The Blog

The Pope of Terrorism, Part I

Hassan al-Turabi, ally of Saddam Hussein and bin Laden's long-time friend and benefactor, is freed from jail.

12:00 AM, Jul 25, 2005 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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"America incarnates the devil for Muslims. When I say Muslims, I mean all the Muslims in the world."

--Hassan al-Turabi, Saddam Hussein's close ally, Osama bin Laden's friend and one-time benefactor, as quoted in an interview with the Associated Press (1997)

WHEN SECRETARY OF STATE CONDOLEEZZA RICE visited Sudan last week, much of the press's coverage focused on the rough treatment her senior advisors and NBC's Andrea Mitchell, who was among the reporters traveling with the Secretary, received. Mitchell had questioned the Sudanese president, Omar el-Bashir, about his government's role in the current battle raging in Darfur, where an ongoing humanitarian crisis has drawn considerable attention. For this, she received Khartoum's version of hospitality: She was roughed up by Bashir's henchmen.

Absent from much of the discussion in the press, however, is any mention of Hassan al-Turabi. This is curious since late last month the arch-terrorist was freed from his prison home by Bashir's government. His supporters have been accused of being directly involved in the Darfur crisis, which raises important questions about Bashir's willingness to end the carnage.

But Turabi's freedom is disturbing for a variety of other reasons. Not the least of which is the fact that he is, in many ways, a founding father of the Islamist terrorist network we currently face. It was Turabi's apocalyptic vision for confronting the West, after all, which brought together Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden against their common enemy: the United States.

At first blush, Turabi's role as an international terrorist leader would appear to be an unlikely outcome of his educational background. Born in 1932, Turabi studied law at the University of Khartoum, then at the University of London and, finally, at the Sorbonne in Paris. Multilingual, charismatic, and western-educated, Turabi at first espoused a much more lenient version of Islam. According to Turabi, women deserved a greater degree of equality throughout the Muslim world and democracy was not inconsistent with the fundamental teachings of the Koran.

But such comparatively moderate views were part of a superficial veil covering Turabi's deeper, more radical beliefs. After leaving Paris and returning to Sudan in the mid-1960s, Turabi joined a subsidiary organization of the Muslim Brotherhood and quickly became one of its most prominent leaders. Formed in 1928 in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood spread not only to Sudan, but also across the globe. The organization's vast international footprint laid the groundwork for countless terrorist organizations, including al Qaeda.

Turabi then survived two decades of turbulence. After tensions arose between the Sudanese government and the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1960s, Turabi was arrested and spent much of the next decade in prison, and then exile. He reconciled with the Sudanese government in 1979 and returned to become the country's attorney general. In the early 1980s he was instrumental in establishing a strict version of sharia, with its exceedingly harsh punishments for even menial crimes, in parts of the country.

Civil war plagued the nation throughout the 1980s with power shifting hands several times. Finally, in 1989, along with the current Sudanese president, Omar el-Bashir, Turabi was one of the principle architects behind the National Islamic Front's coup. With his successful acquisition of power, Turabi was free to create the type of radical Islamist state he had always envisioned.

The world was about to face a terrorist threat like no other.

Within a year of taking power, Turabi intervened in a crisis that shook the Muslim world to its core. When Saddam Hussein's Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait in August 1990, the Islamic community ferociously debated the appropriate course of action. Should the Saudis allow foreigners onto their soil to protect the kingdom and extricate the tiny Muslim nation from Saddam's grip? Or, should Saddam be repelled by a Muslim-only force?

BIN LADEN HIMSELF, having just recently returned from Afghanistan as a Muslim hero, approached the Saudi royal family with an offer to amass thousands of his Arab Afghans on the Saudi border. Many point to this offer as demonstrating the open hostility between Saddam and bin Laden. But while bin Laden's first instinct may have been to oppose the secular tyrant, his soon-to-be host in Sudan did not share these sentiments. According to an interview at the time with Turabi's cousin, Mudawi Turabi, the Sudanese leader met twice with Saddam Hussein before the Gulf War and "had appeared to be designing his own Islamic empire even then."