For years there has been much talk about Sudanese mercenaries fighting in Libya’s civil war, especially since Khalifa Haftar – a renegade ex-general who heads the Libyan National Army (LNA) – waged his westward offensive on Tripoli in April 2019. But many analysts have made false assumptions and provided misleading commentary on this topic. There are several questions worth exploring for a better understanding of these Sudanese mercenaries in Libya, as well as Khartoum’s overall position vis-à-vis Libya’s conflict.
The Background of Sudanese Mercenaries in Libya
The role of Sudanese fighters in Libya must be understood within the historical context of Sudanese-Libyan relations. Over the decades, this bilateral relationship has been rocky, especially during the Moammar Gaddafi era (1969-2011).
“Periods of conflict in the mid-1970s were followed by Sudan facing U.S. pressure in 1985-86 due to its support for Libya’s terrorist activities,” said Samuel Ramani, a doctoral researcher at Oxford University. “Political instability in Sudan and regime changes have been the primary determinant of these up and down bilateral relationships.”[i]
In 1989, Omar Hassan al-Bashir took power in an Islamist-led military coup. His regime was the first Muslim Brotherhood government to come into existence anywhere in the world. Bashir’s government later became more pragmatic and less ideological. Incentivized to establish better relations with governments opposed to projects of political Islam, Sudan’s regime largely left behind its Islamist colors. Nonetheless, the perception of his regime being a Muslim Brotherhood power center stuck until his final years in power. This factor fueled major tensions between Bashir and Gaddafi’s governments.
By the time the “Arab Spring” uprising erupted in Libya in 2011, Libyan rebels fighting Gaddafi’s regime received immediate support from Bashir.
By the time the “Arab Spring” uprising erupted in Libya in 2011, Libyan rebels fighting Gaddafi’s regime received immediate support from Bashir. Meanwhile, Sudanese rebels who had been revolting against the Khartoum regime were on Libyan soil while receiving sponsorship from Gaddafi. These Sudanese rebels in Libya helped Gaddafi’s government in trying to resist the NATO-backed rebellion.
When Haftar launched Operation Flood of Dignity in 2014, which marked the beginning of Libya’s civil war, the eastern commander who previously served Gaddafi’s regime began hiring Sudanese mercenaries to help fight the LNA’s Islamist enemies. The arrangement featured no major political or ideological dilemmas.
Most of the Sudanese rebels whom Haftar paid were anti-Muslim Brotherhood and thus ideologically committed to helping the LNA wage warfare against Libyan Islamist militias. Put simply, these Sudanese rebels had a chance to combat the forces of political Islam in Libya, which they associated with their perceived enemies in Bashir’s regime, and they received payment for doing so.
By 2014, Bashir’s government had suffered greatly from years of US-imposed sanctions. Khartoum was in need of securing stronger financial support from wealthy Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, primarily the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia. Bashir’s interests in receiving more Emirati and Saudi money explained the deployment of Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) into Yemen and Sudan’s severance of diplomatic relations with Iran in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
Furthermore, over his final decade or two in power, Bashir gradually replaced his entourage and ceased to behave like a committed standard bearer for the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite Bashir moving closer to the UAE, Haftar, who began receiving strong Emirati support in 2014, never stopped hiring anti-Bashir Sudanese rebels in Libya.
Sudanese Groups Fighting in Libya and Their Impact
The dominant Sudanese actors operating in Libya had previously fought in Darfur. Sudan’s first and dominant rebel faction to move into Libya was the Sudan Liberation Army-Minni Minawi (SLA-MM), which entered the fray in Libya during 2014. Other groups include the Gathering of Sudan Liberation Forces (GSLF), Sudan Liberation Army-Abdul Wahid (SLA-AW), and the United Resistance (LJM). In total, about 3,000 Sudanese mercenary fighters in Libya come from these groups.
Sudan’s first and dominant rebel faction to move into Libya was the Sudan Liberation Army-Minni Minawi (SLA-MM), which entered the fray in Libya during 2014.
Some of the notorious Janjaweed, whom the Khartoum regime deployed in the 2000s to fight Darfurian insurgents, have also been fighting in Libya. But many misinformed commentators have exaggerated their number. As the Clingendael Institute’s Jalel Harchaoui points out, the Janjaweed in Libya who have joined Haftar’s ranks only number around 200 or 300.[ii] Moreover, they belong to factions opposed to Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (a.k.a. Hemedti), who is the General and Vice President of the Sudanese Transitional Military Council.
Sudanese rebels have effectively served Haftar in important ways. The LNA has used these Sudanese forces in Tripoli, Sirte, and al-Jufra. Mercenaries from Darfur have helped Haftar take control of large swathes of territory in the Fezzan. According to Sami Hamdi, the International Interest’s Managing Director, “While evidence has been limited in showing Sudanese fighting on the front lines, there is much footage of Sudanese guarding bases and facilities, enabling Haftar to concentrate on launching offensives further North.”[iii]
Misconceptions Around RSF Mercenaries in Libya
There is a common myth that some of the RSF aligned with Hemedti—who also fought for the Saudi/Emirati-led Arab coalition in Yemen—are now in Libya. Yet this is false. No Janjaweed belonging to the RSF are fighting in Libya on behalf of the current leadership in Khartoum. As explained below, Hemedti did not send them off to Libya because he needed them in Sudan amid a period of political uncertainties.
