Gold, Arms, and Islam: Understanding the Conflict in Sudan
Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 9
Sudan ended over a quarter-century of Islamist-military rule with the 2019 overthrow of President Omar al-Bashir, whose rule was based on Islamism, Arab supremacy, and the ruthless application of military power. A joint civilian-military government was formed to lead the transition to a civilian-led democracy. However, an October 2021 coup led by Sudan’s military and security forces ended all progress toward civilian rule, severing at the same time most of Sudan’s economic and financial ties to the West.
The UN and international diplomats have been trying to guide negotiations for a democratic transition between the military and the civilian Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) coalition. The final version of the Framework Agreement on transition was to be signed on April 6. However, the deadline passed when the security forces indicated they were not prepared to sign due to the inability of two competing elements of the military to agree on integration and military reform provisions.
The Framework Agreement called for the integration of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF, or al-Quwwat al-Musallaha al-Sudaniya) and Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF, or al-Quwat al-Da’m al-Sari). The SAF is led by Lieutenant General ‘Abd al-Fatah al-Burhan, who is Sudan’s de facto leader as Chair of the Transitional Sovereignty Council (TSC), while the RSF is a 30,000-strong paramilitary led by the number two figure in Sudan, TSC Deputy Chair Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemeti.” The Framework Agreement was intended to lead Sudan to civilian rule. The SAF, however, is highly politicized, and many of its senior officers adhere to an Islamist ideology that rejects the idea of secular government. Rather than unifying the security forces, the Framework Agreement ultimately brought their differences to a head. Supporters of the former president in the SAF are seemingly using the dispute to create a state of political insecurity favorable for a return to Islamist-military rule. Nation-wide fighting finally broke out on April 15 between the two factions.
The RSF, which was loyal to al-Bashir until his overthrow, has sought international support by accusing the army of mounting a “coup d’état” and seeking “to repeat the failed experiences of the rule of the Islamic Movement that conquered our country and destroyed the dreams of our people for thirty years” (Facebook/RSFCommand, April 16). The paramilitary now refers to their former military partners as “fascist military leaders” supported by “a crowd of corrupt Islamic people thirsty for the blood of the Sudanese people” (Facebook/RSFCommand, April 17). In a February 19 televised speech, Hemeti described the 2019 military coup as a “mistake” that has become “a gateway for the return of the former regime” and warned of efforts by Islamists to restore the Bashir regime (Radio Dabanga, February 21; BBC, February 20).
The RSF, much feared within Sudan, is a close-knit operation—the second-in-command is Hemeti’s brother, ‘Abd al-Rahim Hamdan Daqlo, while Hemeti’s commanders are all from his own Mahariya clan of the Rizayqat Arabs. The paramilitary has participated in UAE-funded operations in Yemen and in counter-insurgency operations in Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile State. It is especially active along the borders with Libya and the Central African Republic, and its brutal response to anti-regime demonstrations in Khartoum and elsewhere has made it widely unpopular. 
Ethnic Dimensions of the Conflict
Many Darfur Arabs, who comprise the RSF’s base, dislike the Khartoum ruling class, which consists mostly of members of Sudan’s powerful northern Nile-based Arab tribes, who have controlled the country since independence in 1956: the Ja’alin, the Danagla, and the Sha’iqiya (al-Bashir is Ja’alin, al-Burhan is Sha’iqiya). The riverine Arabs, in turn, regard the Darfur Arabs as backwards and “Africanized.” Like many Darfur Arabs, Hemeti, with nothing more than a Quranic school education, is likely to believe he will never be accepted by the riverine military and political elite. Al-Burhan, on the other hand, is regarded in Darfur as the prime architect of a genocide of non-Arab Muslims and is well-remembered for his threats to exterminate the Fur people, who were the former rulers of Darfur.
