National Islamic Front
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|Purpose||Creation and maintenance of Sudan as Islamic state|
The National Islamic Front (Arabic: الجبهة الإسلامية القومية; transliterated: al-Jabhah al-Islamiyah al-Qawmiyah) is the Islamist political organization founded and led by Dr. Hassan al-Turabi that has influenced the Sudanese government since 1979, and dominated it since 1989. It supports the maintenance of an Islamic state run on sharia and rejects the concept of a secular state.
While its legal front is the political party, the National Congress, there is little actual distinction between the two. It is nominally led by President Omar Hassan al-Bashir. The NIF has shown itself to be both politically adept and ruthless in its use of violence, in particular in the internal conflicts of the Second Sudanese Civil War and the Darfur conflict, as well in the provisioning of proxy forces such as the Lord's Resistance Army, West Nile Bank Front and Uganda National Rescue Front II against Uganda.
Formation & Early History
Created in the 1960s as an Islamist student group, it was known as the Islamic Charter Front. From 1964 to 1969 it was headed by Hassan al-Turabi after the overthrow of the government of President Ibrahim Abboud. In this period, the ICF managed to eject the Communist Party from the parliament. It also supported women's right to vote and ran women candidates. In 1969 the government was overthrown by General Gaafar al-Nimeiry in a coup d'état, after which the members of the Islamic Charter Front were placed under house arrest or fled the country.
For a 15-year period from this point, the organization was called the Muslim Brotherhood after the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt. In 1979, when Nimeiry sought an accommodation with the Muslim Brotherhood, Turabi was invited to become Attorney-General, a position in which he pushed for the strict application of sharia in 1983. Throughout the Cold War, the organization benefitted from the pro-Islamist support of Saudi Arabia. They gained disproportionate power over the Sudanese economy through their dominance of Islamic banking.
It also benefitted from a surge of anti-Communism in the Nimeiry regime. This is because the Communist party had been its rival amongst University students. The Communists and NIF appealed to University students by being less based on family connections than the mainstream Sudanese parties. (source: Francis M. Deng) Although Nimeiry called his regime socialist to the end he turned on the Communists as a threat to his power and likely as an impediment in gaining aid from the United States.
Assumption of Power
In 1985, the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood was charged with sedition. This came, in part, because al-Nimeiry had grown suspicious of their banking power. This official condemnation of the group proved temporary though as President Nimeiry had lost support of the Sudanese people and the military so was consequently overthrown. An attempt at democracy followed his overthrow and the organization attempted to use this to their advantage. In the 1986 elections their financial strength and backing among university graduates still gave them only ten percent of the vote and therefore a third place position.
They made up for this by increasingly gaining support of the military during a time of civil war. The well educated status of their leadership, Turabi was one of the best educated men in Sudan, also gained them prestige. In 1989, the organization was therefore able to overthrow the elected government of Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi with the help of the military. After gaining power, Turabi renamed the organization the National Islamic Front. While some NIF leaders, including Turabi, were placed under house arrest following the coup as part of the internal power struggle that brought President Omar Hasan Ahmad al-Bashir to power, they were soon released. The NIF created the National Congress Party as a legal cover.
Once in power the NIF intensified the war against the South. They also placed Sadiq al-Mahdi in prison. Intriguingly, though Sadiq is related to Turabi by marriage, the two had become bitter enemies by the mid-1980s. The regime also committed what are widely deemed to have been massive human rights violations against religious minorities, particularly in the South. Although not as harshly sexist as Afghanistan's later Taliban, women in the Sudan could face execution for adultery even in cases of rape. This was used by several soldiers in their war against the South.
The NIF also tried to position itself as the world's leading Sunni Islamist organization. They would, arguably, be the only Sunni Islamist state before the Taliban (The Gulf states being monarchies). Although critical of Saddam Hussein Turabi held an anti-American Islamist conference during Operation Desert Storm, toward the end of supporting the Iraqi people in their war. During terrorism expert Steven Emerson's 1998 testimony before the United States Senate, he implicated the Sudanese National Islamic Front as partly responsible for the February 1993 World Trade Center bombing. That attack, on February 26, 1993, occurred on the 2nd anniversary of the retreat of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, thus ending the 1991 Gulf War.
Beginning in 1991, they also harbored Osama bin Laden for a time, after the Saudis revoked his citizenship. It is suspected they hoped he could aid them through his wealth and construction company. However, eventually the NIF government deemed him too great a liability and ejected him.
Bin Laden had been exiled to Sudan because he had publicly spoken out against the Saudi government for basing U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia in order to oppose Iraq's takeover of Kuwait. So although bin Laden and the NIF appeared to be on opposite sides of sympathy for or against the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, they both found differing reasons for their greater and common concern, the presence and involvement of the United States in that region's conflict.
After more than a decade of civil war a shift may have begun in Sudan. Starting around 1999 Hassan Turabi's political clout waned. After the September 11, 2001 attacks the regime made attempts to downplay, at least on the public international stage, any international Islamist aspects of the organization. Further Turabi was imprisoned in 2004 and the regime allowed the Christian John Garang to be Vice President in a peace deal. However abuses in Darfur have gained note and the government is still dominated by high-ranking members of the NIF.
- official prepared statement of Steven Emerson before the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology, and Government Information, on February 24, 1998, Federal Information Systems Corporation, Federal News Service, as downloaded from the Library of Congress, 1998, Made available 4/5/98