Sudan's Bashir threatens Israel over alleged airstrike

Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir vowed today to retaliate against Israel for a recent alleged airstrike. The Monitor explains the background of the dispute.

Hasan Sarbakhshian/AP
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir (c.) and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad review an honor guard, in Tehran, Iran, in this 2006 photo.

Sudan accuses Israel of bombing an arms warehouse or factory Oct. 24. Israel has no comment, but accuses Sudan of making or transporting arms for Iran. The recent arrival of two Iranian warships in Sudan seems to indicate strengthening ties. The Sudanese government, meanwhile, is convinced it is the victim of an Israeli attack. Today, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir threatened Israel with retaliation, saying "Israel will remain the number one enemy, and we will not call them anything except the Zionist enemy."  

Did Israel really bomb a Sudanese weapons factory?

Probably. Iran and Sudan blame an air attack by the Jewish state for the explosion Oct. 24, which caused a fireball at the Yarmouk weapons complex outside Khartoum. Sudan says it claimed three lives. Israeli officials have refused to confirm or deny involvement, while practically in the same breath condemning Sudan as a conduit for Iranian arms heading toward the Gaza Strip.

When Amos Gilad, an aide to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, was asked by an Israeli television station about possible Israeli Defense Force involvement, he refused to answer the question, while stressing that Sudan supports "terrorism."

Sudanese Information Minister Ahmed Belal Osman told reporters on a tour of the blast site that bomb debris had been discovered and examined, and his government was convinced they were Israeli armaments.

What is the nature of the Sudan-Iran relationship?

Sudan has unusually close ties with Iran for a Sunni-dominated state, stretching back over 20 years. Most Arab governments look askance at Persian and majority-­Shiite Iran as a dangerous regional rival.

Sudanese President Bashir has been periodically assisted by Iran since taking power following a 1989 coup. The two countries signed a military cooperation agreement in 2008. In 2009, the US Embassy in Khartoum reported that Foreign Affairs Minister Al-Samani al-Wasila had acknowledged that Iran had provided weapons to the Sudanese military in the past and had worked on joint weapons production, but denied that the country had been a transshipment point for Iranian arms to Palestinian militants in Gaza.

Earlier that year, the United States had complained to Sudan that the country's Badr Airlines was flying in "lethal military equipment" from Iran and requested that the shipments stop.

Why would Israel care?

Israel asserts that Sudan is the starting point for Iranian arms shipments to Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by Hamas, a militant Islamist group. The allegation is that Sudan moves weapons through the Egyptian mainland and the lawless Sinai Peninsula before they enter the Palestinian enclave's smuggling tunnels. US, Israeli, and Egyptian officials have frequently confirmed that arms smuggling from Sudan is commonplace, notably to Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

In 2011, an air attack on a passenger car in northern Sudan was assumed by much of the Israeli press to be the work of their government, though – as with the latest incident – there was neither a confirmation nor a denial from Israeli officials.

In early 2009, Israel carried out three airstrikes in Sudanese territory, one of them an attack on a freighter in the Red Sea. The most serious of the strikes left 39 dead in a convoy near the Egyptian border. Israeli officials have been particularly concerned that Iran will find a way to arm militants in Gaza with longer-range missiles.

Wasn't the US involved in an airstrike on Sudan?

Yes, long ago. Under President Bill Clinton in 1998, the US fired a series of cruise missiles at Sudan in retaliation for Al Qaeda's attacks on US embassies in Africa that year. Osama bin Laden and the core of Al Qaeda had resided in the country under Mr. Bashir's protection earlier in the decade, and the most famous US target was the Al Shifa medical factory, which the US alleged was being used to make a chemical precursor for nerve gas, a claim the Sudanese government still disputes. For a look at how the Sudanese have turned Al Shifa into an anti-US shrine, read the Monitor's recent report from the bombed out factory.

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