The Terrorists’ Internationale

By Rachel Ehrenfeld & J. Millard Burr
Tuesday, May 21st, 2013 @ 3:56AM

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The Terrorist InternationaleJ. Millard Burr’s new book, will soon be available, for free, on the ACD website. We’ll be bringing you, exclusively, excerpts from the book, starting today with the Introduction.

** J. Millard Burr is a Senior Fellow at ACD, worked for many years in the Department of State.  In his last assignment he served as logistics advisor for the Operation Lifeline Sudan program, U.S. Agency for International Development. Dr. Burr has a Ph.D. in Geography from the University of Oregon, and he has served as Special Assistant to The Geographer, U. S. Department of State. In a career that spanned more than three decades, he had numerous assignments in Latin America, the Middle East and Asia.  With collaborator Dr. Robert O. Collins, he is the author of four books dealing with the emergence of Islamist movements.

The Terrorists’ Internationale; The Khartoum Venue

is the capstone of that work.

“International terrorism, in fact, is very complicated.”

Alexandre de Marenches, French spymaster

Le Nouvel Observateur interview, 12-18 September 1986

       In the decade preceding the epochal event of September 11, 2001, analysts and intelligence agencies paid very little attention to a series of conferences that began about 1980 and the attendant genesis, morphology and growth of what Alexandre de Marenches has called the Terrorists’ Internationale. The movement itself dates from the early nineteen eighties when a number of like-minded Arabs from a score of nations sought revenge for the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Congregating at the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderland, the Afghan-Arabs — for such they would be called — were Holy Warriors, or mujahidin. They were often called jihadis and jihadists, but those are very much Western descriptors; to be correct, the mujahid (pl.: mujahidin) is one who fights in the name of jihad; even more precisely, a mujahid liberates occupied Muslim lands, and in turn is differentiated from the ghazi who fights to expand the Muslim homeland, or Dar al-Islam.

Mujahidin travel to Afghanistan was sponsored by numerous Muslim charities, while wealthy individuals and Arab governments also played parts. From the thousands of Arabs who passed through Peshawar, Pakistan, the gate to Afghanistan, a loose association of purposeful mujahidin leaders has emerged. Devoted to the regeneration of traditional and uncorrupted Islamic values, mujahidin values were dominated by a worldview that extended well beyond the war in Afghanistan and even beyond the Muslim homeland. While the struggle seemed unending, eventually Islam would dominate and the entire world would be subject to the Qur’an and to the sharia (Islamic law).

Men of such mettle had been labeled “Islamists” by Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood and the revolutionary nonpareil. By the time the jihad was fought in Afghanistan the term was applied to the learned intellectuals and military leaders of that cause. They would spread their message through mosques and madrassas throughout the Muslim World, and their geopolitics — in reality, their theopolitics — extended not only to re-conquer of land lost to the Soviets, but after that chore was accomplished, the penetration of the Dar al-Harb, the lands of the kufr(unbeliever) itself.

The mujahidin response was accelerated by a meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) that met in Pakistan in January 1980. In what was one of the few noteworthy successes of that organization, Saudi Arabia announced it would devote considerable funds to the Afghanistan jihad. Saudi money then played a significant role in uniting Muslim sentiment against the Soviet invasion, while Pakistan provided the safe-haven required sustaining an insurgency and the military personnel to train the Afghan insurgents. In Riyadh the royal family would use every weapon at its disposal short of military intervention; likely the most successful weapon deployed was the funding of a spate of Muslim charities that either existed previously, or were founded for the express purpose of supporting the cause. Muslim charities not only provided relief to a mass of Afghan refugees who fled to Pakistan but their offices and officials were used to support both directly and indirectly the Afghan-Arab and mujahidin fighting forces.

Sheikh Abdallah Azzam, a noted lecturer on Islamist topics was one of the first mujahidin to arrive in Peshawar. A Palestinian Islamist involved with the international Muslim Brotherhood since his youth, Azzam was able to create there a center where the Afghan-Arabs were welcomed. In 1984 Azzam created the famous Services Bureau for Arab Mujahidin (MAK), which provided guesthouses and a point of departure for travelers to and from Afghanistan. In a city riven by personal and political rivalries the MAK survived thanks in large part to the protection provided by the Afghan mujahidin commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his Islamic Union. In addition, Azzam benefitted greatly from the financial support provided by Saudi Arabia and by his young protégé Osama Bin Laden, the scion of a wealthy and large Saudi family.

