Iran’s Strategic Role in the Global Jihadist Movement
By J. Millard Burr*
Wednesday, August 27th, 2014 @ 3:32AM
When the last of the Soviet military departed Afghanistan in 1988-1989, thousands of well-trained “Afghan-Arab” mujahedeen already indoctrinated in Salafist concepts began to return home. Soon, from Algiers to Jakarta and from Cairo to Khartoum there emerged the backroom and storefront preachers of an Islamist future. In general, they were recognized for their opposition to governments that either did not implement or directly opposed the institution of Islamic law, the Sharia. And because they tended to congregate in mosques whose leadership held analogous convictions, the returnees were soon watched closely by intelligence services. The more Islamist they appeared in dress, personal appearance and discourse, the more dangerous they were considered. Obviously unwelcome at home, the pariahs lacked a dependable venue where the Islamist cause could thrive.
Two venues, Iran and Iraq, were for the moment out of the question. Ironically, while Iraq fought to survive Iran began the funding and foundation of its own Shiite Islamist movements. The antagonists, who spent nearly a decade at war, had not played much of a role in the long war in Afghanistan. Nor would they. Despite nearly a decade of combat with the Soviets, in Afghanistan there was still no unifying political movement around which the surviving warlords could rally. Iran served as home to nine disparate Afghan Shia mujahedeen elements, but it would have little influence on the outcome of events in Afghanistan. It sponsored the formation of the Hizb-e-Wahdat (Unity Party) in 1990, but the movement, like the Afghan Shia themselves, was never that significant. By 1990 Iran’s gaze turned west. It began to fund with a vengeance its own Shiite Jihadist creation, the Hezbollah (Party of God). Israel would be harried, attacked directly, and in the end, they believed, Jihad would succeed in eliminating Israel, the Muslim bête noire.
Iranian interest in the Palestine issue began in 1982 when it created and began to finance the Hezbollah in Lebanon. The process of inserting the Shiite movement into the international setting followed in January 1986 when Iran sponsored a meeting of radical Lebanese Shiites held in Teheran. Work was begun to create a constitution for Lebanon based on “the Iranian model.” It was clear that Iran took the long view, and despite the fact that Hezbollah was yet an emerging jihadist element, it announced the conference aim was to introduce Islamic law (Sharia) to the whole of Lebanon.”
That process was continued in May 1990 when Tehran chaired what it called a Global Hezbollah Conference that met in closed session in Tehran. The Iranian leader Ayatollah Rafsanjani gave an innocuous speech covered by Tehran radio, while backstage there were far more important discussions. Tehran was especially unhappy with the raging civil war among Lebanese Shiites involving the Amal militia on one hand and the Hezbollah on the other. The Shia religious leader and Hezbollah member Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid had issued a fatwa against Shia fighting Shia, but the ruling angered the intransigent Hezbollah and its Iranian backers who wanted — and won — an end to the fighting on Hezbollah’s terms.
Following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, in the West a coalition of military forces was gathering. In response, Tehran called yet another conference in December 1990, this time one having a more universal jihadist appeal. The meeting was in effect the revival of Iran’s internationalist foreign policy that had lain dormant since the death of the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1988 and the end of the Iran-Iraq war the same year. The reorganized Iranian theocracy had consolidated its foreign policy and thus the conference theme had little or nothing to do with Iraq, Kuwait or the continuing Gulf crisis. Rather, Tehran demonstrated that it was ready to reach beyond the larger Shiite community and embrace Hamas, an emerging Sunni force that from its base in Gaza had taken a leading role in the long struggle with Israel. Tehran’s move to unify Shiite and Sunni was seen as a move, “to gain increasing influence over Islamic affairs in general, and over the Palestinian movement, in particular.” In a sense, it was the projection of an expansionist Islamist foreign policy first visualized by Ayatollah Khomeini, but one that Iran, long a nation at war with Iraq, had never been able to put into practice.
