Jamal Mahjoub

In the Lufthansa in-flight magazine I had read a story about the German Aeropace Center in Göttingen. Founded in 1907, the center had returned to humane research in 1945 after a “mis-guided excursion into rocket-driven aggression” — a euphemism for Hitler’s war machine, and more specifically, Wernher von Braun’s Peenemünde Project which involved controversial experiments employing slave labour that later took place at secret installations in the Harz mountains. It was here that the V-1 and V-2 rockets were developed for use against Great Britain. After the war, von Braun went quietly to America where his skills were put to work on NASA’s space program. His old flying bombs became the precursors of the Tomahawk cruise missile used to deadly effect in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

That article came back to me one evening when, sitting with newspaper man Mahgoub Saleh in his garden in Khartoum North, he raised a hand to point up at the night sky. This is where he sat one evening in 1998, talking to a group of young journalists, when something flew by in the darkness overhead. It  turned out to be the Tomahawk cruise missiles of Operation Infinite Reach. The Al-Shifa Pharmaceutical plant was only a few blocks away. Just before the strike, three vehicles with darkened windows had reportedly drawn up close to the site and parked for a moment before driving off at high speed. Ten minutes later the  missiles struck the factory, completely destroying it.

Fifteen years earlier, in the days when Gafaar Nimeiri was busy introducing the infamous September Laws — his own personal take on Islamic jurisprudence — the world was not paying much attention to Sudan. In the autumn of 1983 the largest country on the African continent was viewed as a vast, empty wasteland, rich in water and sand, and poor on stability. Beyond war and the occasional famine little of newsworthy note emerged. If Darfur changed all that in 2003, it also transferred attention away from the primary source of conflict. However appalling the casualty figures are in Darfur, they are a fraction of those in the South, where an estimated two million died and 4.5 million were displaced in a civil war that lasted nearly forty-two years, in two phases. It was a war that lay somewhere on the perifery of the known world, beyond the reach of most people’s consciousness—a quiet backwater where nothing of any great signficance ever happened. “Sudan is the Schleswig-Holstein of Africa,” reported a rather glib Sean French in the Times Literary Supplment, while reviewing a debut novel about the country. “If anyone knows what’s going on there, they aren’t telling.”

The president declaring himself the country’s Imam, or spiritual leader, ought to have set alarm bells ringing. It didn’t. In 1983, Sudan was a trusted ally of the United States and the Americans were willing to overlook a few blemishes. Long gone were the far off days of the 1970s when Nimeiri declared that Khartoum was to become the Havana of Africa. It was now a potential jumping off point if ever the United States had reason to deploy militarily in the region, and all the signs were that they would. In April of that year the American embassy in Beirut had been hit by a suicide bomber causing sixty-three deaths, seventeen of them American. In October came an attack on the Marine barracks that left 241 American servicemen dead along with fifty-eight French paratroopers. In this new era the United States needed all the help it could get. Sudan also protected the southern flank of its most valuable ally in the Middle East: Egypt. And then there was Israel. Sudan was one of the few countries in the region to applaud the Camp David Peace Accords signed by Menahim Begin and Anwar Sadat in 1978. Neighbouring states offered more hostile agendas: Ethiopia was ruled by Marxists, and to the west Libya’s leader, Muammar Gaddafi, was set on spreading his own personal brand of revolutionary Islam across the Sahelian belt using his Islamic Legion. Sudan presented a less offensive, more mild-mannered, amenable alternative.

Nimeiri had grown steadily closer to the West following the attempted coup by the Communist Party in 1971, an event which marked the start of a decline in his relationship with the Eastern Bloc. In 1977, worried about the close proximity of the Mengistu regime in Ethiopia, a  paranoid Nimeiri decided he wasn’t happy having Soviet miltary advisors around and so expelled them, offering a new opening for the Americans. A few amputations and floggings were not going to get in the way, despite protests by human rights observers over the controversial laws. 

When then-Vice President George H.W. Bush arrived in Khartoum in March 1985 he asked the new Imam-in-Chief to tone down the Sharia business and accept a plan from the International Monetary Fund, but that was it. At 400 million dollars, he reminded his hosts, Sudan was the largest recipient of US development aid in Sub-Saharan Africa. In addition, the country was receiving an average of 100 million dollars a year in military aid — money which effectively made Washington a sponsor of the war in the South, with no qualms about the damage and death that was being perpetuated with their complicity. A month later, however, it was all over and Nimeiri was deposed by a popular revolt.

