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Machiavelli in the Twenty-First Century: Sudanese Security Leaks in Perspective

[Members of SPLA and SAF listen at the opening of a different security committee meeting. Image by Tim Freccia (Enough Project) via Flickr] [Members of SPLA and SAF listen at the opening of a different security committee meeting. Image by Tim Freccia (Enough Project) via Flickr]

International mediators from the West, Africa and Arab countries are pinning their hopes for peace and democratization in the two Sudans to a series of domestic and international mediation initiatives. But a glimpse into the decision-making of the Sudanese security apparatus shows its preference for infiltration, stalling, and military solutions.

What is in the minds of leaders of Sudan’s security and military apparatus? As a group, they are the most influential actor in Sudanese politics, and a major influence on South Sudanese politics. Understanding their attitude toward Sudan’s interlocutors–domestic foes and international mediators–in peace negotiations over Darfur and the Two Areas is crucial to gauge the prospects for a negotiated peace to the conflicts that have affected the country for decades. But making sense of the regime’s strategy ahead of the upcoming 2015 elections can also tell us how much we can hope for democratization. Retrospectively, understanding the regime’s inner workings could also help us generate hypotheses on the beliefs and attitudes that drove its decisions in the past decade: first accommodation toward the South, then an all-out hardline military approach.

But the perceptions and deliberations of the Sudanese government are also interesting in their own right. At the cost of immeasurable human suffering, the regime has survived both US and UN sanction regimes, multiple insurgencies, ICC indictments, the removal of a quarter of its land area, and the collapse of its oil production. It has maintained relations with both Iran and Gulf countries. It has enjoyed protection from China at the UN Security Council. In December 2014 the ICC prosecutor announced it was shelving its Darfur inquiry, citing a lack of Security Council support.[1] This is a testimony to the political acumen of the Sudanese leadership. It also demonstrates a willingness to resort to tactical maneuvering and levels of violence that put Sudan far on the spectrum of state behavior. As an extreme case, it represents an ideal-type of theoretical relevance for our understanding of the international relations and domestic policies of authoritarian regimes.

High Stakes

The current stakes in the two Sudans are high. South Sudan is the theatre of intense, widespread fighting between the country’s army (the SPLA), and the rebels of the “SPLM-In-Opposition,” led by former Vice President Riek Machar. Nearly 1.5 million people have been displaced in a year,[2] and the conflict shows no sign of abating.

In Sudan, the government faces insurgency on three fronts in its peripheries: Darfur, Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile. Rebel groups have allied under the banner of the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), which is attempting to build functional ties with the peaceful party opposition in Khartoum. The authorities are formally negotiating with the SPLM-N in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) under African mediation, and with the Darfur armed groups in Doha (Qatar). 2.9 million people remain displaced across the country.[3]

In the cities along the Nile and the Red Sea that form the geographic and political core of northern Sudan, legal opposition parties and clandestine youth groups challenge the government with statements demanding regime change and bouts of protests. In September 2013 security forces opened fire on demonstrators in towns across the country, killing more than 170 people.[4] The government is leading a “national dialogue” with the legal opposition and preparing for general elections in 2015.

A leak from the upper circles of Sudan’s security and military apparatus shows a consensus against any concessions to the opposition or rebel groups, which bodes poorly for those who wish for peace and democracy. Yet the regime is not monolithic. The security and military leaders disagree along multiple but not overlapping fault lines on a host of issues, such as the economy, relationships with Iran and the Gulf, and the level of repression to deploy against the peaceful opposition. And a close reading of their dynamics of interaction shows that the presidency and its civilian allies are working to carve out an autonomy from the men in uniform.

It was an important meeting that took place at Khartoum’s National Defense College on the last day of August 2014. In attendance were Major General Bakri Hassan Saleh, the First Vice President of Sudan, and Major General Abdel Rahim Mohammed Hussein, the Minister of Defense, who went to secondary school with Omar al-Bashir. Major General Mohammed Atta, the Director General of the National Intelligence and Security Service, was also present. He heads the country’s most powerful security body – an efficient bureaucracy of monitoring and repression that censors newspapers, detains and tortures activists ahead of demonstrations, and oversees military units. Also present were Major General Hashim Abdallah Mohammed, the Chief of Joint Staff; Professor Ibrahim Ghandur, the Deputy Chairman of the National Congress Party (NCP – Sudan’s ruling party) and its main figurehead; Dr. Mustafa Othman Ismail, the NCP’s Political Secretary; and eight other senior intelligence, military, paramilitary and police officials. The participants are the top-ranking officials of Sudan’s security apparatus; only President Omar al-Bashir is absent. They carry weight.

The minutes from the meeting found their way to the public as part of a series of high-profile leaks.[5] They first appeared on 24 September 2014 on the website of Eric Reeves, a longtime Sudan activist hostile to the Sudanese government.[6] They appeared in another form on 3 October on Al Rakoba, a Sudanese opposition website. A detailed analysis of the document’s formal characteristics and contents, and of local and expert opinion on its authenticity indicates a forgery is highly implausible (see appendix).