For the first time, Iran made its peace with the Muslim Brotherhood — an organization that Khomeini had supported from his youth through middle age. In doing so, it applauded the efforts of Hamas, the organization founded by the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza. Hamas was especially admired, as its followers appeared to prefer terrorist acts to talk.
The Tehran meeting was also the first post-Cold War conference over which the specter of the Soviet Union did not loom. It was a brave, new political world, and Arabs attending the conference included leaders of most of the radical Palestinian and Lebanese groups including Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, plus members of al-Sa’iqa, the Palestinian wing of Syria’s secular Baath Party.
As was the case in most conferences to be held in Tehran, the domestic media reported very little. Ironically, absent from Tehran was the usual circle of noted Islamists surrounding Sudan intellectual Hassan al-Turabi. They were to be found elsewhere: many attended the third annual convention of the Islamic Committee for Palestine held in Chicago, Illinois, on December 28-31, 1990. Even without the major Sunni Islamist representatives, it was nevertheless a beginning, and Tehran would hold many annual and special conferences on Palestine in the years to come.
The Tehran-Khartoum Axis
The seismic shift that shook the modern Muslim World with the Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise to power in Shi’ite Iran in 1979 was replicated (in microcosm) in a Sunni domain a decade later. On 30 June 1989, a small circle of undistinguished Army Officers seized power in the Sudan. Islamists to the man, and supported by Sudanese Muslim Brothers, the Sudan itself soon became a site where mujahedeen could congregate and feel welcome.
During the first months of its existence, the Sudan junta was in desperate need of an arms supplier. Sudanese officials had paid a courtesy visit to Tehran shortly after the 30 June 1989 Revolution, and in November a delegation led by President Omar al-Bashir, and which included his most important political and intelligence officials, arrived at Tehran with the begging bowl in hand. It was a difficult move for the Sudanese leadership to make because cultural and religious differences were obvious. And politically, Sudan had supported Iraq during the decade-long Iran-Iraq war. Following that meeting, Iran was not only able, but also willing to come to Khartoum’s rescue. It funded the shipment of some Chinese military hardware, but it would take a year of negotiations before Iranian and Sudanese principals would sign a friendship agreement — whose particulars were never really revealed.
A year later, in December 1990, President Bashir led yet another delegation to Tehran. Whether the Sudan leader and members of his entourage were invited to the conference on Palestine, which was then being held, was not revealed (but it is supposed). Once again the announcements that followed that meeting’s close were innocuous. And while no mention was made of Sudan’s interest in events occurring in Palestine, the Bashir Government had achieved a pivotal moment in its history. The Sudanese president praised the Iranian revolution and admitted that his government was using it as an example as it began the Islamization of the Sudan. The usual flowery responses were pro forma, but the public announcement that Iran gave its unequivocal support to the junta in its war with the Southern Sudanese was indeed welcome. Realistically, it was clear that Bashir’s Iranian policy ruled out even the possibility of negotiations with the southern Sudanese rebels, and it almost ensured that the Sudan civil war would only be settled by combat.
The December 1990 Tehran meeting had an enormous influence on the government of the Sudan as Tehran immediately undertook a sequence of initiatives that would impact Sudan’s domestic and foreign affairs. A secret agreement was reached with Iran’s intelligence service. Shortly after that, Iranian agents including Iranian Security Minister Ali Fallahian, the powerful member of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council chaired by Iranian President Rafsanjani, were seen in Khartoum escorted by Sudan’s intelligence officials. At that time, Iranian expatriates and Western intelligence sources were aware that Iran’s ruling Council had approved the decision to assassinate government opponents in exile, and it was Fallahian’s minions who were made responsible for ratifying the death sentence.
