Sometime in January, several Israeli F-15s and F-16s entered Sudanese airspace and attacked a convoy of 17 trucks, supposedly filled with weapons bound for Hamas in Gaza. The attack killed 39 people, all Eritrean, Sudanese, and Ethiopian nationals, as well as injuring an unknown number of bystanders. The official reasoning was that this was a deterrent to Iran's smuggling of weapons to Hamas, as well as a display of Israel's capability to strike, as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said, “everywhere there is terror".
However, this attack may have had catastrophic consequences, not only for Israel's battle against Hamas, but for the US War on Terror, and on a much greater scale, those suffering from the horrible human rights crisis in Darfur. To understand how, we must examine in detail the events leading up to the Israeli attack, the attack itself, and the fallout from the government in Khartoum.
In mid January, the US Ambassador to Liberia, Linda Thomas Greenfield traveled to Khartoum for discussions with Sudan's Foreign Minister Deng Alor. Mrs. Greenfield was there to discuss US-Sudan relations, specifically in the wake of the New Year's assassination of John Granville, a US diplomat working with USAID, as well as disagreements with Sudan over the construction of a new US embassy in Khartoum.
But that may not be all she was there to discuss. According to a report in Al-Sharq al-Awsat, “a senior American official transferred a message to a Sudanese government official and asked him to make sure that the message makes its way to Sudan's leaders in Khartoum so that immediate steps can be taken to put a stop to [Hamas weapon smuggling via Sudan]”. Since Mrs. Greenfield is the only “senior American official” that we know of in Sudan at the time, we can be reasonably sure the message was passed through her or through someone in her entourage.
(If you're feeling really cavalier about circumstantial evidence, it should also be mentioned that Mrs. Greenfield has previously worked for the US in Pakistan and was also a major cheerleader for the creation of AFRICOM, the US military command focusing on Africa.)
How did the US know about weapon smuggling through Sudan? According to Time magazine, “In early January, at the height of Israel's assault on Gaza, Israel's foreign intelligence agency Mossad was told by an informant that Iran was planning a major delivery of 120 tons of arms and explosives to Gaza, including anti-tank rockets and Fajir rockets with a 25 mile range and a 45 kg warhead." The New York Times also cited two anonymous American intelligence sources who reported that an operative from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps had also recently traveled to Sudan, possibly in connection to the shipment.
This information likely passed from Mossad to the Americans, and from there to the leadership in Khartoum. However, the warnings apparently stalled when they passed to Sudanese intelligence officials, who decided to “investigate” the matter further. That's when the Israeli air strike occurred. In fact, the air strike happened so quickly after the American warning that the Sudanese originally accused the Americans of carrying out the strike. With Mrs. Greenfield's meeting on January 13, that means the air strikes likely occurred sometime between January 14 and January 20, when the Israeli campaign against Hamas officially ended.
So the US and Israel are sharing intelligence on Iran, which is news to no one, and the US tried to warn Sudan about Hamas weapons smuggling, which is also unremarkable given the long history of US-Sudan intelligence sharing in the Global War on Terror.
The Israeli jets supposedly flew south down the Egyptian coast of the Red Sea. However, to leave Israel's airspace and fly the coast, the Israeli fighters would have to pass through the high-power beams of French-built Saudi radars at the air force base in Tabuk, Saudi Arabia. The Saudi radars are capable of spotting US stealth bombers at a range of 10 miles, which says a lot for its capability at seeing non-stealth Israeli F-15s and F-16s a few hundred miles away.
The Israelis would also have to worry about any one of the Saudi fleet of five E-3 Sentry AWACS, two of which are regularly kept in the air to monitor precious oil installations along the Saudi coast. With a war raging in Gaza and Israeli planes swarming the skies, it is highly unlikely the Saudis chose that time to ground their AWACS for maintenance.
We could ignore these radars if the Israelis had flown fast and low to the ground to avoid detection, but they didn't. When the jets reached the Red Sea, they actually stopped for a mid-air refueling. Israeli fuel tankers are customized Boeing 707s, gigantic planes that are not known for flying either fast or low. At some point during the operation, there were three to six Israeli fighter aircraft hovering over the Red Sea at 35,000 feet attached to a massive, slow-flying tetliner for 30 minutes to an hour.
(This is assuming the Israelis used their indigenous refueling capabilities, as opposed to American tankers, which were reportedly used in the August 2007 strike against Syrian rocket production facilities. The US has denied any American aircraft were involved in this current incident.)
At the point of refueling over the Red Sea, the Israeli jets would have been in the air for roughly two to four hours, which is two to four hours longer than it would have taken the Saudis to scramble jets and intercept. But the Saudis aren't the only ones around with radar. Further south, just past the American military bases in Djibouti and Ethiopia, the Red Sea feeds into the Gulf of Aden.
As of January 2009, some 15 countries were participating in CTF-151, a multinational effort at combating piracy operations around Somalia, Yemen, and the Gulf of Aden. Almost the entire Horn of Africa was being covered with sophisticated naval radars from countries like South Korea, Japan, China, Russia, Turkey, and Germany. It would not be unimaginable for some of these countries, China or Russia for instance, to wander off course and turn their radars on more valuable American and Israeli equipment operating further north. Multiple unknown aircraft idling over the Red Sea would almost certainly draw attention, even from allies of the US and Israel.
So now we have a rather large group of countries who might have seen the Israeli planes on their way to sneak attack Sudan. Saudi Arabia, certainly Egypt, several layers of American commands in Egypt, Djibouti, and Ethiopia, not to mention any countries from CTF-151 who may have been looking north at the time. All of this occurred before the jets even dropped one bomb.
The incident is extremely humiliating for Sudan. However, being a cooperative player in the Global War on Terror, Sudan chose not to retaliate against Israel or the international community who enabled the attack. That is, they did not retaliate until the international community, seemingly with strong US backing, issued an arrest warrant for the President of Sudan via the International Criminal Court. Sudan responded by expelling 10 NGO aid agencies from the relief effort in Sudan's troubled Darfur region.
Is this a conflation of two completely unrelated issues, the ICC warrant and the Israeli air strike? Not at all. In fact, the ICC warrant was almost a coincidence. To understand the connection, we have to go back to the original US-Israeli warning that Hamas was smuggling weapons.
While Israel may have had an informant with information on Iranian weapons shipments, it is unlikely this person would have any specific information on the shipment, such as when it would arrive in Sudan and what route it would take up the coast. Without this information like this, Israel would be unable to intercept the shipment, at least until it was deep into Egypt, and it would be extremely difficult for the Israelis to justify an attack on Egyptian soil. Therefore, we can be reasonably certain that Israel and the Americans have intelligence assets on the ground inside Sudan.
With assets on the ground, information on the time and placement of the weapons shipments would be much easier to discern, especially since Israel seemed to have specific details on the nature of the Iranian weapons (amount, weight, etc). A quick SMS or e-mail from an agent observer to the local Mossad/CIA station chief would be all the notice needed for Israel to launch its air strike.
So how do you position western intelligence assets in a country split between an Arab and African population? Simple, you hide them in relief agencies. And if you want information on smuggling activities, you hide them in relief agencies near the ports.
When Sudan expelled the 10 NGO's, it did not cite the ICC as its reason but rather that these NGO's were in effect breaking Sudanese law by being infiltrated by “western governments and diplomats.” Furthermore, Sudan specifically selected aid agencies working not inside Darfur, but rather those working with refugees from Darfur displaced along the eastern coast of Sudan, particularly those based around Port Sudan.
And there's the connection: Where was the air strike? Port Sudan. Where were the western intelligence assets? Port Sudan. From where were the NGO's expelled? Port Sudan.
The consequences of this are dire. First of all, the suffering of the Sudanese people displaced from Darfur, some 3 million people along the coast, is needlessly and gruesomely exacerbated by the lack of aid coming from the expelled NGOs. Beyond the 39+ deaths from the air strike, there's no telling how many refugee deaths will be caused by the lack adequate care and relief. Second, the US and Israel have lost the ability to infiltrate eastern Sudan through the camouflage of hundreds of faceless western relief workers. Now what was once a rather clever spy operation monitoring Hamas and Iranian smuggling activities has been completely blacked out.
Remember those Saudi radars and the odd visual of aircraft copulating over the Red Sea? This may help explain why leaders of the Arab world, not normally in a rush to be pictured with war criminals, greeted Sudan's president as a hero at this week's Arab League Summit. Better to shower Sudan with praise and support than risk spiteful damaging revelations from Sudan of Arab complicity in an Israeli attack against another Arab nation. Injustice breeds injustice, and while the Arab world wasn't especially supportive of the ICC to begin with, there is now zero chance its jurisdiction will ever be honored in Sudan, much less the wider Middle East.
There are very good reasons why clandestine, unilateral military attacks are illegal under international law, and with one single air strike, Israel has illustrated those reasons perfectly. Your enemies gain sympathy, your allies stop helping you, and in the case of Darfur, genocide is enabled.