In the meeting the officials discuss numerous issues with a candor that reflects the secret nature of their discussions. The minutes thus contain a series of important factual revelations. Reeves, Africa Confidential and other media reported on them, so I will only summarize the most important here:

  • Sudan is deliberately starving rebel-held areas of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile by bombing food stocks and fields to prevent harvest.[7] Human rights NGOs have documented such bombing of civilian areas and infrastructure, but the minutes make it clear that it is the result of deliberate targeting of food resources (which are civilian infrastructure) rather than disproportionate force against military targets; as such, they represent prima facie evidence of war crimes and potential crimes against humanity. The minutes also recommend that the government “create disorder and security standoffs in the camps” for displaced people in Darfur (p.26).
  • Sudan has been actively supporting the Libyan Dawn Forces, one of the main factions in Libya’s current civil conflict.[8] Sudan provided them with “weapons and military equipment donated by Qatar and Turkey”. Sudan formed a joint operation room with the Dawn Forces to “coordinate and administer military operations” (p.12). Sudan is training Libyan military intelligence personnel (p.10).
  • As part of its military and security cooperation with Sudan, Iran recently built two air forces bases in Sudan (the Kenana and the Jebel Awliya airbases). It is building bases for “interception and spying” in Sudan. It provided BM (Grad) missile launchers to Sudan in July 2014, that Sudan sold to Qatar to finance its assistance to Libyan armed groups. There is a full battalion of Iranian Republican Guards in Sudan (p.18).
  • Sudan has delivered weapons to Houthi rebels in Yemen (p.15).
  • The Sudanese government arranged to pay the Popular Congress Party (PCP), an opposition party led by former regime leader Hassan al-Turabi, thirty million Sudanese pounds (or about $5.2m). The goal is to secure its participation in the 2015 elections and thwart the possibility of a boycott (p.22).[9]

These revelations are not problematic because they are factually detailed, not the subject of internal debate, and known first hand to the participants in the meeting.

Interpretation: Consensual Topics 

Other elements of the discussion were already known to a lesser degree of detail, or are less factual or detailed and thus more subject to interpretation.

There are topics on which the meeting’s participants fully agree: the importance of the relationship with Iran, an unwillingness to compromise with the SRF, and a satisfaction with the current state of international mediation in Sudan matters.

There is a consensus in the committee that the relationship with Iran is strategic. The issue appears in the context of a discussion on relations with both Iran and Gulf countries. Nine of the fourteen participants, including all of the most senior members, proclaim their commitment to the alliance with Iran in strong terms. Minister of Defense Abdel Rahim Mohammed Hussein calls it “strategic and everlasting” (p.18). Deputy Chairman of the NCP Ibrahim Ghandur describes it as “one of the most successful in the history of Sudan” (p.23). No one makes statements that criticize the relationship with Iran. Three of the five members who do not express that commitment do so only because they discuss matters unrelated to Iran.

The committee’s members also agree on a scathing assessment of the goals of the rebels of the SRF, and on an unwillingness to compromise. Both the introduction to the minutes and its concluding recommendations mention the “New Sudan project”; the phrase is recurrent in various statements made in the meeting. This is a reference to the project that John Garang, a Southerner and the former head of the SPLA, advocated for the whole of Sudan. At its core was a change in the nature of the Sudanese state to show more democracy and representation of the country’s ethnic diversity. The democratization elements of the 2005 peace deal between the government and the SPLA echoed these demands; it is only after Garang’s death in 2005 that the secessionist elements within the SPLA gained ascendance over the movement.

Officials in the meeting see the SRF as the offspring of that project–a new chapter in an international plot that split Sudan. NCP Political Secretary Mustafa Othman Ismail says: “The political crisis is formed of the incarnations of the New Sudan project that is based on racism, tribalism, the continuation of wars and the creation of warlords. The South separated and the cycle of war returned in both countries” (p.2). NISS Director General Major General Mohammed Atta: “All the plans are there for the splitting of the front [SRF] and the movement [SPLM-N] and the liquidation of the New Sudan project” (p.18). In this vision the Paris Declaration that the SRF signed with Sadiq al-Mahdi is “part of a big conspiracy” (General Abdallah al-Jaili, PDF General Coordinator, p. 6).

There are disagreements on the gravity of the threat the SRF poses. For some attendees the SPLM-N presence in the “danger areas [of] refugee camps, liberated areas, South Sudan, Uganda and Ethiopia represent the greatest threat” (General Al- Rashid Faqiri, Director of National Security, p.7). Others are more confident. When talking about the rebels, NISS Director General Major General Mohammed Atta says: “they don’t have a presence except on the Net”, “we are not in a hurry; they are afraid that events will come and that the world [will] forget them” (p.17).

But none among the attendees suggest anything but a military solution to the SRF problem. Compromise and political accommodation through negotiations are out of the picture. Much of the meeting is spent discussing the many military, intelligence, political and media campaigns the government is leading against the Front. The strategy is comprehensive and sophisticated. It includes:

  • A dry season ground offensive against SRF-held areas in the summer of 2015;
  • Targeting food stores and fields;
  • Systematically monitoring, infiltrating and dividing the Front in all areas where it is active, including abroad;
  • Denying humanitarian access to rebel-held areas while the conflict goes on;
  • Infiltrating the South Sudanese bank that provides financing to the SRF and its members;
  • Hosting, indoctrinating and recruiting displaced people in the fight against the SRF;
  • Integrating SRF defectors into government forces;
  • Violently disbanding camps for displaced people in Darfur, and resettling their inhabitants to rural areas;
  • Criminalizing support to rebels and any criticism of the army;
  • Refusing to exchange prisoners of war;
  • Holding the 2015 elections on time;
  • Refusing to negotiate with the SRF as a group;
  • Demanding that any armed group wishing to participate in the national dialogue must surrender its weapons first;
  • Refusing to see greater involvement of the UN Security Council in Sudan affairs.

