Making Sense of Khalil’s Putsch

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?

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11 thoughts on “Making Sense of Khalil’s Putsch

  1. Alex,

    Assuming Khalil and JEM were able to displace Omar al-Beshir and his government, what would this mean for Sudan? Would it in any way help the democratization of Sudan or would it mean merely one oppressive regime replaces another? Do you think JEM would gain the support of other, non-Muslim rebel groups? Would the NIF aid its wayward arm if it had serious potential for regime change? Would Deby change his tune (risking retaliatory attacks on his own capital) and throw his support behind JEM? How would the international community react to a JEM-led government, especially if they had the support of Chadian leaders?

    A lot of questions, I know, but I’m trying to get a sense of what JEM’s aggressions mean for the rest of the country and the international community.

    Thanks, and keep up the great work.


  2. Dr. Khalil did bad by bringing more suffering to the displaced and merchants of Darfur in Khartoum by his ‘Jihaad’ (holy war) insurgence in Omdurman. Till now many of innocent Darfurians (who might have nothing to do with Khalil’s suicidal mission in the capital) have been killed, tortured, wounded and traumatized. This is a bad subtraction to the people of Darfur and a creation of hatred rift between them and the ‘riverine’ inhabitants. Also some Southerners who do not have marks on their forehead and have nothing to do with Darfurians’ struggle have been victimized in the reaction by Northern Security forces. Some of them have been lucky because of the presence of the SPLA in the Security and Intelligence Organ in Khartoum; otherwise they might have faced the same fate of the innocent Darfurian civilians. Some cars and properties of Southerners have been destroyed as a result of Khalil’s abortive attempt for Regime’s test in Khartoum. Do not get surprised, that one day the former Islamic fanatic, Dr. Khalil, will demand that Darfur be cut from Sudan and attached to Chad. France will be happy with this cut-here and paste-there. Very bad, but we the Southerners are just patient for the remaining three years of the CPA implementation and democratic process so that we leave the North alone with their problems. Southerners, wouldn’t wait for Darfurians to sort themselves out if the price of the delay was the loss of democracy and self-determination. If Dr. Khalil succeeds to take power by force in Khartoum – as he is hurriedly ambitious to do so – Southerners will be advantaged for a short-cut of Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) which shall be endorsed automatically by the international community. We will go our way and leave the North with its problems with Chad. After all South Sudan does not have a border with Chad unless Darfur becomes part of Chad (by impossibility perhaps). Let Dr. Khalil and his cronies get it well into their head that the contemporary International Community is never in favour of military-revolution and will hesitate to support any un-democratic move for regime change in the Sudan.

  3. What these two comments highlight is the fragility of Sudan. Progress towards peace and stability in Sudan has always been slow and difficult and subject to many setbacks. A revolutionary government led by JEM would, without question, begin with a period of immense turmoil and conflict. There are few cases where there has been an armed takeover of power followed by stability, and the preconditions for such stability do not exist–JEM does not control territory and does not have security institutions able to control the country (in contrast to EPLF and EPRDF in Eritrea and Ethiopia in 1991 or the RPF in Rwanda after the genocide) and it does not enjoy international legitimacy. It is not out of the question for the Southerners to opt for immediate separation on the grounds that their mechanism for amicable secession through the 2011 vote is in doubt.

  4. It is true that the majority of the Sudanese people (northners as well as southerners and people from Darfur and other regions) are against the policies of the regime in Khartoum (when I say regime in Khartoum, I simply talk about the National Congress Party not only because other partners do not have such dominance and power as the NCP has, but also because other partners and opposition groups do not have clear political agenda and thus absent from the scene). This refusal of the Sudanese poeple does not necessarily mean that they are going to accept a new junta with a clear tribal affiliation this time. Here I wonder from on what basis you concluded that by his action Khalil has won acclaim among many Sudanese who aspire for revolutionary change in their country? The Sudanese people are no longer attracted by these words such as revolutionary change which all the military and repressive regimes used to gain legitimacy. Words such as peace are more attractive and more associated with the evil circle of a coup d’etat – public uprisal – elected government and military coup d’etat. I abosolutely agree with Mr. De Wal in his comment that “Progress towards peace and stability in Sudan has always been slow and difficult and subject to many setbacks”. This is mainly because of the continued intervention by the military instituation or by “armed strugle”. There are of course other reasons beside this but I mentioned this point to show that the use of arms has never brought peace but even worse than that it has always blocked the peaceful attempts towards stability, democracy and development. The history of Sudan is full of such examples the last of which was the coup d’etat that brought National Islamic Front (NIF) to power. One of the main goals of the coup d’etat was to block the agreement between the Democratic Unionist Party and the SPLA, the agreement which was accepted by all political forces except by NIF.
    what would have been the implications on Comprehensive Peace Agreenment if the “suicidal attempt” led by Dr. Khalil had succeded? My question is only limited to the CPA as other agreements (Cairo agreement / Abuja agreement and Eastern Sudan Agreement) did not bring any substantial change in power and wealth ditribution.