Scores of future leaders, actual and potential, would pass through the MAK. And for nearly a decade Bin Laden used Peshawar as a base for his own proselytizing operation, and he was reported to have attracted 4,000 volunteers from Medina alone. Certainly, the MAK with its guesthouses, publications, and outreach effort (dawa) was an expensive operation. It was doubly expensive following the creation of its satellite organization al-Kifah, whose recruiting offices serviced the jihad and were found in a score of countries. At the time the Soviet invaders began their departure from Afghanistan in late 1988 al-Kifah offices were operating in France, Germany, and the U.K; it also had numerous recruiting sites in the United States where Azzam himself was a frequent visitor and fundraiser.

In August 1988 the jihad that had begun in Afghanistan entered a new phase when an amalgam of committed mujahidin meeting at the Faruq training camp near Khost, Paktia province, Afghanistan, formed what eventually become known to the world as al-Qaeda. It was a truly unique movement and the first of its kind because it neither derived from nor was beholding to an existing political movement or particular ethnicity. And from the first decision reached by its religious counselors, Osama Bin Laden and his cohort demanded from al-Qaeda adherents a Sixth Pillar of Islam, perpetual Jihad. The movement demanded absolute obedience to the Salafist ideal: derived from as-salaf as-saliheen — “the pious predecessors” who comprised the initial Muslim community — the Salafist ideal visualizes a return to the rule of Umar ibn al-Khattab (634-644), and to the golden age of the four “righteous” caliphs (632-662). It was an epoch ofdeen wa dawla, or the unity of religion and state. (1) In order for the umma (Muslim community) to return to that state of being, the modern Salafist spokesmen asserted that Islamist leadership and organization would have to be built from the ground up, and perpetual jihad that would anneal leaders was its sine qua non.

When the last of the Soviet military departed Afghanistan in 1988-1989, thousands of well-trained “Afghan-Arab” mujahidin already indoctrinated in Salafist concepts began to return home. Soon, from Algiers to Jakarta and from Cairo to Khartoum backroom and storefront preachers of an Islamist future have emerged. 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, and where mujahidin could congregate and feel welcome. That void was filled in April 1991 when Hassan al-Turabi inaugurated in Khartoum the first general assembly of the Popular Arab Islamic Conference. And whether the West realized it or not, the Muslim Century had begun.

Already a respected intellectual (alim) and Islamist political figure, Turabi admitted that he never thought he would live to see Islamists take power in the Sudan. Yet, the seismic shift that shook the modern Muslim World with the Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise to power in Shi’ite Iran in 1979 appeared to have been replicated in a Sunni domain a decade later when, on 30 June 1989, a small circle of undistinguished Army Officers seized power in the Sudan. Led by 44 year-old Brigadier Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the third ranking officer in the paratroop corps, and backed by fifteen fellow officers, the National Salvation Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) easily ousted the civilian Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi and terminated a peace process that seemed poised to bring an end to a civil war in southern Sudan. Thereafter, Turabi, a veteran of the Sudan’s political scene for more than three decades and an advisor to the RCC, used guile and a loyal political following to eclipse the military junta that had seized power.

Thanks to Turabi and his followers, by 1991 the RCC had instituted the first steps needed to create an Islamic Republic of the Sudan. And it was not much after Turabi’s own Popular Arab Islamic Conference (PAIC) became operational in Khartoum in April 1991 that foreign journalists began to ennoble Turabi as the “Muslim pope”. Some began to call his secretive organization that sought to globalize radical Islam, the “terrorist international”. Certainly, change was in the air, and Turabi’s trusted associate Ibrahim al-Sanoussi, the PAIC deputy director, stated with confidence: “Now we have accomplished our role in the internal affairs of Sudan, and we have to move with our duties beyond that.”(2)

Hassan al-Turabi, the son of an Islamic judge (qadi), was influenced at an early age by members of the first modern Islamist congeries, the International Muslim Brotherhood. Composed of politically active Muslims devoted to the Salafist ideal and the regeneration of traditional Islamic values, the Muslim Brotherhood had been founded in Egypt by Hassan al-Banna in March of 1928. Headquartered in Cairo, the Ikhwanhad been very active in the nineteen thirties and over two decades developed an international presence. However, in the nineteen sixties its international pretensions had been crushed by the Egyptian “pharaoh” Gamal Abdel Nasser, and manyIkhwan who fled Egypt and its military dictatorship found a home in a more tolerant Sudan.