The Sudanese officials are strikingly satisfied with international mediators. While several participants express distrust toward the US and France, there is consensus in favor of the representatives of international institutions in charge of the Sudan file. Defense Minister Abdel Rahim Mohammed Hussein, talking about the national dialogue process, says “I met Ali al-Zaatari [UN representative in Sudan], Salah Halima [Arab League Ambassador], and Hailey Menkerios [UN representative at the AU] and all of them support us. We have achieved a lot” (p.19). Officials appear particularly appreciative of the work of Thabo Mbeki, the head of the African Union’s mediation team for Sudan and South Sudan: “we must support Mbeki in all areas” (NCP Political Secretary Mustafa Othman Ismail, p.2).

Part of the plan is to use international mediators to convince armed groups to sit at the national dialogue in exchange of them disarming: “Mbeki met with me and the President and we agreed with him the [armed] movements must [come to] the dialogue inside [the country]” (VP Major General Bakri Hassan Saleh, p.25). The Sudanese make similar efforts with the then head of UNAMID, the UN peacekeeping mission in Darfur: “We trust Mohammed Bin Shammas to gather all the Darfur movements to Addis Ababa, and it will be a call for consultation and not negotiation. And whoever wants to negotiate [can] go to Doha. And he [will] gather them and seek their opinion [on joining the dialogue]” (Defense Minister Abdel Rahim Mohammed Hussein, p.19).

The officials notice that, unsurprisingly, the rebels “do not trust Mbeki” (Major General Salah at-Tayyeb, DDR Commissioner, p.5). Officials are “not optimistic” (NCP Political Secretary Mustafa Othman Ismail, p.2) that rebels will accept to disarm in exchange for a seat at a vaguely defined dialogue taking place within the country under NCP leadership. But that’s beside the point, since the dialogue is performative: “If they refuse the dialogue the position of Sudan will be intact. We can defend it in front of the international community” (Defense Minister Abdel Rahim Mohammed Hussein, p.19).

That Sudanese officials share a positive view of international mediators shows that they face little resistance or contradiction from them, despite the government’s egregious human rights record. It’s a sign that the mediators objectively favor the Sudanese government’s preferences rather than those of rebels.

Disagreements and Dissimulation

On other matters participants in the meeting contradict each more or less openly, or appear to be hiding information from each other.

We learn, for instance, that Sudan promised support to Riek Machar, the leader of the South Sudanese rebellion. Machar made a well-publicized visit to Khartoum on 11 August 2014 in company of his deputy Taban Deng. He met with Vice President Saleh and other senior officials. Machar shared with the Sudanese government in-depth intelligence in the hope of securing military support (p.12).[10] In the minutes it appears that on that occasion President Omar al-Bashir ordered his administration to provide “full protection ” to Machar and his men in Khartoum, but that Sudan made no concrete commitment with regards to military assistance and training.[11]

The discussion of the Sudan’s assistance to Machar takes a puzzling form. It unfolds as if Machar’s August visit marked a shift in Sudanese policy. It assumes that Sudan had so far remained on the sidelines of the South Sudanese conflict. Yet the Small Arms Survey, an NGO, documented in May 2014 the use by Machar’s troops of ammunition manufactured the same year in Sudan. According to the NGO, it is “likely that it was obtained […] from an external source since the start of the current conflict”. Hence a paradox: security officials in a top secret meeting act as if Sudan had not yet offered concrete support to Machar, while in fact he’s been using freshly acquired Sudanese ammunition. What could account for that? One hypothesis is that parts of the Sudanese military and security apparatus had been supporting Machar without approval from the president, and that they kept it secret from their colleagues in the meeting.

Throughout the document we also notice that disagreements are rife. Many of the officials open their statements with sentences of approval directed at the speakers who preceded them,[12] which can give a first reader a misleading impression of consensus. But we see rifts on the issues of the economy, the way the regime should handle the peaceful opposition, and relations with Iran, the Gulf and Egypt.

The economy is a marginal issue in the conversation.[13] Nine of the fourteen participants do not mention it at all. The five attendees who do dedicate much less times to the discussion of the economy than to other subjects. Yet sharp disagreements come to the fore.

The economic situation is the first issue that NCP Political Secretary Mustafa Othman Ismail, a civilian, brings forward in his statement. His tone is alarmist: “We have an economic crisis that requires radical solutions to reduce the suffering of the civilians and create options to control the market” (p.2). In the same vein, Vice President Major General Bakri Hassan Saleh, in his closing remarks, argues that the regime needs to revise its strategies on a host of subjects, including economic. He cites the President to emphasize his point: “Concerning the change he [the President] said: ‘the world in which we live has changed during the current period, in a very interesting way. And this necessitates the re-shaping of the party and the state in a way that differs from the way they were in the 90s” (p.24). Saleh mentions the economy and trade relations with other countries as domains where that thinking should apply.

In contrast, deputy head of the NCP Ibrahim Ghandur and Defense minister General Abdel Rahim Mohammed Hussein show little concern. Hussein: “The economic situation is being addressed because we have the [right] ingredients [in terms of] the industry, agriculture, and the infrastructure for oil. No one is hungry. These days will pass” (p.21).[14] Ghandur also argues that addressing the economic situation is secondary to the war effort: “the economy will improve after we set up programs to develop it. This negative issue [will] disappear in the future with the increase in agricultural and animal production. […] As soon as the war ends expenses will go to support the economy” (p.24).

