Small Wars Journal

Terrorism: The Other Reason to Worry about Darfur

Terrorism: The Other Reason to Worry about Darfur

By Omer Ismail and Akshaya Kumar

Islamist rebels fleeing French military action in Mali are successfully gaining refuge in Darfur. Sudan unabashedly hosted Al-Qaeda’s Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri during the 1990s. Now, Khartoum is offering Malian terrorists safe haven in exchange for their support in the fight against the newly unified Darfuri opposition. During the height of the genocide, there were reports of militants from Mali and Niger fighting as janjaweed in Darfur. This history, combined with a recent uptick in violence in the region, makes the confirmed presence of Malian rebels in Darfur especially alarming.

In September 2004, Colin Powell labeled the government of Sudan’s systematic attacks on the people of Darfur as genocide. Ten years later, the region remains crippled by violence. The U.N. reports that it currently provides aid to 3.5 million people in Darfur, including some 1.4 million living in camps for the displaced. During the past two months, Abbala nomads, historic allies of the Sudanese government, have been attacking civilians in towns across Darfur with impunity. This latest wave of violence has led to the displacement of over 100,000 people. The infusion of Malian terrorists fighting, on the side of the government, will only accelerate this humanitarian crisis.

An influential faction of the U.S. policymaking establishment has consistently used Sudan’s cooperation with American counter-terrorism efforts as its litmus test for our bilateral relationship. A recent Open Society Justice Initiative report confirmed Sudan’s role as a transit hub for extraordinary renditions of terrorism suspects for interrogation and torture in the post-9/11 era. However, Sudan’s “intelligence cooperation” with one hand should not distract us from its continued support to terrorist groups with the other.

Sudan, a designated state sponsor of terror since 1993, sits at the center of a web of interlocking terrorist networks. In 2007, a federal court ruled that Sudan should be held responsible for the attack on the U.S.S. Cole off the coast of Yemen and awarded victims’ families over 8 million dollars in damages. Israel has strong evidence confirming that Sudan provides Iranian arms to Hamas militants on the Gaza strip. In what is believed to be an Israeli effort to break that chain, a convoy of a dozen vehicles allegedly carrying Iranian-made Fajir-3 missiles travelling from Khartoum to Port Sudan was hit by an aerial attack in January 2009. Israel likely stuck again in October 2012, when the Satellite Sentinel Project confirmed that the Yarmouk arms factory, believed to be supplying weapons to Hamas, was pulverized overnight, leaving craters consistent with an aerial strike. Days later, Sudan invited Iranian warships to dock in its port. Two more ships from Iran docked in Sudan last December.

In his second term, President Obama will undoubtedly continue to fulfill his promise to aggressively combat the spread of global terrorist networks. In the modern age, terrorist cells are rootless, making the Malian militants’ migration to Darfur unsurprising. Terrorists are no longer anchored in the societies in which they operate. Young men like Anwar Aulaqi and Jose Padilla—born and raised in the U.S.—travelled abroad to train for jihad. The early 2013 attack on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria was perpetrated by Al-Qaeda operatives from several different countries and diverse races. In this broader context, Sudan’s willingness to harbor Al-Qaeda linked terrorists from Mali is problematic.

Despite scores of media reports confirming these rebels’ presence, the Sudanese government insists that there are no Malians operating in Darfur. These blanket denials, in the face of evidence to the contrary, suggests the Sudanese government may have a covert interest.   A Darfuri opposition group, the Justice and Equality Movement, has released photographic evidence showing Malian militants integrated into Sudan’s notorious Abu Tira border guard. Earlier this month, another Darfuri group claimed that it captured and killed some Malian militants who were fighting alongside government forces.

The U.S. government should alter how it deals with Sudan, not just based on the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile—which is certainly pressing—but also for pressing national security reasons. Allowing the Sudanese government’s occasional facilitation of U.S. counter-terrorism operations to excuse its continued involvement in global terrorist networks is dangerously shortsighted. After two decades, Sudan’s open armed welcome to terrorists demands a more coordinated response. We can ill afford to allow Sudan to incubate another Bin Laden. 

Omer Ismail, a Sudanese activist on Darfur, is a Senior Adviser to the Enough Project, where Akshaya Kumar is a Research Associate.