Analysis: Al Qaeda ideologue calls for jihad in Sudan, provides guidelines

Reported photo of Abu Hudhayfah al Sudani shared online by both jihadis and Sudanese media

Earlier this month, Bayt al Maqdis, a jihadi publishing house believed linked to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), released a book compiled of various letters written by the ideologue Abu Hudhayfah al Sudani. 

The letters call for, incite, and guide prospective jihadists into forming a unified jihadist group in his native Sudan. The letters were all written over the last two years and just recently compiled into one cohesive release. 

Al Sudani is a veteran member of al Qaeda, having reportedly served alongside Osama bin Laden during al Qaeda’s tenure inside the North African country and Afghanistan. By his own admission, Sudani was also involved in a foiled al Qaeda attack on the Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia in late 2001, in which he was previously detained for after his extradition back to Saudi Arabia from Sudan in 2002.

That plot involved the shooting of a surface-to-air missile at an American plane taking off from the base. Sudani himself fired the failed missile during the attack. According to leaked detainee assessment documents from Guantanamo Bay, two Saudi brothers, who were initially involved in the plot but were arrested in Pakistan before implementing the plan, confirmed the attack was personally ordered by Osama bin Laden. 

The planning and training stages were then overseen from Afghanistan by al Qaeda’s then military emir, Mohammed Atef, and top deputies, Ibn al Shaykh al Libi and Sayf al Adl. Adl is now believed to be among a short list of possible successors to Ayman al Zawahiri as al Qaeda’s overall emir following the latter’s death earlier this year. 

It is likely that Abu Hudhayfah also has historical experience with al Qaeda’s previous attempts to formulate a cohesive faction in Sudan given his specific critiques and insider knowledge of the previous incarnations contained in the book. Sudanese media reports that Abu Hudhayfah was indeed linked to the 2007 bombing plots in Salamah, a southern suburb of Khartoum. Though his exact role in those plots is unclear. 

His current group affiliation is also unclear but the Sudanese jihadist has written for various outlets ran by AQAP over the last several years. Al Sudani, along with other prominent al Qaeda idealogues, also took part in al Qaeda-sponsored jihadi reconciliation efforts inside Syria, though it is unclear if the ideologue was ever himself based inside the Levantine state. 

And reports have emerged that Abu Hudhayfah himself was recently arrested following the release of the book, though the exact location and veracity of the reports remain murky.

Ideological grounds for jihad

The recently released book, which is 83 pages long, provides ideological justification for waging jihad against the Sudanese state, as well as guidelines and rules for prospective jihadis to follow when forming a new entity. The lessons imparted within the book generally fall within al Qaeda’s general rules for jihad. 

As such, the book provides an important look into how al Qaeda expects its branches, affiliates, and prospective allies to be organized, structured, and conduct themselves in various operations and situations. 

According to Abu Hudhayfah, the time for jihad is now ripe in Sudan following the country’s 2020 constitutional agreement that the Sudanese state be secular. That agreement, signed by then-Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and rebel group, Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, came after the 2019 overthrow of longtime dictator Omar al Bashir. 

The jihadist ideologue argues that the turn to democracy in Sudan is akin to idolatry and thus seen as an “infidel project.” He goes on to state that the secular system of government will only bring hardships upon Muslims and exclaims that it is up to the Muslims in Sudan alone to turn their country back to Shari’a

He also criticizes the current government of Abdel Fattah al Burhan, the Sudanese general that led last year’s coup, saying that the military-led government will further lead to crimes against Muslims and it is up to the jihadists to defend them. 

Under this ideological context, Abu Hudhayfah then centers the book around providing guidance for would-be jihadists on how to effectively start an organization and begin in jihadist activity. It is evident, however, that in his focus of learning from past mistakes, Abu Hudhayfah’s advice is influenced by al Qaeda’s “General Guidelines for Jihad,” a binding document released in 2013 by then-al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri, and al Qaeda’s past experiences in Tunisia, Mali, and Yemen.   

For instance, Abu Hudhayfah first imparts on would-be jihadists the importance of da’wah, or prosletyzing to al Qaeda’s view of Islam. It is only through preaching to the masses the importance and need for jihad that any prospective group will be successful in obtaining popular support, according to the ideologue. 

It is through this logic that al Qaeda initially operated in Tunisia, through the local Ansar al Shari’a faction and as part of a da’wah first approach.