Officials also disagree on the ways to handle peaceful opposition, whether in the form of demonstrations or party activity. Out of the ten officials who suggest action on the issue, five argue in favor of political maneuvering and infiltration of the parties, while five others favor repressive measures. The fault line largely pits security and military figures against individuals with a broader political profile. Thus Defense Minister Major General Abdel Rahim Mohammed Hussein and Director General of the NISS Major General Mohammed Atta, two security heavyweights, take a hard line on this issue. Both are proponents of a repressive response to opposition activities. Hussein favors the suppression of demonstrators with live ammunition: “the armed forces and the security are now prepared to protect the elections and have our instructions to open fire on any demonstration, gathering or subversion […]. We have the experience of September [2013] when opening fire stopped all statements and movement” (p.20). Atta argues that “any journalist or politician who mentions the Rapid Support Forces (RSF–a new paramilitary force under NISS authority) or criticizes them will be charged and considered a spy” (p.17).

In contrast, NCP Political Secretary and Deputy Chairman Mustafa Othman Ismail and Ibrahim Ghandur, the two most senior civilians in the meeting, make statements emphasizing the importance of political maneuvering. So does VP Major General Bakri Hassan Saleh. His background is military, but he occupies a civilian position distinct from his colleagues from the military and security apparatus. Saleh says: “The negotiations, the [national] dialogue, the Paris Declaration, and the [opposition’s] declarations and statements must lead us to the elections” (p.25).[15]

Ghandur and Ismail advocate the importance of infiltrating and buying off the main opposition parties to influence their decision-making. They describe far-reaching efforts in that direction. Ghandur suggests non-repressive tactics to secure NCP hegemony: “We want the dialogue to go slowly [so we can] maneuver. If we find it useful we can accelerate its pace and if [we see] damage it [will] go on [slowly] and the elections [will] take place. Our objective is just to enter the elections with the legitimacy of the dialogue” (p.22). Ghandur stresses that allowing the peaceful opposition to operate preserves the appearances of plurality and democracy in Sudan: “we want the [security] apparatus to preserve the opposition so there is a critical voice, so we can show it to the international community” (p.22).

Diplomatic relations with Gulf countries and Egypt are a third topic on which disagreements emerge. These are discussed as part of a broader debate on Sudan’s international alignment, in a context of antagonism between Iran on the one hand, and Egypt and the Gulf states on the other. The debate is triggered by diplomatic initiatives from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to initiate a rapprochement with Sudan, which has been allied with Iran over the past “twenty five years” (Abdallah al-Jaili, PDF General Coordinator, p.5).

NCP Political Secretary Mustafa Othman Ismail brings the issue in his opening statement–the first of the minutes. The vocabulary he uses is cautious and his position may initially appear ambiguous. But the structure of his narrative shows that he is favorable to this rapprochement with the Gulf and Egypt. Ismail begins his statement by highlighting the gravity of the political and economic crises that Sudan faces, before relaying concerns that Egypt and “our brothers” in the Gulf states have about the presence in Sudan of Shiite proselytes and Egyptian Muslim Brothers, and their desire for a balanced relationship (p.3). Ismail then says that the relationship with Iran is strategic, but that “we need a balance between our relationship with the Gulf and Iran”. He says he presented a report to President Bashir outlining a plan to develop a policy of ostensible cooperation toward Gulf countries while maintaining strategic cooperation with Iran in military and intelligence matters “in total secrecy” (p.3). As if anticipating a hostile reaction, Ismail then argues that the goal of the plan is to uncover Gulf states’ intentions in case there is “a conspiracy to ruin our relations with Iran and expose our back to the enemy” (p.4). He adds: “In both cases Iran benefits” from improved relations with the Gulf.

The audience appears deeply suspicious of the proposal. Three of the officials in charge of internal repression, including NISS Director General Major General Mohammed Atta, are convinced that Gulf states and Egypt financed and coordinated the wave of protests of September 2013.[16] Atta says: “We intercepted all the calls of Saudi and Emirati and Egyptian intelligence within Sudan. […] People were brought in to administer the demonstrations. […] We reached the real players and arrested them and they confessed all the details of the conspiracy and the names of the officers in charge of supervising the demonstrations” (p.16).[17] Atta’s suggestion is to keep the information secret and use it to “blackmail” Gulf countries. Similarly, General Siddiq Amer, Director General Of Intelligence and Security, wants to “mislead Gulf countries by taking open and private steps” toward them (p.9).[18] Their hostile intent comes in contrast with Ismail’s proposal.

Others in the meeting are not so overtly opposed to the proposal. But the prevailing sentiment is a deep ambivalence toward potential trade-offs, given the rivalry between Iran and Gulf countries, the proximity of Gulf monarchies to Western countries, and their hostility to Muslim Brothers (from which the Sudanese regime emanates). In total, only two participants, including Ismail, appear in favor of the rapprochement. Two are overtly hostile. And seven appear ambivalent or supportive of only limited, tactical steps, because they consider the relationship with Iran to be a red line, or because they are concerned about the intentions of Gulf states and Egypt.

Among those who appear ambivalent are NCP Deputy Chairman Ibrahim Ghandur and VP Major General Bakri Hassan Saleh. The latter cautions against Saudi overturning the loyalty of Sudanese diplomats posted in Riyadh (p.25). In a reference to Iran, he describes Sudan’s strategic relationships as “unchangeable”. Yet, as mentioned, he opens his statement with a reference to President al-Bashir’s call for a reassessment of Sudan’s policies in light of new realities. He says: “after the separation of the South […] a number of standards and policies that had been taken to deal with specific situations – the rebellions, the economy, the development of parties, our strategic relationships, our neighborhood relationship, our trade interest relationships, and the ideological relationships – have become no longer useful” (p.24). He adds: “in this meeting there is no need for us to agree on everything. We discuss and show points of view and make recommendations, and I [will] brief the President on the discussions and recommendations”.