Receiving the benefit of excellent tutors, Turabi enjoyed a superior academic career. A legal scholar with advanced degrees earned in London and Paris, at a young age he became dean of the Khartoum University law school and wrote numerous religious and political works. (3) Still tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, he entered politics in the nineteen sixties as the leader of a group of youthful revolutionary Islamists. Although the Sudan was a state of many ethnicities and significant religious minorities, Turabi argued that the Sudan constitution should “clearly and specifically state that ‘the Sudan is an Islamic Republic.'” He would never after reject that postulate.

Like most Muslim Brothers Turabi had no great love for military dictatorships, feeling they could never really be trusted to govern Islamically. He was influenced by Sayed Qutb, an Egyptian Muslim Brother and intellectual, who had been jailed for ten years after the attempt to assassinate Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser, re-arrested and executed in 1966. Qutb preached a Salafist model involving the metamorphosis of politics and society based on obedience to Islam as “a total way of life.” As expressed by Qutb and other modern pathfinders, the salafeen are usually described as “puritanical” Muslims who reject much of classical scholarship and legalisms. They are devoted to the implementation of sharia and demonstrate total adherence for the Quran, Islam’s holy book. Often called “Muslim fundamentalists,” their leaders, including Turabi, rejected the term, preferring instead to be called “Islamists.”

Ironically Turabi, though an acknowledged Islamist, never referred to himself as a Salafist. He was too unorthodox in his thinking — especially with regard to the role of women in Islam — to accept or be given that appellation. Still, Turabi was truly Salafist in one important sense: his political life was given to a single overarching ideal, and he would create ashura, a peoples’ consultative congress, that would be a home to all Muslims and comprise the best of Islam. In the end what really counted was not how the Islamist state was created but that it was created.

*     *     *

     Paul Berman in his study Terror and Liberalism has written that there was a time in the nineteen nineties “when it became fashionable among intellectuals to speak about the ‘short’ twentieth century; one that began late in 1914 and [ended] early in 1989.” He notes that observers used 1989 because numerous despotic governments collapsed both shortly before and in that year in places like the Soviet satellites, South Africa, Chile, etc. It was, Berman notes, “one of history’s better moments.” In North Africa a new word, al-shaffafiya (transparency) was coined. Ostensibly, it was the portent of a new age. However, if the Arab market believed that it was entering a new era where governments would be servants of the people, they were soon disabused of that idea. And the argument that a century dominated by totalitarianism had ended in 1989 was too facile by half. Surely many tyrants had fallen, “yet no blow at all to the Islamists and [the Socialist] Ba’athi” had been struck. Instead, throughout the Muslim World the Islamists were on the march, and the 30 June 1989 Revolution in the Sudan was a harbinger of their movement. (4)

Under Bashir and Turabi there would be no way but the RCC way; the Quran and the sharia were its coda and the Sudan military, purged of its secular elements, was its sword. The government would survive because it received arms from Libya, Iraq and Iran; and the interminable civil war, with the destruction of Southern Sudan and the genocide of Nilotic peoples, which had begun practically since the inception of the Sudanese state, continued its inexorable downward spiral. (5) As the RCC grew stronger, so did Hassan al-Turabi, and he prepared to use an unlikely dust-swept perfervid Khartoum as a site fit for his own large ambition. The decade-long war in Afghanistan had transformed the Arab street, and it was time for the Islamist leadership to comprehend, as Turabi did, that the Islamist hour was at hand and a crumbling Soviet Union would actually weaken the West and benefit Islam.

In case Turabi’s friends might have qualms visiting the Sudan itself, the RCC daily demonstrated its Islamist bona fides; during an Arab and Foreign Investors Symposium held in Khartoum 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, mujahidin blooded in the Russo-Afghan war, were using the Sudan as a “trampoline” to attack their governments.

