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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."

Indeed, as the Gulf War approached Turabi positioned himself as a mediator between Saddam's government and the Saudis. In October 1990 he led a delegation of Islamists to Jordan to meet with Iraqi government officials. Bin Laden sent emissaries to this meeting as well. While it is not clear what bin Laden's emissaries or bin Laden himself thought of the meeting, it is clear that Turabi threw his full support behind Saddam.

An account of this meeting in the New York Times offers a unique window into Turabi's mindset as Saddam's showdown with the West approached. "In every place, it is division and the absence of an Islamic order which is leading to these conflicts," he said. In Saudi Arabia, Turabi said he found "an aversion to a war scenario, keenness towards a settlement, and very cordial sentiments towards Saddam Hussein" should he pull back in a "complete withdrawal from Kuwait and the reinstatement of the Royal Family."

Saddam promised Turabi that he would release Islamic militants who Iraq had detained for opposing Saddam's regime. Turabi added that he and his Islamist cohorts had "found an element of flexibility in the Iraqi position, but a determination not to countenance any unilateral withdrawal and a very cold and calculating determination to accept the consequences of their decision and to go to war if necessary." Saddam's flexibility, according to Turabi, meant that there needed to be "a proper linkage between the Gulf crisis and the Palestinian problem, if the context was exclusively Arab, if there was a reasonable offer that was that was made that would satisfy them, they would be prepared to consider discussions, maybe even a degree of withdrawal." Turabi was certainly not the only one to notice that Saddam had linked the Gulf crisis to the "Palestinian problem." When Saddam attacked Israel during the Gulf War he managed to successfully link his holy war against the West to the fate of the Palestinians, thereby giving him instant credibility among many Islamists.

Another account of a post-meeting press conference in Jordan says that Turabi warned, "there is going to be all forms of jihad all over the world because it is an issue of foreign troops on sacred soil." Similar calls for jihad were heard coming out of Baghdad from the reportedly more than 1,400 terrorists who had amassed there.

When it became clear that all efforts to avoid war failed, Turabi did not fault Iraq. Instead, Turabi--as well influential Islamist leaders from Algeria and Tunisia--traveled to Baghdad and expressed their support for Saddam.

The terrorist counter-offensive failed to materialize for a variety of reasons. But, Turabi's jihad was just beginning.

EVEN AFTER THE SWIFT DEFEAT of Saddam's forces Turabi would continue to object to the presence of U.S. forces in the region. Starting in April 1991, only weeks after the conclusion of the Gulf War, Turabi began hosting the Islamic Arab Popular Conference, which was held regularly until the late 1990s. (Saddam began hosting a similar conference in Baghdad.) The purpose of the conference was to unite all Muslims--Shiite and Sunni, "secular" and Islamist--under a single anti-Western banner. Only in this manner could the Islamic community force the foreign "crusaders" off of Muslim soil.

Writing about the first such conference in Foreign Affairs a few years later, Judith Miller explained its purpose was to aid Turabi's "long-standing goal of overcoming the historic rift between Sunni Muslim states, like Sudan, and a Shiite state, like Iran." The conference was also part of Turabi's attempt to "fuse formerly secular Arab nationalist movements, which have dominated Arab politics . . . with the increasingly more seductive and influential groups espousing the new Islamic rhetoric."

Ideological boxes, a common fixation within the U.S. intelligence community, were of no concern to Turabi when it came to confronting the West.

The conference ushered in Turabi's open door policy for all Arabs and Muslims and his Sudan quickly became a terrorist incubator. Representatives from almost every Middle Eastern-based terrorist group took root: Palestinian terrorist groups, Hezbollah, the Abu Nidal Organization, and various Egyptian terrorist groups included. Several of the various constituencies which would become part of what we now know as "al Qaeda," including bin Laden himself, also set up shop. Importantly, so did Iraqi (as well as Iranian) intelligence operatives.

Turabi's hospitality to all of these parties earned him the title "The Pope of Terrorism" in the European press and, in short order, his terrorist coalition began to wreak havoc. Governments all over the African continent were invaded. Egypt, Uganda, Eritrea, and Ethiopia as well as several other African nations would routinely complain of Turabi's influence over Islamist radicals within their borders. Countless bombings and assassination attempts all led back to Khartoum's conspicuous guests.

Under Turabi's watchful eye, al Qaeda began to grow and acquire allies. In 1993, at his urging, bin Laden came to an "understanding" with Saddam Hussein that the al Qaeda leader and his followers would not engage in any anti-Hussein activities. The Clinton administration later included this development in its sealed indictment of bin Laden in 1998. According to the indictment: "Al Qaeda reached an understanding with the government of Iraq that al Qaeda would not work against that government and that on particular projects, specifically including weapons development, al Qaeda would work cooperatively with the Government of Iraq."

THE POPE OF TERRORISM'S ROLE in forming such alliances drew the Clinton administration's attention when, in August of 1993, Sudan was placed on the U.S.'s list of "state sponsors of terrorism." The State Department's Global Patterns of Terrorism for that year recognized the Sudanese regime's active role in exporting terrorism throughout Africa and the Middle East and even raised the specter of Sudanese involvement in terrorism on American soil. The State Department's report noted that while "there is no conclusive evidence linking the Government of Sudan to any specific terrorist incident during the year, five of 15 suspects arrested this summer following the New York City bomb plot are Sudanese citizens."

The New York City bomb plot mentioned by the State Department was, of course, the first attack on the World Trade Center in February 1993. That plot nearly destroyed one of the World Trade Center's towers. One of the non-Sudanese suspects was an Iraqi-national named Abdul Rahman Yasin. He quickly fled to Iraq with the help of Saddam's regime after being, inexplicably, released by the FBI. Iraqi intelligence documents discovered since the start of the Iraq war have revealed that, upon his return to Iraq, Yasin received a monthly stipend and housing from the Iraqi government.

Turabi's relationship with Saddam would continue to blossom throughout the mid-1990s. In an account in the New York Times on December 6, 1994, Turabi described his relationship with the Iraqi dictator as "very close." He even defended the Iraqi regime's Islamic credentials. Turabi explained, "Saddam is gradually reintroducing Islam. He has restricted liquor. Koranic studies are mandatory for all students, all teachers and all Baathist party members. He knows the society is returning to Islam." He explained, "Arab governments are collapsing. They know it. . . . The Arabs are changing from below. Arab nationalism is finished and the Islamic spirit is rising in places like Saudi Arabia. This is one of the consequences of the gulf war."

Meanwhile, by 1994 bin Laden's al Qaeda had become firmly rooted in Sudan. Bin Laden's investments and Sudanese government facilities had become inextricably intertwined. Bin Laden's al Qaeda operatives worked closely with Sudanese officials and intelligence. His companies continued to improve the nation's infrastructure by building roads and a variety of business facilities. Clinton administration officials would later explain that his investments were a vital part of the Sudanese "military industrial complex."

Turabi's vision for his native country was coming to fruition.

But, what came of Turabi's "close" relationship with Saddam? Did it mean anything more by way of a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda?

As it turns out, the Clinton administration was about to confront the relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda in Turabi's Sudan head on . . .

Read The Pope of Terrorism, Part II

Thomas Joscelyn is an economist and writer living in New York.