Bin Laden Tries to Put Religious Spin on Darfur Conflict

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

( - Osama bin Laden is trying to portray the bloodshed in western Sudan as part of a Western anti-Islamic crusade, even though victims of the three-year-old Darfur conflict are Muslims.

Some experts saw the attempt to exploit the crisis as a sign of weakness as the fugitive al Qaeda terrorist tries to reestablish his authority in the eyes of jihadists.

An audiotaped message ostensibly from bin Laden, broadcast Sunday on Al-Jazeera television, contained repeated references to a "Zionist-Crusader" war against Muslims. Citing intelligence officials, the White House said the recording was believed to be authentic.

"I call on mujahideen and their supporters in Sudan ... and the [Arabian] peninsula to prepare all that is necessary to wage a long-term war against the Crusaders in western Sudan," the message said.

"I urge holy warriors to be acquainted with the land and the tribes in Darfur."

War broke out in Darfur three years ago between government-sponsored tribal militias and rebel groups claiming to be fighting to end the economic and political marginalization of the region. Since then, some 200,000 people have died and two million more have been displaced.

The Islamist government in Khartoum and its proxy militias are identified as Arabs, while the rebels and civilians have an African ethnic background.

But unlike Sudan's 21-year civil war between Arab Muslim northerners and Christian and animist African southerners, which ended with a comprehensive peace agreement in January 2005, analysts say the sides in Darfur are not divided along religious lines.

All parties - the government, its notorious Janjaweed militia ally, the Darfurian rebel alliance comprising two main groups, and the millions of civilians caught in the crossfire - are Muslims.

In fact, one of the rebel groups, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), itself pursues an Islamist agenda.

In the face of Chinese opposition in the U.N. Security Council, the United States is pressing for sanctions against specified individuals on both sides of the fighting for their roles in the crisis.

Washington also supports a move to replace a 7,000-strong African Union (A.U.) peacekeeping force with a larger, more robust U.N. mission later this year, a plan rejected by Khartoum.

In his message, bin Laden accused the U.S. of stirring up a conflict arising out of "some differences among the tribesmen."

The move was "in preparation for sending Crusader forces to occupy the region and steal its oil under the cover of maintaining security there," he said. "It is a continuous Zionist-Crusader war against the Muslims."

'Religious spin'

"Bin Laden wants to politicize and radicalize the Muslims, and in order to do that, he will take whatever issue where Muslims are even remotely connected and will seek to exploit it," Rohan Gunaratna of the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore said Monday.

"This has been a strategy for a long time. He's doing this because he believes that unless he mobilizes the wider Muslim community, he has no chance. So he's seeking to pinpoint issues which will have resonance among Muslims."

That appeared to be the purpose of the entire wide-ranging statement, which also touched on the Palestinian issue, Kashmir, Chechnya, Indonesia/East Timor and Bosnia - even on the France's ban on Muslim headscarves in public schools and the fact no Islamic nation is represented in the U.N. Security Council.

On Darfur specifically, however, Gunaratna did not think the issue would resonate.

"He's trying to give it a religious spin, but there's no religious dimension to that particular conflict. That's what he's trying to create. Wherever there are cleavages and fissures, he will try to exploit them."

Gunaratna, author of the 2002 book Inside al-Qaeda: Global Network of Terror, said bin Laden knew his profile was diminishing.

"The focus is increasingly on [Iraqi-based terrorist] Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who is leading the fight in the front. Radical Muslims increasingly look towards Zarqawi."

With little "command and control" capability, bin Laden was therefore resorting to casting around for political issues.

Prof. Jim Veitch, a specialist in religious conflict and terrorism at New Zealand's Victoria University, also saw the latest bin Laden message as a sign of weakness rather than strength.

His terrorist network had not carried out a major strike against the West in some time, was unable to put as many people on the ground as it once was, and had largely delegated authority to locally-based groups, he said Monday.

Darfur offered a "ready-made cause for it to latch onto."

"Al Qaeda looks for situations that are in the public eye. It tries to identify with these situations so the public doesn't forget about it."

Veitch did not expect the appeal to be very effective, and believed al-Qaeda to have little capability in the Darfur region.


Nonetheless, bin Laden, a Saudi national until Riyadh revoked his citizenship in the early 1990s, does have a strong history in Sudan.

He invested heavily in the country and lived there from 1991 until May 1996 when Khartoum, under pressure from the Clinton administration and the Saudis, negotiated his departure.

Gunaratna and other researchers say it was made to look like an expulsion but was not really.

Yossef Bodansky, author of a 1999 biography of bin Laden, said when Sudan "expelled" him, he was flown out of Khartoum but then landed at another airstrip a few miles away. Sudanese intelligence agents then whisked him to Darfur, where there was "a vast terrorist-training infrastructure."

There, he and his aides arranged the relocation of terrorists and assets to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Bodansky said. Bin Laden then himself moved to the Taliban-ruled country.

Gunaratna said bin Laden still enjoyed some support in Sudan but probably more elsewhere in East Africa, especially in Somalia.

Even if he was able to mobilize some support in or around Sudan, and even organize a couple of terrorist attacks there, getting support from Khartoum was unlikely, he argued.

"The Americans and Europeans have deepened their influence in Sudan, and Sudan today has much to lose if [its leaders] cooperate, or even appear to cooperate, with bin Laden."

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow