Clooney’s Satellites Detect Sudan Threat

The Satellite Sentinel Project has observed a military build-up in the Sudan that could herald a massive coming attack on civilians in South Kordofan. By Akshaya Kumar and John Prendergast.

Satellite surveillance can do more than document abuses after they happen. By combining information from citizen journalists with analysis of troop movements visible in imagery captured from 300 miles away in space, we can alert the world of the potential for an attack on civilians in Sudan, even before troops fully deploy.

Almost three years ago, we worked with George Clooney to develop the Satellite Sentinel Project to help shine a light on a conflict that seemed to be unfolding in the dark. The Sudanese government has prohibited international journalists and humanitarian aid workers from entering many parts of the country for years. With the help of cutting-edge technology and a network of informants in Sudan, we’ve been able to pierce through the government’s information blackout.

Our work with the Satellite Sentinel Project is the first sustained public effort to systematically monitor and report on potential hot spots and threats to human security in almost real-time. DigitalGlobe satellites orbiting the earth provide us with a constant stream of images of Sudan. Informed by reports from our network of citizen journalists, those images have allowed us to secure proof of mass graves, the deliberate burning of at least 292 square miles of farms and grasslands and the destruction of 26 civilian villages in Sudan’s South Kordofan state and 16 villages in Blue Nile state.

In April 2012, Ahmed Haroun, who has already been indicted by the International Criminal Court in the Hague for his crimes in Darfur, was caught on videotape urging troops in South Kordofan to “hand over the place clean. Swept, rubbed, crushed. Don’t bring them back alive. We have no space for them.” Since then, the Sudanese government has embarked on a brutal aerial bombardment campaign against civilian areas. Ground troops have attacked villages; burning huts, torturing civilians and displacing thousands. Every year, the Sudanese air force intensifies its attacks on the civilian population in opposition-held areas of South Kordofan and Blue Nile states to coincide with the harvesting season, preventing people from growing their own food. As a result, more than 200,000 Sudanese have fled their homes and sought refuge in neighboring South Sudan and at least 35,000 sought refuge in Ethiopia. Over 350,000 Darfuris live as refugees in Chad. Although humanitarians assist more than four million people in Sudan, at least another million needy or displaced people are being denied aid since they are in rebel held areas of the country.

Now, a new ominous military buildup in Sudan’s airbase and military garrisons could signal more atrocious crimes. Our surveillance shows that the number of tanks has more than tripled at El Obeid Headquarters Garrison, and the number of heavy equipment transporters and armored personnel carriers have swelled too. A sequence of images collected between October 2 and 12, 2013 at El Obeid West show the massing and departure of a military convey. Our satellite imagery also independently corroborates citizen journalists’ reports that a team of Sudanese army engineers destroyed the Buram bridge in September 2013. Since the strategic advantage from destroying this bridge would be limited once rain waters recede and the seasonal river dries, our analysts suggest that an offensive might come even earlier than expected.

Our Satellite Sentinel Project accurately predicted the Sudan Armed Forces invasion of the flashpoint Abyei territory in May 2011. Analysts even identified the road that invading forces would use six weeks before the attack happened. Worryingly, now as the rainy season ends and the harvesting season begins in South Kordofan, signals line up to suggest that Sudan’s army is poised for a major offensive. Recently, anonymous researchers traveled to rebel-held areas of Sudan to measure the humanitarian need. They found that 62 percent of adults are restricting their own food consumption so that children can eat. As a result of intense bombardment during the planting and harvesting season, people are cultivating 73 percent less land than before the conflict erupted. Another offensive against the people of South Kordofan or Abyei will only deepen the humanitarian crisis in the region and poses a serious threat to human security.

The international community must send a strong signal to the Sudanese government that it will not tolerate continued attacks on innocent Sudanese civilians. Our satellite images can provide the warning, but policymakers must take action.