On December 6, 2019, the Sudanese security agency announced that it had thwarted an attempt by terrorist elements to enter the country across the border with Chad, and the individuals in question had been handed over to the Chad government[i]. This occurred after the Sudanese transitional government, which was formed in September 2019, announced the closure of the borders with neighboring countries, in particular Libya and the Central African Republic[ii], in response to warnings by internal and external parties that Islamic State was heading for Sudan[iii], at a time when the government was already facing multiple political, economic, and security challenges, in particular its inclusion on the US list of State sponsors of terrorism.

In the light of these developments, this paper analyses the scope of Islamic State’s organizational and geographic presence in Sudan and the risks posed by its spread.

Scope of Islamic State’s presence in Sudan

  • Islamic State is paying increasing attention to Sudan following the collapse of Omar al‑Bashir’s government. In April 2019, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, former leader of Islamic State, said that he saw Sudan as a future battleground for the organization[iv]. Some reports have quoted a message entitled “Appeal to the people of Sudan from within” sent by Al-Wafa, an institution affiliated with Islamic State, through the website Telegram, in which it called on members of Islamic State to seize the opportunity to establish “the Islamic State”[v], referencing the fact that one of Islamic State’s goals is to establish “the Emirate of Abyssinia”, covering Sudan and the countries of east Africa.
  • A 2019 report by the US Department of State confirmed that Islamic State was present in Sudan and warned that its activities could spread. The report also examined the organization’s attempts to carry out terrorist activities, in particular following the stabbing of a Sudanese police officer guarding the US embassy in January 2018, and the rescue, in June 2018, of a young woman who had been recruited to Islamic State[vi].
  • The Minister of Religious Affairs and Endowments in the Sudanese transitional government has stated that, while present in Sudan, Islamic State’s numbers remained limited to a small group of extremist individuals[vii], despite the fact that a large number of Sudanese citizens are members of Islamic State and Boko Haram[viii]. According to United Nations reports, this number has reached some 3,000 individuals since 2016[ix], a few dozen of whom have returned to Sudan.
  • Geographically, Islamic State is mainly focused in Khartoum, where it is represented by several jihadi groups that have pledged allegiance to the organization, such as Jemaat Aletsam bil-Kitab wa al-Sunna (Adherence to the Book and the Sunna Group)[x], the One Nation movement under the leadership of Mohamed Ali Abdullah al-Gizouli[xi], who is also head of the State of Law and Development party[xii], and a limited number of Muslim Brotherhood members who have pledged allegiance to Islamic State member Abd Hay Yousif as the “commander of the faithful”[xiii].

Catalysts for the spread of Islamic State

Although Islamic State’s presence in Sudan is currently limited organizationally and geographically, there are still risks to the security environment, given the following considerations: 

1. Fertile environment for jihadi thought: Salafi jihadism flourished during Bashir’s rule (1989–2019). Such groups conducted terrorist attacked on mosques and various areas of Sudan[xiv]. Takfiri thought spread significantly after Sudan became a safe haven for terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda; Osama Bin Laden, for example, spent more than five years in Sudan during the 1990s[xv]. These waves of takfirism encompassed Khartoum and various other regions, including Abu Quta in Gezira, Al-Faw in eastern Sudan, Al-Damazeen, and Kawstay.

2. The possibility that Sudanese Islamic State fighters will return following Islamic State’s defeats in Syria, Iraq, and Libya: Sudan has announced the return of many Islamic State fighters from Libya, and has confirmed that many Sudanese fighters are being held in Misratah detention center[xvi].

3. Militias and organizations linked to the Muslim Brotherhood continue to pose a terrorist threat, particularly as some of them — especially the popular defense militias — embrace jihadi Salafi ideology and have threatened to wage war against the Sudanese State after it adopted a series of laws to dismantle the former regime[xvii]. Islamic State may also target these militias as a means of expanding its activities within Sudan[xviii].

4. The transitional government is facing numerous political, security, and economic challenges, which are undoubtedly affecting its ability to combat terrorism, especially as it has limited control over the country’s security, as armed groups control several areas, in particular Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile[xix]. In addition, the transitional government must also overcome the dilemmas that it is facing in the management of the transitional period, the failure thus far to finalize transitional institutions such as the Legislative Council and appoint the state governors[xx], and the continued application of US sanctions, which have led to increasing economic pressure owing to rising poverty and unemployment rates, and which is expected to generate continued protests, tribal clashes, and acts of violence at the societal level[xxi]. In order to build lasting peace, the government must protect the Sudanese economy from collapse and achieve economic reform[xxii].