The April 1985 uprising, like that of October 1964, managed to achieve very little in the end. The man who was elected prime minister, Sadig al-Mahdi, was a throwback to a past age, though he cut a rather less imposing figure than his famous ancestor. It was during this time that Mahgoub set up the Sudan Times, an English language newspaper that sought to provide a secular response to the sectarian currents of the time. The paper was critical of al-Mahdi’s general inertia, and,  in particular, his refusal to lift the controversial September Laws. According to government figures, between August 2004 and March 2005, 106 people were subjected to amputation of the right hand for stealing. Seventeen of them also had their left foot removed. The laws had been declared unconstitutional by the Sudanese Bar Association and not a true reflection of Islamic law, but al-Mahdi was unable to act, and this was a major barrier to any hope of bringing the civil war to an end — something he had promised he would do. The armed forces were tired of fighting a war on difficult terrain. There was a feeling that the war could not be won. Sadig had been threatened by a group of senior army officers to make peace or else suffer the consequences. He chose not to act and so, in June 1989, the groundswell spilled into a bloodless coup d’etat from a new direction. 

Led by former mechanic’s apprentice and army Brigadier Omar al-Bashir, the Inqaz, or Revolution of National Salvation, as they styled themselves, constituted one of the strangest episodes in Sudan’s history. It was the triumph of zealotry over reason, spurred on by the general frustration felt by the country as a whole. Behind the front of devout military officers, lurked the ideological and spiritual leader of the new regime — the quirky, charismatic Hassan al-Turabi. 

Over the next decade Turabi and his followers applied their brand of rigid, intolerant Islam as a cure for the country’s problems. Religious faith was held to be the universal solvent that would hold the nation together. It would break down the old barriers, do away with the  privileges of the leading families and their followers, the Mahdis and their rivals the Mirghani family who had ruled the country since the late 19th century. No longer.  A wide reaching purge swept across society, removing not just the leading families, but anyone with education, qualifications,  opposing opinions from positions of authority. Many were imprisoned, tortured, killed. Millions went into exile. A state of emergency was declared in June 1989 that was to remain in place for most of the decade. The transitional constitution was abolished. All political parties were banned, as was the right to free association, along with trade unions, student organisations, youth clubs and federations. Newspapers were closed down, including the Sudan Times. Military training and religious indoctrination were made compulsory for everyone — students, academics, civil servants, men and women, and became mandatory for university admission. With the emergence of civilian bodies like the People’s Defense Force and the National Islamic Front’s Youth Militia, accountability was waived and the use of excessive force became commonplace. Live ammunition was used in putting down demonstrations or clearing urban housing settlements around the capital. Dozens were killed and no one brought to trial. It was a Renaissance, claimed al-Bashir, a return to the true spirit of Sudanese independence. Those who died in the war in the south were shuhada, “martyrs,” and their death was to be celebrated as they went to their wedding in heaven with the houris that awaited them. 

In response to the US invasion of Iraq in the Gulf War of 1991, Hassan al-Turabi created the Pan Arab and Islamic Conference. The organisation was intended to bring unity and purpose to the Islamic world in the face of the American troops stationed in the holy lands of Saudi Arabia. Turabi threw open the doors, inviting militants of every shade to come to the Sudan where, he assured them, they would be warmly welcomed. In 1992, Osama bin Laden accepted the offer and moved to Khartoum where he set up several businesses. He agreed to build an airport in Port Sudan and a road to get there from the capital. The rather austere bin Laden found the Sudan somewhat trying at first, though he appears to have soon settled down to its laid back ways. Around four hundred so-called “Afghanis,” Arab veterans from the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, followed him there. Bin Laden’s warring days were over, he declared; he was no longer interested in  “jihad.” It must have irked him that the government insisted on dubbing the civil war in the south a holy war. Al Qaida became a building and farming enterprise, its members playing football in the afternoons to stave off boredom. The government, debt-ridden and engaged in a protracted war that was costing them a million dollars a day, could pay for his services in the only commodity they had — land. Bin Laden didn’t mind. In comparison to the corruption and decadence which the Americans had brought to his homeland he found Sudan unsullied by oil Money — that would follow in the next decade. Consumerism, in his view, was the great evil, destroying all cultural values and replacing them with raw materialism. Here people lived an uncomplicated life. It must have seemed idyllic, the simplicity of it all. He enjoyed driving around on his tractors, breeding horses, and even had a laboratory to develop new strains of plants that would be more effective and give higher yields. He reportedly invested in gum arabic, of which Sudan produces 80 percent of the world’s supply. It appeared as if he had decided to settle down.