Also seen in the Sudan was the Pasdaran (Iranian Revolutionary Guards) representative Ali Menshawi. He was accompanied by Ahmad Vahidi, chief of the al-Quds Force, the Ayatollahs’ own shadowy militia. They circulated freely in the Sudan and made no effort to hide the budding relationship between the two intelligence services. Next, in early 1991, personnel from the Iranian Ministry of Construction Jihad, a Pasdaran satrapy, surfaced in the Sudan. Finally, to cement the relationship, Magid Kamal, a Pasdaran factotum, was named Iran’s Ambassador to Sudan.
Sudan’s civilian intelligence chief Nafi Ali Nafi and his deputy, the notorious Issa Bushra, who had been trained at the Teheran Military Academy, allowed Iranian influence to permeate Sudan’s umbrella IS-SOR (“Security of the Revolution”) organization. Next, Sudanese residents in the United States and Britain soon reported that a secret intelligence entity trained by Iran were working out of various Sudanese embassies and their task was to attack the government’s enemies abroad. It was reported to be especially active in Cairo and London.
The Sudan government apparatus also controlled the Sudan’s judiciary, and Sudanese media reported that Sudanese judges would henceforth receive training in Iran. As for Iranian government largesse, it offered to construct both a military and a cultural center in Khartoum. It would also fund an Institute of Persian Studies at Khartoum University.
The Popular Arab and Islamic Conference
Prior to 1991 there was no shortage of Muslim gatherings. There was the Baghdad-based Popular Islamic Conference sponsored by Saddam Hussein of Iraq whose assemblies were held infrequently during the mid and late nineteen eighties. However, even though conclaves were numerous, results were minimal. The Popular Arab and Islamic Conference (al-Mutamar al-Arabi al-Shabi al-Islami, or PAIC) founded in the Sudan in April 1991 would change all that.
In 1991 there was still no forum in which jihadists forged during the war in Afghanistan could express views and plot the future of the Islamist world. That void was filled in April 1991 when Sudanese intellectual Hassan al-Turabi inaugurated in Khartoum the first general assembly of the Popular Arab and Islamic Conference (PAIC). Whether the West realized it or not, the inception of the Muslim Century can be dated from that event.
Under Bashir and Turabi there would be no way but the government way; the Quran and the Sharia were its coda, and the Sudan military, which was purged of its secular elements, was its sword. The government would survive because it received the arms it needed from Iran; and the interminable civil war, with the destruction of Southern Sudan and the genocide of Nilotic peoples that had begun practically since the inception of the Sudanese state, continued its inexorable downward spiral.
Unlike most of his associates, Turabi saw the humiliation of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein as an opportunity to unite all the frustrated Islamist elements that had literally been shocked senseless by a defeat they considered their own. He offered the jihadists refuge when he opened the Popular Arab Islamic Conference at Khartoum that fateful April. From its beginning to its end the PAIC was an assembly of pariahs, dangerous Islamist outcasts from states and organizations that opposed the secular leaders who then dominated the Muslim world.
When the Saudi exile and noted jihadist Osama Bin Laden moved to Khartoum in the spring of 1991, he was welcomed by Turabi, and his arrival coincided with the inaugural meeting of the PAIC. His organization, the nascent al-Qaeda, had already “lost around 70 percent of its members”; yet, though it was quiescent it was not dead, and its governing council, the shura that Bin Laden had created in Khost, Afghanistan in August 1988, survived intact. The confluence of the two events — the inauguration of the PAIC and the arrival of Bin Laden — can be seen as the seminal moment in the recreation of the international Islamist movement that had lost its spark following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. The PAIC would provide the nexus and the intellectual cover, and Bin Laden the mujahedeen leadership and manpower that propelled (what Alexandre de Marenches first labeled) ”The Terrorists’ Internationale” forward.
Surficially, the PAIC appeared to follow in the modern tradition of Muslim conferences. However, its first assembly brought together the leaders of more than a score of like-minded mujahedeen organizations. Its leaders were all angered by the outcome of the 1991 Gulf War and by the humiliation of Saddam Hussein. Meeting together in one venue, the mujahideen leadership — both Sunni and Shiite — was prepared to declare jihad on the West and its so-called New World Order. They were determined to eliminate the Western presence in Saudi Arabia and in the Gulf region itself.
