Jihadist Overtones in Sudan

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 1 Issue: 2

The controversy over the proper terminology to describe the events in Darfur (a conflict in which, according to UN estimates, up to 50,000 people have been killed and over million displaced) not withstanding, at least one segment of Sudanese society has given it a name — Jihad. According to a recent report in the Daily Telegraph, leaflets have been distributed by a previously unknown group calling itself the Army of Muhammad at mosques in Khartoum, urging Muslims to “dig deep into the ground mass graves prepared for the Crusader army.” [1]

The sentiment of foreign conspiracy finds its fertile ground in the broadly shared Arab view that western intervention in Darfur is tainted for its being selective (that is, ignoring the Palestinian issue) and for being “designed to undermine its Arab identity, isolate it from its Arab environment, and punish it for supporting Arab causes.” [2]

For over a decade, Khartoum waged what the regime itself called a jihad against Christians and tribalists in the South. While this could be attributed to official “nationalist” rhetoric at a time when the government’s Islamic identity was less equivocal than now, the jihadist overtones were certainly unambiguously flaunted by the religious establishment. One fatwa issued in 1992 spelled it out: “An insurgent who was previously a Muslim is now an apostate, and a non-Muslim is a non-believer standing as a bulwark against the spread of Islam; Islam has granted the license to kill both of them.”

Officially closed in last May’s peace deal, that conflict ran for over two decades (1983-2004) and left an estimated two million dead — mostly Christian and animist rebels in the south. The common denominator between that conflict and the present conflict in the western province of Darfur is race: Arab ethnicity against black African ethnicity. Though the antagonists in this tragedy may be equally Muslim, the jihad card is being played again, presumably this time against those whose Islam falls short of the Khartoum standard.

Again, where it suits Khartoum’s interests, there has been high-level endorsement of this sentiment. At a meeting of Janjaweed fighters in Nyala in May, President Omar al-Bashir, was heard to use the phrase “Long live the Mujahideen.” Later, a UN Security Resolution giving Khartoum 30 days to disarm the Janjaweed militias also elicited a strange reaction, particularly from a government that has been at pains to demonstrate its bona fides in the “War against Terrorism.” Speaking to the official Al-Anba daily newspaper, General Muhammad Bashir Sulayman called the resolution “a declaration of war on Sudan and its people,” [3] and went on to elaborate that “the door of the jihad is still open and if it has been closed in the south it will be opened in Darfur.” [4] A report detailing how Arab militiamen were being trained at secret camps to launch a campaign of guerrilla warfare “if British troops or other foreign ‘infidels’ are deployed on a peacekeeping operation,” adds weight to this perception. [5]

Western aid and UN workers are rightly concerned over the region-wide implications of an international intervention. Sudan is geographically close to Saudi Arabia, and counter-insurgency interest is focusing on the Jebel Kurush mountains in the north-east, where over the last nine months refuges and training camps have been set up by al-Qaeda operatives. Under increasingly difficult security conditions in Saudi Arabia, they are finding it no great strain to move back and forth between the two countries. Up to now Sudan has resisted western and Saudi Arabian pressure to exert its control over this area.

Al-Qaeda, of course, is no stranger to Sudan. Between 1992 and 1996 it openly maintained bases in the country until Khartoum was pressured to expel Osama bin Laden. In 1998 President Clinton ordered a missile attack on a suspected al-Qaeda production facility. There is still much sympathy in Sudan for the broad aims of al-Qaeda. In addition, thousands of Sudanese were trained in Afghanistan, and some are still fighting against coalition forces in Iraq. That sympathy also has some passive, Arab-wide approval, if the sentiment expressed in al-Quds al-Arabi, that “a strong al-Qaeda presence in Sudan…would constitute a powerful blow to the Arab- and Muslim-hating Bush administration” is anything to go by. [6]

However the crisis resolves itself in Darfur, one net beneficiary will be militant Islamists, both in Sudan and the wider region. They will be able to claim to have seen the “Crusader wolves” at the door, and will have no difficulty in finding a receptive audience for their message.


1. The Daily Telegraph, August 15, 2004.

2. Al-Quds al-Arabi, August 2, 2004

3. Al-Anba, August 2, 2004.

4. Agence France Presse report, August 2 2004.

5. The Daily Telegraph, August 15, 2004.

6. Al-Quds al-Arabi, August 2, 2004.