Sudan reports crackdown on suspected Islamic State cells in Khartoum

Over the past two weeks, Sudanese intelligence services have reported three security raids across the capital city of Khartoum against militant cells suspected of belonging to the Islamic State. However, exact details surrounding the raids and the reported presence of the Islamic State inside Sudan remain unclear.  

On Sept. 28, Sudan’s General Intelligence Service (GIS) announced that five of its officers were killed during raids on several hideouts of what it said were suspected Islamic State members in the Gabra area of Khartoum. 

While stating that four suspected militants escaped the dragnet, the GIS also said that it had arrested 11 “foreign terrorists of different nationalities.” The GIS did not provide any other details on the foreign nationalities. 

Sudanese news outlets have reported that the leader of the cell was an Egyptian, while other Egyptians were also included among the foreign nationalities. At least one person was purportedly from Nigeria. 

Egypt, which has agreed to accept four of the Egyptians detained in the raid, has accused the suspects of being affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Egyptian officials further stated the four are wanted in the country for their roles in other terrorist attacks in the country. 

It is unclear if the four militants are actually currently affiliated with the Brotherhood, or if they were previously members of the Islamist movement. Egypt has also described militants as being affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, regardless of any true affiliation with the movement, in the past.

Meanwhile, Sudan Tribune, citing a local security expert, later reported that the suspected Islamic State cell was reportedly planning attacks inside Khartoum on New Year’s Day. This information cannot be independently verified by FDD’s Long War Journal

Then on Oct. 3, the GIS reported that it had arrested what it claims were an additional “eight foreign elements” related to the suspected Islamic State cell in Khartoum’s neighboring Omdurman city. 

A day later, Sudanese intelligence reported another raid on an Islamic State cell in Khartoum’s Gabra area. The GIS further stated its forces killed four suspected militants and arrested two additional individuals. 

The Islamic State has not publicly commented on the raids on its purported members as of the time of publishing. However, a supposed statement from a little known group in Sudan, Al Tayyar al Risali li-Da’wa wal-Qital – Wilayat Sudan, or The Messenger’s Movement for Preaching and Combat – Sudan Province, claimed its men were targeted in the Sept. 28 raid. 

In a statement floating around Sudanese social media, the group said that 11 of its members were arrested by the GIS. Additionally, it denied any relation to the Islamic State, saying that this link was made as a “cover for cheap media camouflage.” 

Little is known about the supposed Sudanese militant group. France 24 reported that it allegedly took responsibility for a failed March 2020 assassination attempt on Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. 

Additionally, its purported logo is a carbon copy of that of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which is a common trope for Shia armed groups across the Islamic world and which typically signifies some IRGC-affiliation. 

It is unknown if this is indeed the case for the alleged armed group. Iran and the Sudanese government had security and intelligence agreements in the past, though this is unlikely to still be the case – especially as Sudan’s new government has agreed to normalize its relations with Israel. 

The purported existence of an ostensibly Iranian-aligned militant group in Sudan could be linked to the diplomatic agreement with the Jewish state.  

The security raids further come as Sudan remains in a transitional period. In April 2019, Sudan’s longtime dictator, Omar al-Bashir, was overthrown. Since then, Sudan has been ruled by a transitional government, though severe institutional problems remain

And in late Sept. 2021, Sudanese officials said that state forces thwarted a coup attempt launched by loyalists of Omar al-Bashir. It is unclear how related, if at all, the recent security raids against alleged Islamic State cells are to the country’s post-coup crackdown. 

Previous jihadist militancy in Sudan

Jihadist militancy inside Sudan has been a relatively rare occurance inside the country despite it previously being listed as a state sponsor of terrorism for almost 30 years. 

In Jan. 2008, US diplomat John Michael Granville and his Sudanese driver were murdered by gunmen belonging to Al Qaeda in the Land of the Two Niles (AQTN) and its affiliate Ansar al Tawhid. According to US intelligence personnel who spoke to FDD’s Long War Journal in 2013, the “two groups operate[d] in close coordination and often pool[ed] resources and personnel.”

Two years later in June 2010, four men arrested for their involvement in the murders escaped from Sudan’s maximum security Kober prison. The prison break, which involved tunnelling underneath the militants’ cells, was later featured in a jihadist propaganda video released by the al Qaeda-affiliated Al Hijratain Foundation. 

In Dec. 2012, Sudanese security forces raided a large al Qaeda-linked training camp in the Al-Dinndir Wildlife Park in eastern Sudan, arresting 25 suspected jihadists. At the time, Sudan said the militants were being trained in the camp in order to join al Qaeda’s forces in Mali and Somalia. 

It is unknown if either AQTN or Ansar al Tawhid are still operating. In Jan. 2013, AQTN purportedly established a student wing in Khartoum, however, it is also unclear if it remains active. One of the main leaders of AQTN, Abu Hazim al Sudani, was also killed fighting alongside al Qaeda in Mali a month later in Feb. 2013. Neither group has claimed any activity in years. 

Then in 2016, the Sudanese government said that least 137 of its citizens have joined jihadist groups abroad, primarily the Islamic State. As many Islamic State members return to their countries of origin, especially from the group’s Syrian and Iraqi branches, it is possible that Sudanese returnees could be operating inside Sudan and plotting attacks. 

Additionally in 2016, Moez Fezzani, a key leader in the Islamic State’s Tunisian networks who also recruited for the group in Italy, was arrested in Sudan after fleeing from Libya. And in 2019, Sudan said it arrested six members of Nigeria’s Boko Haram in the Darfur region near the country’s border with Chad. 

Though it is unclear if the individuals belonged to the Islamic State’s West African Province (ISWAP), which grew out of Boko Haram, or the ISWAP splinter group then led by Boko Haram’s previous emir Abubakar Shekau. The moniker ‘Boko Haram’ was largely used as a catch-all term by Nigerian and international media for both entities. 

Despite Sudanese intelligence officials saying that several active Islamic State cells inside Khartoum have been subdued in the past two weeks, the details and overall situation surrounding the raids remain murky. 

But it would not be out of the realm of possibility for Sudan if Islamic State cells were indeed confirmed to be operating inside its territory.

Caleb Weiss is an editor of FDD's Long War Journal and a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation, where he focuses on the spread of the Islamic State in Central Africa.

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