PAIC provided a stage on which many mujahideen leaders paraded, yet it began life without fanfare. Its purpose seemed innocuous enough and, when asked, Turabi stated simply that the mission of his Islamic organization was “to promote our religion and our culture,” and defend Muslim values throughout the world. As such it offered a meetinghouse for likeminded individuals devoted to the promotion of jihad, and thus Islam. The PAIC was, however, far more than the innocent debating society that Turabi described. Scores of noted (and notorious) individuals representing themselves, their organizations, or simply appearing as invited guests, circulated freely at Khartoum’s Friendship Hall meeting ground.
Unfortunately for the Sudan, the PAIC conference and the aims of the organization were expensive. Sudan was poor, but Iran had funds. Iran wanted a seat at the table and gained it by financing the PAIC, everything from its offices in Friendship Hall to travel expenses.
The activity of the first PAIC assembly (PAIC I) occurred on two levels: first were the open daily meetings about which very little was reported; they were followed by closed nightly sessions about which nothing was divulged. From 1991 onward, Turabi was seen in Khartoum and elsewhere in the presence of individuals who both prior to and following 9/11/2001, would be listed by the U.S. Department of State, Department of Treasury and the Department of Homeland Security, either as terrorists or as members of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. However, in the beginning the Department of State was slow to recognize the PAIC role in international terrorism—this despite the fact that militant Muslim groups had increased their presence while the Sudan government was allowing terrorist groups to train on its territory.
Among the listed organizations that maintained an office in Khartoum were Hamas, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and a number of other smaller Palestinian organizations. Also represented in Khartoum at one time or another was the nascent Abu Sayyaf Group (Jema’ah Abu Sayyaf: Sword of God) of the Philippines, the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (al-Jema’ah al-Islamiyah al-Musallaha), Egyptian Islamic Jihad (al-Jihad al-Islami al-Masri), the Somali Islah (Reform) movement, and a number of Islamist movements from Pakistan.
Likewise, there were more than a score of notorious figures who enjoyed Sudanese hospitality. They were literally a who’s who of the terrorist world and included Osama Bin Laden of Saudi Arabia, Ayman al-Zawahiri and the Hezbollah terrorist nonpareil, Emad Mughniyeh. In March 1990, President Bashir announced that henceforth all “Arab brothers” would be allowed to enter Sudan without a visa. Before long the governments of Libya, Tunisia and Egypt complained that known enemies of the state, mujahideen blooded in the Russo-Afghan war, were using the Sudan as a “trampoline” from which to attack their governments.
Serving as PAIC chairman, Turabi was the peripatetic scholar steeped in the tradition of the Muslim Brotherhood when he opened the first PAIC assembly in Khartoum. He welcomed to the Sudan a knot of Islamist revolutionaries including Algerians who sought power through open elections, Tajiks who had initiated an Islamist revolution in the former Soviet Union, and Muslims who sought to impose the sharia throughout northern Nigeria. Turabi was a friend and mentor to determined men like Osama Bin Laden, and he was an ally of Ayman al-Zawahiri, a mujahideen who doggedly sought the elimination of Egypt President Hosni Mubarak. Indeed, the welcome mat was out for both aging Islamists and young warlords from both Southwest and Southeast Asia. And Turabi was also at his ease as he hobnobbed with Europe’s Islamist intellectuals and exiled Muslim Brothers.
The PAIC would serve from 1991 through 1996 as a rendezvous for scores of Islamist revolutionary movements and for future terrorist leaders from Osama Bin Laden through Ayman al-Zawahiri. By 1994 Iranian money had begun to dominate the economics of the various Muslim revolutionary movements, both Sunni and Shia. Two years later the PAIC was a spent force, and its life span was so short that outside the Muslim World the importance of that seminal event was missed entirely, as was the importance of the Khartoum venue for The Terrorists’ Internationale.