The maintenance of popular support among the local populations in which it operates was crucial to al Qaeda’s “General Guidelines,” while implementing harsh policies too quickly in both Mali and Yemen initially hurt the group’s reputation in both areas. Many al Qaeda leaders and ideologues have stressed the importance of learning from those failures over the past decade. 

In this vein, Abu Hudhayfah provides a list of safe topics, talking points, and buzzwords to use during da’wah campaigns to help better distill the jihadist message to the public. According to the ideologue, this is needed in order to supplant the various secular militant groups operating inside Sudan and provide a more conducive environment for jihadis. 

In explaining the need for a unified, cohesive jihadist group, Abu Hudhayfah again draws upon typical al Qaeda rhetoric by explaining the necessity of a “vanguard group” in Sudan. By combating the apostates head on, according to al Sudani, this “vanguard” provides the inspiration for the masses to join and/or support the jihadist cause and ultimately establish Shari’a

This line is nothing new, as it effectively draws upon the original purpose of al Qaeda as the so-called “vanguard force” to incite and foment Islamic insurgencies around the world. Abu Hudhayfah is thus calling for the establishment of a new Sudanese jihadi group in line with al Qaeda’s self-appointed mandate. 

To incite possible jihadists into creating this so-called “vanguard force,” Abu Hudhayfah draws upon Abdullah Azzam, the now infamous mentor of Osama bin Laden, and his quote “the jihad in Afghanistan does not need men; the men in Afghanistan need jihad.” 

To Abu Hudhayfah then, the lesson is the same. A prospective jihad in Sudan does not suffer from manpower but that the Muslims just need someone to help incite them to the cause. In this regard, the jihadist ideologue says it is both “wajib [mandatory] upon the Muslims” and a “fard al ayn,” or a personal obligation for a Muslim to join in on starting the jihad in Sudan. 

Imparting military lessons

After focusing on the religious, ideological, and popular support dynamics in beginning jihad in Sudan, Abu Hudhayfah then turns to providing guidelines and rules for establishing a militant wing to a prospective organization. The lessons that Abu Hudhayfah tries to impart in these sections are clearly drawn from how al Qaeda’s various branches operate around the world. 

The Sudanese ideologue plainly lays out the exact steps prospective jihadis will need to take to effectively create and maintain an organization. In terms of picking an emir, Abu Hudhayfah states he must have “military or political qualifications” and “have a clear vision, goals, and a strategic plan to achieve those goals” before being selected. 

Abu Hudhayfah continues with outlining that a successful jihadist organization is unified around a clear command structure, shura council, and religious council to keep the organization grounded in Shari’a. Given Abu Hudhayfah’s continued stressing of jihadist unity, it is likely the ideologue is attempting to avoid the mistakes that have plagued al Qaeda inside Syria. As mentioned earlier, al Sudani was himself previously involved in al Qaeda’s calls for unity of jihadists in Syria.

In terms of where to build a base, Abu Hudhayfah largely does not stray from the more typical Maoist-influenced jihadist strategy. This includes building a headquarters in the countryside, where the main force of the group can conduct guerrilla warfare (described by Abu Hudhayfah as “hit-and-run tactics.”) He also provides the hypothetical jihadists with a list of things to stockpile and collect in the rural caches. 

Still on the topic of how and where to build a base of operations, the ideologue provides the prospective jihadists with a literal checklist of things to consider when picking a location. These include metrics like defensibility, visibility, and ease of access. And while not directly mentioned in this section, Abu Hudhayfah does later lament the mistakes of previous attempted al Qaeda startup groups in Sudan over a decade ago. 

The first group, the aforementioned Salamah cell in southern Khartoum in 2007, failed because it tried to implement a model similar to al Qaeda’s efforts in Iraq at the time, even though Sudan lacked the same circumstances. 

The second group, which based itself in Sudan’s Dinder National Park on the border with Ethiopia, was routed by Sudanese forces in late 2012. According to Sudanese authorities, the militants were utilizing the national park to train jihadis to send to Mali and/or Somalia. At least one commander reportedly involved in the local Sudanese al Qaeda network at the time, Abu Hazim al Sudani, was indeed killed in Mali in Feb. 2013.

Abu Hudhayfah stated this group, which tried to implement a model more akin to Shabaab in Somalia, failed because it lacked effective leadership and a clear vision to achieve that goal. In his discussion of picking a location in the countryside, however, it is clear that Abu Hudhayfah is attempting to avoid the mistakes that led to the forcible dissolution of the earlier groups. 