Saleh is the most senior official in the meeting. He speaks last. His comments thus appear to be weighing in favor Mustafa Othman Ismail’s proposal against the conservatism of other participants. Africa Confidential wrote:

The Military Activities meeting was about achieving consensus, not making policy. ‘In that kind of dictatorial apparatus, you have to keep the political base of the regime stable and give the impression that each centre of power has had its say’, commented one Sudanese academic. ‘It gives you a window on the ideological consensus at the heart of the regime’s top policy-making apparatus’ [19]

Yet the recommendations that conclude the minutes fail to arbitrate between competing approaches on issues that are subject to disagreements. In light of Saleh’s concluding statement, we may doubt that achieving consensus was the goal of the meeting. Rather than addressing disagreements, he asserts that decision-making ultimately lies in the authority of the President. Security and military leaders are consulted, and they have an opportunity to state their red lines. But the presidency attempts to assert its autonomy and negotiate these boundaries. How successful it is in these efforts remains an open question.

Conclusion: The Committee in Context

This points to the importance of assessing the social and institutional dynamics that led to the production of a document. In the case of minutes, the power dynamics playing out in the meeting are crucial to assess both the meaning and the weight of individual statements.

Did the social and power dynamics in the meeting allow anyone to express a preference for a full realignment away from Iran and toward the Gulf? In light of the multiple assertions that the Iran relationship is “strategic”, one may doubt that dissenters have much of a margin to express an alternative view. If the Iran alliance is hegemonic, those who oppose may pay lip support to the idea even as they try to weaken it.

Similar attention to the meeting’s dynamics also casts a doubt on the extent of the opposition’s infiltration that officials claim the government has achieved. Throughout the meeting the more junior participants depict their security institutions as omnipotent and all knowing. Speaking of political parties, General Rashid al-Faqiri, the Director of National Security, says: “we have a majority presence in the leadership of all parties, up to the top. Even [Sadiq al-Mahdi’s] Umma party is penetrated in a big way. We control all the decisions of the party” (p.6). Speaking of rebels, he says: “We follow all their movements, their women, their relations with women, and what kind of alcohol they drink, and what kind of stories they make up when they’re drunk” (p.7). General Salah at-Tayeb, the DDR Commissioner, is equally boastful: “all the sons of Kordofan and Blue Nile in all federal states have joined the RSF to expel the rebels” (p.4-5).

Yet the rebellions continue and the Sadiq al-Mahdi reaches out to the SRF. Are participants in the meeting overestimating their achievements? The more junior attendees speak less and on a narrower range of topics than those who are senior to them. They take the opportunity of the meeting to report on their activities. In these circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that few embarrassing facts emerge. People brag and obfuscate in secret meetings, too. And a sense of frustration with bureaucratic inefficiency seeps through some of the statements, as when Director General of Police Major General Hashim Othman al-Hussein opens with “all this talk [must] turn into action plans we begin to implement, because the threats against national security are great” (p. 13).[20]

We should also keep in mind the committee’s institutional position. As the highest body in the security sector, it plays a major role in policy. But it doesn’t represent the only power center within the regime. Eric Reeves notices that the committee members “[fail] to understand the economic disaster that [their] policies have created”.[21] But he fails to understand that this is a security committee, after all. The economy is neither their focus nor their subject of expertise. We should refrain from generalizing this comment to the regime at large.

Finally, the shifting fault lines that characterize the disagreements between the committee’s participants put in question the binary shorthands used to describe “hawks” and “doves” within a regime. The cleavages are not neat on all topics. Rather, they are cross-cutting: an individual may be conservative on the question of Sudan’s international relations, but hostile to the repression of demonstrations using live ammunition. Preferences are complex. Is this a reflection of the lack of bipolarization that characterizes an authoritarian regime?

Annex: Describing and Assessing the Document

The document is typewritten with a computer. It comes with a cover page dated 1 September 2014 and which provides information on its origins and purpose. The cover page bears the logo of National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS), Sudan’s main intelligence agency, with both domestic and international responsibilities.

On its top left “Republic of Sudan, National Intelligence and Security Services, Central Security Organization” gives us an indication of the document’s location in the Sudanese bureaucracy, although it is unclear whether the Central Security Organization (a branch of NISS) marks its origin, its destination, or both. Importnatly, the document is addressed to Lt. General (fāriq) Othman Taj as-Sir, Director of the Central Security Organization, [22] under the heading “Administration of Military Activities.” [23]

The bottom of the cover page bears on its left the name of General (liwa’ amn) Abdelwahhab ar-Rashid, who appears to be the author of the document. Multiple media sources indicate that ar-Rashid is Director of the Federal States’ Division within the NISS.[24] His rank being lower than as-Sir’s,[25] we can infer that we are looking at a working document drafted by a senior official to his superior. However, al-Rashid is not mentioned in the list of attendees to the meeting, which begs the question of how he could draft the minutes. One hypothesis would be that official attendees were shadowed by close colleagues in charge of taking notes, and whose names didn’t make it on the final, official list of participants. Another hypothesis is that the meeting was recorded.

