The Sudanese government launched a large-scale disarmament campaign in Darfur in October, as part of an effort to marginalize local militias and mitigate the threat they pose to the central government. Musa Hilal, the head of the Sudanese Awakening Revolutionary Council (SARC), refused to comply with demands for disarmament, and alleged that the campaign was launched deliberately to target him.
In response, Hilal, also the head of the Border Guards militia, was reportedly arrested by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia in a raid in Misteriya, North Darfur State, alongside his children, as well as other senior members of the SARC on November 26.
Reports indicate that dozens of people were killed in clashes between Border Guards militia and the RSF in Misteriya on November 29, when the RSF raided the Border Guards headquarters in response to an ambush of their vehicles the day prior. The RSF had reportedly besieged the town ahead of Hilal’s arrest, and remains heavily deployed in the area.
On December 1, the SARC released a statement condemning the arrest of their leader, and threatened revenge against the Sudanese government, particularly the RSF militia. They further noted that the arrest was a violation of the entire Rizeigat Arab tribe, as Hilal is the tribal leader of its Mahamid clan.
Musa Hilal is most notorious for being a founder of the Janjaweed in 2003, organizing the loose coalition of armed Arab militias at the behest of the Sudanese government to put down the rebellions in Darfur. Hilal was eventually named as a suspect of genocide by the US State Department in 2004 and individually sanctioned by the UN in 2006 for his role in the ethnic cleansing of several tribes in the region.
Hilal came to be the head of a subset of the Janjaweed known as the Border Guards. After the war in Darfur largely subsided, the unit was later formally integrated into Sudanese military intelligence, now consisting of thousands of people, including 3,000 militia in Hilal’s home area in North Darfur.
Other elements of the Janjaweed became part of the newly-formed Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in 2013, which operates in coordination with the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and is deployed throughout the country’s conflict zones in the western and southern regions, with another contingent sent overseas to fight in Yemen with the Saudi coalition.
Assessments & Forecast
Militia Groups Formerly Supported By Government Now Present Main Security Dilemma
Throughout the the outlying regions, and particularly in Darfur, the Sudanese government armed militias to fight local rebellions, with relatively high rates of successes in these campaigns. Nonetheless, in the absence of an active mission, Khartoum has been left with well-equipped and combat-tested militias whose services are no longer needed, but present a threat as an armed group, acting as destabilizing agents in their regions as well as potential challengers to government authority. This is exacerbated by Sudan’s poor economic situation, leaving the government with fewer funds with which to pay off any militia leaders as necessary. Despite the widespread volatility of the region, Hilal and the SARC represented the largest group in Darfur that was in rebellion to the government in all but name, thus bolstering the likelihood that the disarmament campaign was a specific effort to neutralize Hilal as a threat.
Despite the integral role that Musa Hilal played throughout the intensive phases of the conflict in Darfur, his arrest is the highly notable culmination of the rift between Hilal and President Omar al-Bashir that has been ongoing since 2013. Hilal had become more politically ambitious, demanding a prominent role in the central government, and claimed that he was not sufficiently rewarded for his role in crushing the rebellion. This has caused tensions and outright clashes in the past, including an armed confrontation with the SAF and RSF over control of Jabal Amer, the source of significant gold deposits in North Darfur. This period saw the founding of the SARC as a new movement, now thought to number between 8 to 10,000 people, as a vehicle for Hilal’s political and tribal agenda, serving as a prominent example of the extent of the threat posed to the central government by previously supported local militias. Bashir has been increasingly wary of Hilal, especially as the latter has become more vocally critical of Khartoum, particularly in condemning the deployment of troops to Yemen, urging his tribesmen not to participate.
These developments are additionally notable as it comes as Khartoum is engaged in peace talks with the Sudan Call opposition, with ceasefires extended throughout 2017. While there remain holdouts, notably the Sudan Liberation Movement – Abdelwahid al-Nur (SLM-AW), the power of these groups has considerably diminished and outright confrontations are intermittent, with the most recent clashes lasting about a month in June and July in Jebel Marra. Reports have circulated of cooperation between Hilal and the rebel groups, which would appear paradoxical given Hilal’s role in the campaign against them, but the calculus had shifted following Hilal’s falling-out with Bashir. This was further emphasized when the SLM – Minni Minawi (SLM-MM) issued a statement on November 28 calling for Hilal’s release.
FORECAST: With that said, while this is politically expedient for the rebel groups, the extent to which they would be willing to mobilize on Hilal’s behalf is likely limited. Rather, the threat they pose in this situation is opportunistic, and there is likely to be increased rebel activity as they seek to take advantage of the government’s focus on Hilal and the SARC in order to stage their own attacks on the SAF and RSF in their areas of operation within Darfur.
