As more details emerge about JEM’s assault on the national capital at the weekend, it is becoming clear that this was a solo operation by JEM directed by its leader Khalil Ibrahim. Its aim was nothing less than taking power.
The role of Chadian President Idriss Deby is now clearer. For two years, Deby armed JEM extensively and provided it with sophisticated heavy weaponry. But in recent months, Deby has scaled back his support and opposed Khalil’s attack on Omdurman. According to one well-placed source, Deby actually summoned Khalil to N’djamena when he learned of the plan, at which point JEM jumped the lights and accelerated its assault. Deby is angry with Khalil for what he sees as a reckless attack that jeopardizes his own political balancing act. However, JEM has obtained support from other figures in the Chadian regime.
This is significant because it opens possibilities for a Sudan-Chad peace process, involving the Dakar Contact Group (the five African nations, headed by Libya, which are following up on the Dakar Agreement between the two presidents). It suggests that Khartoum’s aims are better pursued by cooperating with Deby than seeking once again to attack N’djamena.
The JEM forces also acted without the support or cooperation of other Darfur or Kordofan armed groups, including notably without organized assistance from SLA-Unity, which has been its partner in past military operations outside Darfur’s borders (into Kordofan). In the days before the attack, JEM commanders told some SLA fighters—certainly in Jebel Meidob and possibly elsewhere—that ‘the road to Khartoum is open’ and encouraged them to join the attack as individuals. Some Darfurian exiles including Abdel Wahid al Nur subsequently expressed support for the attack in the name of the SLA. But there is no evidence that any non-JEM commanders were involved in organizing or carrying out the attack.
This is important because it removes any justification that the Sudanese security forces may have for arresting people associated with SLA factions.
There is no indication of large-scale complicity within the army or paramilitaries. Some Sudanese have speculated that JEM forces could only cross Darfur and Kordofan with the connivance of the military. But the forces traveled swiftly by night and dispersed by day. It is remarkably hard to spot convoys of light vehicles moving in this manner—as the French army discovered in Chad earlier this year. The Sudanese airforce repeatedly tried to bomb the advancing columns. Once in Omdurman, there are some indications of individuals and perhaps small units from the army joining the rebels, but no major mutiny occurred. The army will certainly be unhappy at the security chiefs for the way in which they were not involved in planning the defence of Omdurman, but the inter-service rivalries and squabbles are not a sign of complicity with JEM.
Neither are there signs of cooperation among Sudanese political parties including Hassan al Turabi’s Popular Congress Party. In the last year, the PCP has engaged in civil politics and was preparing to contest the elections. The Islamist former comrades in government are fierce rivals but JEM no longer plays an active part in that rivalry. Although it began within the Islamist movement, JEM quickly took on a more complex identity and then became focused on its leader’s Zaghawa Kobe clan. From the very beginning, JEM has been, in all key areas, the personal fiefdom of Khalil Ibrahim.
There has been a vigorous internal debate among Sudanese Islamists over the last five years about what went so disastrously wrong in their movement. One conclusion, widely accepted by Islamist leaders, is that it was a mistake to embrace a political strategy of putchism. As argued by Abdel Wahab al Effendi on this blog on 13 April, the Islamist movement itself became the victim of the coup. Today, most leading Islamists argue in support of stability and civil politics and against any armed takeover of power.
Did Khalil truly believe that he could capture the national capital with a force of about 3,000 men? Taking into account Khalil’s own words after the attack, the answer seems to be yes. Three reasons explain this hubris.
First is the logic of the Black Book—Khalil seems truly to believe that he can instigate a popular uprising of Sudan’s black majority against the minority ruling elite. There is a history of comparable beliefs among guerrilla fighters, including most famously Che Guevara’s foco-ism—the doctrine that a small guerrilla band could start a revolution, in part by provoking a government to respond with disproportionate terror, thereby revealing its ‘true face’ and prompting the masses to rise in revolt. A small precursor of the Omdurman operation was JEM’s baiting of the regime in West Darfur earlier this year, which duly brought about the government’s counter-offensive in Jebel Mun and a new round of slaughter. This conflict served Khalil’s purposes: he won daily publicity for JEM as a resistance front and a new round of condemnation against a regime that he has campaigned since early 2004, if not earlier, to portray as genocidal.
Over the last two years, Khalil has repeatedly stated his intention to storm Khartoum, and observers have not taken him seriously. It was an error not to listen to Khalil’s statements: his ultimate aim and grand strategy have been consistent over the years. In the last four days, Khalil didn’t succeed in either pulling off a coup or instigating a mass uprising. But he has threatened to try again and let us be clear that he is serious. The sheer audacity of his action has won him acclaim among many Sudanese who aspire for revolutionary change in their country.
A second explanation for Khalil’s confidence may lie in the Islamist variant of Guevara’s doctrine. The purest jihad is one waged by a small, outnumbered force of committed Muslims, whose faith is so strong that the Almighty intervenes on their behalf to deliver victory. In the writings of Sayed Qutb, this irrational or transcendental function is central to jihad. Although JEM is not a recognizably jihadist movement, it is possible that Khalil personally retains this imprint of jihadism. Khalil has never disavowed his political Islam though, like his erstwhile mentor Turabi, he has sought to build a wider front to support his ambitions.
And a third explanation for the extraordinary boldness of the attack is the character of Khalil himself—arrogant, propelled by self-belief, and convinced of that his cause will win through. Some rebel commanders believe his attack on the capital, which they believe was doomed to fail, was ‘suicidal’: Darfurians followed him to Omdurman not because they had any liking for JEM, but because they had lost hope of changing their wretched existence without changing the regime. So far, however, against all odds, Khalil has managed to bring JEM it back from the brink of insignificance to be Darfur’s biggest military force. He has shrugged off condemnation by western governments and sanctioning by the UN Security Council. His repeated offensives in different parts of Darfur and into Kordofan have passed without international condemnation, which has been reserved for Khartoum’s responses. His strategy of escalation and confrontation succeeded. Why not make a bid for the biggest prize of all, the prize he has always been after?