The question remains to why he gave this up and returned to war. The two fatwas sanctioning war against the Americans and the killing of Muslims in this cause were issued not by bin Laden himself, but by his Iraqi colleague, Abu Hajer, a man he considered not a subordinate but an equal. A man who subsequently dropped out of sight: Abu Hajernever flew back to Afghanistan with bin Laden with his family and entourage in 1996 and does not appear to have played any significant role in later events. 

Khartoum in the 1990s was like a version of the film Casablanca, awash with intelligence operatives and militants of every shade. President Clinton placed Sudan on the list of states that sponsored terrorism. In February 1993, a man named Ramzi Youssef very nearly brought down the World Trade Center in New York with a massive bomb inside a van left in the subterranean car park. Youssef attended  a mosque in Jersey City where Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman preached. The Egyptian Sheikh Omar had entered the United States on a visa issued by the embassy in Khartoum. At first it appeared to be a failure of intelligence. He had been listed as a suspected terrorist on the automated visa lockout system. In Egypt, the blind sheikh was wanted for the murder of a policeman and trying to overthrow the  government. According to the Sheikh’s son, the visa was issued because the Americans thought Omar would eventually succeed in overthrowing Hosni Mubarak. They believed, in other words, that he would become the supreme ruler of Egypt, in the same way that Ayatollah Khomeini had in Iran in 1979. 

The capital was teeming with figures from every organisation on the CIA’s list of radical organisations—Abu Nidal, the PFLP, Algerian FIS, Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, the Islamic Group, all of them flitting around the dusty broken streets of Khartoum. What they were doing there is anybody’s guess. Even Illich Ramirez Sánchez, popularly known as Carlos the Jackal, who rode around with an automatic pistol on his hip, was to be seen strutting his stuff at wedding parties, or else sipping coffee in the rather drab lounge of the Khartoum Hilton, in those days the only spot in town that could lay some claim to luxury. Unlike some others, Carlos was eventually given up by Sudanese officials, traded off to French military intelligence in exchange for satellite photographs of SPLA camps in the South.

It was not until the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center that the CIA began to realise they had a “blowback” problem, with former “Afghani” mujahideen turning their sights on the United States. After that bin Laden began to appear on lists of possible suspects. He was not considered a serious threat to the United States but his name kept cropping up. In October 1993, eighteen American soldiers died in Mogadishu during the bungled operation to arrest the Somali warlord Farah Aideed. Bin Laden claimed responsibility for that “victory,” but not until much later. By then, he had been expelled from Sudan and was safely ensconced in Afghanistan.

The decision was taken, against the advice of the ambassador, Timothy Carney, to vacate the US embassy in Khartoum. Carney along with Mansoor Ijaz, a local businessman who acted as a go-between connecting Sudanese intelligence with Washington, accused the Clinton Administration in an open letter of getting their facts wrong. Major General Erwa, the  minister of state for defense,  met CIA operatives in a hotel in Virginia. He  wanted to know what Sudan had to do to get taken off the list of terror sponsors. Carney suggested they send Osama bin Laden back to Saudi Arabia. The problem was that bin Laden still had not actually done anything to qualify him a serious threat and certainly not enough to indict him in the United States. Which left them with the problem of what they would do with him, once they got him. Instead they urged the Sudanese to expell him. Erwa argued that it was better to keep him under surveillance, but the Americans were adamant; send him anywhere but Somalia, they said. Carney and Ijaz argued that this bad intelligence, or the bad use of good intelligence, was the result of a refusal to engage with what was really happening in the Muslim world. By focussing on combatting terror, the Americans lost sight of the broader political picture of how things were evolving. By following the lead of authoritarian regimes such as the one in Egypt, which faced internal challenge from organized Islamist groups and found it convenient to lump together all Islamic political groups as one monolithic potential threat, the United States lost all chance of steering a path through the complex transformations that were taking place. As a result of this strategy political dissent soon became the exclusive domain of Muslim radicals.

