Although East Africa was the site of three out of the four major attacks exchanged since 7 August between US and apparently pan-Islamist forces, the region itself has been painted as merely being a battleground of opportunity for anti-US bombers. However, even before President Clinton’s decision to strike targets in Sudan as well as in Afghanistan, the USA and Osama Bin Ladin, the wealthy Saudi whom Clinton administration officials blame for the twin bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, have been backing different warring sides in East Africa.
Sudan contains the headwaters of the Blue and White Nile rivers, which run north from nearly the Great Lakes to the Great Sahara. Islamic groups have long followed their valleys south into black Africa. More recently, Sudan’s National Islamic Front (NIF) government has tried to expand Islam toward the Great Lakes and the Horn. NIF leaders do not believe they can survive alone, so they have backed radical Islamist and even fundamentalist Christian groups against most of their neighbours. At the same time, the NIF has collaborated with bin Laden to provide sanctuary as well as training to radical Islamist groups operating worldwide. According to one former Sudanese military intelligence agent interviewed last year in the region, trainees came from as far away as the Philippines. Meanwhile, Iran and Iraq have each also backed the NIF.
The USA, along with its East African allies, has sought to check the influence of Sudan and its allies. The Kenyan capital of Nairobi, the site of one of the embassy bombings, has become the locus of US activity in the region. The US embassy there, besides providing offices for diplomats assigned to the Clinton administration’s mission to Kenya, has also supported diplomats and other personnel assigned to the US mission to Sudan. The administration closed its embassy in Khartoum in February 1996 because officials feared that it might be a target for Islamist groups. Three months later the NIF finally expelled bin Laden in response to Saudi as well as US pressure, but the NIF continued to back radical Islamist groups and others against its neighbours.
Nairobi has also become the site of the largest CIA station in East Africa. Soon after withdrawing with other US personnel from Khartoum, officers from the CIA and other US intelligence agencies began establishing sophisticated eavesdropping posts around Sudan with the co-operation of many bordering countries. By then, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Uganda had formed a coalition of front-line states against the NIF. Eritrea invited the leaders of the Sudanese opposition to take over the Sudanese embassy in Asmara, while Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Uganda each stepped up their support for Sudanese rebels, providing sanctuary as well as arms.
Escalation, not initiation
Although it has received scant attention anywhere, partly because the debate has been held almost entirely behind closed doors within the Washington beltway, the Clinton administration for at least the past two years, has been trying to undermine if not overthrow the NIF regime. “We want to compel change in how Sudan is governed,” said one White House advisor flatly just months before East Africa’s twin bombings. “To be more relevant in achieving our objective,” the advisor added, the administration has been backing the entire anti-NIF coalition. Last year, the Clinton administration promised the coalition’s front-line states US$20 million in non-lethal aid in what stands as the largest military aid package to Africa since the Cold War. This April, according to one high-level participant, the administration sent an interagency team to Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda to explore more anti-NIF “humanitarian, development, political, diplomatic, military, and intelligence options”.
Last year, during the rainy season, the author travelled north from Uganda into southern Sudan, much of which has long been controlled by the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Journalists were told not to photograph hundreds of new green wooden crates. A few open ones contained rocket-propelled grenades. Each crate had stencilled white letters saying that they had been shipped to the Ugandan Defence Ministry via the Tanzanian port at Dar es Salaam. [The author made this trip in part for the Human Rights Watch Arms Division. Its newly released report on Sudan is available at www.hrw.org, although the author alone is responsible for this JIR report.
Although only 70 percent of Sudan’s population are (Sunni) Muslims, the NIF, after it seized power through a 1989 military coup, imposed Shari’a law nationwide. Besides bin Laden, the NIF’s closest foreign allies have been those erstwhile adversaries, Iran and Iraq. Tehran sent mainly political advisors, while Baghdad sent mainly military specialists, according to former Sudanese military officers who defected to the guerrillas.