On the bottom right of the cover page we find the mention:


1. Meeting of the Joint Security and Military Committee Held at the National Defense College on 31 August

2. Meeting of support to Hamas held at the Council of Islamic Scholars of Sudan

The second attachment is missing from the document, but was leaked separately. Finally, the cover page bears the mention “restricted and confidential” (sirri mahdhūr) as well as formal religious formulas that are commonly used among conservative Muslims and Islamists.[25] 

As we skip beyond this cover page we find the actual minutes of the 31 August meeting, which took place the day before the minutes were sent to as-Sir. The minutes are 27 pages long. They with a page summarizing the agenda and the official list of attendees. Participants are listed according to descending order of protocol: the Vice President comes first, followed by Major Generals, then Generals, and so on. This ordering doesn’t necessarily reflect political influence: Mustafa Othman Ismail, a civilian, is listed last. But he is arguably as influential, if not more, than a number of Generals whose names appear before him.

The agenda is split in two. A first section indicates the schedule of activities (opening remarks and presentations) preceding the discussion; a second section describes the subjects to be discussed.

In the first section we learn that Saleh made the opening remarks; we can infer that he chaired the meeting. We also learn that the discussion was preceded by a “detailed analytical presentation” of the most recent statement of the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF). The section also indicates that the meeting included a presentation on the so-called “Paris Declaration”, a public statement of the SRF and opposition leader Sadiq al-Mahdi, and a presentation on the travels, meetings and activities of Mahdi and rebel leaders abroad.

The second section mentions the list of subjects to be discussed, including: the opposition’s statements, international mediation in Sudan’s conflicts, the upcoming elections, and relations with Iran and the Gulf.

It’s notable that, despite their mention on the first page, the minutes don’t contain any description of the presentations given at the beginning of the meeting. The minutes instead delve directly into the statements each of the attendees gave once the presentations were done. This suggests that the priority of the note-taker and his recipient is not to assess the threat posed by the opposition and rebels, but rather to ascertain and record with precision the positions his colleagues took.

Individual interventions are recorded in the notes in chronological order, as evidenced by the fact that later speakers occasionally refer to what has been said previously.[26] They are recorded in a form that appears to closely mirror the spoken Arabic of the participants. The text displays linguistic elements typical of Sudanese Arabic (such as “dayrin” for “we want”) alongside Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). This is unusual for an official document, and could indicate a limited circulation, even for a document of this level of classification. 

The document includes a number of spelling mistakes: ي (i) replaces ى (a) in many instances. This practice is incorrect but frequent, as ي and ى are graphically similar, but typing ﻯ requires the use of the SHIFT key, making ي a frequent shortcut. This particular spelling mistake is common in Sudan, but also in other Arab countries. 

The document concludes with a list of recommendations for implementation.

Where Did the Document Come From?

Reeves wrote: “I received on 22 September 2014, from a source within Sudan whom I trust implicitly, a truly extraordinary, indeed explosive document”. He wrote that he received the document in Arabic accompanied with a handwritten English translation, in separate JPG files. Reeves, who is a Professor of English at Smith College, identified the translator, through his idiomatic errors, as a native Arabic speaker who is “very proficient in English”. Reeves writes that he doesn’t know “what the full ‘chain of custody’ for the document is”. In his first post Reeves only published two pages of the document and their corresponding translation. The image quality was poor and the text was blurry. Reeves in the following days published what he believed was the full Arabic document as well as his typewritten version of the translation.[27] He later realized that some pages had been missing from the Arabic document and uploaded them (Reeves doesn’t know Arabic). He argued that the missing pages were due to connection issues, as Internet connectivity is often limited in Sudan.

In parallel,, a Sudanese pro-opposition news website, on 3 October published a separate version of the document.[28] It came as a standalone PDF with high contrast and clear text, akin to a scanned document. The PDF was missing the cover page present on Reeves’ website.

Reeves, in the final version he published on his website on 8 October, offers twenty-seven pages in the form of JPG pictures, and one page extracted from the al-Rakoba PDF.

Underlined sentences in many parts of the two versions of the document are evidence that they originate from the same source. However the 8 October version uploaded by Reeves contains on two pages annotations that are not present in the al-Rakoba version. In addition, the 28 September photos uploaded by Reeves show the document to be stapled, while the al-Rakoba and Reeves’ 8 October version are not. On Reeves’ 8 October version multiple stapling holes are visible.

An analysis of the metadata of the files shows that the Al Rakoba PDF and the different photos uploaded by Eric Reeves were created using at least two different methods. While the Al Rakoba PDF was stripped of the metadata indicating when it was created, Reeves’ photos all bear timestamps. The pictures from the version published on 28 September are dated 16 September, while those published on 8 October are dated 4 October. They back Reeves’ claims that the delay before final publication of all pages was due to poor image quality and transmission problems. Taken together, these elements suggests that more than one person was involved in the dissemination of the document: if only one person was behind the dissemination, why would he send the PDF to al-Rakoba before 3 October, then take pictures of the document again on 4 October and send them to Reeves?

Given these elements, my hypothesis on the chain of custody of the document is as follows:

  1. Between 1 September and 16 September, a source (A) within the NISS leaked a printed version of the document to an individual outside the government;
  2. Between 1 September and 16 September, the printed copy found its way to the individual (B) who translated the document;
  3. On 16 September, that individual (B) or a close associate (C) took a first series of pictures of the document;
  4. On 22 September, B or C contacted Eric Reeves and sent both the document and its translation;
  5. Between 22 September and 3 October, the individual in possession of the document (B or C) lent his copy to a close associate (D) who unstapled it, scanned it, and sent it to Al Rakoba (which published it on 3 October), before returning it (to B or C);
  6. Reeves’ contact (B or C) on 4 October took new pictures of the (now unstapled) document and sent them to Reeves.

