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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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.