Islamic extremism returns to Sudan capital
The recent killing of a USAID worker in Khartoum is the latest sign that a new generation of Islamists threatens what had been among the safest of African capitals.
By Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
April 13, 2008
KHARTOUM, SUDAN — The young assassins prowled Khartoum’s streets for hours on New Year’s Eve, looking for Westerners on the way home from parties.
They stopped a Land Cruiser but released it after seeing two children in the back seat. Another foreigner was let go because he was the “wrong” nationality, said Khartoum state Gov. Abdul Halim Mutaafi. “They wanted Americans or British,” he said.
Their victim was John Granville, 33, a USAID official and former Peace Corps volunteer, who was shot to death along with his Sudanese driver early New Year’s Day.
The assassination, the first of a foreigner in Khartoum since the 1970s, was the latest in a string of troubling signs that one of Africa’s safest capitals faces a growing threat from home-grown Islamic extremists, part of a conservative sect that has doubled in size here in the last decade.
In August, Sudanese police broke up a suspected bomb plot involving young men who planned to attack the British and U.S. embassies. Instead, they accidentally blew up their own apartment, Sudanese and Western officials said.
In February, graffiti began appearing in several Khartoum neighborhoods with slogans claiming to be from “Al Qaeda Organization of Sudan.” Although clear links to Al Qaeda have been difficult to prove, some officials fear that the terrorist network and its leader, Osama bin Laden, who were ejected from Sudan in 1996, are trying to reestablish a base.
Most alarming to Sudanese officials is that this new generation of extremists appears to be almost as hostile toward the Arab-dominated Sudanese government as they are to the West, despite Khartoum’s efforts to bolster its Islamic credentials. In a high-profile case last year, the government prosecuted and briefly jailed a British grade-school teacher who allowed her students to name a class teddy bear after the prophet Muhammad.
Sudanese police have arrested more than 40 people in a crackdown during the last six months, including those believed to be responsible for Granville’s killing, Mutaafi said. Many are students or recent university graduates.
“These are young people with very strong religious feelings and very strong feelings against the West,” said Ali Sadiq, spokesman for Sudan’s Foreign Ministry.
Police suspect that the same cell behind Granville’s assassination may have plotted the foiled embassy bombings, and they believe they have broken up the ring, Mutaafi said. Upon interrogation, the suspects admitted they also planned to target government facilities in Sudan, officials said.
American officials in Khartoum are expressing growing concern. In March, the U.S. Embassy issued a stark public warning, its second in a year, disclosing that “the U.S. government has received indications of terrorist threats aimed at American and Western interests in Sudan.” The consulate advised Americans to avoid travel to the country and said it had beefed up security measures.
After the New Year’s attack and the 2006 beheading of an outspoken Sudanese newspaper editor, two previously unknown groups, one claiming affiliation with Al Qaeda, took responsibility for the killings in messages published on Islamist websites. The claims could not be verified, and Sudanese officials questioned their veracity.
Nevertheless, Sudanese and Western officials said that the young men recently arrested in Sudan display similar goals and ideology. One diplomat called them “Al Qaeda wannabes.”
“I don’t know if they are Al Qaeda, but they think just like Al Qaeda,” Mutaafi said.
Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir’s regime has faced mounting criticism from both foreign extremists and domestic hard-liners since dropping his opposition to deploying 26,000 United Nations peacekeepers in the restive Darfur region of western Sudan. He has tried to soften the backlash by insisting troops chiefly come from African or Muslim nations. But in an October message, Bin Laden urged followers to strike not only U.N. troops in Sudan, but also the government that “let them in.”
In addition, Bashir’s regime has been criticized for its close relationship with the CIA. Sudan has quietly shared counter-terrorism intelligence with the U.S. for the last seven years.
“Now Sudan is being castigated because of all this,” said Osman Khalid Mudawi, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in Sudan’s parliament. The extremists, he added, “believe we have buckled to the U.S. and are selling them out.”
But he said he doubted whether terrorist groups could gain a foothold in Sudan. “We don’t have that brand of Islam here,” he said.
Others in the government agreed, downplaying the terrorism risk and insisting that Khartoum remains safer than most other African capitals. In an apparent attempt to calm nerves after the Granville slaying, police at first circulated rumors that the attack was the result of a love triangle or gambling debt. Although government officials now confirm the shooting was the work of Islamic fundamentalists, they call the killing an isolated incident, not the start of a trend.
“These are really just lads,” said Sadiq of the Foreign Ministry. “It’s hard to even call them organized groups.”