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Sudan’s descent into chaos sets stage for al-Qaida to make a return to historic stronghold

(THE CONVERSATION) “Sudan’s moment has come; chaos is our chance to sow the seeds of jihad,” warned Abu Hudhaifa al-Sudani, a high-ranking al-Qaida leader, in an October 2022 manifesto.

His words may have seemed premature at the time, but a year of brutal civil war has now plunged Sudan into the kind of chaos in which terrorist groups thrive. The risk of al-Qaida gaining ground in Sudan is now very real and imperils, I believe, not only the country itself but also regional – and potentially global – security.

In April 2023, fighting broke out in Sudan between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, creating a power vacuum that extremists are eager to fill.

At the same time, the Rapid Support Forces – a group that developed under and was once allied to Sudan’s al-Qaida-harboring former president Omar al-Bashir – has been solidifying its grip in strategic areas such as Darfur and southern Khartoum.

Indeed, both the paramilitary group and the armed forces have been accused of recruiting Islamist fighters, fueling fears that the civil war will – regardless of the victor – prove a toehold for extremist groups.

As a defense policy researcher and counterterrorism expert, I’m concerned that Sudan risks becoming an al-Qaida stronghold – and a potential base for orchestrating attacks on the U.S. and its allies. A potential Rapid Support Forces takeover in Sudan could mirror pre-9/11 Afghanistan, where Taliban control facilitated al-Qaida’s rise.

Al-Qaida members, seeking opportunities to achieve what they couldn’t in the Middle East, are already heeding calls to head to Sudan.

Decades of turmoil and extremism

Sudan’s civil strife predates the current fighting by decades. It ignited in 1989 when al-Bashir seized power, aligning the nation with radical Islamist ideologies. He imposed Sharia law and in 1991 sheltered al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. Under al-Bashir’s regime, bin Laden established training camps and expanded al-Qaida’s financial network, laying the groundwork for the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Facing international sanctions over its support of terrorism, Sudan expelled bin Laden in 1996.

But al-Bashir’s sponsorship of the Janjaweed militia group, the architects of the 2003 Darfur genocide, further solidified his alignment with Islamist extremists. Under scrutiny, al-Bashir rebranded the Janjaweed as the Rapid Support Forces in 2013, appointing ex-Janjaweed member Mohammed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagalo as its leader and retaining their brutal tactics.

The 2021 coup, orchestrated by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan of the Sudanese Armed Forces and Hemeti of the Rapid Support Forces, soon devolved into a power struggle between the two men, igniting Sudan’s current conflict.

Today, with Hemeti at the helm, the paramilitary group continues its oppressive campaign in West Darfur, engaging in alleged ethnic cleansing against the Indigenous Masalit people.

Meanwhile, a prison attack in April 2023, which the Sudanese army blamed on Rapid Support Forces rebels, facilitated the escape of al-Bashir’s allies, though the former president remains hospitalized under guard.

Sudan at the heart of jihad

With conflicts in the Middle Eastand Eastern Europe, the West might be overlooking the crisis in Sudan and the potential it holds for al-Qaida, a group that has long harbored ambitions of returning to Sudan.

Despite his expulsion, bin Laden continued to emphasize Sudan’s importance in his plans for global jihad. This was evident in his 2006 audiotape and diary entries in which he referred to Sudan as a pivotal operational base.

A 2023 publication by key al-Qaida figure Ibrahim al-Qussi titled “Fragments from al-Qaida’s History” revealed that bin Laden directed an investment of US$12 million solely for jihad in Sudan, highlighting the region’s ongoing relevance to al-Qaida’s objectives.

Sudan’s appeal to extremists extends beyond its connections to bin Laden. Strategically bridging North and sub-Saharan Africa, Sudan is a key location for Islamist extremists aiming to expand their influence across the region.

After the 2021 U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s return to power, al-Qaida reestablished a presence in the country, reopening training camps and madrassas.

Well before that, however, al-Qaida had long since evolved from a centralized organization in Afghanistan into a decentralized network with global affiliates – from the Arabian Peninsula to the Indian subcontinent all the way to sub-Saharan Africa and the Sahel.

Historic ties, new ambitions

Recent developments highlight al-Qaida’s increased focus on Sudan and are driven by detailed expansion plans of Sudanese al-Qaida leader Abu Hudhaifa al-Sudani. A former bin Laden associate with a notorious background in Afghanistan and Iraq, al-Sudani issued a renewed call for jihad.

Following the onset of civil war in Sudan, al-Sudani’s 2022 manifesto, “Now the fighting has come: War messages to the Mujahideen in Sudan,” not only prescribes a military strategy of targeted strikes and guerrilla warfare across Sudan but also a vision for jihad extending from Dongola in the country’s north to Darfur in its south, with Khartoum as the command center.

Al-Qaida further articulated its threat in a message on the 22nd anniversary of the 2001 attacks on the U.S., promising, “It is only a matter of time before the next strike eclipses the horrors of 9/11.”

This declaration, combined with the group’s escalating presence in conflict zones such as Niger and Libya, actively positions them to target U.S. interests worldwide. Indeed, a 2022 United Nations report indicated that al-Qaida was planning high-profile attacks, possibly at sea.

What an extremist takeover would mean

Al-Qaida’s potential in resource-rich Sudan should not be underestimated. Historically, the group’s operations from resource-limited Afghanistan were devastating; in Sudan, with its abundance of oil, gold and fertile land, their capabilities could be significantly magnified.

Sudan provides a lucrative base for whoever holds power. Forging links with both sides of the civil war would no doubt be of huge financial benefit to al-Qaida should either side prevail, in the same way al-Bashir’s rule was a generation earlier.

And Sudan’s Red Sea access makes it potentially an even greater threat than Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

Gaining a Sudanese stronghold could empower al-Qaida affiliates across Yemen, Somalia and the Sahel region, exacerbating regional conflicts and threatening crucial Red Sea trade routes. Interestingly, a United Nations July 2022 report revealed that al-Qaida’s Yemen branch had been boosting its maritime capabilities.

The resurgence of al-Qaida capabilities in the region could lead to increased piracy, militarized blockades and unregulated arms flow, escalating regional tensions and causing broader geopolitical unrest.

But as the United States redirects resources and attention to wars in Europe and the Middle East and countering China, Sudan has seemingly slipped down its priority list. Complicating matters further, U.S. responses are tangled in the conflicting interests of its Gulf allies supporting various factions in Sudan’s civil war.

Strapped by resource limitations, overwhelmed by competing threats and weary from decades in the Middle East, the U.S. is poorly positioned to counter al-Qaida’s expansion into Sudan.

But as Sudan inches closer to becoming a global terror hub, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Historical examples, such as Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban and the rise of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, illustrate the potential costs.

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