  5. Asserting that Deby is angry with Dr. Khalil for launching his daring attack on Omdurman shows that the author knows nothing about the Chadian President. Deby is known for his versality and acting angry is one of his trademarks, just to confuse things.

    The JEM became part of the Chadian Army after the rebel attack on N’djamena in February. As such, its movements were well coordinated and not at all decided by Khalil alone. That they were moved, with new weaponry, toward the Sudanese border mountain of Amdjarass seems to be a calculated effort to prepare this attack.

    The fact that the Sudanese Government is claiming to have arrested several Chadian Army officers among the invading forces reinforces the point that Deby is guilty by association.

  6. Alex:
    Very well-written and informative.
    I suppose that it is always difficult to probe someone else’s mind–just think of our own Western leaders–but would you consider the possibility of reconstituting the ancient Zaghawa kingdom of at least 1000 years ago as influenced by ideas which you sketched out in several of your other writings on identity formation? PB.

  7. I agree with Mahmoud Seid and disagree with Alex de Waal when he says that IDI didn’t support JEM’s recent attack on K-town. IDI did support the attack staged by his cronies of the JEM. After the failed offensives of the coalition of Chadian rebels against N’Djamena in February of this year, and the one launched by Mahamat Nour Abdelkerim in April 2006, IDI ash vowed to have his former godfather, Al Bashir, pay for backing Chadian rebels. As the JEM came to NDjamena in support of Deby in February, IDI has decided to plan the attack of K-town. Money, weapons ( from Libya, France,…) and logistics were graciously provided to the JEM as it has been the case since 2003. More than 300 Toyota land cruisers 4WD were purchased from Dubai by the Chadian regime and 14.5mm weapons were mounted on them for the JEM. Khalil Ibrahim was in NDjamena and his men called “Toroboros” were stationed in Am-Senene, a military camp outside of NDjamena. Later, they moved to Am Djaress in Eastern Chad for more preparation before the offensive on Omdurman and Khartoum. IDI and his entourage knew what was going on. They had the possibility to tell their “guns for hire” of the JEM to back off. As I wrote in “What is the international community missing in the Darfur crisis?” posted on, IDI is the definitely part of the problem and as long as he will be kept in power by France and as long as the US will close its eyes on his devastating actions in the region, there will be no peace in Darfur, no peace in Chad and no peace in CAR. You can take it to the bank.

    Armel Ramadji
    May 15, 2008

  8. Dear Mahmoud and Armel,

    You make some excellent points.

    I am no admirer of Idriss Deby and have been highly critical of the way in which France has supported his dictatorship and other western governments have failed to adopt any policy other than backing France. I am also dismayed by the way in which some of the Darfurian armed movements have allowed themselves to become part of Deby’s strategy for sustaining himself in power in return for military assistance. I do not doubt that Deby was instrumental in bringing JEM to its current military strength. Deby’s disavowal of involvement in the attack didn’t count for me at all–he is perfectly capable of double-crossing anyone.

    But at a time when Deby was trying to salvage his precarious internal position, backing such an attack was not in his interest. And Khalil is not a ‘gun for hire.’ He has his own agenda and will cooperate with Deby when it suits him and act independently or against Deby’s interests when he feels it is necessary.

    I don’t believe we yet have the full picture of foreign involvement in the JEM offensive, including who knew what and when, and there are some important facts which have yet to come out.

    Perhaps the most important fact today is that the government of Sudan has lost any shred of confidence in President Deby and holds him responsible for the attack. There is a very serious danger of outright war between Sudan and Chad.

  9. This is an informative analysis, but I must make the observation, as a jounalist who was on the ground as fighting was taking place (near Omdurman city hall/Khalifah square) that the impression I got from various people I interviewed on spot, and in the days that followed, was anger at Khalil and not “inspiration” for revolutionary change. Ordinary people (who may be typically crtical of the government) spoke using terms such as “us”/”our men”/”Sudani” against “them”/”those people”/”Chadian mercenaries”. Khalil’s movement is viewed by most as “tribal” and not ” collectively revolutinary” despite the “justice and equality” name. What I fear now is the increase in and cementing of “tribal feelings” in Omdurman after this attack.

  10. Dear Ismail

    thank you for your comment. There is no doubt that the overwhelming majority of people in Khartoum and Omdurman shared the sentiments you describe. But in Darfur and among other people of the peripheries, I believe the reactions were far more mixed. When I wrote ‘many Sudanese’ acclaimed him, I did not mean a majority, let alone all. Also, I suspect that this acclaim is shallow and transient–for many Darfurians who feel they are consigned to an unending life in displaced camps, any change is welcome. And, as you conclude, ethnic or racial sentiment is polarizing in an alarming way.

  11. Mr. De Waal,

    Thank you for sharing this blogpost. I am sure you are watching the situation with great interest. For some time now those informed enough on the subject of Darfur to realize it is a regional interstate war have discussed the role played by the Chadian Government. What role do you see Libya playing currently? Some people say they back the JEM, while the JEM insists this is rubbish. I am interested to hear an expert opinion on the matter. Thank you for your time.

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