Is It Authentic?

Opposition leader Sadiq al-Mahdi declared on 29 October that the document was authentic, during a public meeting at Chatham House (London).[29] Al-Mahdi is the subject of sustained attention in the meeting’s minutes. Reeves writes that he consulted with “many Darfuris and northern Sudanese” who had no skepticism about the document’s authenticity.[30] He cites a number of media outlets, both local and international, that presume it as well.[31] Africa Confidential, a newsletter focused on African affairs, dedicated three pages to the minutes in its 10 October issue. One piece discusses the document’s authenticity:

Most of the Sudanese activists and officials (serving or former) that we have contacted believe the leaked reports of the National Intelligence and Security Service meeting on 31 August are an authentic account. Indeed, one former official has confirmed the NISS meeting took place and a serving official said the documents were genuine. Western experts are more divided. One experienced security officer judged the documents to be ‘not credible’, a view which was shared, he said, by two Sudanese former intelligence officers. (…) A former security official from a different country said the NISS documents were ‘consistent’ with others he had seen that he knew to be genuine. A senior Western diplomatic source said that if the document was a fake, then it was an ‘astonishingly good’ one.[32]

Without details on why the security and intelligence officers found the documents to be ‘not credible’, it is impossible to assess the validity of their claims.

Since the chain of custody of the document is unclear, we have to rely on its contents and formal characteristics to assess its authenticity. In these circumstances, it is impossible to conclusively prove a document to be authentic. At best, we may say that all attempts to prove it false have failed. Sufficient public scrutiny and expert assessments can allow us to say that it is must be considered authentic until proven otherwise.[33]

I have found no elements in the document that would indicate that it is forged. Its idiosyncrasies–use of dialectal Sudanese Arabic, spelling mistakes, shorthands[34]–are consistent with the usage and tacit knowledge we’d expect within the Sudanese leadership and intelligence apparatus. There are no glaring contradictions between what is publicly known about the regime’s perceptions, alliances, strategies and practices and what is found in the document. It merely provides a greater degree of detail and depth. 

Forging such a lengthy and detailed document would require expert knowledge of the Sudanese leadership, extensive exposure to similar documents from the regime, and time. In theory, this would not be out of reach of a number of intelligence services. However, only three weeks separate the document’s date of creation from its publication on Reeves’ website, which would be a short timeline for a forgery of this magnitude. Given that the minutes concern events that have occurred in August 2014, we can rule out the possibility of a forgery planned over many months. These elements militate significantly, though not conclusively, against the forgery hypothesis.

The minutes have received wide attention since their publication, including in newspapers printed in Khartoum. Deputy Chairman of the NCP Ibrahim Ghandur, who appears in the document, denied their authenticity in a press conference in October. He called it a forgery manufactured by intelligence services to harm Sudan’s relations “with all the countries in the world.”[35] In support of his argument, he said that there was no such thing as a Defense and Security Committee, and that purported participants were attending other meetings on that day (something it is impossible to independently verify). He added that the document gave military ranks to National Service Coordinator Abdel Qader Mohammed Zein and Popular Defense Forces Coordinator Abdallah al-Jayli, even though they are civilians. Yet the document does no such thing.

Bias, Reliability, and Credibility

That a document is authentic does not mean it is free of biases, entirely reliable or credible. How do the author and planned audience affect the minutes content?

Establishing with confidence how the minutes differ from the content of the meeting is in practice impossible. We have no other record of the meeting. As mentioned above, only the discussion segment of the meeting appears in the minutes; the introductory remarks and presentations were omitted.

Is the discussion recorded faithfully? We can only speculate. The document originates from the higher echelons of the NISS and its circulation was limited, which indicates that the author was free to discuss highly confidential matters. The note-taker seems to have done a thorough and detailed job, as evidenced by the length of the document. As mentioned, he used dialectal Sudanese Arabic when needed. We could take this as a sign that he aimed to transcribe oral statements as accurately as possible. In addition, the NISS is an intelligence service with a degree of bureaucratic and professional development that far exceeds that of most other Sudanese institutions. We could expect its leadership to heed to its interest in recording strategic discussions as accurately as possible. 

But the fundamental problem is that we do not know who the note-taker is. As mentioned, aa-Rashid, the signed author of the document, is not among the meeting’s list of attendees. Regardless of whether al-Rashid attended unofficially or whether the meeting was recorded, we have no confidence that al-Rashid authored the document, rather than merely signing it. As-Sir, the recipient, did not officially attend either. We do not know the positions of either of them on any of the salient issues in the meeting, nor do we know their individual loyalties to political figures outside of the NISS.

If the note-taker introduced biases, we are blind to them.



[1]VOA, “Sudan Feels Vindicated as ICC Hints at Dropping Darfur Probe”, 15 December 2014. Retrieved from:

[2] USAID, “South Sudan–Crisis, Fact sheet n°2, Fiscal Year (FY) 2015”, 2 December 2014. Retrieved from:

[3] OCHA, “Sudan: Humanitarian Bulletin Issue 50 | 8 – 14 December 2014”. Retrieved from:

[4] Human Rights Watch, “Sudan: No Justice for Protest Killings”, 21 April 2014.

