Sudan’s Historical Moment as Bridge between Sunni and Shiite Islam
Geopolitical Monitor, Andre Ishii
The brief success of the Mahdist state in 19th century Sudan inspired a great deal of hope for the Islamist philosopher-activists who wished to abrogate Western-backed regimes and establish Islamist/Caliphate rule in their own territories. Sudan was once again to become a hotbed of Islamist activities, imported from abroad. Islamist ideologies were reintroduced, especially from Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula, regions both tied to its geopolitical history.
The latter part of 19th century saw a massive flowering of Islamist philosophical literature, often advocating Pan-Islamism, produced by philosophers of both Sunna and Shia traditions. And often times, these sectarian divisions become ambiguous. Islamist theorists reached across the aisle, advocating collaboration and ultimate unification of Islam to establish a true global Caliphate. This was especially true after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in the post- World War I era.
In fact the late 19th century Persian Shia philosopher Sai’d Jamal Assadabadi (aka Jamal al-Din Al-Afghani) had already lit the fire of Islamist revivalism among the Sunnis in Egypt a decade before the ‘Mahdi’ Muhammad Ahmad appeared on the scene. Spreading the message of pan-Islamism, he influenced scores of theorists, one of whom was Rashid Rida, whose works inspired Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood organization in 1928. The establishment of the Muslim Brotherhood, the final goal of which is to re-establish the dismembered Ottoman Caliphate, was a turning point in history of political Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood in turn, along with the Sunni Islamist Abul A’la Maududi – who openly admitted in his writings that the Islamist state has certain totalitarian nature akin to fascist and communist states – had a tremendous influence on the development of Islamist thought in Shia circles. This led to the 1979 Iranian Revolution, a movement that was significantly influenced also by Sayyed Qutb of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Iranian Revolution shook the foundations of the secular Arab regimes to the core. Teheran had continued to advocate what it describes as the ‘Islamic Awakening’ through the storm of the 2011 Arab Spring, regardless of sectarian differences. Indeed, according to various reports, collaboration between the Shiite extremist group Hezbollah in Lebanon – financed and trained as a proxy of the Iranian intelligence – and the Sunni Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas – an off-shoot of the Palestinian MB – certainly occurred. Mehdi Khalaji, Senior Fellow of Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a Shia theologian, notes that Tehran’s support of the Palestinian Hamas is a tactic implemented to “curry political favor and prestige” from organizations within the Sunni Arab sphere, which has succeeded historically “not only within Hamas but also within the larger Brotherhood universe in Egypt and elsewhere in the region.”
The Sunni extremist organization Egyptian Islamic Jihad – founded by a former Muslim Brotherhood member Muhammad Farraj – assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in October 1981. Due to the subsequent crackdown of many of this jihadist group many Muslim Brotherhood members also fled abroad. Members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad such as Ayman al-Zawahiri fled to Afghanistan and fought alongside the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet Union, establishing connections with Osama bin Laden – a Saudi national and a member of a wealthy family construction conglomerate.
Due to their persistent engagement, abundant funding, and logistics support – provided by US-led Western sponsors via the Pakistani intelligence ISI – the mujahideen successfully repelled the Soviet Union. In August 1988, Osama bin Laden formed al-Qaeda with the support of Sunni Palestinian Islamist Abdullah Azzam, also a Muslim Brotherhood member. As an Iranian connection, Egyptian Islamic Jihad member Ayman al-Zawahiri is known to have been a guest of Ali Fallahian, Iranian Minister of Intelligence and Security and Ahmad Vahidi, commander of the special-ops unit of the Quds Force. Quds Force reports directly to the Ayatollah and is known for its involvement in international terrorism, including suspected involvement in the 1994 bombing of the Jewish synagogue in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Al-Zawahiri joined al-Qaeda in 1998. Soon various figures from the Egyptian Islamic Jihad high command also merged into al-Qaeda, to the point of even comprising the majority of the ruling council of the terror group. Al-Zawahiri is now the commander of the organization. Al-Qaeda, although now significantly decentralized, has morphed into more of an ideological brand than a centralized body. Al Qaeda wields significant operational capabilities via its incarnations on the Arabian Peninsula and on the Indian Subcontinent.
As noted by the lawsuit brought forward against the Tehran government by the families of the 9/11 victims, there is significant evidence that Iranian intelligence has sponsored al-Qaeda in the past, as it can be gleaned from the Tehran’s military intelligence connection with al-Zawahiri as noted above. The cooperation involved physical and moral support. There are reports of al-Qaeda members receiving training and sanctuary in the Iranian territory, with extensive contacts between the two organizations throughout the 1990s. And one of the key locations of these contacts was none other than the Republic of the Sudan, which was the key state which catapulted al-Qaeda into becoming an organization with severe global consequences.