Turabi was already a respected leader known throughout the Muslim World when he led a delegation of Islamist leaders to Amman in October 1990. There, he and his fellow intellectuals sought a solution to the political firestorm that had followed the Iraq invasion of Kuwait earlier that summer. Their venture continued on to Saudi Arabia and Iraq, but failing in its purpose, the cohort could do little but discredit the attack on Iraq that was initiated by the United States and its Muslim allies. 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 them all refuge when he opened the Popular Arab Islamic Conference at Khartoum just a few weeks later. 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.

The PAIC appeared to follow in the modern tradition of Muslim conferences. It was, however, something entirely new. Its first assembly brought together the leaders of more than a score of like-minded mujahidin organizations, all infuriated by the outcome of the 1991 Gulf War and by the humbling of Saddam Hussein. Meeting together in one venue, the mujahidin leadership 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. The PAIC would then 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. Still, the PAIC lifespan was so short that outside the Muslim World the importance of that seminal event was missed entirely. As was the importance of the Terrorists’ Internationale.

*     *     *

     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 shariathroughout northern Nigeria. Turabi was a friend and mentor to determined men like Osama Bin Laden who had just arrived in Khartoum. He was an ally of Ayman al-Zawahiri, a mujahidin who doggedly sought the elimination of Egypt President Hosni Mubarak. Indeed, the welcome mat was out for both aging Islamists and young warlords from Southwest and Southeast Asia. Turabi was also at his ease as he hobnobbed with Europe’s Islamist intellectuals.

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. Indeed, the first great meeting of Muslim Islamists attracted little international attention, and its open sessions only received the most desultory coverage by Khartoum’s captive press. And from PAIC I to the third and last PAIC general assembly held in 1995 there would continue a general ignorance of the movement’s aims and objectives. Reports on the large conclaves held 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.

PAIC I provided a stage on which many mujahidin 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 of good faith devoted to the promotion of Islam. The PAIC was, however, far more than the innocent debating society that Turabi described. (6) Scores of noted (and notorious) individuals representing themselves, their organizations, or simply appearing as invited guests of Hassan al-Turabi, circulated freely at Khartoum’s Friendship Hall meeting ground.

From 1991 onward, Hassan al-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/or the Department of Homeland Security either as terrorists or as members of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. The Department of State noted the role of state sponsorship in international terrorism and showed an obvious concern with the political change in the Sudan. Militant Moslem groups had increased their presence, and the Sudan government was allowing terrorist groups to train on its territory. As a consequence, the Sudan would often be featured in reports in the years to come.

Among the listed organizations that maintained an office in Khartoum were HAMAS, Lebanon’s Hezbollah (Party of God) 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 Sayyf: Sword of God) of the Philippines, the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (al-Jema’ah al-Islamiyah al-Musallaha, from French: Groupe Islamique Armé), 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-is-who of the terrorist world and included Osama Bin Laden of Saudi Arabia, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Ahmed Refai Taha of Egypt, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar of Afghanistan, Djokar Dudayev of Chechnya, Hassan Nasrallah of Lebanon, Sheikh Mubarik Gilani of Kashmir, Mohamad Farah Aidid of Somalia, and the many representatives of Palestine movements including George Habash, Musa Abu Marzook and Nayef Hawatma. Bin Laden and Zawahiri, undoubtedly the most notorious of the lot, would plot attacks on the West from residences they maintained in the Sudan itself.

Ironically, while most PAIC participants were committed Islamists, the secular leaders of Arab movements active in Palestine were also welcomed. So too were members of the Shi’ite communities in Lebanon, Bahrain and Iran. In Turabi’s organization, as in his world-view, the whole of the ummawas 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, mujahidin andIkhwan bankers, clergy and secular radicals, Sunni, Shi’ite and Sufi leaders could meet, plot, and exchange the most radical opinions without fear of immediate reprisal.

*     *     *

     When the Saudi exile Osama Bin Laden moved to Khartoum in the spring of 1991, he was welcomed by Hassan al-Turabi, and his arrival coincided with the inaugural meeting of the Popular Arab Islamic Conference. 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, survived intact. (7) The confluence of the two events can be seen as the seminal moment in the revival of the international Islamist movement that had lost its spark following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. The PAIC would provide the engine and the intellectual cover, and Bin Laden the mujahidin leadership and manpower that propelled the Terrorists’ Internationale forward.

