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Africa Confidential, January 2005

On her Majesty's secret service
Is Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) training Sudanese spies?

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On 4 February Africa Confidential lifted the veil on relations between British intelligence and Sudanese security (AC Vol 46 No 3). Following several clandestine meetings between British officials and Sudan's security chief Salah Abdullah Mohamed 'Gosh', AC has learned there is a developing relationship, with each side having very different expectations.

The British side wants to demonstrate its knowledge of the National Islamic Front's intelligence structures, its front companies and covert operatives to give the relationship some grounding in reality. The British believed they had done this by revealing a list of 150 covert companies and operatives last year. Masters of subterranean operations and parallel security structures, the core NIF figures such as Vice-President Ali Osman Taha and Federal Affairs Minister Nafi'e Ali Nafi'e who run the regime have no interest in substantive cooperation with British or any other Western intelligence agency. However, the NIF needs to make some concessions to Western demands or otherwise it will face heavy pressure from Washington, perhaps even military action.

Since the attacks of 11 September 2001, the NIF has made much of its security cooperation with the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (SIS): it claims to have handed over valuable intelligence about activists in the Islamist International structures founded by the NIF's eminence grise, Hassan al Turabi, in Khartoum in the early 1990s. The NIF has also claimed that it repeatedly offered to hand over Usama bin Laden to the US authorities but that President Bill Clinton's administration was not interested in a security relationship with Khartoum. Responsible officials at the time such as the US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Susan Rice deny that any serious offer of Bin Laden was ever made.

Security cooperation between Khartoum and Washington and London has increased sharply in volume over the past two years, for instance in the number of documents handed over and the numbers of joint liaison meetings. What is less clear is the result of this cooperation: has US/Sudanese cooperation thwarted any major terrorist attacks or identified any key players involved in the manufacture of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons? The answer would be appear to be no.

Compared to the intelligence cooperation between Colonel Moammar el Gadaffi's regime in Libya and Washington, which helped identify a Pakistan-based operation smuggling nuclear weapons technology, the Sudanese cooperation has yielded little of substance or that could be reported on. For the Western security agencies, it seems to be a containment operation.

Some Western strategists regard the longer term plan to engage the NIF regime on security, and also more widely in peace negotiations with the Sudan People's Liberation Army, as regime change by stealth. That analysis will be put to the test in the coming months as both the NIF and the SPLA are put under pressure to implement the terms of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed in January.

So far the signs aren't good: far from diving for cover, the key ideologues and founders of Khartoum's Islamist regime are still in place and pursuing the same military tactics - aerial bombardment of civilians, mass rape and killings by ground forces - with total impunity. All that has changed is the location. A decade ago, the Antonov bombers swooped over villages in SPLA-controlled Southern Sudan with their crude but deadly cargos. Now Khartoum's Antonovs and its Mi24 helicopter gunships blast the people of Darfur from the air while ground forces and their Arab militias allies follow up with brutal attacks on the ground.

For all the claims, Western security cooperation with Khartoum has done nothing to mitigate the NIF's horrific and almost universally condemned military campaign in Darfur.

One vignette last August illustrated the reality of Western security cooperation with Khartoum. Western intelligence sources briefed journalists that some teams of US special forces units were operating in northern Sudan in pursuit of terror cells and Al Qaida units. Khartoum's Foreign Minister Mustafa Ismail refused to confirm the report directly to our correspondent but smiled and insisted: 'We are always willing to cooperate with the United States and Britain in fighting terrorists.' At the time, one thousand kilometres from Khartoum, Sudanese government forces and their militia allies were running a scorched earth policy in the western region of Darfur, which was judged to be responsible for the deaths of more than 100,000 civilians in 2004.

That defines current security cooperation. It's possible to get a laisser passer to pursue Al Qaida units in northern Sudan who might threaten Western states ­ but the price of that is to do nothing to stop the ongoing massacre of civilians in Darfur.