Post-Independence Sudan and the Rise of al-Turabi
Sudan – or rather north Sudan and south Sudan under the territorial units under the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium – was promised independence in 1953. The problem was that the exact terms of the independence regarding the relationship between the two regions were unclear. North is mostly populated by Muslims while south is populated by Christians and various animists. The controversy regarding the specifics of the future domestic government flared up. The condominium had traditionally been administered as separate administrations due to demographic differences between the ‘two’ Sudans, although after World War II their integration was set in motion. This chain of events ignited the first round of civil war in August 1955. Sudan gained its independence from the British rule in 1956, ironically the same year that British rule and prestige over international affairs significantly collapsed due to the Suez Crisis during October and November of that year. The Suez Canal, which had tied the British to the region since the 19th century, was subsequently nationalized by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser with the backing of the Soviet Union. It was an international and geopolitical wave of change, and Sudan was going to get plenty of that as well.
The ensuing bloody carnage of the Sudanese civil war was perpetuated with no small amount of international involvement. Soviet Union supported north Sudan while Israel supported south Sudan with arms transfer, training, and advisors. The war raged on until 1972 with the signing of the Addis Ababa Agreement. The war-ending agreement was concluded by the pro-Nasser regime of the Gaafar Nimeiry who came to power in a coup three years prior. His administration began with the implementation of state-planned socialist economy with a wave of nationalization of banks and other industries, leading to the founding of the sole legal political organization, the Sudanese Socialist Union in 1971. Sudan soon became a target of a proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union, after which Nimeiry began to lean towards the United States following a coup attempt by the communist forces.
In 1980, Nimeiry went Islamist when he began to associate himself with the Muslim Brotherhood, and in 1983 he imposed the Islamic law, or the Sharia. Sharia was imposed on the unwilling non-Islamic south Sudanese population, inflaming resentment and tension yet again, abrogating the Addis Ababa Agreement that had brought 11 years of stability. Coupling that with the discovery of petroleum fields, the toxic situation ignited the second round of civil war which resulted in nearly 2 million deaths and 4 million refugees. Nimeiry was ousted from power in April 1985 by his defense minister. The following year elections ushered in a government led by former Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi, great-grandson of Muhammad Ahmad, the 19th century self-proclaimed Mahdi that reigned in Sudan.
In June 1989, the al-Mahdi government was overthrown by a coup yet again, ushering in the reign of President Omar al-Bashir, who instituted a government allied with the National Islamic Front (NIF) and banned any other political groups. NIF – today called the National Congress Party – is an Islamist political party rooted in the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood which had been active in the Sudan since 1949. The NIF project was to create an Islamist Sudan, and its operation centered on one man– Hassan al-Turabi. The secular government led by al-Mahdi was overthrown due to its reluctance of enforcing the Islamic Law. The ghosts of an Islamist regime were resurrected and returned to haunt Sudan after a century of absence.
Hassan al-Turabi was an active member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Sudan. Educated in London and Paris, he occupied the position of dean of school of law at the University of Khartoum. He began to ally himself with Nimeiry during the 1970s, and founded the NIF in 1976, establishing himself as its secretary general. Al-Turabi was sworn in as Sudanese attorney general in 1983, paving the way to becoming the catalyst in the heavy-handed implementation of the Islamic Law that contributed to the onset of the Second Civil War.
The Sudanese State and the Globalization of Islamist Terrorism
The NIF was one of the two Islamist parties in the late 20th century to establish state rule. The other was the Shia Islamic revolutionary regime of Iran, founded in 1979. This was one of the elements that brought the two regimes together. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna was quite warm to the idea of Sunni-Shia cooperation to implement the Pan-Islamic vision, demonstrated from his meeting with Ayatollah Khomeini in Cairo in 1945 and Ayatollah Kashani in 1948 during the Hajj pilgrimage. Al-Turabi was no different. In a 1994 Madrid lecture, al-Turabi reportedly remarked that “I’m not going to talk in terms of Sunni and Shia, I think this is only part of history, it’s not itself part of Islam. I don’t belong to any sect and most fundamentalists don’t.” True to the ‘ecumenical’ tradition of his ideology, al-Turabi transformed Sudan into a hotbed of the post-Gulf War Islamist global jihad in the early to late 1990s. As ‘a new Lebanon’ to export Islamist revolution across the MENA region, Sudan would become an epicenter of events that would shake the world in the coming 21st century.
Osama bin Laden arrived with al-Zawahiri in Sudan in 1991 (with a fanfare from al-Turabi himself) and used the state as the base of his operations until 1996. Hundreds of the mujahideen veterans arrived in Sudan as well to comprise the core group of the reforming organization.
