The army’s reliance on former military leaders from the al-Bashir regime who follow the Muslim Brotherhood’s approach and support them raises significant questions about their role in fueling the current conflict between the Army Commander, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces Commander, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti). They seem to be the third party that could potentially sow extremism in the country.
Observers have linked the recorded message broadcast by the former leader of the dissolved National Congress Party, Ahmed Haroun, after his escape from Kober prison, along with several other leaders, to the role of al-Bashir’s supporters in the current battles. They are the party that may gain advantages after being marginalized by civil forces.
Supporters of the Islamic movement want to overturn the table and attempt to shift the balance of power in their favor by dividing the Sudanese street and fomenting discord within the military establishment, both in the army and the Rapid Support Forces. This is their only way to regain influence in the security and political arenas in Sudan. Islamists rely on a significant Islamic current that has been present since al-Bashir’s era, and its members might abandon their quietism and play an influential role in fueling the conflict by committing crimes attributed to one side or the other.
The open fighting between two military factions that once shared power in Sudan has turned this strategically important country into a coveted target for extremist groups operating within it and in neighboring countries. Sudan, in this context, appears to be a not-so-exceptional case, as continuing conflict could turn the state into a breeding ground for terrorist cells, which could face a form of terrorist invasion.
Preparations by ISIS and Al-Qaeda
Both ISIS and Al-Qaeda have made plans to exploit the situation in their areas of influence in East and West Africa. Given the ongoing conflict between the army and the Rapid Support Forces, the chances for Al-Qaeda appear greater than those for ISIS. This is due to the history of Al-Qaeda’s presence and activity in Sudan during the 1990s when the late Osama bin Laden made Sudan his headquarters until the United States pressured for his expulsion. This history helped Al-Qaeda build strong relationships with influential politicians and military figures in the country. These remnants still exist and maintain hidden ties between Al-Qaeda and military elements associated with the former President Omar al-Bashir’s regime. They work to escalate the situation further. Additionally, the main party in these events, the Islamist group, would prefer to cooperate with Al-Qaeda over any other entity.
Sudan’s exception to the dilemma that some Arab countries faced during the Arab Spring and previous revolutions is the presence of the Islamic movement in power. At that time, its presence seemed consistent with the direction of the revolutions in Egypt or Tunisia. When the Islamists’ marginalization from power became apparent, Sudan considered orchestrating its own version of the Arab Spring by preparing for a new military coup, which would allow the group to seize power or, in the worst case, turn the country into a battlefield, paving the way for the influence of extremist elements aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, whose agendas intersect with them in critical and armed events.
The Sudanese situation is further complicated by the interplay and contradictions between the force that regional and Arab support should be directed to, which is the army, versus the consideration that any other armed entity is a rebel militia that must be undermined and dismantled.
Multiple indicators since the outbreak of the conflict on April 15th suggest that high-ranking officers from the Muslim Brotherhood are active within the army with the aim of avoiding accountability for their crimes and thwarting the framework agreement ultimately leading to the transfer of power from the military to a civilian government.
The inverse equation inside Sudan ties Arab efforts aimed at inhibiting plans that rely on the remnants of the ousted regime and the Muslim Brotherhood within the army and various institutions. This poses a hurdle to democratic transition and handing over power to a civilian government.
Key figures of the al-Bashir regime, its supporters, and leaders and members of the Muslim Brotherhood have aligned themselves with the army in this war to defeat the Rapid Support Forces, which have become a thorn in their side after their alliance with civil forces and their commander’s insistence on keeping the military away from power and handing it over to a civilian government.
If some regional powers want to apply their doctrine of dealing with any armed entity as a hated militia, they will clash with the rhetoric of the Rapid Support Forces, which present themselves as saviors of the country, supporters of democracy and civilian rule, and fighters against al-Bashir‘s remnants and extremist Islamist officers seeking to maintain their dominance from behind the scenes.
The Muslim Brotherhood and Terrorism
The Muslim Brotherhood has often formed alliances with Al-Qaeda. In Egypt, it allied with the “Murabitun” group, led by the defected Egyptian officer Hisham Ashmawi, who had ties to Al-Qaeda. In Tunisia, the Ennahdha movement also approached the Ansar al-Sharia group, which was aligned with the same organization.
In Sudan, the Muslim Brotherhood entered into a well-known alliance with Al-Qaeda. This alliance helped strengthen the bonds between the former Al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, and the Sudanese Islamic leader Hassan al-Tourabi in 1989. It aided their war against the Sudan People’s Liberation Front in exchange for allowing jihadists to use the country as a base for their operations worldwide, as documented in the 9/11 Commission Report.
The United States designated Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1993, as al-Tourabi allowed Al-Qaeda to use Sudanese resources and even facilitated a deal with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. This deal empowered Al-Qaeda and was notably evident in the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa.
The Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood lost its privileges and entered a phase of turmoil following the military coup in October 2021, leading to the collapse of the Framework Agreement between the Central Council of the Forces for Freedom and Change and the military component, thereby exposing the underlying divisions. This signifies the beginning of a new phase that could provide Al-Qaeda with greater opportunities than those it had during the early years of al-Bashir’s regime, which came to power following the 1989 coup.
the spiritual leader of Islamists in Sudan, Hassan al-Tourabi, previously provided a foothold for Al-Qaeda by advocating for the establishment of an Islamic caliphate and the liberation of the South from Christians, the Muslim Brotherhood’s recruitment tool for jihadists lies in framing the struggle against civilian, secular, and communist forces as a form of jihadist activity. With each move in this direction, the Muslim Brotherhood found corresponding actions by Al-Qaeda, which started early on to prepare terrorist cells in Sudan.
On October 17 of last year, Al-Qaeda issued an extensive document, authored by its media figure Abu Huzayfa al-Sudani (who is part of the Syria branch), titled “War Messages to Jihadists in Sudan.” It called for the group to take the lead in establishing an Islamic state, capitalizing on the current security and political instability.
The notable aspect of this document, released by “Bayt al-Maqdis,” one of Al-Qaeda’s media arms, which didn’t face challenges from al-Bashir’s regime and its remnants, is the common outlook shared between the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda, and army leadership, which was translated into military actions in recent times.
Abu Huzayfa found that the signing of the constitutional agreement in 2020 and signaling to make Sudan a secular state were opportune moments for Al-Qaeda to take the lead in establishing an Islamic state. He considered the shift towards democracy in Sudan as a return to idol worship and a “kafir” project. He called for the formation of armed brigades inside Khartoum and beyond to remove entities of disbelief and establish a monotheistic state.
Al-Qaeda leaders find the ongoing military conflict, economic and social turmoil, as well as Sudan’s vast and diverse geography and climates, an advantageous environment for expansion and maneuvering. Al-Qaeda operatives can infiltrate Sudan through its southeastern borders, capitalizing on its affiliates in Somalia (al-Shabaab) as they look to acquire a strategic foothold in Sudan to offset their losses in Iraq and Syria. This would assist Al-Qaeda in dealing with the challenges and pressures it faces in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya, where these countries have formed a united front against terrorist groups.
The wealth of Sudan with its agricultural resources, minerals, and strategic geographic location serves as a vital asset for both Al-Qaeda’s branches in the five East and West African countries. Coordinating between Al-Qaeda networks in Yemen and Africa is of utmost importance to them, making the inclusion of Sudan into this geographical space essential.
ISIS shares the same aspiration with Al-Qaeda, planning for the same goal. However, it employs different rhetoric, criticizing the Muslim Brotherhood, rejecting civilian and military components, and leveraging Sudan’s internal turmoil. ISIS relies on its strong presence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which lies south of Sudan, a place where South Sudan lacks the capacity to fill security voids or block continuous breaches by the organization.
ISIS is counting on exploiting the chaos and voids in vast areas of Sudan due to the ongoing struggle for power and its extension through its robust branches in West Africa, Nigeria, the Sahel region, and its coastal branch. It is unlikely that ISIS and Al-Qaeda would miss such a golden opportunity for intervention in a conflict that is expected to endure, considering the diminishing chances of a successful transition to civilian governance and the prolonged military conflict. This scenario might lead to Sudan’s partition and pave the way for the emergence of military entities and non-state armed groups alongside the army.
Despite the long history and repeated interventions in Sudan’s conflicts, Al-Qaeda failed to create an effective jihadist front within Sudan. This failure can be attributed to the Sudanese religious nature, which is often Sufi, and the population’s tendency toward dialogue, tolerance, and a rejection of violence. The major rebel groups in Darfur, Western Sudan, rejected Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri’s calls to start jihad in Sudan, even with foreign fighters sent to the region.
What Al-Qaeda has been successful in during the past years is recruiting professional Sudanese fighters into its various international branches. These fighters participated with Egyptians in capturing the organization’s joints and controlling its various wings and leadership structure. Al-Qaeda is now trying to infiltrate the chaos, exploit the collapsed conditions, and escalating armed conflict to achieve what its leaders have repeatedly failed to accomplish – building a long-lasting Al-Qaeda entity in Sudan.
Sudan’s reverse equations, consisting of senior Muslim Brotherhood officers leading the army and their willingness to do anything to maintain their hold on power, contrasted with a negative image by many parties regarding the Rapid Support Forces, favor Al-Qaeda’s presence and its significant gains on the ground. This might allow Al-Qaeda to achieve a strategic foothold in Sudan.
The U.S. designation of Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism, economic pressures, international isolation, and domestic problems pose significant challenges to the country’s transition and reform processes. Sudan has also experienced a rise in ethnic and tribal conflicts, further complicating the security situation. Given these factors, Al-Qaeda and ISIS have the opportunity to exploit these challenges to establish a presence and make significant gains in Sudan.
As the conflict shows no signs of ending quickly, with unconventional battlegrounds and a blend of fighters with civilians, the delay in transitioning to civilian rule and the continuation of the military conflict create opportunities for Al-Qaeda and ISIS to increase their presence and achieve significant gains on the ground. This scenario could lead to the division of the country and the emergence of military entities and non-state armed movements alongside the army.