The ideologue also stresses the importance of building up and implanting urban cells in various cities for “special operations.” At the same time, he encourages the would-be jihadists to formulate an external operations wing in order to conduct more global activities. And also establishing an intelligence wing to provide internal security and a “database of potential targets.” 

And in discussing who and what can be legitimately targeted, the al Qaeda veteran largely parrots Zawahiri’s aforementioned “General Guidelines for Jihad,” in that only military, security, and political targets are allowed and that direct targeting of civilians is not allowed. 

However, Abu Hudhayfah gives space to discuss one caveat to these so-called legitimate targets: the economic interests of Sudan. According to him, attacks on economic targets or on the economic interests of the Sudanese state should be encouraged. Though this is not a novel idea, the prioritization of economic targets has been a staple of al Qaeda’s modus operandi since its creation. 

Avoiding prior mistakes 

Lastly, the al Qaeda veteran turns his attention to plead to prospective jihadis to avoid prior mistakes made by Sudanese groups in the past. 

According to him, the prior groups, which includes the aforementioned “Dinder group” and Salamah cell, and other organizations such as Ansar al Tawhid or Al Qaeda in the Land of Two Niles, all suffered from leadership problems, issues with unity and cohesion, lacked proper vision to sustain an effective insurgency, or a mixture of all prior reasons for failure.  

To the hypothetical jihadists addressed in the book, whom Abu Hudhayfah calls the “next generation of knights in Sudan,” the ideologue encourages them to heed his advice and warnings to form an effective and long-lasting jihadist front in Sudan. 

Ultimately, it remains unclear how successful Abu Hudhayfah will be in his goal of inciting the creation of an al Qaeda-aligned group in his native Sudan. Prior attempts have been thwarted by the state while jihadist militancy remains rare inside the country. 

Al Qaeda has been historically persistent in its attempts to bring jihad to its former host. In 2006 during the Darfur Crisis in western Sudan, Bin Laden himself attempted to appeal to local Muslims to start waging jihad with his support by sending foreign fighters to the region.

His then-deputy Ayman al Zawahiri released his own video attempting to mobilize jihad in Darfur later that same year. These attempts at jihadist mobilization were quickly rebuffed by Darfur’s main rebel groups. 

Both Bin Laden and Zawahiri again tried to incite Muslims in Darfur to al Qaeda’s cause with two videos a year later in 2007, but were again unsuccessful. Zawahiri released another video calling for jihad in Sudan in 2009. 

The most successful al Qaeda attack inside the country was the 2008 murder of an American diplomat and his driver in Khartoum, jointly claimed by the aforementioned Al Qaeda in the Land of the Two Niles and Ansar al Tawhid. But it has not been able to mobilize any long-standing entity in the country despite clear historical efforts to do so. 

That said, while al Qaeda has historically failed to establish an effective jihadist front inside Sudan, it has historically recruited Sudanese fighters to its various global branches. 

Sudanese members, such as Abu Talha al Sudani, were integral to al Qaeda’s establishment in Somalia. While Ibrahim al Qosi, another influential Sudanese jihadist, is a high-ranking leader of AQAP and is part of al Qaeda’s global command structure. Yet another high-ranking Sudanese member was Abu Khalil al Sudani, a member of al Qaeda’s central command who was killed in Afghanistan in 2015.

But irrespective of any immediate threat to Sudanese security, it is clear that Abu Hudhayfah (and indeed al Qaeda as a whole) seeks to have this book available open-source for any would-be jihadist inside Sudan to access, utilize, and implement in order to achieve its goals for the country. 

Thus, even though it does not currently have a clear presence inside Sudan, al Qaeda still seeks the potential to have such a network by providing this step-by-step guide on how to form a jihadist group, as well as cultivate and maintain popular support in the endeavor. 

In doing so, the book provides not only insight into how al Qaeda expects its branches, affiliates, or prospective allies to operate, but also shows that the global network remains adept at organizational learning from its past experiences.

Many of the lessons Abu Hudhayfah tries to impart on a hypothetical new group in Sudan are directly drawn from al Qaeda’s organizational failures over its long history. As such, al Qaeda and its vast network will continue to be a threat to international security around the world as it seeks to incite and inspire a new generation of militant groups.

Caleb Weiss is a research analyst at 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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