Bin Laden, as a construction magnate, had eyed Sudan as an investment opportunity since 1983 when the Islamist policy was implemented by the state. In 1989, Bin Laden founded fertilizer wholesaler Wadi al-Aqiq holding company in Sudan and after arriving in 1991 established a financial base. He founded several financial and construction companies to engage in contractual work, such as building domestic infrastructure for the Sudanese government, with the intention of funneling funds into the al-Qaeda development project. For instance, it was his Al-Hijra construction company that built the highway linking Khartoum to Port Sudan on the coast of the Red Sea. These institutions, in turn, were wired into networks of financial companies and various Islamic charities spanning the world. This was the case especially for the financial networks of the Gulf States (ie. UAE), even before their rapid rise after the US federal government’s move to regulate financial activities after the 9/11 terror attacks.
Iraq’s epic defeat before the US-led coalition forces during the Gulf War of 1990-1991 propelled Al-Turabi to hold the Popular Arab and Islamic Congress (PAIC). The PAIC, of which al-Turabi sat as the Secretary-General of the forum, was first held in April 1991 (and subsequently in 1993 and 1995). The fist PAIC successfully gathered about a total of 500 delegates from Sudan and 50 MENA states. Even some delegates from the highly-contended Kashmir and the Philippines arrived on the scene.
The 1991 forum set the course for Islamists across the Islamic world to work for global Islamic revolution. It has been speculated that the funding for the occasion was provided by Tehran– a hefty $100 million donation – for the Shia regime to establish for itself a formidable base of operations on the African continent. Sudan – now propped up by some influential regimes of the wider Islamic world and a constellation of jihadist organizations – was destined to become in al-Turabi’s mind the unifying headquarters to attempt to assert Islamic orthodoxy. Al-Turabi proposed an Islamist foreign policy plan for Khartoum to implement accordingly. VIPs of the Hamas arrived in Khartoum in 1991, as well as senior figures from the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. The late Yassir Arafat of the secular Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) – the nemesis of Hamas – also played a key role in the success of 1991 forum, by asserting that his organization was destined to become the key in the “liberation” of Jerusalem.
Al-Turabi also lent a hand in the make-up of the bilateral relations between Iran and Iraq. In the 1980s, revolutionary Iran and Iraq waged a bloody conventional war against each other. Iran and Iraq – which was backed by US/Western arms and tactical military intelligence to keep Tehran regime in check, even to the point of ignoring Hussein’s use of chemical weapons – fought for eight years. The war dragged on until Iran accepted the UN Security Council Resolution 598 for cease-fire in July 1988 and the war came to an end in the following month. Despite the fact the two states had decided to restore their full diplomatic relationship on September 10, 1990, progress was cut off by the commencement of the Gulf War a little over a month before. Al-Turabi was about to take the process into high gear. It was at the 1991 PAIC forum where the military intelligence of the two former enemy states met with each other, making rounds of negotiations that contributed to Tehran removing the blockade that had been in effect for a decade. Iraq and its organizations were also to get involved in al-Turabi’s Pan-Islamist alliance project, and Khartoum received windfall blessings from this turn of events. From the spring of 1995, cooperation between the three states was solidified, resulting in developments such as Iraqi training of the Sudanese armed forces in case of flare-up with Egypt, providing rudimentary chemical weapons (CW) capabilities, and inspiring institutional change in the Sudanese Army, which remodeled itself after the Iraqi Republican Guard.
Beginning in 1992, Tehran and its military intelligence geared up its sponsorship of al-Qaeda. And this was not limited to mere moral support and encouragement. Imad Mugniyeh, head of Hezbollah operations outside of Iran, was the key Iranian operative that aided al-Qaeda’s growth in Sudan from a mere Afghan-based resistance force into a massive terrorist empire. Majid Kamal, a key figure in the Tehran’s US Embassy hostage incident, a member of the Hezbollah establishment and Iranian ambassador to Sudan, was also involved in the operation. Kamal had massive human resources at his command, and thousands of agents flooded Sudan to take part in the project.
According to various reports, the Islamist terrorism that characterized the 1990s – such as the 1993 New York World Trade Center bombing, 1995 attempted assassination of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, 1996 Saudi Khobar Tower bombing, and 1998 US Embassy bombing in Kenya and Tanzania – were birthed out of this forming alliance that were established in the Sudanese territory as the result of the PAIC led by al-Turabi’s Islamist vision. Even after 1996, when al-Qaeda’s base was relocated to Afghanistan after the expulsion of bin Laden from Sudan, the network of the alliance was maintained. In June 1996, Tehran led a Pan-Islamist summit that re-confirmed the alliance and to target US/Western interests. Five years later, the 9/11 terror attack shook the world, ushering in a new era of geopolitical environment involving Islamist terrorism and related regimes.