Iran’s role peaked in 1992 when Tehran sent thousands of advisors who helped restructure Sudan’s army, police and civil service. To better control dissent, they encouraged the NIF to purge more than 78,000 personnel from these services’ collective ranks. Iranian advisors also provided the formative training for the NIF’s Popular Defence Forces: lightly armed militia that are now active in Khartoum and many areas throughout the country.
Iraq’s role is far more ongoing. Up to 60 Iraqi military experts rotate into Khartoum about every six months, according to one of the former officers, an army captain. “About 20 of them were air force specialists including mechanics and pilots,” he said. Others were military technicians involved in some kind of “munitions development” at the Military Industries Complex in Khartoum.
The Clinton administration has just recently begun to claim that these Iraqis have been helping the NIF develop chemical weapons (CW). Journalists first started hearing such allegations from the Sudanese opposition in Asmara, the base for a loose coalition of leaders known as the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). For years, NDA leaders said that Iraqi technicians were working on such a project at the Military Industrial Complex in Khartoum and that Sudan was already storing CW for Iraq at the Yarmouk Military Manufacturing Complex in Sheggera, south of Khartoum. The same opposition leaders also claimed that Sudan had already used CW against rebel forces in the Nuba mountains and elsewhere in the southern half of the country. Opposition leaders even alleged that a group of Iraqis who hijacked an aircraft from Khartoum to London in 1996 were involved in Sudan’s CW project. These Iraqis, however (who were later convicted of the hijacking), were draft dodgers who feared deportation back to Baghdad; they had nothing to do with any Iraqi Government effort. In fact, no evidence to support any of the above claims has ever appeared.
Nowhere in their discussions or “fact sheets” did the opposition mention the El Shifa pharmaceutical factory north of Khartoum: the one recently demolished by US cruise missiles. The USA destroyed the El Shifa plant, along with alleged bin Laden training camps in Afghanistan, on 20 August, claiming that a soil sample clandestinely taken from near the El-Shifa plant showed traces of a rare chemical, O-ethyl methylphosphonothioic acid (Empta), used to make VX nerve agent. However, US officials have yet to make their evidence public.
So far no other evidence has appeared to substantiate their claim, although some independent observers have already rejected it. A British engineer, Tom Carnaffin, who helped oversee construction of the plant as a technical manager until its opening in 1996, told The Observer that it “just does not lend itself to the manufacture of chemical weapons.” Similarly, three Jordanian engineers who worked at the El Shifa plant until mid-1997 agree. “The factory was designed to make medicines,” said engineer Mohammad Abdul-Wahed at an Amman press conference. “It is impossible to change it to produce any other substance.”
Bin Ladin meets the Sudanese
Whatever the nature of Iraq’s as well as Iran’s support for Khartoum, Osama bin Laden, too, has been one of the NlF’s main backers. He built new roads for the regime, connecting the capital for the first time with the northern part of the country and, to the east, with Port Sudan on the Red Sea. Bin Laden has also collaborated with the NIF on several joint military endeavours. “It was Iranian diplomats who first introduced him to NIF leaders,” said the ex-Sudanese military intelligence agent. Although the NIF gave bin Laden a warm welcome when he arrived in Khartoum shortly after the Gulf War in 1991, its leaders never entirely trusted him. They instructed military intelligence agents, whose ostensible task was to cater for his needs, to keep an eye on him. Apparently, NIF leaders feared that bin Laden’s brand of Islamist radicalism was so extreme that it might even become a threat to them. Ironically, after monitoring bin Laden closely for four years, one of the NIF agents instead became an admirer.
Shortly after bin Laden left Khartoum, the ex-agent left the country too.
Bin Ladin’s own time in Khartoum, from 1991 to 1996, has only been part of a longer journey. The 17th of 52 children of one of Saudi Arabia’s wealthiest families, bin Laden, like many revolutionaries, was born into a world of privilege. His father, a construction magnate who founded the bin Laden group, acquired over $5 billion in assets building offices, homes and mosques for the royal House of Saud. Osama Bin Ladin’s own fortune today is estimated to be worth over $250 million.
