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Third Return of Sudan’s Intelligence Strongman

Sudan- Salah Gosh
Salah Abdullah Gosh. Photo AFP

“The release of the rest of the detainees depends on the improvement of the behaviour of their parties,” said General Salah Abdullah Gosh, 61, the powerful Sudanese security official who was reappointed as head of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) on 11 February 2018. Gosh was commenting on the continued detention of dozens of political leaders and activists at a media event in Kober prison in the capital Khartoum.

However, hundreds of relatives of the detainees who had gathered in the prison yard were disappointed when only around 80 detainees, mostly students and women, were released, while the majority of political prisoners – the exact number of which is unknown – remained incarcerated.

The sudden return of Gosh, who has a fearsome reputation for cruelty, triggered widespread speculation about the country’s political future and President Omar al-Bashir‘s motives for seeking the old guard’s assistance again.

Rise to the Top

Gosh rose through the ranks of the intelligence service under al-Bashir after abandoning his original career as a civil engineer in 1989. He relied on his experience as a security officer for the student branch of the Muslim Brotherhood at the University of Khartoum, from which he graduated in 1982.

The period during which Gosh took over internal security in the 1990s was marked by the harshest crackdowns on real and potential opponents the country had ever seen, and the brutal torture of thousands of political prisoners. Those arrested were put in secret prisons known as ‘ghost houses’, as documented by international human rights organizations. Gosh admitted in an interview that even his own family had not escaped his heavy hand: his elder brother was arrested and imprisoned for a year in a ghost house when Gosh was head of the NISS because he was affiliated with the Communist Party.

However, his tenure was not without setbacks. One of the most notable was a failed and politically costly adventure in which the NISS was accused of helping Egyptian Islamic extremists in an assassination attempt against former President Hosni Mubarak in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa in June 1995. To date, no clear evidence of Sudan’s role in the failed attempt has emerged and Gosh has always denied his country’s involvement. Even so, Gosh was removed from his position as director of operations at the NISS in early 1996, along with a number of other leaders in the same apparatus.

A few months later, he was appointed as director of the Yarmouk Factory for Military Manufacturing. He took the lead in launching military manufacturing in Sudan and helped build several factories for the manufacture of conventional weapons. He returned to the security service in 2002.

Bloodshed in Darfur

The bloody civil war in Darfur that began in 2003, coupled with the killing and displacement of hundreds of thousands people, represented a milestone in the political history of Gosh, who was appointed as head of the NISS in 2004 and was given free rein in running it. He was involved in the formation of the Janjaweed militia, which committed horrific human rights violations against non-Arab tribes that were loyal and sympathetic to the rebel movements in Darfur. According to an article in the New York Times on 20 June 2005, Gosh’s name was mentioned on a list submitted to the UN Security Council of 17 people accused of war crimes in Darfur. However, Gosh does not face formal charges from the International Criminal Court, unlike his president, al-Bashir.

Gosh remained a shadowy and mysterious figure to almost everyone. Not a single photo was published of him until he gave his permission at a public appearance on 7 April 2005. It was the day when the hideout of Mohamed Ibrahim Nugud, leader of the Sudanese Communist Party, was discovered in Khartoum, following his legendary disappearance for 11 years. Gosh went to the hideout after it was discovered and stormed, telling Nuqud that he was not wanted by the security services. This was a symbolic victory for Gosh over the political and student movements from which he had originally emerged.

Gosh played an important role in improving Sudan’s foreign relations by cooperating with the CIA in counterterrorism efforts. According to the Los Angeles Times, Gosh has collaborated with the Americans for years and handed over files and detailed information about Arab jihadists who were hosted by Khartoum before and after the 9/11 attacks, including Usama Mohammed Awad bin Laden, to whom Gosh was close.

Other reports claim that Gosh gave the Americans information on militant Islamic groups not only in Sudan but also in countries such as Somalia and Iraq. The cooperation between Gosh and the CIA has been such that the latter flew Gosh from Khartoum in a private plane to meet with the CIA director in Washington in May 2005. However, the leaked details of this visit caused serious embarrassment to the Bush administration. Eleven members of Congress sent a letter to President George Bush accusing Gosh of engineering ethnic cleansing in Darfur and implementing a scorched earth policy there. Gosh also cooperated with the British and secretly met security officials on several occasions, according to the Independent.

This is how he controlled internal security and important files related to foreign relations, and he sent orders to Sudanese embassies directly or through the Sudanese Foreign Ministry. This trespassing on the territory of other officials caused bitter internal rivalries. Some of these were expressed by former Foreign Minister Ali Karti, who said that intelligence cooperation with the Americans took place without the knowledge of his ministry.

Gosh was able to turn failure by the security and intelligence services during that period to his advantage on 10 May 2008, when hundreds of fighters affiliated with the Justice and Equality Movement attacked the city of Omdurman, after driving SUVs for more than 1,000 kilometres from the border with Chad without being detected or confronted by any government forces. The attack was repulsed by security and armed forces inside residential neighbourhoods in the city and Mahalla al-Kubra, on the Nile River, less than three kilometres from the presidential palace. But Gosh, who controlled the media with his hidden hands, presented himself and his apparatus as the last reliable line of defence and blamed the security shortcomings on the army.

In August 2009, Gosh lost his job in the continuous power struggles within the ruling elite and was appointed as the president’s senior security adviser.

When Gosh was arrested at home in November 2012 on charges of conspiring to overthrow the regime, many did not believe the charges and considered him a victim of his bloated ambitions and internal strife in the government. This is especially because Gosh was quick to abandon Hassan al-Turabi, the influential religious and Islamist political leader, and side with al-Bashir when tensions between the two boiled over in 1999 and al-Turabi was thrown in jail. At the time, Gosh played an important role in purging the state services of al-Turabi’s supporters.

Al-Bashir played his traditional game and in February 2018 returned Gosh to Sudan’s political frontlines, which is dominated by the security services. The president is facing major challenges, including an economic crisis and the prospect of losing his job, which he has held since 1989, as the Sudanese constitution does not allow presidents to serve a third term. The ruling party’s Shura Council did not discuss his candidacy during its last meeting in January, amid media reports alleging disagreements within the party about whether he should step down or not.

This rift is being led by prominent Islamist Nafi Ali Nafi, another former director of the NISS who continues to have influence and is rumoured to have played a part in Gosh’s removal from the security service in 2009.

It is possible that Gosh’s reputation for ruthlessness will be used to deter the opposition to al-Bashir’s re-election through a constitutional amendment allowing for a third term. Gosh could also play a role in minimizing the influence of the parallel Islamic movement by getting rid of the movement’s leaders, or at least weakening their influence in the government and ruling party.

Right Man for the Job

It seems that Gosh has been preparing for such a day. He has never shown any bitterness about being imprisoned. He even thanked al-Bashir at the time for issuing a presidential pardon that secured his release in 2013, stressing that he would remain loyal to the ruling party.

Gosh quickly abandoned the oil trade and his nine-year membership of the parliament in his hometown in northern Sudan to rejoin the security service. One of his first orders of business was to dismiss four senior officers known for their loyalty to Nafi Ali Nafi. At the same time, he reinstated four senior officers who are loyal to him, including Major General Jalaluddin al-Sheikh, whom Gosh appointed as his deputy.

In addition to dealing with the constitutional amendments to re-elect al-Bashir as president in 2020, the president could benefit from Gosh’s strong connections with US intelligence agencies to improve his image and international relations. Moreover, al-Bashir needs Gosh’s iron fist in dealing with the growing popular resentment over the deteriorating economy and rising cost of living, something that opposition parties have used to stage anti-government demonstrations in recent months.

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