Madrid and Tehran
Six months following the close of PAIC I, and following eight months of shuttle diplomacy, on 30 October 1991 U.S. Secretary of State James Baker III succeeded in enticing representatives of Israel and of the PLO to a Madrid meeting. It was given the hopeful title of “Conference to Support Middle East Peace.” Sponsored by President George H. W. Bush and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, it brought together Arab and Israeli representatives at the same venue. The “peace process” that Baker visualized had its beginning at the 20th Session of the Palestine National Council. Held in Algeria in 1991, the PLO’s Central Council was authorized for the first time to deal openly with Israeli officials. That change was viewed optimistically in the West as a first step in the opening of Arab-Israeli peace talks in which the Palestinians would be represented for the first time. Twenty-four nations attended the Madrid meeting, including participants from Syria and Lebanon. Importantly, it included King Hussein of Jordan who provided the Palestinians with the diplomatic cover that allowed them to take part.
Sworn enemies were brought together for three days, and for the first time Israel entered into direct negotiations with Palestinians. Although the PLO and Yasser Arafat were not officially represented, they hovered in the background and played an active part throughout. When the conference concluded, Israel had won the point that it had a right to exist; the Arab representatives won their point that the battle for Palestine was a conflict over land, and in future meetings the issue of “land for peace” would dominate.
Following the conference itself, on 3 November 1991 negotiations were initiated in Madrid. Those talks served as the first in what was to be a dozen meetings sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and the Russian government. From Madrid, negotiations continued in Moscow, where in January 1992 multilateral talks were held. A succession of private discussions followed in Norway involving Israel and Palestine principals; in effect, that process replaced the so-called Madrid “structure,” and served as the basis for the so-called Oslo peace process begun in 1993.
Prior to the Madrid conference, the announcement that Israeli and Palestinians would meet in tandem infuriated the Islamist rejectionists. In Tehran, Iranian strongman Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani stated, “We must endeavor to defeat this conference, and we know that [it] is a sham.” Tehran moved rapidly to counter the Madrid play, and some 400 radicals from as many as 60 countries met from October 18-22 at the Esteghlal (Independence) Hotel (formerly the Royal Tehran Hilton) for the Iranian-government sponsored Second International Conference on the Struggle for Palestine. Many present had also been present at PAIC I.
The Tehran counter-conference — ungainly titled the International Conference in Support of the Islamic Revolution in Palestine — opened with a congeries of Palestinian revolutionaries present. They included inter alia the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Fatah-Revolutionary Council, Fatah-Intifada, Palestine Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. That Tehran had opened its doors to all opponents of peace with Israel was signaled by the appearance of the Syrian-based politically left wing, secular, and terrorist PFLP-General Command of Ahmad Jibril. Other participants included the Socialist Workers Party of Egypt, which also represented the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Lebanese Hezbollah, whose Secretary general Abbas Moussavi would address the conference.
The Palestinians lost no opportunity to issue statements promising a new ferocity in the “armed struggle” for Palestine. Palestinian intransigents Abu Nidal and Hamas leader Abu Musa declared the Madrid conference “illegitimate” and maintained that its real purpose was to liquidate the Palestinian cause. Arab attendees, including Hamas and the Iranian satrap Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ), needed no convincing that it was absolutely essential to confound the Western-sponsored peace process. The PIJ itself had become an important key to Iran’s Pan-Muslim effort, and Tehran warmly welcomed its leader Fathi Shikaki.
