Sudan Elections: The Moment of Truth

Even as the civil war-torn country prepares for an historic election Sunday, Bruce Riedel says Al Qaeda will meddle in the region—making the idea of an everlasting peace nearly impossible.

Even as the civil war-torn country prepares for an historic election Sunday, Bruce Riedel says al Qaeda will meddle in the region—making the idea of an everlasting peace nearly impossible.

On Sunday the people of southern Sudan will almost certainly vote to secede from the country. Al Qaeda and its allies in the global Islamic jihad will howl in outrage and will try to further inflame Muslim-Christian tensions throughout the Middle East and South Asia.

The U.S.-brokered Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed in January 2005 was one of the Bush administration’s best legacies. It ended Africa’s longest civil war in its biggest country and put the country on a path to self-determination for the long-oppressed south. The civil war was between the Arab and Muslim north and the Christian and animist south. Some 2 million were killed.

Al Qaeda, especially its second in command, the Egyptian Ayman al Zawahiri, has rallied against the peace deal from its inception. The jihadists see the CPA as only the latest in a long series of Western initiatives to divide and weaken the Muslim world. Zawahiri has likened the Sudan deal to the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement during World War I, which divided the Ottoman Empire into British and French colonies and set the basis for the creation of Israel. For Zawahiri, the Sudan deal is just the latest in a century of Western imperialist designs on the ummah, or Islamic world, intended to subjugate Islam to the West, exploit its resources, and strengthen Zionism.

In 2009, for example, Zawahiri called upon all Muslims in Sudan to prepare to fight a “long guerrilla war” because “the contemporary Crusade has bared its fangs at you.” Zawahiri denounced the Sudanese government of Umar al Bashir, wanted in much of the world for genocide in Darfur, for being too soft and agreeing to “the division of the Sudan” to please the Americans, Jews, and Saudis. Zawahiri urged Bashir “to repent and return to the straight path of Islam and jihad,” and fight the Crusaders like Mullah Omar, the commander of the faithful in Afghanistan and leader of the Taliban fightong NATO.

Zawahiri and his boss Osama bin Laden know the Sudan very well since it was their hideout in the early and mid-1990s after they left Pakistan at the end of the war against the Soviets. Zawahiri used Sudan as a base for operations against the Egyptian government, including an attempt to assassinate President Hosni Mubarak when he visited Ethiopia. At first, the Sudanese government was very hospitable to the two, but under intense American pressure it expelled them both. They reunited in Afghanistan and declared war on America in 1998.

Working for peace and justice often means having to deal with extremist terror.

The upcoming election in Sudan and the likely partition of the country that will follow comes amid growing tensions throughout the Middle East and South Asia between Muslims and Christians, tensions al Qaeda is stoking. Al Qaeda’s franchise in Iraq has attacked the country’s Christian minority often, and its ally, the Pakistani Taliban, has gone after Christians in Pakistan. In late December the Islamic State of Iraq, al Qaeda’s mouthpiece, warned Christians in the Arab world that more violence is coming. On Tuesday the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by his own security guard who was outraged at Taseer’s outspoken defense of a Pakistani Christian woman accused of blasphemy.

The New Year Eve attack on a church in Alexandria, Egypt, which lead to the death of 21 and the wounding of over 90 is only the latest outrage committed by suicide bombers striking in the name of jihad. The Mubarak government was quick to blame the attack on foreign hands, suggesting al Qaeda was involved. So far, al Qaeda has not claimed credit but it certainly helps inspire such mayhem. Zawahiri has long been a violent opponent of Egypt’s 8 million Coptic Christians, which he sees as a fifth column for America and the Crusader-Zionist alliance in Egypt.

Al Qaeda’s on-the-ground capacity to cause violence in Egypt and Sudan is probably fairly limited. The Egyptian government has taken draconian steps since the early 1990s to disrupt and dismantle jihadist cells in the country, which makes the New Year's Eve attack so unsettling. Egypt has not witnessed a suicide bomber attack of this magnitude in the Nile Valley heartland in years.

The United States is justifiably proud of helping to broker the peace deal in the Sudan and the Obama administration has prepared carefully for what is likely to be a dangerous phase after the elections. Working for peace and justice often means having to deal with extremist terror, as the enemies of peace and justice fight back.

Bruce Riedel, a former longtime CIA officer, is a senior fellow in the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. At Obama’s request, he chaired the strategic review of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009. He’s also the author of The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future.