Although Bin Ladin was just 16 when he first got involved with radical Islamist politics in Riyadh, it was the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan that radicalised him. Only days after it began, bin Laden, then 22, flew there to help organise the first Islamist guerrilla fighters, who later became known as the mojahedin. From around the world, young Muslim idealists like himself flocked to Afghanistan to join them. The number of foreign volunteers eventually grew to up to 20,000. Bin Ladin financed housing for them in Peshawar, Pakistan, just across the Khyber Pass. Inside Afghanistan, he bankrolled the Ma’sadat Al-Ansar military training camp, which trained both local and international volunteers.
Bin Ladin was not the mojahedin’s only foreign patron. The CIA, then directed by President Ronald Reagan, sought to “roll back” the Soviets out of Afghanistan, so it financed and armed the mojahedin throughout the 10-year conflict. Although Bin Ladin himself, according to all accounts, never had any direct relationship with the agency, he was a key leader of a broad movement that the CIA was firmly behind. Even the training camps that the Clinton administration claims to have recently destroyed in Afghanistan were, according to many reports, first established under the Reagan administration by the CLA.
Not content to merely help underwrite the movement, Bin Ladin personally fought in many battles, including the 1989 siege of Jalalabad: a key contest with the Soviets. Only months later the foreign communist forces withdrew in defeat. Bin Ladin still draws inspiration from this experience today. “The biggest benefit [of that campaign],” he told CNN in an interview from an undisclosed location in Afghanistan last year, “was that the myth of the superpower was destroyed.” Bin Ladin, incidentally, credits the mojahedin, as opposed to the Reagan administration, for crippling the Soviet Union enough to make it collapse. Regarding that other superpower, the United States, Bin Ladin frequently expresses confidence that he and his followers will repeat their giant-slaying.
After the Afghan war, Bin Ladin returned to Saudi Arabia a hero, but he quickly became disillusioned with the royal family. Like many Saudis, bin Laden complained that the House of Saud was economically corrupt and morally bankrupt. He fumed, especially, at what he saw as their subservience to the United States. Following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the House of Saud allowed the US troops to deploy on its soil for Operation “Desert Storm.” The first US soldiers arrived on 7 August, 1990 — eight years before to the day that the two US embassies in East Africa were bombed. The US deployments outraged Bin Ladin. Saudi Arabia is the home of Mecca and Medina: the two most revered places within Islam. Today, over 4,000 US troops remain in Saudi Arabia: their ongoing presence remains a source of angst for many Saudis and other Muslims worldwide. To Islamist radicals, as was evidenced by the bombing of the US barracks at Khobar Towers on 25 June 1996, they are a target.
Building the camps
Shortly after the Gulf War, Bin Ladin moved with his four wives and an unknown number of children to Khartoum. In 1990, a year before he even arrived, according to the ex-intelligence agent, bin Laden began bringing mojahedin veterans to Khartoum. He later brought hundreds more. Many, comprised the core of his personal security force. Others became instructors at training camps he financed.
The largest camp was near Soba, 10 km south of Khartoum along the Blue Nile, said the ex-Sudanese military agent, who added that it was a highly restricted area of about 20 square acres. He added that Iranians who were previously based in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley were among the trainers, while the trainees came from Algeria, Tunisia, Bosnia, Chechnya, the Philippines, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Somalia.
Some of these groups have been especially active. Egypt’s Islamic Jihad Organisation is suspected of being behind the 1995 attempted assassination of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa. The Organisation’s leader, al-Zawahri, recently called a newspaper in Pakistan to give a statement on bin Laden’s behalf; he is currently believed to be holding up with him in Afghanistan. Other groups like Eritrea’s Islamic Jihad have attacked civilians. This Organisation’s most comnon tactic is planting anti-tank mines, which have destroyed several passenger buses. Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army is another group that has terrorised civilians, and it frequently press-gangs even adolescent children. All of these groups have been armed by Sudan. Last year, plastic anti-tank mines discovered in Eritrea were identical in design and markings to anti-tank mines captured from NIF stocks just north of the Ugandan border.