Dr. Kalim Siddiqui, the Pakistani expatriate in the U.K., friend to numerous Islamists including Hassan al-Turabi with whom he debated publicly on occasion, also made an appearance. Siddiqui was not an unknown activist. Rather, he was founder of the London-based and Iranian-supported Muslim Institute which had already sponsored nine “world conferences” covering a variety of subjects of interest to “the global Islamic movement.” Siddiqui, like Turabi, was determined to construct a parliament of all Muslims, which would then prefigure the creation of a “Non-Territorial Islamic State.” At Tehran, Siddiqui offered a six-point plan to reclaim “all parts of the House of Islam,” and stated that in the battle to reclaim “all parts” of it “from the clutches of the house of kufr (Infidels),” the “Vilayat-e-Faqih in Tehran” would serve as “the leader of the Global Islamic movement.” Siddiqui would use his presentation, “The Road Back to Palestine,” a paper he called a “Muslim Manifesto,” as the foundation for the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain, an organization inaugurated shortly after the close of the Tehran Conference.
At the Tehran meeting, already labeled a “parallel conference” to Madrid, attendees were addressed by Rafsanjani. The Iranian leader indicated that his government was poised to send an Islamist army to defeat any attempt to achieve peace in Palestine. Rafsanjani then noted that despite being “presently involved in such problems as Kashmir, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq, India, Africa and Muslims in the Soviet Union,” the Palestine issue was of paramount importance. In a more focused move the conference discussed the creation of a fund to support the Intifada and an Islamic army to join it. The Iranian objective, simply put, was “to unite radical organizations hostile to negotiations with Israel.”
The conference was especially noteworthy for another reason because there were Iraqis in attendance. The meeting of the two sides was according to one journalist another step in the Iranian plan to fuse the militant forces of “Palestinian radicalism and Islamic Fundamentalism.” Other attendees receiving special attention included Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad. The latter, which had operated from Damascus and had offices in Beirut, Tehran and Khartoum, was an important key to Iran’s Pan-Islamic and ecumenical effort; Fathi Shikaki of PIJ received praise after quoting a fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini that spoke of the religious duty of bringing about the elimination (izala) of the “Zionist entity.”
Before leaving, the participants signed a long declaration of intent comprising 28 points. Tehran media then reported that the Iranian-sponsored Palestinian resistance movement would fund a “high level committee to unite radical organizations hostile to negotiations with Israel.” And in what many organizations considered most important, the Palestinians created a secretariat in Tehran, “to implement the resolutions of the conference.” In sum, the Terrorist Internationale had its second venue.
Thus, from the Tehran conference onward the cooperation and coordination between Iran and the Palestinian Islamic movement became “tighter and more pronounced.” To that end Tehran agreed to provide “$30 million over two years.” It allowed Hamas to open an ’embassy’ in Tehran,” a privilege already enjoyed by Hezbollah. Inexplicably, while the Arab-Israel peace movement moved forward at Oslo, and despite the brave talk that emanated from Tehran, there was actually a decline in terrorist activity in Palestine and Israel. Indeed, following the meeting the Iran-sponsored Hezbollah leadership was relatively quiet.
To some observers the Tehran conference seemed to be competing with the PAIC and with the leadership that Hassan al-Turabi had carefully crafted in the wake of that organization’s first conference. While Turabi undoubtedly had closer relations with Islamist leaders than the Iranian mullahcracy, the one crucial element he could not provide was funding.
Despite an obvious Tehran power play, Turabi could still take some satisfaction in the fact that his initial efforts to square the circle and affect a rapprochement between Iraq and Iran and between Sunni and Shiite had born fruit. Following efforts first undertaken in Khartoum an Iraqi delegation had attended the Tehran Conference and succeeded in achieving what was called an uneasy peace with Iran. Though the rapprochement was more symbolic than genuine, it did much to reduce the tension carried over from the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1989. Certainly, the Iranian leadership did not trust Saddam Hussein, but the conferences at Khartoum and Tehran did serve to continue the development of the Islamist movement.