During a March “Security and Military Reform Workshop” in Khartoum, the RSF hinted at the longstanding rivalry between the Arab tribes of western Sudan and those of the Nile region (New Arab, April 17). Referring to the SAF as “an army composed of a specific militia belonging to certain tribes,” the RSF reminded those present of a struggle that dates back to the days of Mahdist rule (1885-1899). At that time, western Arabs, particularly the Ta’aisha, took power after the early death of the Mahdi in 1885 and the subsequent sidelining of his riverine relatives by the Mahdi’s Ta’aishi successor, Khalifa ‘Abd Allahi.
Violence returned to Darfur in the modern era with the growing influence of the Arab Gathering (Tajamu al-Arabi), which was an Arab supremacist group following an ideology developed by Mu’ammar Qaddafi and spread by the leaders of Libya’s Islamic Legion (Failaq al-Islamiya) in the 1980s. Clashes over land developed between the Arab and the non-Arab Muslim tribes of Darfur, particularly the Fur, the Zaghawa, and the Masalit. The latter groups united in outright rebellion in 2003, while the Bashir government responded by unleashing Janjaweed (a Sudanese Arab militia) gunmen and bandits on the non-Arab civilian population under military direction. The leader of the Janjaweed was Shaykh Musa Hilal ‘Abd Allah, the nazir (chief) of the Um Jalul clan of the Mahamid Arabs, which is a branch of the northern Rizayqat of Darfur. One of his deputies during the 2003-2005 period of the worst Janjaweed abuses (murder, rape, torture, arson) was Hemeti, who is a cousin from the Awlad Mansur clan of the Mahariya branch of the Northern Rizayqat. 
When the crimes of the Janjaweed began to attract unwanted international attention in 2005, the government integrated the gunmen into the Border Guards (Haras al-Hudud), a small camel-mounted unit. Integration into official security structures shielded the Janjaweed from prosecution and brought them under tighter government control. This formation would evolve by 2013 into the RSF, which was conceived as a counter-insurgency force composed mostly of former Janjaweed. The RSF came under the direct authority of the National Security and Intelligence Service (NISS, or Jihaz al-Amn al-Watani wa’l-Mukhabarat) rather than the army and became notorious for their human rights abuses and lack of discipline. Even at this early stage, the RSF became known for clashes with the SAF.
Factions Fail to Integrate
Since becoming Sudan’s de facto ruler in 2019, al-Burhan has displayed an inability to rein in the RSF. He has allowed it to become, as some suggest, a “state-within-a-state.” The RSF, with its young leadership, has for some time offered better training and greater opportunities to make money than enlistment in the SAF.
The SAF wants the RSF to be integrated with the army within a year or two at most. However, the RSF prefers a ten-year timeline (in other words, no real integration at all). UN mediators suggested a five-year compromise, which was swiftly rejected by both parties (New Arab, April 17).
Hemeti’s power and influence will disappear if the RSF comes under the command of the SAF’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. The RSF leader has thus demanded his paramilitary report directly to a civilian government. This essentially preserved the RSF’s autonomy while allowing Hemeti to maintain a major political role.
Al-Burhan dissolved the RSF on April 17 and labelled it a “rebel” movement, adding that the matter is an internal one that does not require interference from the international community. There are, however, questions regarding al-Burhan’s legal authority to dissolve the RSF (Radio Dabanga, April 18). As noted by Dr. Jebril El-Abidi, it was a mistake to try to integrate the RSF into the national military as a complete unit, encouraging continued loyalty to RSF leaders rather than the general command (Asharq al-Awsat, April 20).
When Gold Makes Things Worse
Sudan is now the third-largest gold producer in Africa. However, as much as 80 percent of production is smuggled out of the country, and much of it to Russia. This contributes nothing in the way to state revenues that are already badly diminished by the separation of oil-rich South Sudan.