[5] Other leaks included a NCP strategy document regarding the 2015 elections, and the minutes of a meeting to support Hamas.  

[6] The original post is available on: heart-of-darkness-what-the-khartoum-regime-really-thinks-leaked-minutes-of-critical-august-2014- meeting-of-senior-military-and-security-official/. In 2005 Reeves had called for a “humanitarian intervention” to stop the atrocities in Darfur. See

[7] “This year the popular army [SPLA-N] managed to cultivate big areas in Southern Kordofan. We must not allow them to harvest; we have to prevent them. Because harvest means supplies for the war. Whenever we starve them their leaders surrender and the civilians flee” (General Siddiq ‘Amer, Director General of Intelligence and Security, p. 10). General Imad al-Din Adawi, Chief of Joint Staff: “We should destroy any food store and bomb them before the harvest so we blockade them” (p.13).

[8] The Libyan Dawn Forces are fighting the forces of General Haftar, who enjoys backing from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. In September 2014 the Libyan government accused Sudan of having delivered weapons to the Libya Dawn Forces:

[9] Deputy head of the NCP Ibrahim Ghandur says: “we agreed on three billions to be paid in three installments.” The currency is not specified. In another location of the document Chief of Joint Staff Major General Hashim Abdallah Mohammed says that a soldier’s salary is “two million” (p.14). Were the currency the Sudanese pound, a soldier would earn about $350,000 a year, which seems wildly out of proportion. This indicates that the implicit currency is the qirsh, or piaster, which is worth 1/100 of a Sudanese pound. That means a soldier would earn 20,000 Sudanese pounds (or $3,500) a year, and the PCP received thirty million pounds.

[10] achar shared details on South Sudanese government support to the SPLM/A-N, and their supply routes; information on American and Israeli presence in, and support to, Juba ; on Ugandan support to the SRF and rebel presence in Kampala, Uganda’s capital. In exchange he asked for training of intelligence personnel and tank and artillery operators, as well as advanced weapons. The visit attracted media attention:

[11] Officials appear divided as to the extent to which Sudan should support Machar. Chief of Joint Staff Major General Hashim Abdallah Mohammed says “a balance of power must be achieved in the South” (p.15). Chief of Joint Staff General Imad ad-Din Adawi says: “Huge support to Riek must be provided to fight the war” (p.12).

[12] For instance, General Siddiq Amer, Director General of Intelligence and Security: “I agree with what has been said before me” (p.9). General Imad al-Din Adawi, Chief of Joint Staff: “I agree with what the commanders said” (p.12).

[13] Sudan’s economy was hit hard by Southern secession because it had relied largely on oil produced mostly in the South. In 2012 Sudan was the world’s worst performing economy, with an inflation between 45 and 60 percent. A boom in gold mining in the past two years partly offset these negative trends.

[14] Hussein argues that the military has forty companies abroad under civilian cover that provide resources for the security apparatus to continue its mission regardless of the security situation (p.21).

[15] Concerning Sadiq al-Mahdi’s meetings with rebels abroad, he says: “his children are with us [in Sudan] and whenever a long time passes Sadiq gets bored. So let’s let him visit, and finish his visits, and then what?” (p.25).

[16] The two others are General Siddiq Amer, Director General Of Intelligence and Security, and General Yehya Mohammed Kheir, Minister of State for Defense.

[17] Unfortunately, Atta does not provide factual elements to support his claim, which means it is not possible to assess their veracity.

[18] Amer also suggests confronting Gulf states with evidence of their support to the September 2013 demonstrations.

[19] Africa Confidential, Vol. 55, n°20, 10 October 2014.

[20] Chief of Joint Staff General Imad al-Din Adawi opens with a similar statement (p.12).

[21] See

[22] Multiple media sources confirm Othman Taj as-Sir is indeed the head of the Central Security Organization:,6946

[23] It is unclear what relation the Administration of Military Activities holds with the Central Security Organization.

[24] See for instance and and

[25] For details on Sudan’s military ranks :

[26] “bi-ism allah al-rahman al=rahim” and “al-salam 'alaykum wa-rahmat allah wa-barakato.

[27] For instance: “I concur with what our brother Mustafa said (…).” (Major General Salah at-Tayyeb, DDR Commissioner, p.4)

[27] Available on:

[28] The document is available on

[29] Africa Confidential, Vol. 55, n°23, 21 November 2014. 

[30] See dated-1-september-2014/

[31] Among them are the Associated Press, the Christian Science Monitor, and Sudan Tribune.

[32] Africa Confidential, Vol. 55, n°20, 10 October 2014.

[33] Reeves argues along these lines when he writes that: “It would seem to me that the burden of proof is on those who would argue that the documents are fabrications, that there was no meeting such as described.” See khartoum-regime-really-thinks-leaked-minutes-of-critical-august-2014-meeting-of-senior-military- and-security-official/

[34] For instance, attendee Mustafa Othman Ismail, the Political Secretary of the ruling party, is mentioned by full name and position in the list of attendees (p.1), but the heading preceding his statement (p. 2) reads simply “Mustafa”, which is consistent with how he’s referred to in Sudan. Participants use shortened versions of names when referring to individuals they would expect to be widely known by their colleagues in the context of the discussions. When General Imad ad-Din Adawi, Chief of Joint Staff, mentions Daniel Kodi, Siraj Ali Hamid, and Tijani al-Sisi, three opposition defectors to the government, he refers to them as: “Daniel Kodi and Siraj and al-Sisi” (p.13). 

[35] An excerpt from the press conference is available on: See also:

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