Monday, 29 October 2012

What happened in Sudan last week?

An explosion ignited the Yarmouk arms factory in Khartoum just before dawn on October 23, starting a huge fire, a witness said. More explosions occurred as soldiers blocked roads and tried to contain the fire.

Sudan will file a complaint with the U.N. Security Council over what it says was an Israeli attack against the arms complex. Sudan reserves the right to strike back at Israel,” Mr Osman said, saying two citizens had been killed and that the plant had been partially destroyed.

Sudanese Information Minister Ahmed Belal Osman said the explosion was a result of an attack by four military aircraft. Other witnesses in the area reportedly heard the sound of missiles during a large municipal blackout before massive explosions rocked the Sudanese capital.

Mr Osman claimed the aircraft involved in the explosions approached the plant from the east and has blamed Israel for the strike. However there are many questions surrounding the incident that point away from Israel as culprits.

The destroyed factory was suspected in 1998 of harbouring Iraqi chemical weapons that Saddam Hussain was trying to conceal from the U.N. inspectors. The Yarmouk facility is some 1800 kilometres from Israel.

Israel has neither confirmed nor denied involvement in the incident. Israeli defence official Amos Gilad explained to Israel's army radio that Sudan's regime is supported by Iran and serves as a conduit for Iranian weaponry funnelled into the hands of militants in the Palestinian territories. Mr Gilad referred to Sudan as “a dangerous terrorist state”.

Iran has responded to the incident itself saying, Israel's attack on Khartoum is in clear violation of international law and of Sudan's sovereignty and territorial integrity. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian called for action to be taken against the aggression.

A number of large national players are involved in the country, all of whom are locked in a fierce covert battle rarely leaked to the world. The question is not whether explosions occurred at the arms facility in Sudan; the factory is a smouldering, cratered wreck. The question seems to be: was this incident more sinister than a simple accident?

Perhaps Israeli warplanes have undertaken an 1800 kilometre airstrike into the very heart of Sudan, but the evidence is fairly flimsy at the moment. The pictures Khartoum wish to present to the United Nations, those of supposed fragments of missiles, do not appear to be like anything what the Israeli air force would be expected to employ in an airstrike.

A flight from Israel to Khartoum would only take few hours for fast moving fighter jets. Routes ranging from as-the-crow-flies to more circuitous ones are not outside the operational capability of the Israel Defence Force (IDF). Jerusalem has shown willingness to launch long-range, complex, and successful airstrikes in the past. In 1985 Israeli aircraft bombed a Palestinian Liberation Organisation headquarters in Tunisia in ‘Operation Wooden Leg’, at an impressive distance of some 2000 kilometres from Israel.

Flying to Tunisia took Israeli aircraft through international waters over the Mediterranean. There was little reason to request passage. The Tunisia attack might have been known by the United States at the time but Israel has a long history of acting without Washington’s knowledge.

The route to Khartoum is much more difficult, passing as it inevitably would over the Egyptian-controlled Sinai or through Egypt proper. Relations between Egypt and Israel are tense following increased militancy in the Sinai Peninsula, Palestinian rocket attacks thought to be implicitly assisted by Egypt, and Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s potential plan to redraft an old peace treaty with Israel.

Military flights through Egypt would not go unnoticed. Egypt has a robust, redundant surface-to-air missile system (SAM) designed specifically to deal with Israeli fast moving jets. Many of the Russian built SA-3 sites are situated near Suez. Egyptian SAM sites do not run down south of the Gulf on the coast of the Red Sea. Although many Early Warning (EW) sites hug the coast, after El-Bahr El-Ahmar older sites are all that remain and they are no longer maintained.

As for the Sinai Peninsula, a bilateral treaty between Cairo and Jerusalem has kept the peninsula largely free of military installations. As a result EW and SAM sites are virtually non-existent. Much of Egypt’s air defence is placed along the Suez Canal to defend against Israeli aircraft and is well back from the peninsula itself. But Egypt isn’t the only country Israel might choose to pass through.

Saudi Arabia, also a begrudging diplomatic friend of Israel, would need to be accounted for in any airstrike on Sudan. The emirate maintains SAM batteries in Tabuk province of both U.S. built Patriot anti-missile SAMs and anti-air HAWK SAMs each within the engagement envelope of the Gulf of Aqaba. These batteries cover the approach of any aircraft or launched missile travelling down or over the Red Sea. Saudi coastal EW sites are not as numerous as equivalent Egyptian sites, but their positions compliment Egyptian coverage.

Between the Saudi batteries and Egyptian EW sites, it would take a sophisticated electronic countermeasures team, stealthy aircraft, blind luck, or perhaps even Egyptian/Saudi complicity for Israeli aircraft to fly over the Red Sea without detection. Some commentators have suggested the possibility that attacking aircraft could fly under Egyptian or Saudi radar. Israeli F-16 fighters are capable of such manoeuvres but refuelling aircraft and escort planes probably are not capable. An airstrike conducted at such a distance as last week’s would require all three aircraft types and potentially others.

If reports of the scale of this attack are accurate, it would have taken more than a single manned or unmanned aircraft to succeed. Certainly, the sheer size of the attack profile and distance would require multiple aircraft, all of which would need to pass through, loiter above, and escape over a predetermined flight path. Israel has aerial refuelling capability and strike fighters that could be refuelled over the Red Sea before returning to base.

Sources close to the ground in Sudan report aircraft initially travelling east and leaving Sudanese airspace over the Red Sea near the Egyptian border. This indicates a direct home route back to Israel, but fails to shed light on the approach path.