In Turabi’s organization, as in his world-view, the whole of the Muslim community (the Umma) was to be represented. Thus the PAIC offered a large tent under which pro-Islamist and “anti-Imperialist” movements were seated side-by-side. In its five-year life span (1991-1996) the PAIC achieved a unique status in the post-Colonial Muslim world: At one stroke Turabi provided a terrorist internationale in which civilian and military, mujahideen and Ikhwan banker, clergy and secular radicals, Sunni, Shi’ite and Sufi leaders could meet, plot, and exchange the most radical opinions without fear of immediate reprisal.
A New Role for Iran
Although Iran called itself the champion of the Palestinian cause, it was forced to confront a number of foreign policy challenges far from the Holy Land. It had issues in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, the Balkans; and it would not be long before it would be involved in the budding Islamist movement emerging in Somalia. The Iranian wish-list also included the creation of Islamist states in Central Asian republics, the elimination of secular leaders in North Africa, especially Egypt’s Mubarak, and an attack wherever possible on the reactionary leadership in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. And all the while Iran was pleased to use the Sudan as a base of operations to accomplish these tasks — both then and now. It was Islamist realpolitik writ large: The use of diplomacy, the shipment of arms, and the funding of mujahideen would take precedence over the problem of Palestine.
In the West, Yossef Bodansky, an analyst who studied the Islamist processes from the PAIC to the Tehran conference and beyond, referred to that body of like-minded individuals, institutions and state-sponsors of terrorism as the “Islamist International.” In a book published in 1993, long before most of the world was paying attention to what was occurring in the Khartoum-Tehran nexus, Bodansky argued that the Islamist International was “essentially controlled and sponsored by Iran, and run via Sudan under the leadership of Sheikh Hassan Abdallah al-Turabi.” It was, he claimed, “the realization of Khomeini’s original version of an ecumenical all-Islamic Revolution that does not distinguish between Sunnis and Shiites.” Bodansky concluded that the Islamist International “has been consolidated only since the fall of 1991.”
From the first PAIC in April 1991 to the third and last PAIC general assembly held in 1995 there would continue a general ignorance of the Islamists’ movement’s aims and objectives. Reports on the large conclaves held in Khartoum in April 1991, December 1993 and April 1995 went virtually unnoticed. Representatives from more than fifty nations appeared, as did more than a score of Islam’s leading intellectuals including Rachid Ghannouchi of Tunisia, Sheikh Zindani of Yemen, Abbasi Madani of Algeria, Alija Izetbegovic and Mustafa Ceric of Bosnia, Gaidar Jemal of Russia, and members of the Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt, Jordan and Europe. There was, however, practically no international media analysis. And in Tehran the terrorist center created there in late 1991 was generally overlooked.
The meetings held in Tehran and Madrid were soon followed by the Organization of the Islamic Conference’s 6th Pan-Islamic Summit Conference held at Dakar, Senegal, on 9-11 December 1991. The first meeting held in nearly five years, the conference was hardly the success the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) had hoped. Nonetheless, the appearance of the Iranian President Ayatollah Rafsanjani signaled an important change in Iranian policy.
After a decade’s absence from the ICO’s annual summit, Rafsanjani appeared with a large entourage in tow and courted Africa’s Muslim leaders. The only important result was an agreement to urge the United Nations Security Council to halt the attacks on the Bosniak (Muslim) community of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Otherwise, the conference could only come up with an innocuous pledge to support African food security. It issued a “Dakar Declaration” at the end of the conference urging the “establishment of a New International Order based on peace and progress.” To that declaration the participants added, “We solemnly pledge to unite our efforts in defence of all Islamic causes, and in the first place the cause of Al-Quds Al-Sharif [Jerusalem], the foremost cause of Islam.”