Joining existing US sanctions, EU sanctions were imposed in March on M-Invest and its subsidiary Sudan Meroe Gold, which are mining companies tied to Russia’s Wagner Group, for illegally trading in gold “looted by force from local traders” (Sudan Tribune, March 2). In March 2022, an executive with a Sudanese gold mine informed The Telegraph that Russia was smuggling 30 tons of gold from Sudan every year to build its reserves and weaken the effects of sanctions imposed on Russia for its ongoing invasion of Ukraine. The gold is transported in small planes from military airports not subject to customs inspections (The Telegraph, March 3, 2022). Sudan’s Minerals Minister, an ally of the RSF, described the allegations as “baseless” (Sudan Tribune, March 11, 2022).
Remote mines operated by Meroe Gold were guarded by Wagner Group personnel who were also involved in training the RSF (Sudan Tribune, March 21, 2022). It is unclear if Wagner continues in these roles; Wagner Group owner Yevgeny Prigozhin insists there has been no Wagner presence in Sudan for two years. US authorities have claimed the Wagner Group is now providing weapons to the RSF through bases in Libya and the Central African Republic (CAR) (The New Arab, April 22).
Documents obtained by an anti-corruption NGO revealed the RSF has its own bank account in Abu Dhabi that it has used to obtain vehicles suitable for conversion to machine-gun mounted “technicals.” Financing comes from al-Junaid Gold Company, which is officially owned by ‘Abd al-Rahim Hamdan Daglo and his two sons (Global Witness, April 5, 2020). Al-Junaid has since diversified into numerous other economic activities, its revenues providing independence for the RSF.
In Darfur, gold was discovered in 2012 at Jabal Amer (northwest of Kabkabiya). In July 2015, Musa Hilal and his Mahamid followers took control of Jabal Amer after slaughtering hundreds of Bani Hussayn Arabs working the artisanal mines. This reaped enormous profits until Musa’s arrest in November 2017, at which point control of the mines was transferred to Hemeti and the RSF. The SAF in turn seized control of Jabal Amer in October 2020.
Smuggled gold is typically exported through the Wagner Group-occupied CAR or by air to the Russian base in Latakia, Syria. Wagner elements have been accused of attacks on artisanal gold miners close to the border with the CAR (Radio Dabanga, August 1, 2022). Moscow has little interest in a return to civilian rule in Sudan as one of the first tasks of a new government would be to take control of gold exports to ensure revenues wind up in the public treasury instead of private hands.
Beyond gold, a deal was reached in February between Russia and Sudan’s military rulers for the establishment of a Russian naval base on the Red Sea coast in return for arms and military equipment, although it awaits ratification by a new civilian government (al-Arabiya, February 11; Sudan Tribune, February 11). The 25-year deal, with automatic 10-year extensions if neither side objects, would allow a base of 300 Russian military personnel capable of accommodating four Russian ships at a time, including nuclear-powered vessels.  Egypt and Saudi Arabia are both unhappy about the deal, which would see a long-term Russian naval presence in the strategic Red Sea. French, American, British, and Norwegian diplomats have all expressed concerns about the growing involvement of Wagner Group companies and personnel in Sudan, much of it facilitated through the RSF. 
Islamism in the Regular Army
The RSF has accused the army’s “fascist military leaders” of “religious mania” (Facebook, April 17; Facebook, April 18). Many Islamist al-Bashir loyalists, known as keizan, are prominent in the high ranks of the army. Loyalists of al-Bashir and the banned Islamist National Congress Party (NCP, now operating under the name “Islamist Movement”) have stepped up activity in recent weeks, calling for the assassination of UN envoy Volker Perthes and attacking pro-democracy demonstrators in Khartoum North (Reuters, April 11). The Islamists describe pro-democracy activists as secularists intent on attacking Sudan’s traditional Islamic faith (Middle East Monitor, April 9, 2019).