These groups and others have trained at camps financed by bin Laden on Sudanese territory. According to the ex-Sudanese military intelligence agent, the instruction focused on three major areas. One was the fabrication of travel documents. The second was low-tech covert communications, from basic encryption to use of invisible ink. In light of recent events, however, it is the third area that may be among the most interesting: the use of small arms and explosives. The ex-agent said that bin Laden spent $15 million on one shipment of arms. It included Chinese and Iranian weapons, as well as Czechoslovakian explosives, which he was unable to identify further (Semtex, a Czech plastic explosive, is suspected of being used in at least the US embassy bombing in Nairobi).
The ex-agent also said that bin Laden, while in Khartoum. had formed a shadowy, pan-Islamist coalition involving many groups. He established an “advisory council” involving at least 43 separate Islamist groups from around the world. They included Egypt’s Islamic Group, Ethiopia’s Oromo Islamic Front, Eritrea’s Islamic Jihad, Uganda’s Islamic forces of Sheikh Abdullah. Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front and the Philippines’ Moro Liberation Front, according to the ex-agent. Bin Laden himself admits to playing an international role, claiming in interviews to have sent Islamist combatants to Bosnia, Chechnya, Tajikistan and Somalia.
This Khartoum-based “advisory council” seems like a precursor to a smaller coalition of like-minded Islamist organisations which formed the World Islamic Front in February 1998. In announcing their formation, members of the World Islamic Front, including bin Laden, signed a religious decree, or fatwa, calling on Muslims “to kill the Americans and their allies — civilian and military”. Observers back in Langley, Virginia, at the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center noted that this was the first such fatwa to justify killing US civilians.
Bin Ladin admits his and his followers’ role in previously killing US soldiers. He told CNN in March 1997 that “Afghan Arabs” loyal to him played a role in 1983 attacks against US troops in Somalia, where a total of 30 US soldiers were killed. The ex-Sudanese agent confirmed this account, saying that bin Laden’s men “set up a base in Somalia and smuggled weapons to it from Ethiopia.” One US official who was in Somalia at the time says that it remains unclear whether US helicopters there were shot down with surface-to-air missiles or just rocket-propelled grenades.
The current climate in Khartoum
Sudan finally expelled Osama Bin Ladin in May 1996 in response to US and Saudi pressure. He has since gone to Afghanistan, which is now controlled by the ultra-fundamentalist Taliban regime — perhaps bin Laden’s only remaining refuge. What kind of ties Sudan and others still have with bin Laden remains in question. The NIF has tried to distance itself from him, although he still has investments and other commercial interests in Khartoum (yet there is no evidence that he has any connection to the recently destroyed El-Shifa pharmaceutical factory as Clinton administration officials have claimed).
While the NIF has continued to back various Islamist groups from Africa and elsewhere, its leaders have also recently begun to express interest in negotiating with both the USA and anti-NIF Sudanese rebel leaders. It is worth noting, too, that before the Clinton administration attacked the El-Shifa plant in Khartoum, along with targets in Afghanistan, Sudan had denounced the bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam as unacceptable terrorist acts. Sudan even offered to help US investigators find the bombers. Even after the US strike on Khartoum, the NIF leader and Parliament speaker Hassan Turabi predicted that, despite their recent history of animosity, relations between Sudan and the USA were likely to improve. “I don’t think it will take too long,” he added.
Iran has also begun to tone down much of its anti-US rhetoric. Its leaders quickly denounced the US embassy bombings, although they have since denounced the US strikes on Sudan and Afghanistan as well. While Iran remains on the US State Department’s list of countries which sponsor terrorism, the country has at least begun to change since the election of the moderate President Mohammad Khatami last year. And although Iran had a strong presence in Khartoum throughout the early 1990s, its role in recent years has clearly diminished.
Iraq, however, maintains strong ties with Sudan, and NIF leaders apparently no longer care who knows it. The day after the Clinton administration attacked the El-Shifa plant in Khartoum. Sudan’s foreign minister, Mustafa Osman Ismail, flew to Baghdad for consultations.