muglad Basin, Abyei is one of Sudan’s most productive regions for high-quality oil production.  It is also home to the agricultural Ngok Dinka tribe, closely related to other Dinka clans in the South Sudan. However, for up to eight months a year it is also home to the nomadic Missiriya Arabs, part of the Baqqara (cattle-herding) Arab group that dwells in southern Darfur and southern Kordofan and takes its herds south for precious water and grazing during Sudan’s dry season (Asharq al-Awsat, August 6, 2009).

Abyei’s troubled status began in 1905 when the Anglo-Egyptian administration of Sudan transferred the “area of the nine Ngok Dinka chieftains” from the southern Bahr al-Ghazal province to the northern province of Kordofan. Relations between the Ngok Dinka and the Missiriya were amicable until the outbreak of the 1956-1972 North-South civil war, when the Ngok Dinka sided largely with the southern Anyanya separatist movement. When the war resumed in 1983, the Ngok Dinka again sided with the Southern opposition, this time in the form of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M).

Beginning in 1965, the Missiriya and other Baqqara Arabs were armed by Khartoum, forming mounted units known as the Murahileen. These militias raided the southern civilian population in SPLA-controlled territory, carrying out atrocities and kidnappings with a free hand. Though relations between the southern agriculturalists and the nomadic Arabs had always been uneasy, this strategy opened an irrevocable gulf between the two communities in the Abyei region.

Clashes occurred in the region in 2007 and 2008, when the town of Abyei was effectively razed to the ground by government-allied forces. The borders of Abyei were redrawn by an international arbitration tribunal in 2009 to neither side’s satisfaction, though the most productive oil fields were separated from a diminished Abyei and attached to the northern Kordofan province (RFI, July 22, 2009). The final status of the region is to be determined in a January 2011 referendum to be held simultaneously with the referendum on Southern independence, but a referendum commission has yet to be organized and there are still disputes regarding who is eligible to vote (Sudan Tribune, September 30; PANA Online [Dakar], September 24). With a vote for southern separation looking like a near certainty, the Missiriya fear that they will lose access to their traditional grazing lands. In this sense they are at odds with the National Congress Party of President Omar al-Bashir, which is willing to lose tribal grazing lands in favor of retaining oil fields.

As the plebiscite approaches and the question of whether the Missiriya will be allowed to vote on Abyei’s future remains unresolved, the rhetoric of Missiriya leaders has grown more incendiary. According to Missiriya chief Mukhtar Babo Nimr, "We will use force to achieve our rights and we will use weapons against anyone who tries to stop us from voting in the referendum… If they don’t meet our demands then we will set everything alight. If that leads to war then so be it” (Reuters, September 29). The Missiriya have prevented the demarcation of the new tribunal-ordered borders and the summer was marked by demonstrations organized by both the Njok Dinka and the Missiriya, as well as a number of attacks on villages by gunmen. Arop Madut Arop, a parliamentarian from Abyei, noted the southern peoples of Abyei “may take up arms. Their people in the SPLA/M may defect and go and join them and suddenly the northern army will also come in [and] within a few days, Sudan is back to war” (IRIN, July 8).


PKK Commander Murat Karayilan compared the situation of Turkey’s Kurds to the Jewish Holocaust in a public appeal to Israel to ally itself with the radical Kurdish nationalist movement against the Turkish state. The appeal was made in a recent interview with an Israeli journalist that was later broadcast on Israel’s Channel 2 Television (Haaretz, September 22).

"More than any other people in the world, I would have expected Israel to understand and identify with us. After all, you, who have experienced the Holocaust, massacres, expulsions and persecution, now see our people, the Kurdish people, experiencing that same fate. Everyone in this area – Syrians, Turks and Iranians – wants and is trying to destroy us, and you, of all people, are the ones providing them with the weapons to destroy us."

Karayilan was interviewed at a secret hideout in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq, close to the border with Iran. With PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan confined to a Turkish prison, Karayilan has emerged as the effective leader of the Kurdish cross-border insurgency. Ocalan was seized in Nairobi in 1999, allegedly by a team of Israeli Mossad agents who turned the PKK leader over to Turkish security services (Daily Nation [Nairobi], February 27). Since then, however, there has been a general belief in Turkey that Israel has provided arms and training to PKK and Peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq. An Israeli commando team involved in training Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq was forced to withdraw in 2005 after their presence was made public, but recent reports indicate Israeli military trainers have returned to the region (Yedioth Ahronoth, December 1, 2005; Ynet, December 1, 2005; Arutz Sheva, February 5; Today’s Zaman, June 9).

Despite this belief, one of the PKK commander’s main concerns was the supply of Israeli-made Heron class unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to the Turkish military. The UAVs have been highly effective in locating PKK positions in difficult terrain for targeting by Turkish forces (see Terrorism Focus Briefs, April 1, 2008).

"Once we were friends. In the 1960s and 1970s, Israel went out of its way to assist the Kurds. We admired you. But since the 1980s, from the moment you tightened your relationship, and your military cooperation, with Turkey, you have been considered here to be among those who systematically assist in our oppression and eradication… It is clear and natural to us that there should be relations between Israel and Turkey. Why not? But why should these relations come at our expense, at the expense of our lives? I wonder if Israelis are at all aware of the use that is made of the weapons and training they provide to Turkey."

Israel has not made an official statement on Karayilan’s interview, but an Israeli diplomat requesting anonymity told a Turkish daily, “The Israeli position is known and clear. We see the PKK as a terrorist organization and we support the Turkish fight against terror” (Today’s Zaman, September 22).

Despite what seemed to be a vicious public disagreement between Israel and Turkey following the May 31 Israeli commando raid on a Turkish ship carrying aid to Gaza, diplomatic and military officials worked behind the scenes to ensure economic and military ties remained relatively undamaged by the feud (Hurriyet, September 22; see Terrorism Monitor Briefs,  June 12). Karayilan, however, attempted to exploit the rift:

"More than any other Turkish head of state, this prime minister, [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, openly shows how he is tightening relations with Hezbollah and Syria. He hugs [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and praises Hamas. Are you sure this is your friend?"

An important ministerial summit between Turkey and Syria is scheduled for October 2-3, with terrorism expected to be one of the principal topics of discussion. Turkey is intent on improving economic relations with Syria and has already received Syrian support on the PKK issue (Hurriyet, September 28). However, the May 31 incident brought an abrupt end to Turkish efforts to mediate between Syria and Israel. Turkish interior minister Besir Atalay is also expected to meet soon with his counterparts in Syria and Iran to discuss the PKK threat.

Only a few days before Karayilan’s interview was broadcast, three PKK members were reported arrested in the port city of Jounieh by Lebanon’s Military Intelligence on charges of spying for Israel (Journal of the Turkish Weekly, September 23). Lebanon has arrested over 70 people on suspicion of spying for Israel since April 2009 (AFP, September 24).