Before the current fighting broke out, the FFC and its partners warned of NCP efforts to provoke a confrontation between the army and the RSF that would create conditions favorable to a return to Islamist rule. Leading Islamists and NCP members (including those held on human rights violations) began leaving detention facilities and returning to government posts (especially Military Intelligence and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) after the 2021 military coup, while al-Burhan dissolved a committee looking into corrupt arrangements between the NCP government and the army. General Ahmad Ibrahim Mufaddal, an NCP loyalist, was appointed last November to lead the General Intelligence Service (GIS, or Jihaz al-Mukhabarat al-‘Amma), successor to the powerful NISS that held an iron grip on political dissent during the Bashir regime. The RSF, seen as traitors for their failure to prevent the overthrow of al-Bashir, is especially disliked by the Islamists.
In recent days, prisons across the country have been emptied of thousands of criminal and political inmates, either through release or escape. Among those to have walked out of the notorious Kober prison are Ahmad Haroun, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court, and leading Islamists of the al-Bashir regime, including former vice-president ‘Ali ‘Uthman Muhammad Taha, Awad al-Jaz, and Nafi al-Nafi. Both the FFC and the RSF allege an army plan to restore leading Islamists to power. Al-Bashir himself is still believed to be in a military prison hospital (Darfur 24, April 25; Darfur 24, April 26; Al Jazeera, April 26; Radio Dabanga, April 26).
Fighting is underway in most parts of Sudan, but is especially intense in Darfur, which is the home of Hemeti’s power base but also the source of much of the SAF’s rank-and-file. Long-standing tribal clashes in West Darfur have intensified with the breakdown of security. Khartoum has experienced looting, street-fighting, and aerial bombing.
A SAF victory would likely allow an entrenchment of Islamist military rule, while an RSF victory might find room for a civilian government, but only under RSF influence. The paramilitary would still absorb the arms and facilities of the SAF and become the sole security organization in Sudan. The ambitious Hemeti is likely to seek a leading role in any new government, possibly as head of state.
Any war in Sudan has a high chance of spilling over into its unstable neighbors, such as Chad, the Central African Republic, Libya and South Sudan. The Wagner Group is already involved in the last three of these nations.
Hemeti is having trouble selling his new image as a champion of democracy as he attempts to portray al-Burhan as the figurehead of a radical Islamist movement and uses slogans like “power belongs to the people” and “what is happening now is the price of democracy.” Hemeti has even tried to claim the RSF are fighting al-Burhan “and his Islamist gang” (the keizan) within the SAF, and not the army itself (Radio Dabanga, April 17). Al-Burhan has similarly suggested he was prepared to negotiate only with “parties within the RSF” seeking dialogue, and not the current RSF leaders (Sudan Tribune, April 20).
If the Framework Agreement is signed and free elections follow, the Islamist faction will lose any chance of retaking control of Sudan, short of mounting yet another coup, one that, in the current environment, would meet with massive resistance in the streets as well as in the international arena. Despite their rhetoric, Hemeti and his private army will not provide a road to a democratic transition and civilian rule. For the Islamists, therefore, this may be their last chance to seize power.
 See “Army for Sale: Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces and the Battle for Libya,” AIS Special Report, August 4, 2019.
 The northern Rizayqat Abbala (camel-breeding Arabs) include the Mahamid, Mahariya, and Irayqat groups. The core of the Janjaweed was from the Mahamid and Mahariya branches of the northern Rizayqat. The southern Baqqara Rizayqat (cattle-breeding Arabs), had little to do with the Janjaweed. The meaning of the term Janjaweed is disputed, but is commonly given as “Devils on Horseback.” The term was not used by the Arab militias themselves or by the government.
 For Russian mercenaries in Sudan and Moscow’s search for a naval base on the Sudanese Red Sea coast, see: “Russian Mercenaries and the Survival of the Sudanese Regime,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, February 6, 2019.
 For details, see “Putin’s New Russian Empire is Suddenly on the Rocks: How the War in Ukraine Threatens Russian Interests in Sudan,” AIS Special Report on Ukraine No.3, March 24, 2022.