June 2, 2023
IntelBrief: Could the Conflict in Sudan Attract Significant Numbers of Foreign Fighters and Mercenaries?
As the conflict in Sudan continues to drag on, the greater the chances are that the war will spread beyond Sudan’s borders. Fighting has already spilled from the capital city, Khartoum, to Darfur, a region of the country with a deadly legacy of genocidal violence perpetrated by the Janjaweed militias, a precursor to one of the current parties to the conflict. Sudanese fighters have fought abroad, most recently to provide additional muscle to Saudi and United Arab Emirate (UAE)-backed forces in Yemen under the command of the head of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), Mohamed Hamdan Daglo (aka “Hemedti”), but also in eastern Libya in support of the warlord Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA). Sudan is now at risk of having the opposite directional flow, fighters from abroad traveling to the country to engage in combat on one of the belligerent sides. As a long body of academic research has detailed, foreign fighters almost always complicate civil wars and insurgencies, serving to produce new grievances and often contributing to increasing the duration of a conflict.
UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Sudan and Head of the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS) Volker Perthes was recently quoted by Barron’s, speaking about armed “fortune seekers,” or mercenaries, who had traveled to Sudan from Mali, Chad, and Niger. He went on to say that “their number is not insignificant,” clearly concerned about the potential for a foreign fighter pipeline to Sudan that will serve to further destabilize the country. There is a serious risk of the conflict becoming regionalized, impacting areas westward toward the Sahel and surrounding areas on the borders of Sudan, the third largest state in Africa, bordering seven other countries, including Libya, Egypt, Chad, the Central African Republic (CAR), South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. Many of these countries have been impacted by conflicts of their own and are no strangers to mercenary activity, especially Libya and CAR, which continue to host Russian private military contractors from the notorious Wagner Group. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, chief of the Sudanese armed forces, has accused Hemedti of recruiting mercenaries from CAR, Chad, and Niger, and it is known that the Wagner Group also has “technical advisers” in Sudan, aligned with the RSF and Hemedti.
Islamic State affiliates proved to be destabilizing forces in Libya and Egypt during the height of the so-called “caliphate,” and the Sahel as a region is currently under siege from a range of jihadist groups, including the al-Qaeda affiliate Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) and the IS franchise group in the Sahel, formerly known as Islamic State Greater Sahara (ISGS). In the Lake Chad region, terrorist groups such as Boko Haram and Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP) hold sway and control pockets of territory. While Islamic State never established a branch in Sudan, the U.S. Department of State has warned in the past about IS facilitation networks in the country, and there are always concerns about jihadists taking advantage of poor governance and power vacuums on the African continent. Research from political scientist Austin Doctor has been instructive in this regard, as he has found that African militant groups tend to recruit foreign fighters from neighboring African countries, and they typically arrive in small numbers. But the conflict in Sudan involves a mixture of state, non-state, and quasi-state actors, which could alter the equation and lead to a steadier and larger influx of non-Sudanese fighters to the conflict. Moreover, it is important to distinguish between the motivations of outside actors, with mercenaries enticed by pecuniary concerns and foreign terrorist fighters typically incentivized by ideology and/or politics, although the lines can often become blurred or overlap.
The longer the fighting lasts, the more likely it becomes that a variety of nations and non-state actors will become even further invested, protecting their own assets in the country and working through proxies to tilt the balance of power. As the civil wars in Syria and Libya have demonstrated, internecine warfare can attract foreign fighters and rebels from the immediate region and further afield. Over time, roving bands of rebels, mercenaries, and terrorists could form battle-hardened networks that travel from one African war zone to the next, similar to veterans of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. In the more immediate term, there is growing concern that Chadian rebels from the Front for Change and Concord (FACT) could relocate from Libya to Darfur to organize and prepare new assaults against the government in N’Djamena. Large refugee flows from Sudan and tens of thousands of migrants crossing borders regularly serve to complicate an already complex humanitarian situation. Furthermore, widespread reports of atrocities including sexual and gender-based violence, mass killings and destruction of villages are likely to leave lasting damage to prospects for social and political stability in Sudan long after the fighting ends.