Action needed on al-Qa'ida's hiding place - The Centre for Independent Studies
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Action needed on al-Qa’ida’s hiding place

The devastation in Asia caused by the tsunami has understandably overshadowed the horrors being perpetrated by the Janjaweed militia in Darfur and the equally shameful failure of the Sudanese Government to stop them. But events in Sudan remain critical and have global ramifications.

Sudan is on the way to becoming a haven for al-Qa'ida militants and their violent worldwide struggle. It has a history of housing al-Qa'ida (Osama bin Laden was based there in the first half of the 1990s) and a government that tolerates militant Arab groups on its soil. Sudan sits just across a narrow, pirate-infested stretch of the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia and is a prime springboard for launching attacks in Jeddah (such as the one on December 6 on the US consulate) and elsewhere in the country.

Sudan 's proximity to al-Qa'ida's piggy bank and spiritual home has certainly not gone unnoticed by the group. Nor has the fact that the Sudanese Government would have little problem hosting terror cells – provided they paid rent.

There are now fewer places on earth for these militant groups to hide. The war in Afghanistan, Pakistan's co-operation with Washington and US pressure on the Saudis to clamp down on al-Qa'ida operations on their home turf has forced the terror group to look elsewhere for a safe haven. After the 2001 war in Afghanistan , 1300 US marines were sent to Djibouti to counter the terrorist presence in Sudan , Somalia and Yemen .

One of their tasks is to watch for the smuggling of arms and fighters across the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden . However, many potential refuges remain for what is essentially an expansionist, adaptable and global jihadi presence.

It is now believed that al-Qa'ida has chosen the Jebel Kurush mountain range for its new training camps. The range runs alongside the Red Sea and is backed by the Nubian Desert . The mountains are a good size at 1000m-2000m and it is an area where the Sudanese Government has little control. The location is perfect for smuggling drops – drugs, weapons and fighters – and for insurgent excursions into Jeddah and other parts of Saudi Arabia .

The Sudanese navy is under-equipped to patrol its Red Sea coast. It has about a dozen decrepit former Iranian and Yugoslav patrol boats and very few are believed to be seaworthy. It is impossible for Sudan to maintain adequate maritime security and control its sea border. This only makes it more attractive to terrorists. If, as some experts predict, there is a strong likelihood of a new wave of attacks in Saudi Arabia , this is where the counter-terrorist activities must focus.

The terrain of the Jebel Kurush will be every inch as inhospitable to Western fighting forces as the mountains of Afghanistan . The US and France are best placed for armed intervention in Sudan and their best options are likely to be maritime ones. Both countries maintain naval forces that patrol Sudan 's Red Sea coast and are based in Djibouti . By stopping the illicit sea traffic between Saudi Arabia and Sudan , it would be possible to strangle the al-Qa'ida militants' lifeline. The Sudanese Government, however, has announced it will resist with force any attempts by the US or Britain to intervene by sea.

It has also threatened to withdraw its armed forces from Darfur . This announcement presumably includes interventions for humanitarian reasons and for any further al-Qa'ida hunts. The UN is unlikely to be of much help.

The UN Security Council agreed in July to take action against the Sudanese Government if it remained unable or unwilling to halt the brutalities of the Janjaweed militia in Darfur . However, Arab members opposed the inclusion of the threat of force (against Arab rebels) in that resolution and the UN omitted it. Yet the Sudanese Government has little problem accommodating Chinese troops stationed in the country to protect the Chinese National Petroleum Company's stake in the oilfields and the 10,000 Chinese prisoners who are reportedly forced to work there.

The UN's preferred tool is economic sanctions, while Britain and the US have been pushing for an arms embargo against all rebel groups, including the Janjaweed. Realistically, the US and its allies are already overstretched in their commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan and they would want to avoid a military solution to the problems in Sudan .

The danger of a growing al-Qai'da presence in the Sudanese mountains would only increase if the Saudi Government was co-opted into turning a blind eye to the activities taking place on the Red Sea and across the water. This might suit the House of Saud rather well, for it could be seen as tough on terrorists on its own soil while leaving a vent open – the Red Sea river of illegal movement – through which the terrorist cells can continue to breathe.

Miranda Darling is a research associate at The Centre for Independent Studies.