Why you should care
They spearheaded the 21st century’s first genocide. Now they're bringing that track record to other conflicts.
After overthrowing dictator Omar al-Bashir last April, Sudanese protesters vowed to remain in the streets of the capital, Khartoum, until the military handed over authority to a civilian government. With the global community watching Sudan closely, security forces were initially careful not to attack demonstrators.
That changed on June 3, 2019, when the army and Rapid Support Forces (RSF) — a paramilitary group formally established seven years ago — brutally cracked down on a protest in front of army headquarters. Witnesses say that the RSF gunned down dozens of people as they ran for cover.
Once known as the Janjaweed — a group of state-sponsored Arab militias that spearheaded the genocide in Darfur and traditionally operated near the Sudan-Chad border — the RSF is dramatically expanding its geographic footprint. Under al-Bashir, the group was deployed to crush protests in Khartoum and to wage a brutal counterinsurgency in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains. The RSF is also increasingly doing the dirty work of foreign governments.
Over the past five years, the group has deployed 40,000 fighters into Yemen and Libya to fight alongside forces loyal to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Some experts estimate that each fighter gets paid up to $10,000 a month — which amounts to a total annual wage bill of nearly $5 billion. Until recently, the RSF was patrolling Sudan’s borders as part of a European Union initiative — known as the Khartoum Process — to crack down on migration.
The kind of money the RSF pays is life-changing and people want to get in on it.
Jonas Horner, analyst, International Crisis Group
The EU denies ever funding the militia. But a month after the June massacre in Khartoum, the bloc suspended its border cooperation with Sudan, an arrangement that experts and human rights groups believe emboldened the RSF.
“The EU’s decision to suspend cooperation with Sudan was basically an admission of guilt,” says Alex de Waal, an expert on Sudan and a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
The Saudis and Emiratis have been more upfront about their cooperation with the RSF. In 2015, the two Gulf nations paid al-Bashir to send RSF forces to fight against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen from front-line positions, while their own forces were used for defensive purposes.
After al-Bashir was overthrown, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi began dealing directly with RSF commander Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti. Just last month, Hemedti finally handed over gold mining operations the RSF previously controlled to the government. Yet he continues to profit from making his fighters available for hire.
“The Saudis and Emiratis prefer dealing with Hemedti over al-Bashir,” says Suliman Baldo, the Senior Adviser of the Enough Project and an expert from Darfur, where the group has been accused of carrying out mass rapes. “They know Hemedti doesn’t have ideological ambitions nor a political project. He just has material interests.”
That’s comforting for the Saudis and Emiratis who were uneasy about al-Bashir’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, a franchise that the two Gulf powers consider a primary nemesis.
But with al-Bashir gone, Hemedti is cashing in. And the money he can offer is allowing the RSF to recruit thousands of destitute young men from Sudan’s peripheries. Baldo says that many recruits come from communities in Darfur and South Kordofan once terrorized by the group. With his swelling ranks, Hemedti hopes to transform the RSF into a national fighting force, experts say. If he succeeds, his force could undermine the power of the military, which pays pittances compared with the RSF.
“The kind of money the RSF pays is life-changing and people want to get in on it,” says Jonas Horner, an analyst for the nonprofit International Crisis Group.
Still, recruits often pay the ultimate price. The Houthis claim to have killed 4,000 Sudanese fighters in Yemen in the past four years, though that number is difficult to verify with the RSF. One Sudanese political exile, Fuad Shihab, says his peers in the RSF are scared of Hemedti “to the point of death.” Another refugee from Darfur, who goes by the name Yassir, tried to connect OZY to acquaintances in the RSF. He later said the fighters would lose their lives if they were caught leaking information to reporters.
In recent weeks, thousands of RSF fighters have returned from Yemen, while others have joined a conflict closer to home. In November, the U.N. Security Council Panel of Experts reported that at least 1,000 RSF members were fighting in Libya alongside the forces of septuagenarian Gen. Khalifa Hifter, who just agreed to a cease-fire to halt his offensive on the capital, Tripoli. The RSF’s involvement violates U.N. sanctions against military support to any party fighting in the oil-rich North African country.
“The reason Hifter relies on the RSF is because he has lost so many men,” says Tarek Megerisi, a Libyan expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The other reason is that there is a belief in Libya that Sudanese men are better fighters.” The Sudanese Armed Forces deny that the RSF is fighting in Libya.
Because Libya is a haven to a myriad of jihadi and Salafi militias, the U.N.’s findings could hurt Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok’s efforts to get his country removed from the U.S. State Sponsors of Terrorism list. That blacklisting makes Sudan ineligible for debt relief from global financial institutions and scares away investors. The bigger issue, say experts, is that Hemedti’s unilateral decisions undermine the authority and competence of the transitional government in Sudan.
And if its track record in Darfur is any indication, the RSF’s involvement in foreign conflicts could make already bloody wars even bloodier.