The Failed Assassination Bid That Ended al-Qaeda's Stint in Sudan
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
It wasn’t American missiles but African pressure that made Sudan expel Osama bin Laden.
By Charu Sudan Kasturi
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was on his way into Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, from the airport when a blue van screeched to a halt in front of his cavalcade. Men with machine guns jumped out, aiming for the cars — hoping to assassinate Mubarak.
Mubarak survived — two police officers and seven of the attackers died in the shootout — and flew back to Cairo. There, he stood calmly before television cameras and blamed terrorists sheltered by neighboring Sudan. It was June 26, 1995. It was the beginning of the end for al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden in Sudan.
Omar al-Bashir, the brigadier turned leader of Sudan, had grabbed power through a coup in 1989 and built an Islamist regime influenced by the extremist ideology of religious leader Hassan al-Turabi. When Saudi Arabia expelled bin Laden in 1991 for his refusal to accept American troops on Saudi soil during the Gulf War, al-Turabi’s National Islamic Front invited the al-Qaeda leader to base his organization in Sudan. Bin Laden jumped at the offer. A year later, his eventual deputy, the Egyptian physician Ayman al-Zawahiri, joined bin Laden in Sudan with his terror group, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. From the sanctuary of Sudan, the EIJ carried out terror attacks against Egyptian leaders and plotted strikes against American establishments.
The attempt on Hosni Mubarak in 1995 was hugely important.
David H. Shinn, former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso
For most of the world, Sudan’s links with bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and their groups came into sharp focus after the 1998 al-Qaeda terror attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the retaliatory American missile strikes against a chemical factory in Khartoum. But Sudan had already expelled bin Laden in May 1996. And it wasn’t American missiles but a regional alliance led by Egypt and backed by the U.S. that forced the hand of Sudan’s Islamist leadership. The trigger? The failed attempt to assassinate Mubarak.
“The attempt on Hosni Mubarak in 1995 was hugely important and led to a ramping up of pressure against Sudan by Egypt, Ethiopia and the United States,” says David H. Shinn, former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso, who in 1995 was director for East African affairs at the State Department.
Till then, tensions among Egypt, Ethiopia and Eritrea had kept the three nations — each individually unhappy with Sudan for sheltering bin Laden and al-Zawahiri — from cooperating. But the attack on Mubarak took place while he was in Addis Ababa for a meeting of the Organization of African Unity, and it left Ethiopia embarrassed. The botched assassination “significantly” aided the U.S.-funded Front-Line States’ policy of getting Egypt, Ethiopia and Eritrea to collectively pressure Sudan, says Shinn. “Although Egypt and Ethiopia have serious problems over Nile water issues, they were both outraged by the Sudanese-supported attack on Mubarak,” says the retired diplomat.
For Sudan’s leadership, the stakes were very different four years earlier, when it invited bin Laden and then al-Zawahiri. The Cold War was ending. Nascent governments had more room to maneuver instead of picking between the two blocs that had dominated geopolitics for decades, suggests Donald Holbrook, a lecturer on politics and international relations at Lancaster University in the U.K. Al-Turabi likely saw bin Laden and al-Zawahiri as proxies to build his own influence, adds Holbrook.
At the time, bin Laden was widely viewed more as a financier of extremist groups than as a terrorist himself. And, as a businessman, he invested heavily in Sudan — so much so that the Sudanese government waived duties on construction material and machinery that bin Laden imported. “Sudan was very poor and bin Laden brought valuable infrastructure investment and even led engineering projects that had no hope of being economically viable,” says Holbrook. “[Al-Qaeda’s] direct association — and therefore its toxicity as an asset — with orchestration of terrorist attacks came later.”
The pressure to act against bin Laden and al-Zawahiri grew in November 1993 after an assassination attempt planned from Sudan targeted Egypt’s Prime Minister Atef Sedki when he was returning home from a Cabinet meeting in Cairo. But there was “no love lost between Sudan and Egypt,” says Holbrook — the countries had a tense rivalry that dated back to the colonial era. And al-Bashir’s regime formally maintained that it wasn’t involved in any of the terror attacks traced to the country’s soil.
But by 1995 al-Bashir slowly began to grow wary of bin Laden and al-Zawahiri. By then, al-Qaeda’s true ambitions were becoming clearer to the world. The EIJ also threatened the Sudanese state’s authority when it tortured two teenage sons of one of its own members because they had collaborated with Egyptian intelligence agencies. And Sudan needed investments beyond bin Laden from the international community. “I believe he [bin Laden] alienated many Sudanese leaders,” says Shinn.
When the EIJ’s attempt to assassinate Mubarak failed, Sudan realized the al-Qaeda leader had to go. “In the long term, the cost was too high,” says Holbrook. But there was no plan or coordination over what to do with bin Laden after he was expelled from Sudan, says Shinn. Egypt didn’t want him, nor did Saudi Arabia. The U.S. didn’t want bin Laden either — it wasn’t sure he could be convicted stateside, recalls Shinn. So bin Laden found a fresh sanctuary with the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, and from there he plotted the September 11 attacks.
Twenty-three years after his expulsion from Sudan, though, bin Laden is dead, and Mubarak is out of power. Al-Turabi died in 2016. The man who has survived it all and has lived to see the U.S. finally lift sanctions against his regime: Sudan’s al-Bashir, 29 years in power — and counting.
- Charu Sudan Kasturi, OZY AuthorContact Charu Sudan Kasturi