The Iranian revolutionary state continues to offer moral support to the principles of what they deem to be ‘Islamic Awakening’ of the Arab Spring. Yet in January 2016, the Iranian government entered into a heated state-based geopolitical tension with Saudi Arabia – a known regional competitor – due to execution of a Shia cleric. Saudi Arabia is a state over which Iran wants to extend its influence by allying itself with Sunni Islamist Arab regimes (ie. Muslim Brotherhood) in the region. The Islamist dream shared and set into motion by al-Turabi still endures. Despite tensions between some actors, such as between Islamic State (ISIS) and Iran, there has been proliferation of Islamist governments, proclaimed jihadist statelets and enlcaves of Islamist networks throughout Eurasian landmass in the past decade.
The legacy of the Pan-Islamic alliance rooted in al-Turabi’s Islamist Sudan was not only limited to international Islamist terrorism. It also left a tremendous mark on the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology and its dissemination into hands of some states, notably in the hands of People’s Democratic Republic of Korea (PDRK), or North Korea.
In this regard, Sudan has been pointed out to be the transit node of transnational nuclear black market, linking Europe to Pakistan and beyond. Several hundred million dollars’ worth of various equipment essential for nuclear weapons production have been recovered in Sudan. The black market transit of this equipment has been facilitated by a team led by Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the key figure of the Pakistani nuclear weapons development and proliferator of related technologies to regimes such as Libya, Iran, Iraq and North Korea. And this network consisted not only of private individuals, but the very senior officers of the Pakistani government and military. According to investigators, much of the funneling of indispensable technological equipment that involved Sudanese underground market seems to have taken place between 1998 and 2001 via a Sudanese state-owned firm during a period when it is known that Khan had paid visit to Sudan. In his visit to Sudan in 1999, Khan was given VIP treatment as if a foreign government minister. (Interestingly and significantly, Dubai has also been named to be a re-exporting point as well, a city whose role in the international finance paved way for the implementation of 9/11 terror attacks. It has been suspected that it was in Dubai that Khan negotiated sale for the transfer of P-1 centrifuge diagrams with Iran in 1987; In 1990 Khan planned to transfer equipment related to uranium enrichment from Europe to Iraq through his Dubai-based company, though Iraq rejected the offer thinking that it was a sting op.)
The recent effort by the families of the 9/11 victims resorting to legal action in effort to bring to light the Saudi Arabian and Iranian states’ roles in the defining terrorist event of the century gives us a glimpse of a certain trend. This is that despite much emphasis on globalization and rise of transnational organizations in recent decades, the geopolitical reality still is rooted in strategies and actions pursued by sovereign states, even within the framework of transnational organizations.
This is apparent not only for organizations such as UN, NATO and ASEAN, but also such as al-Qaeda. United States and several interested states sponsored the Afghan mujahideen movement to counter Soviet Union throughout the 1980s and in the next decade engaged in similar reckless partnership with the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which was quite symbiotic with the mujahideen while it was being developing in Sudan into al-Qaeda. In much of the same way the hegemonic powers of the MENASA (to include South Asian states to the basket of MENA states) have exploited al-Qaeda and related groups to implement geopolitical strategies. Sudan, due to its post-independence instability and the subsequent Islamist regime that rose to power, provided opportunities for the varying states to act out their strategies to pursue their visions of pan-Islamic ideology. The Pakistani state has used the transnational black market nexus, of which the Sudanese state is a major element, as a conduit of illicit technology transfer. Five years ago this month, Osama bin Laden was killed in a nighttime raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The close proximity of the compound-hide out to a Pakistani military academy raises a question of Pakistani state’s knowledge or even relationship with the terrorist mastermind, especially in the context of Khan’s underground network. The various states’ relationship with Islamist organizations in consequence contributed in sowing international instability across Eurasia. Another of these manifestations is the trouble of nuclear-related threats currently rising out of North Korea. Yet another is the Iranian nuclear weapons development program. This ‘Sudanese nexus’ was by no means the sole cause of the present instability, but a major contributing factor nonetheless.
The current legal controversy surrounding Saudi Arabian and Iranian roles in 9/11 event will lead us to Sudan. And the Islamicized Sudanese state was a major contributing factor that produced the global-scale chaos that seems to brew and deepen consistently with no end in sight. And despite Bin Laden’s enabler and provider of sanctuary al-Turabi may be gone now, the legacy of his contribution to the global chaos through the Islamicized Sudan continues to lives on.