As Harachoui stated, the only Janjaweed fighters in Libya are Darfurian Arabs who are tied to militia leader Musa Hilal. These Janjaweed do not belong to the RSF. In fact, Hilal is detained in Khartoum which is “yet another reason why Hemedti doesn’t want to let any Sudanese get hired by Haftar and go to Libya.”[iv] Hemedti, according to Harachoui, figures that “not only will they come to Sudan with cash, armed, and equipped, but they will have spent time with folks who hate my guts.”[v]
Thus, Hemedti’s view is that deploying mercenaries to Sudan to fight for Haftar will directly threaten the relative stability which currently exists in Sudan. “Hemedti doesn’t want anything to do with toxic Haftar,” said Harachoui, which helps explain why since September 2019 the Sudanese state has arrested a number of militants who were heading to Libya.[vi]
Sudan’s Post-Revolution Government’s Involvement in Libya
During April 2019, the same month that Haftar launched Operation Flood of Dignity, a popular revolution in Sudan toppled Bashir. At that point, many observers expected Hemedti to quickly deploy RSF units to help Haftar in his assault on Tripoli. That never happened.
The narrative that expected Hemedti to do so was based on the assumption that his closeness to the UAE – which threw Bashir under the bus in 2019 – would suffice to make the new Sudanese government serve Abu Dhabi’s agenda abroad, and fight the Qatari-Turkish axis, which gained much influence in Khartoum during Bashir’s final years. Sudan’s positioning in the Middle East’s geopolitical order has not moved in this direction, at least not yet.
In fact, on multiple occasions the UAE has reportedly asked Hemedti to deploy RSF mercenaries to Libya in support of Haftar. But that has not happened as a result of Khartoum’s complex state of affairs at this point in the post-Bashir period.
Many of the commentators who believed that post-Bashir Sudan would align closely with the UAE’s Libya foreign policy expected Hemedti to head a military junta in the mold of Egypt and Chad’s leaderships. But the transition to post-2019 Sudan has not unfolded in that direction, at least not as of now.
“What we have today is an uneasy equilibrium in Khartoum and Sudan is not the puppet of Abu Dhabi that everyone assumed.”
In Harchaoui’s words, “What we have today is an uneasy equilibrium in Khartoum and Sudan is not the puppet of Abu Dhabi that everyone assumed. As a matter of fact, the civilian component of the current government in Khartoum is not subservient to the UAE.”[vii]
Hemedti is dealing with a complicated political situation in Sudan. Amid a fragile transition and a lack of popularity, the country’s authoritarian and militaristic “Deep State” is sharing power with a democratic and civilian-led component. Thus, he has to contend with the reality of Sudan’s post-Bashir transition not going according to the UAE’s initial plan.
“Hemedti is not comfortable. . . . He needs all the security capabilities in terms of manpower that he can grab,” according to Harchaoui. “There’s no spare capacity, there’s no luxurious complementary force that Hemedti can part ways from and lend to some remote friends.”[viii]
Sudan’s Transition and the Impact on Its Libya Foreign Policy
Khartoum currently lacks an articulate foreign policy stance on the Libyan civil war. “Hemedti and perhaps [Chairman] Abdel Fattah Burhan are sympathetic towards the LNA, but Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and Sudan’s civilian authorities align with the [UN-recognized] GNA,” as Ramani explained. “Mercenary deployments are highly unpopular in Sudan and have sparked anti-UAE backlash too.”[ix]
Presumably, a democratically elected, civilian-led Sudanese government would come under pressure to conduct a foreign policy that is more reflective of these anti-Emirati sentiments and more aligned with the GNA. But US-imposed sanctions have forced Khartoum to remain dependent on the UAE and Saudi Arabia for financial assistance.
Thus, it is not clear how easily a democratic government in Sudan could make its Libya foreign policy more openly and uniformly pro-GNA. Yet if Washington removes sanctions on Khartoum and takes Sudan off the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, Haftar’s backers in the GCC might find it far more challenging to pressure Sudan into backing the eastern commander against Libya’s UN-recognized government in Tripoli.
[i] Samuel Ramani, Interview by author, September 2, 2020.
[ii] Jalel Harchaoui, Interview by author, September 3, 2020.
[iii] Sami Hamdi, Interview by author, September 7, 2020.
[iv] Jalel Harchaoui, Interview by author, September 6, 2020.
[v] Jalel Harchaoui, Interview by author, September 6, 2020.
[vi] Jalel Harchaoui, Interview by author, September 6, 2020.
[vii] Jalel Harchaoui, Interview by author, September 3, 2020.
[viii] Jalel Harchaoui, Interview by author, September 3, 2020.
[ix] Samuel Ramani, Interview by author, September 2, 2020.