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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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.