5.  The loose borders between the States of the region serve as a conduit for Islamic State fighters. The Magafe network is involved in human trafficking and in smuggling terrorists from Somalia and Kenya to Libya. The Kenyan security authorities think that the network is the main method through which Kenyans wishing to join Islamic State in Libya are crossing Sudan[xxiii]. Eastern Sudan, in particular Kassala and Gedaref states, is affected by illegal migration associated with the recruitment and transport of Islamic State fighters. Recruitment activities in the southern states, in particular White Nile, have been linked to the presence of the Fallata tribe, among whom Boko Haram is active[xxiv]. Reports indicate that Al-Shabaab dissidents in Somalia are in contact with emerging Islamic State cells in Sudan[xxv]. In addition, several Islamic State operatives attempting to cross the Sudanese border in northern Bahr al-Ghazal state have been arrested[xxvi]. The Chad government also appears to be surrounded on all sides by terrorist organizations, both in the Sahel and in southern Libya, and is engaged in fierce battles with Islamic State around Lake Chad.

Dangers

  • If Islamic State reaches Sudan, it will be able to expand across eastern Africa and into the west. In September 2019, the Ethiopian security services announced that they had seized an Islamic State cell[xxvii]. The US Treasury has also announced that Islamic State member Halima Adnan Ali played a key role in transferring funds to the organization in Kenya[xxviii] and in connecting the organization’s Libyan cells to groups in other parts of the continent, in particular Islamic State cells in central and southern Africa.
  • It may become easier for Islamic State to access logistical support, in particular arms and ammunition supplies, which can be obtained through contact with organized crime groups and arms smuggling networks. The movements of arms, ammunition, and armed elements from Sudan to the Sahel has been documented in numerous reports, which note that financial flows and money-laundering activities in Sudan are linked to human smuggling operations across the Horn of Africa[xxix].
  • Islamic State may gain a foothold on the Red Sea[xxx] and open a corridor from the sea to the Atlantic Ocean, which would enable Islamic State fighters to target international trade and navigation in the Red Sea and would pose a threat to coastal States bordering these important waterways.

Conclusion

            Islamic State poses a new threat to security and stability in Sudan, in particular given that the country is undergoing a transitional period. A greater and more effective response from the Sudanese government and from regional and international powers that support the current political transition is required. The support of the Sudanese government, in particular in information sharing and the development of combat strategies, is essential to efforts to combat jihadi organizations. The transitional government must also make greater efforts to achieve a permanent peace agreement with the armed movements in the country. The advancement of development projects across Sudan is key to combating the spread of Islamic State and other extremist organizations, as such projects will eradicate illiteracy, unemployment, and poverty, and suppress conditions conducive to terrorism.

References

[i] “السودان: القبض على 6 عناصر تابعين لـ«بوكو حرام» وتسليمهم لتشاد” [“Sudan: Six members of Boko Haram captured and sent to Chad”], Asharq Al-Awsat, December 6, 2019, available at: https://aawsat.com/home/article/2022896

[ii] “السودان يعلن إغلاق حدوده مع ليبيا وتشاد وأفريقيا الوسطى بسبب مخاوف أمنية” [“Sudan announces closure of borders with Libya, Chad, and Central African Republic following security fears”], Asharq Al-Awsat, September 26, 2019, available at: https://aawsat.com/home/article/1920216

[iii] United States Department of State:  Country Reports on Terrorism 2018, United States Department of State Publication, October 2019, p.213

[iv] “It’s time for the United States to lead (again) on Sudan”, Atlantic Council, May 17, 2019, available at: https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/it-s-time-for-the-united-states-to-lead-again-on-sudan/

[v] “داعش يوجه أنظاره نحو السودان “ [“Islamic State sets sights on Sudan”], Aman, April 19, 2019, available at: https://www.aman-dostor.org/20465

[vi] United States Department of State: Country Reports on Terrorism 2018, United States Department of State Publication, October 2019, p.213

[vii] “وزير الشؤون الدينية والأوقاف السوداني: لا يوجد «دواعش» في السودان بل متطرفون” [“Sudanese Minister of Religious Affairs and Endowments: Islamic State does not exist in Sudan, only extremists”], Asharq Al-Awsat, available at: https://aawsat.com/home/article/1973856

[viii] “جهاز الأمن يستعيد (10) سودانيين من صفوف داعش بليبيا” [“Security services receive 10 Sudanese Islamic State members from Libya”], Sudanese Media Center, April 5, 2018, available at: http://smc.sd/%D8%AC%D9%

