Jihadists from around the world are being welcomed -- with open arms -- in Sudan.
Khartoum has once again become Grand Central Station for radical Islamist terror. This past January an international conference of over 66 Islamist groups was held in Sudan. The conference was announced in December by one of Osama Bin Laden¹s biggest supporters, the head of the dominant jihadist faction in the Pakistan Parliament.
Terrorism in Sudan is nothing new. Long before Osama bin Laden was made a guest of honor, Carlos the Jackal took up residence in his villa in Sudan. Following September 11th there was a public fuss about a crackdown in Khartoum, but the dust settled quickly and life for al-Qaeda returned to normal.
A few months ago, an al-Qaeda cell, the Eritrean Islamic Jihad, snuck a death squad across the Eritrean border with Sudan and slit the throat of a prominent British geologist and mining engineer. This was overlooked by most of the media, yet it was just the latest in a long series of land mines, poisoned wells, kidnappings and murders, mainly committed against the nearest easy target: tiny, newly independent Eritrea.
Sudan is ruled by the National Islamic Front (NIF) of Sudan, which is Jihadist to the core. The country is run under the Sudanese version of Sharia, Islamic law. The President of Sudan, Bashir, is considered by the West to be more "realistic" than his main rival and more hard-core jihadist, former Prime Minister Turrabi, who remains under house arrest. Caught between the more radical fundamentalists and growing anti-NIF guerilla movements in the south, east and now western Sudan, Bashir has little room to maneuver.
Bashir's only real hope lies in continuing to control and further expand the recently developed oil fields in southern Sudan. Developed by a Canadian based energy company, Nevsun, and now divested to an Indian oil company, the southern Sudanese oil fields provide hard cash for Bashir to pay his army, upgrade his air force and armored divisions and keep both the guerrillas and his creditors at bay. Bashir continues collecting his oil revenues as he builds up his military for another genocidal offensive against the rebels. Needless to say, Bashir desperately needs the oil fields, both now and in the future.
Unfortunately for the long-term interests of the U.S., the Sudanese oil fields were built and are still operated by an army of thousands of Chinese Communist technicians. Having a formidable Chinese presence in the center of Africa, southern Sudan, especially in control a major oil field, is not something the USA is indifferent to.
Pressured by the U.S. after 9-11, Bashir was finally forced to enter peace negotiations with the rebels of the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) headed by John Garang, based mainly in southern Sudan, and the rebel groups united under the umbrella of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), based mainly in eastern Sudan.
A peace agreement was hammered out last year in Machakos, Kenya with the persistent facilitation of the Eritreans, who, with their hundreds of miles of pristine Red Sea beaches and rapidly expanding economic infrastructure, have the most to gain from peace and stability in the Horn of Africa.
The U.S. forced the jihadist National Islamic Front of President Bashir to sign a deal that was supposed to start with an immediate ceasefire and military stand down. The plan is that this will eventually lead to a plebiscite in southern Sudan that provides three choices for the mainly Christian and traditional animist southern Sudanese:
1. Status Quo, allowing most of the present political system to remain intact.
2. Autonomy for Southern Sudan, meaning the south would remain a part of the nation of Sudan but having a certain amount of local independence from the central government.
3. Independence for southern Sudan, meaning formal separation from present day Sudan and the forming of a new, sovereign nation.
There is little doubt what the African ethnic groups in southern Sudan will choose: Option 3, complete separation from the ethnically Arab, Islamic north.
Will Bashir go along with this and actually give up his oil fields? The U.S. is gambling he will, and it is willing to tolerate terror in Sudan in the meantime to keep Bashir on board with the peace agreement.
The USA knows only too well the dangers of the more radical Islamists. That is why it allows Bashir to do what he must to stay in power -- even if it means him welcoming support from al- Qaeda. The USA is gambling that by tolerating whatever it takes to keep Bashir afloat, he can be forced to play his role in implementing the Machakos Peace Agreement, and the eventual birth of Africa's newest nation in what is today's southern Sudan.
With oil revenue as the potential backbone of an independent economy, southern Sudan is poised at a momentous time in its history. The people have been fighting for two decades to rid themselves of the enslavement and genocide committed against them by the jihadist NIF. They are clearly in no mood to tolerate anything less than complete independence. As such they remain the most important equation in the next few years. Drought, war and pestilence have worn them down. If Bashir backs out of the peace agreement, will the southern Sudanese people have the strength to make the major push it will take to drive Bashir and the NIF from power?
Only time will tell. The one thing that is certain is that the USA is betting that the Jihadists front groups based in Sudan that are allowed to operate in the West will not end up biting the hand that holds their leash by committing some atrocity. This is, arguably, an acceptable risk to the powers that be.
Thomas C. Mountain is a journalist and cultural historian whose work is featured in the press and on television in East Africa, India and the Pacific Rim. He lives in Kahalu¹u, Hawaii at the eastern beginnings of Oahu¹s North Shore. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org