By 1996, Bin Laden himself was beginning to get a little wary of the idyllic life. There had been two attempts on his life, ostensibly by Afghan Arabs who had a personal grudge and probably with Saudi backing. He was worried that the Sudanese might hand him over, just as they had Carlos, drugging him and carting him off. There seems to have been a degree of play-acting in much of Bin Laden’s behaviour. A fantasist, he nicknamed Afghanistan Khorasan after the Arab soldiers who restored order to the Muslim empire in the eighth century by riding back from the east and founding the Abbasid caliphate. His followers took the names of the Prophet’s first companions. He wanted to hide in a cave, concealed behind a spiderweb curtain, just as the Prophet once had. His money and his record in Afghanistan drew people to him, but also his strangeness, the esoteric wilderness he seemed to occupy. In May of that year he left, travelling in a charted and rather ancient Tupolev plane on a Sudanese passport that would admit him to few places in the world, and carrying only a fraction of his investment in the country, estimated at between twenty and thirty million dollars. His assets were confiscated by the government. Turabi’s party, he concluded finally, was a blend of religion and organised crime. It wasn’t a particularly glorious departure.

In November 1997, President Clinton issued an Executive Order imposing economic trade sanctions on Sudan — the one notable exception being gum arabic, an essential component in fizzy drinks, which raises the awkward question about whether the consumption of soft drinks was lending support to terrorism, since Osama bin Laden had invested in its production while in Khartoum. Clinton believed that there was enough evidence (which was never revealed) to support the theory that the state was providing support for international terrorism and trying to destabilise neighbouring governments. It constituted an ‘unusual and extraordinary’ threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States, according to Clinton, who envisaged the use of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. The CIA had gathered information that tied bin Laden to the Al Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum North, and that suggested WMDs were being produced there. In August 1998 a massive suicide attack on the American embassy in Nairobi killed 245 people, most of them local bystands, twelve of them Americans. A smaller bomb went off simultaneously in Dar El Salaam in neighbouring Uganda, killing eleven people. 

In retaliation, Clinton decided to launch thirteen Tomahawk Cruise missiles, at a cost of around three quarters of a million dollars each, at the Al Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum. The nightwatchman was killed and the factory destroyed. No evidence was ever provided of chemical or biological weapons, but the attack destroyed fifty percent of the country’s capacity to produce life saving medicines against malaria and tuberculosis, not to mention a host of other curable illnesses. The consequent number of dead who had relied on medications the factory produced, was estimated by the German ambassador to Sudan as “several tens of thousands.” 

By the end of the decade, it was evident that in the broader ideological sense, Islam had failed to iron out all the differences. The country’s finances were now in the hands of Islamic banks, and the old order had been replaced by a new, more acceptable breed of opportunists. But essentially nothing had changed. By 1999 the yawning gap between Turabi and Omar al-Bashir finally grew too wide. When al-Bashir managed to recruit important figures high up in the leadership to his side, he cut Turabi loose. Oil was beginning to flow and there was too much at stake.

Jamal Mahjoub was born in London and raised in Khartoum. His stories and essays have appeared in The Guardian, Le Monde, Die Zeit and other publications around the world. His novels have been widely translated and won a number of awards including, the Guardian/Heinemann African Short Story Prize, the NH Vargas Llosa prize and the Etonnants Voyageurs Prize. He is a contributing editor at Guernica Magazine and has recently begun a new life in crime fiction as Parker Bilal – The Golden Scales was published by Bloomsbury in 2012.
Image by elin o’Hara slavick
Shifa Pharmaceutical Plant, Khartoum, Sudan, “Infinite Reach”, 1998
from the series Protesting Cartography: Places the United States has Bombed. Gesso, ink, watercolor, acrylic on Arches paper, 1999.
On August 20, the “U.S. Military Strikes on a Chemical Weapons Plant,” as part of Infinite Reach, in retaliation for “terrorist attacks” on American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. The U.S. Government inaccurately thought the plant was producing chemical weapons for Osama Bin Laden. http://www.unc.edu/~eoslavic/index.html