See also: “الخارجية تتسلم (5) من أطفال “داعش” بسوريا” [“Ministry of Foreign Affairs receives five ‘Islamic State’ children from Syria”], Sudanese Media Center, April 22, 2019, available at: http://smc.sd/%d8%a7%d9%

[ix] Salma Mohamed Abdalmunim Abdalla, “Fighting the Enemies of God: the Rise of and the Response to Violent Extremism in Sudan”, Journal for Deradicalization, September 27, 2019, p.79

[x] Ibid

[xi] Suliman Baldo, “With Friends Like These: Strong Benchmarks for Next Phase of U.S.-Sudan Relations”, The Enough Project, February 2018, pp.8,9

[xii] “لا مرحب برئاسة داعمة لداعش” [“No welcome for leaders who support Islamic State”], Alsudan Alyoum, November 23, 2019, available at: https://alsudanalyoum.com/%D9%84%D8%A

[xiii] “فلول النظام البائد تبايع الداعشي عبد الحي يوسف …وعبد الرحمن الخضر .. تفاصيل الهروب كاملة” [“Remnants of former regime pledged allegiance to Islamic State members Abd Hay Yousif and Abdelrahman al-Khadar: full details of escape”], Sudanjem (Justice and Equality Movement website), October 12, 2019, available at: https://sudanjem.com/2019/10/%D9%81%

[xiv] Salma Mohamed Abdalmunim Abdalla, op.cit, pp.85–87

[xv] Ibid, p.88

[xvi] Joana Cook and Gina Vale, “From Daesh to ‘Diaspora’: Tracing the Women and Minors of Islamic State”, London: King’s College London, Strand, 2018, p.37

[xvii] “ميليشا الدفاع الشعبي تهدد مجدداً وتعلن انتظار ساعة الصفر لتنفيذ ما أسمته بالمعركة الفاصلة” [“Popular defense militia makes new threats and announces that it is awaiting zero hour to launch ‘decisive battle’”], Almashhad Alsudani, November 30, 2019, available at: https://almashhadalsudani.com/sudan-news/sudan-today/13761

[xviii] “ميليشيا الدفاع الشعبي تهدّد بحرق السودان” [“‘Popular defense militia’ threatens to burn Sudan”], Asharq Al-Awsat, November 9, 2019, available at: https://aawsat.com/home/article/1983036

[xix] “تعليق المفاوضات السودانية في جوبا بعد الاختلاف حول العلمانية” [“Suspension of Sudanese negotiations in Juba following disputes over ‘secularism’”], Asharq Al-Awsat, December 27, 2019, available at: https://aawsat.com/home/article/2054361

[xx] “الثورية تحذر من تسمية الولاة ونواب البرلمان قبل التوصل لاتفاق سلام” [“Protesters warn against naming state governors and members of Parliament before peace agreement is reached”], Sudan Tribune, November 5, 2019, available at: https://sudaneseonline.com/board/500/msg/%28%D8

[xxi] HORN International Institute for Strategic Studies, “Crisis in Sudan: Pathways to Stability”, Horn Policy Brief. No. 22 , September 2, 2019, p.2

[xxii] Ahmed Soliman, “Sudan Stakeholder Dialogues: Options for Economic Stabilization, Recovery and Inclusive Growth”, Africa Programme, Chatham House (Royal Institute of International Affairs), October 2019, p.10

[xxiii] European Institute of Peace (EIP), “The Islamic State in East Africa”, Brussels, September 2018, p.42

[xxiv] UNDP Resident Representative in Sudan and Sudan National Commission for Counter Terrorism (SNCCT), “Violent Extremism in Sudan: an Evidence-Based Study”, 2017, p.46

[xxv] European Institute of Peace (EIP), op.cit, p.41

[xxvi] Anna Louise Strachan, “Extremism, Violent Extremism and Terrorism (EVET) in South Sudan”, K4D Helpdesk Report 533, (Brighton, UK: Institute of Development Studies, 2019), p.3

[xxvii] “Ethiopia says it detains suspected Islamist militants planning attacks”, Reuters, September 21, 2019, available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ethiopia-violence/ethiopia-says-it-detains-suspected-islamist-militants-planning-attacks-idUSKBN1W60MS

[xxviii] US Department of Treasury, “Treasury Designates Key Nodes of ISIS’s Financial Network Stretching Across the Middle East, Europe, and East Africa”, May 15, 2019, available at: https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/sm657

[xxix] Suliman Baldo, op.cit, p.12

Latest Briefs