By 1994 Turabi had shed his covert advisory role to the military-dominated Revolutionary Command Council and moved to assume personal control over the nation’s political activity. For the next six years the military leadership led by President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and his allies was confronted by Turabi, a man of considerable charisma determined to create an Islamist state he could dominate totally. Ironically, in less than three years the PAIC and its Khartoum venue was fast becoming a distant memory. The reasons were many: They included the fact that the organization was too large for Turabi to manage easily. Second, Iranian money had begun to dominate the various Muslim revolutionary movements.

Most important of all was the failed assassination of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in June 1995. Planned in the Sudan (and the subject of a Sudanese cover-up), that debacle forced both the Khartoum government and Hassan al-Turabi on the political defensive from which the latter never recovered. Turabi reduced his own field of vision and sought to reduce the influence of Bashir and the military. Once and for all, the aging Turabi would either dominate the political life of the Sudan or die trying.

*     *     *

     The title The Terrorists’ Internationale has been chosen with due caution. Like the Communist Internationale (Comintern), an association of Communist parties amalgamated by Vladimir Lenin in March 1919 and whose, “last flicker of independence… took place in May 1927,” the life of the Popular Arab Islamic Conference, was nasty, brutish and short, and lasted about the same number of years. (8)

A year after the 1st PAIC Conference was held in 1991, there appeared on view in the Library of Congress of the United States a compilation of documents, titled, “Revelations from the Russian Archives.” Tom Cornwell of the London Observer, viewed the exhibit and commented that the Communist leader Vladimir Lenin was often given a historian’slaissez passer given the depredations of his successor Josef Stalin and the latter’s “taste for terror.” The essence of terror, as described by Russian historian Rudolf Pikhoia, was, “to victimize a certain group in such a horrifying way that another, much larger group responds in the way the terrorizer wants them to.” That perfectly defines the condition of the Sudanese population in general following the 30 June 1989 revolution. (9)

Lenin was far more bloodthirsty than Turabi. Still, the Sudanese Machiavelli whose motives were cloaked by gray hair, thick glasses, a stammer, and a Milquetoast-appearance, also possessed a mean streak that terrified his political enemies. He had not objected the use of terrorist tactics against the Southern Sudanese during long periods of civil war in the Sudan. Nor would he do so to those who opposed his dream of an Islamic Republic of the Sudan.

The use of terror in a selective fashion to achieve a desired end also describes quite well the modus operandigoverning the activity of hundreds of Islamists mujahidin who made their way to Khartoum in April 1991. Turabi’s PAIC would serve as the Mecca of the Islamist movement and hold three general assemblies between 1991 and 1995. Then like the Comintern — the Communist’s international bureau created to institute and coordinate the movement’s activities worldwide — it would quickly disappear from stage center after enjoying a few years of notoriety.


(1) Mark Erickson, “Middle East: Islamism, fascism and terrorism (Part 1), Asia Times Online,

Middle_East/DK05Ak01.html, 5 November 2002.

(2) Max Taylor and M. E. Elbushra, “Research Note: Hassan al-Turabi, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida in Sudan,” Terrorism and Political Violence, No. 18, 2006.

(3) On Turabi’s life and times see, J. Millard Burr and Robert O. Collins, Revolutionary Sudan, Brill Publishers, Leiden, the Netherlands, 2003.

(4) Paul Berman, Terror and Liberalism, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2003, p. 154.

(5) See J. Millard Burr and Robert O. Collins, Requiem for the Sudan, Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado, 1995.

(6) Hassan al-Tourabi, Islam, Avenir du Monde: Entretiens avec Alain Chevalerias, Editions Jean-Claude Lattes, Paris, 1997, p. 307, 299.

(7) The figure was provided by Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, a Bin Laden associate interrogated by German police after his arrest in September 1998. See: “U.S. Case Against bin Laden in Embassy Blasts Seems to Rest on Ideas,” The New York Times, 13 April 1999.

(8) Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment, Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 399.

(9) Tim Cornwell, “Soviet archives show Lenin had a taste for terror, The Washington Times, 3 July 1992, p. A9.

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