KHARTOUM, SUDAN — TO his foes, he's a dark power, the villain behind the scenes, dispatching militants to topple neighboring governments and export Sudan's Islamic "revolution."
The man some call the "pope of terrorism" doesn't fit that image in person. He is, in fact, slightly built, urbane, and quick-witted. He sits barefoot through interviews, tucking his feet beneath him as he rocks to and fro.
"I represent a current that is now prevailing in the Sudan. It's developing all over the world, and I like that," says a smiling Hassan al-Turabi, Sudan's white-robed political and spiritual leader. "Ex-colonial masters are jealous that the country is rising so high ... but they can't just force one model on the whole world."
Dr. Turabi, leader of Sudan's powerful Islamic National Front, likes to portray his nation as a model, one at the vanguard of a worldwide Islamic revival.
But Turabi's Islamists have fallen on hard times. Given the threat of United Nations sanctions, the success of the latest military offensive by southern rebels, and the American decision to withdraw its diplomats because of security concerns, Sudan's Islamic leadership is showing signs of strain.
"They are not what they were five years ago. Now there is no Islamic resurgence movement; in fact, they are retreating," says one independent Sudanese political analyst, who spoke in Khartoum on condition of anonymity. "They want a way out that will let them save face and preserve some of their power."
Along Khartoum's crumbling, dust-blown streets, residents aren't predicting the imminent collapse of the regime that came to power in a 1989 coup. But Sudanese here see internal and external pressure building on the government, especially with a deadline of UN Security Council Resolution 1044 set Jan. 31.
The decree calls on Sudan to extradite by March 30 three men wanted for a failed assassination attempt on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Ethiopia in June. Diplomats say the UN resolution is likely to be followed with sanctions if Sudan does not comply.
"[UN] Resolution 1044 really shook the feet of the government. I never saw them so annoyed," says a wealthy Sudanese businessman who asked not to be identified. "They're working on different scenarios to get out of it. They've never been in this kind of jam before."
If Sudan's regime is threatened at the prospect of even deeper international isolation, it isn't letting on publicly. Quietly, it is making tentative overtures to opposition figures. But in open forums, it remain defiant, vehemently denying Egyptian charges of involvement in the attack on President Mubarak and of sheltering the three suspects.
"Sudan is 1 million square miles, and a government cannot look for someone and find him in a month or two," Turabi asserts. "If the Sudan is pressed, it will go to more extremes, actually."
Turabi and his acolytes compare Sudan to Vietnam or Somalia in its willingness to resist Western intervention.
But the regime's bite doesn't always match its bark. Sudanese officials bowed to pressure to release one of their most vociferous critics, former Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi, from prison last August. Although Mr. Mahdi is forbidden to leave the capital, the Oxford-educated politician is free to denounce the regime.
"The country is in full crisis, its economy is collapsing, civil war is escalating, its external relations are the worst ever," Mahdi says. "Every problem they wish away, [they] paint a rosy picture and see encouraging signs in the worst developments."
Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir recently sent intermediaries to meet Mahdi and Abel Alier, vice president of Sudan under President Jaafar Nimeiri in the 1970s and an influential opposition leader.
Some Sudanese analysts see a widening split between Turabi and the country's military leaders, many of whom don't want to be at the receiving end of international sanctions like those enacted against Iraq and Libya that have had a strain on their economies.
If the partnership between Sudan's generals and the leadership of Turabi's National Islamic Front is fraying, the extent of the damage is difficult to gauge. In recent years, the Front has reportedly purged hundreds of Army officers from key posts and replaced them with individuals loyal to the Front's hierarchy.
At least one Western diplomat admits foreign observers "don't have a handle" on how much allegiance the Front still commands within the military.
Growing international isolation is testing the ties that bind the regime. Four of Sudan's neighbors - Ethiopia, Eritrea, Egypt, and Uganda - oppose the Khartoum government and accuse it of trying to export its Islamic revolution. In February, the United States pulled its diplomats out of Sudan, citing security concerns.
"We are not seeking a change in the Sudanese government itself, but a change in its policies and practices," says US Ambassador to Sudan Tim Carney from his new base in Nairobi.
Internal disaffection with the regime also seems to have mounted, especially since inflation began to spiral at the start of the year. Economists say the 13-year-old war with southern Christian and animist rebels - who are trying to keep Khartoum from clamping the hand of Islam on them - has had a major strain on the economy.
Estimates are difficult to verify, but economists at Khartoum University say the government spends much of its meager foreign-exchange earnings on the war, which costs an estimated $1 million per day.
Western observers in Khartoum say the regime was "shocked" at the inroads rebels made in their military blitz late last year. Even Turabi admits the cost in lives for Khartoum was tremendous.
"In the old days, it was just rebels here and there, and some shooting, a few maybe killed, and others wounded, on either side," Turabi says. "This time the guns were so big, it wasn't known. And the tanks and people were not prepared with antitank arms. And so the Sudanese lost quite a few."
Despite setbacks,the Islamic regime is hard put to find a different identity.
"The government has sold itself on slogans and banners it cannot pull down," says an influential Khartoum businessman. "You can make a U-turn for the Army, but for those who have raised the flag of Allah, they cannot be told to turn back."