If Israel was the cause of the explosions in Khartoum then their aircraft’s approach is critical. Without drastically lengthening flight paths, Egypt would have to be at least informed about the operation as it is the most likely candidate for overflight by Israeli jets. This raises the politically implications of high-level Egypt/Israel military complicity and an assurance that Egypt not informs others of their assistance.

It is possible Israel attacked the arms factory; unconfirmed rumours about previous airstrikes in Sudan against Palestinian militant operatives were blamed on Israel. In one of those strikes, according to a leaked Israeli document, a convoy of trucks was blown up in January 2009 close to the Red Sea by dozens of attack planes, escort fighters, and refuelling aircraft. Drones then assessed the damage. And in April of 2011 a car carrying a Hamas arms trafficker was destroyed by an explosion Sudan then blamed Israel for causing.

Both strikes occurred far from Khartoum near the coast. Israel has clearly shown an ability to strike targets on the periphery of Sudan but Khartoum is fully 800 kilometres further inside Sudan. Again, this extra distance is well within Israeli aircraft’s operational capability, but would probably require mid-air refuelling and multiple aircraft. The attack profile would be large and difficult to hide. Given the distance and target it is unlikely such a group of aircraft went unnoticed, yet by all accounts they were like phantoms.

The United States might have had some hand in any airstrike. The U.S. military operates out of Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, the base of operations for counterterrorism efforts in the Horn of Africa. Aircraft as large as the AC-130 gunship are believed to operate from this airbase, though most of the American presence there is thought to consist of CIA and special operations force elements.

The Pentagon certainly has the assets in place to accomplish an operation like this but as yet no one is pointing at Washington. It bears mentioning that the United States launched cruise missiles against a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum in 1998 in retaliation for the terrorist bombings in Kenya and Tanzania earlier that year. There is some precedent to airstrikes in Sudan by Israel as well as the Pentagon.

There are other reasons for doubting the given story. While Palestinian militants have increased rocket attacks on Israel in the past few months, it is unclear that arms travelling through Sudan via Egypt from Iran or China would be significantly impacted by the loss of a single arms factory in Khartoum. A simple cost/benefit calculation makes it difficult to believe Israeli military planners happily risked multiple highly-precious aircraft for a strike on a distant arms factory in Sudan.  

Sudan is a well-known transit route for illicit Iranian arms through the border crossings in Gaza destined for Palestinian militants fighting Israel. Sudan is such a crucial hub of illegal arms traffic it can be guaranteed plenty of other facilities brimming with small arms and equipment will compensate for the loss of one facility. Some of those arms would already be warehoused in Gaza and unaffected by any airstrike 1800 kilometres away in Sudan.

Also, other countries in the region are smuggling weapons into Gaza. Libya, after Gadhafi, has become a major source of heavy weapons, many of which have disappeared from weapons depots abandoned by defeated Gadhafi troops. Israel is well aware of this and in April 2011 Israeli special forces, ferried by helicopters into Sudan, ambushed and killed two high-level Hamas officials. According to intelligence, the officials were on their way to Libya to finalize a million dollar deal, financed by Iran, to buy about 800 chemical munitions from anti-Gadhafi rebels who had taken over a couple of chemical weapons depots from the pro-Gadhafi forces.

Given the regional dynamics between Iran and Israel and all the garrulous rhetoric slung over the diplomatic nets, an attack like the one in Sudan would be heavy with symbolism. Jerusalem recently released a video of a drone shot down by Israeli fighter jets that the Iranian Shiite proxy group Hezbollah was quick to claim responsibility for. The drone, said Hezbollah officials, was “Iranian made and one of many flown undetected over Israeli airspace”.

With the number of radar installations and high-tech SAM sites Israel maintains, it is difficult to believe Hezbollah’s rhetoric. But the drone shoot-down does offer another potential reason for an Israeli strike in Sudan, albeit a weak one with heavy implications.

Retaliating with a long range strike on Khartoum would send a clear message to Tehran that distances of thousands of kilometres can be crossed effortlessly by the IDF without repercussions and with complete mission success. From Israel to Khartoum is a distance placing all “known” Iranian nuclear sites within range except for Damghan in northeast Iran. This message, if Israel undertook the mission in Sudan, would be read loud and clear in Tehran. It would be an implication Israel will be happy to perpetuate regardless of complicity in the Sudan incident.

Given the nature of clandestine acts, the general fog pervading the Middle East and Israel, and the dearth of accurate witnesses and reporting of events on the ground October 23 it is unclear that Israel carried out the airstrikes it is being blamed for.

The Sudanese government are aware that Jerusalem has been behind other strikes on its soil in the past and could well be pointing the finger to garner attention. Mistakes do happen and if the explosions were a result of clumsiness on behalf of the facility workers, then it might make sense to defer blame. The evidence so far indicates a simple accident in a munitions storage yard co-opted into a political opportunity by Khartoum and blamed on Israel.  

Reporting in TIME magazine recently Richard Cochrane, a Sudan expert at Jane’s Intelligence, said “The Sudanese officials’ accounts seem a bit far-fetched. If the aircraft were supposedly radar-evading, then how did they know there were four?” Mr Cochrane outlined the current unhealthy domestic political situation in Khartoum could explain a deflection of blame towards Israel sufficiently covering up potentially embarrassing incompetence at the facility.

However, if Israel did order the attack then it represents a heightened level of operational capability and political will in a tense time. The exact nature of the arms factory was not accurately known. It could well have been a significant target worth risking hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of aircraft to destroy. If Israel indeed saw a target of opportunity this indicates actionable intelligence with significant longevity. 

Jerusalem may have had a serious reason for destroying the building but there is little evidence proving their complicity. Israeli silence on the issue is a classic political method of neither denying nor accepting responsibility. It simultaneously dampens the event and increases the deep sense of mystery Israeli intelligence services have fostered for so long.

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