Involvement of Regional Actors
An additional element of this situation is Hilal’s ties to neighboring states, with the move to arrest him possibly triggered by suspicions that he is connected with Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan National Army (LNA), whom President Bashir accuses of deliberately working to destabilize Darfur. While Haftar’s specific involvement in Sudan is less clear, his presence is broadly in Libya’s east, which also hosts hundreds of Darfuri rebels suspected to use Libyan territory to avoid Sudanese authorities and, at times, to launch attacks back into Sudan. Furthermore, there are indications that Darfuri militias are employed by rival factions in Libya, increasing the Darfuris’ capabilities with funds, and further weapons and experience. To this end, several top SARC members were arrested by the RSF while en route from Libya to Darfur in September, who Khartoum publicly accused of recruiting for Haftar. In addition to concerns about Hilal receiving material support from Haftar that could be used against Sudan, the Sudanese government has likely pointed to the foreign influence in efforts to undermine Hilal and the SARC, attempting to impugn their opposition as non-local, or driven by external forces rather than a legitimate cause for hostility toward Khartoum.
In addition to Libya, Hilal’s daughter is married to Chad’s President Idriss Deby, who could have represented a source of support as N’Djamena and Khartoum have clashed in the past. However, Deby made a statement on December 2 affirming his support for the disarmament, suggesting that this will be limited and, instead, Bashir’s willingness to arrest Hilal may have involved a signal from Deby that he would not interfere. Deby and Bashir have made a number of public steps in recent months to demonstrate improved relations, including discussions of a joint border force. It is possible that Deby sees the disarmament campaign as potentially stabilizing the Darfur region, which would improve the security situation on his eastern border. In this case, this suggests that Hilal will see little support from those familial ties, which could have been considerable given Chad’s formidable military. With that being said, it is unlikely that Chad will actively participate in any of the ensuing conflict in Darfur, instead tacitly allowing Bashir’s plans to go forward without interference on Hilal’s behalf.
Conflict Likely to Remain Localized with Tribal Features, Have Indirect Effects on Other Regions
The most substantial risk in the coming weeks and months is intra-tribal. Hilal’s precarious situation with Khartoum in 2014 was exacerbated by President Bashir taking the second-in-command of the Border Guards, General Mohamed Hamdan ‘Hametti’, who once served under Hilal in the Janjaweed, and appointing him to a coveted role as the head of the RSF, which reports directly to Bashir. Crucially, Hametti is the head of the Amhary clan, also in the Rezeigat Arab tribe, and in addition to the RSF troops that he commands, this directly pits him against Hilal both within the military as well as the tribe.
FORECAST: As a result, the coming conflict is likely to be within the Rezeigat tribe, dispersed across Darfur, between the factions backing their respective leaders. Although elders have been attempting to mediate in recent months, the arrest of Hilal is expected to ignite the in-fighting. Arresting Hilal’s sons and other SARC leadership may have been an attempt to eliminate potential replacements that could organize the movement, but the SARC’s immediate response suggests they nonetheless retain these capabilities. Both the ambushes and targeted attacks on RSF troops near Misteriya as well as the SARC statement swearing revenge are indicative that those loyal to Hilal are ready and willing to escalate the conflict. Furthermore, given the role that Hilal played in the formation of the Janjaweed, his popularity among his compatriots and disillusionment due to his treatment by the government may trigger defections from the RSF to the Border Guards and the SARC.
FORECAST: Following Hilal’s arrest, there is likely to be a continuation of the backlash that was seen with the immediate fallout, namely deliberate attacks and ambushes on RSF troops in the Misteriya area in North Darfur. However, this is liable to spread throughout northern and central Darfur, where the Rezeigat Arab tribe is located, and see tribal clashes that extend beyond specific attacks on militia forces to violence against rivaling villages and towns, including in al-Fasher and its environs. This comes amid the ongoing withdrawal of the UN-AU Hybrid Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), which has been in the process of handing over 11 military bases in Darfur to the RSF and SAF, better positioning them in the impending fight while removing a source of international oversight. Furthermore, as conflict intensifies between the Border Guards and RSF, President Bashir has little incentive to intervene or otherwise de-escalate the situation, as allowing the groups to fight each other necessarily weakens both, therefore relieving pressure on the government in managing the security threat of reining in the militias he first empowered years ago.
Given this dynamic, the forthcoming escalation is likely to be restricted to the Darfur Region. However, the re-deployment of troops from other conflict zones to Darfur as reinforcements may result in an uptick in militia activity in Blue Nile and South Kordofan states, as other rebel groups seek to take advantage of any additional security vacuum.
Travel to Khartoum can continue while practicing security precautions regarding the threat of criminality.
We advise against travel to outlying areas of Sudan, particularly Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile States, given the volatile security situation caused by ongoing fighting between the government and armed rebel groups, the threat of kidnapping, as well as intercommunal clashes.
This report was written by:
Rachel Jacob– MAX Security’s Associate Director of Intelligence, Sub-Saharan Africa Division
And reviewed by:
Tzahi Shraga – MAX Security’s Chief Intelligence Officer, ret. LTC from the Israeli intelligence community
Oded Berkowitz – MAX Security’s Regional Director of Intelligence, Sub-Saharan Africa Division, Europe and the Americas Division