A few days later, Rafsanjani accompanied by 157 senior officials including the Foreign Minister, Defense Minister, Intelligence director Ali Fallahian, and Minister of Construction Jihad Gholam Reza Foruzesh arrived in Khartoum for a three day visit. It was the 47th Iranian delegation to arrive in the Sudan in 1991, but the first visit by an Iranian head of state since the 1979 Iranian revolution. It was preceded by the Ayatollah Ardabili, personal representative of Imam Ali Khameini. Ardabil’s delegation to Khartoum included sheikh Gholam Rida, Commander-in-Chief of the Pasdaran, and Magid Kamal, the Pasdaran coordinator of Iran-Sudan relations. Kamal had played a key role in the creation of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and would shortly be named Iran ambassador to the Sudan. Once settled in Khartoum, Kamal received orders from Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Sheikolislam, a University of California-Berkeley graduate who took part in the seizure of the United States Embassy in Tehran in 1979, and an official accused of running terrorist operations out of Iran’s Foreign Ministry. The PAIC itself would be the beneficiary of technical expertise; and the Bashir government, which already used terror systematically, would benefit from Iranian installation of a computerized security system and wiretapping equipment that allowed the intelligence services to monitor everything, even “the ideology of Sudan’s Muslim clergy.”
Iranian officials never disguised their interest in the Sudan’s Red Sea region, and prominent on the Iranian agenda was the establishment of bases in Sudan from which Palestinian entities could attack Egypt and strategic Western interests in the Horn of Africa. By year’s end, reports circulated in Khartoum of a “conspicuous influx” of Iranians active along the Red Sea, and supervising activity in Islamist military training camps. In Khartoum, Turabi was now surrounded by hardened mujahideen. Likely influenced by the emergence of a Terrorist Internationale, he reportedly stated at a small meeting of PAIC leaders held in Khartoum in November 1991 that “those who cannot be convinced by the Quran will be convinced by power.” Confrontation was “inevitable” and thus the Islamists should plan the direction that struggle would take. Turabi would later deny he had made such a statement, and in interviews argued that “Islam can have nothing to do with terrorism.” Nevertheless, the U.S. Department of State’s 1991 report on that subject noted that the Sudan “continued a disturbing relationship with international terrorist groups.”
Turabi continued to meet with the press on occasion, and in an interview with the Middle East Times in May 1992, Sudan’s Islamic-dominated government was “now becoming one of the leading models because it is a complete movement with political, economic, social, cultural dimensions, very well-organized”. Both his and Islamist aspirations ended when the Algerian Army seized power in January 1992. President Chadli Benjedid was ousted, parliamentary elections were cancelled, and what appeared to be a certain Islamist victory was truncated. Two months later the Algeria’s revolutionary Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which was pregnant with jihadists, was declared illegal. Civil war followed, and under President Liamine Zeroual the FIS was given little room to breathe.
The PAIC was known to have installed modern computers and in preparation for the first round of Algeria’s parliamentary elections its office ran “Algerian voting data through its computers for the FIS.” Simultaneously, Iran began to pay greater attention to events in Algeria. The Iranian Foreign and Intelligence ministries had agreed that Algeria was ripe for the export of an Islamist revolution. And the ministries’ report prepared in July 1991 concluded, “Algeria must remain on the top of the [revolutionary] agenda.” Given its location, Tehran assumed the impact of an Algerian revolution would soon spread to Tunisia and Egypt. Still, caution was demanded, and Iran’s promised material assistance would take on an “indirect form.” Incredibly, Tehran promised the Islamists that if a theocratic regime came to power in Algeria, Iran would provide Algiers a $5 billion “assistance package.” It was an offer that the Sudan certainly couldn’t match, but as Iran sought to carve out its own role in Algeria, it visualized the use of “third parties” to affect Iran policy. That obviously included the Sudan and the PAIC.
The Algerian military initiated what would be a very long effort to eradicate completely Algeria’s Islamist and Salafist movements. In the end the Algerian jihadists were crushed and thus effectively blocked from uniting with the Sudan and Iran as poles of Islamist polities.
It was a setback. Still, events in the Balkans favorable to the Islamist cause were simmering and about to come to a boil.
[End – Part I]
* J. Millard Burr is a Senior Fellow at the American Center for Democracy.
J. Millard Burr*
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