Case study: Sudan; the CIA’s early links with Islamists

A formerly secret CIA “Current Intelligence Weekly Summary,” dated March 19, 1959, provides evidence of the agency’s early cooperation with Islamist sects that were influenced by Saudi-inspired Wahhabists. As early as 1959 and the Dwight Eisenhower administration, CIA analysts were praising Sudan’s Ansar sect, made up of followers of Imam Sayid Abdul Rahman al-Mahdi, who “formed the principal support of the more pro-Western officers” of the Supreme Army Council and the cabinet.

In many ways, the CIA’s co-option of radical Islamists began during the Cold War in an effort to stymie the spread of Arab communist-led popular fronts that championed secularism over Islamist rule and sharia law. What a different place the Middle East would be today had the CIA not encouraged the Islamists and allowed secular socialism to spring forth in the Arab and Muslim world.

The CIA’s man in Sudan, al-Mahdi, was the son of Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah, called the “Mad Mahdi” by the British, whose forces he defeated in the Battle of Khartoum in 1885. The Mahdi had defeated British General Charles George “Chinese” Gordon’s severed head placed between the branches of a tree so stones could be thrown at it. Gordon was an eccentric Christian evangelist who believed the Devil lived on Pitcairn Island in the Pacific.

The Mahdi, who was a messianic figure who imposed sharia law on Mahdist Sudan, died shortly after his victory at the age of 40. His son, who cooperated with the British in World War II, died in 1959 shortly after the CIA gave him high marks. He was succeeded as head of the Ansar sect by his son, Sadiq al-Mahdi.

The Ansar sect formed the Sudanese Umma Party, which cooperated with the Muslim Brotherhood in a series of coalitions. Although Saqiq al-Mahdi served in a number of government positions, including prime minister of Sudan, the Mahdists never achieved full power and a full Mahdist state in Sudan. Last year, Sadiq met with the chairman of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Dr. Mohamed Badie, and affirmed their common goals.

A major leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan ‘Abd Allah al-Turabi, who identified himself as a “Muslim Brother,” praised the 1995 attempted assassination of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Ethiopia. The attack was reportedly coordinated by Egypt’s Islamic Jihad; Al Qaeda’s Osama Bin Laden, who resided in Sudan from 1992 to 1996; and members of the Sudanese government.

However, Turabi, like Bin Laden with the anti-Soviet Mujaheddin in Afghanistan, had a past association with the CIA. Turabi served as a CIA asset in 1984 when he worked with the head of the anti-Muammar Qaddafi Libyan opposition, Dr. Mohammed Yusuf al-Maqrif, to set up anti-Qaddafi Libyan insurgent training camps in Sudan, near the Libyan border. Sudanese leader Jaafar al-Nimeiry, who was a close ally of the United States, named Turabi as his liaison to the CIA in providing support to the Libyan insurgent camps.

In return, Turabi and his Muslim Brotherhood colleagues pressed Nimeiry to impose sharia law on Sudan.

Later, Turabi moderated his positions, issuing fatwas that permitted Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men and permitting the consumption of alcohol.

Questions now persist over the Obama administration’s stand on the military coup that ousted Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi from power in Cairo. As seen with the CIA’s early days in the Middle East, it has supported the Muslim Brotherhood and Ansar sects in Sudan and later Turabi, who helped provide assistance to Bin Laden and Al Qaeda in Khartoum.

The same CIA summary from 1959 cites the CIA’s support for Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s strong opposition to Arab Communist parties and regimes that supported them, chiefly the Iraqi government of General Abdel Karim Kassem and his major source of support, the Popular Resistance Force (PRF). Nasser’s United Arab Republic (UAR), which included Syria, stirred up trouble for Kassem with the Shammar tribesmen inhabiting the Syrian-Iraqi border, obviously with the support of the CIA. The CIA also worked closely with Nasser’s intelligence services in Cairo to foment a coup against Kassem. Egypt supported the Iraqi Ba’ath Party in its attempt to convince Kassem to join the UAR. However, Kassem and his major supporter, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev wanted nothing to do with an expanded UAR and the Iraqi Communist Party and PRF turned out to support Kassem against Baathist pro-UAR protesters. The CIA report quotes Khrushchev as stating, “Nasser’s insistence” on unifying Iraq with the UAR was “against the will of the Iraqi people.” Khrushchev also accused Nasser of using “the language of imperialists” in attacking Arab communists.

On October 7, 1959, Ba’athists attempted to assassinate Kassem by ambushing his car in Baghdad. One of the assassination team leaders was Saddam Hussein, who received his training from Egyptian and CIA intelligence officers. The attempt failed and Saddam fled to Egypt via Syria. In 1960, the CIA attempted to kill Kassem by giving him a poisoned handkerchief. However, in 1963, the Ba’athists overthrew and executed Kassem and Saddam, supported in exile by the CIA in Cairo, returned to Baghdad.

It is clear from the CIA report that Israel always posed a problem for the agency’s covert operations within the Arab countries. For example, it accuses Israel of “taking advantage” of the UAR-Iraq rift and Nasserite-led political turmoil in Jordan to move heavy armor, including “13 or 14 tanks,” into the Jerusalem area in violation of the Israeli-Jordanian armistice agreement. The tanks were moved at night over a two week period. When an unnamed U.S. official complained to Israel about the violation, the CIA report quotes an Israeli official as “laughingly” denying any intention to “invade Amman.” However, eight years later, Israel invaded Jordanian-controlled east Jerusalem and the West Bank and continues to occupy the regions today, but without any words of caution from Washington as once brought on Israel by the Eisenhower administration. Israel was adamantly opposed to what the CIA referred to as “West Jordan” becoming part of the UAR in the event of a Jordanian merger with the pan-Arab republic.

Previously published in the Wayne Madsen Report.

Copyright © 2013

Wayne Madsen is a Washington, DC-based investigative journalist and nationally-distributed columnist. He is the editor and publisher of the Wayne Madsen Report (subscription required).

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