On December 23, the Sudanese army killed one of the most influential rebel leaders in Darfur, Khalil Ibrahim. The Washington Post wrote that Ibrahim's death represents a "major setback to the eight-year-old rebellion in Sudan's western region, and to the Justice and Equality Movement [JEM], which Ibrahim founded several years ago and developed into the most organized rebel force in Darfur." Ibrahim's life story, however, shows how his actions were dictated more by his eagerness for power and by his Islamist agenda rather than by finding a solution to Darfur's worst humanitarian crisis of this century.
Ibrahim's death is not a setback, as the Washington Post suggests. The involvement of Islamist extremists in the Darfur insurgency has devastating implications. Sudanese human rights activists have stated that, it is difficult to end a conflict supposed to be about the marginalization and underdevelopment of Darfur, when one major participant in the conflict has a hidden agenda of overthrowing the Government of Sudan and replacing it with a hard-line Islamist regime.
As the respected Sudanese journalist, Talha Gibriel, put it: The population – both African and Arab tribes – are the victims not only of the violence sponsored by the central government, but also of the policies pursued by the African rebels of Darfur, who are more engaged in power struggles than fighting for human rights and pursuing a solution to the conflict.
Ibrahim, born in Darfur, belonged to the African tribe of Zaghawa, spread between Darfur and Chad. After moving to central Sudan to pursue medical studies, he became fascinated with the views of the Sudanese Islamist ideologue Hassan al-Turabi, at that time leader of the Sudanese National Islamic Front. After graduating, he moved to Saudi Arabia to practice medicine.
Meanwhile, in 1989, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, now president of Sudan, led a military coup. After this coup, Ibrahim returned to Sudan, became an ally of Turabi, and was appointed Minister of Education for the South Sudan region, inhabited by African tribes practicing Christianity as well as animist beliefs, and which last July became an independent country. Ibrahim -- soon nicknamed "the Emir of the Mujahidin"[Prince of the Holy Warriors] -- began organizing the people of Darfur to fight against the [Southern] Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) of John Garang, a Christian of the African Dinka tribe.
It was in these years that Turabi opened the doors of Sudan to Osama bin Laden, whose Al-Qaeda remained in Sudan from 1990 to 1996. As speaker of Parliament, Turabi introduced a bill in 1999 to limit the president's powers -- a move designed for him to be able to take over the government. Bashir reacted by suspending Turabi from his post. Turabi formed a splinter party, the Popular National Congress, and, in a breathtaking U-turn, also formed an alliance with the Christian Southern Sudan against Bashir. Bashir arrested Turabi in 2001.
Ibrahim, Turabi's protégé, remained without any political position and moved to Darfur, where he created his own movement the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), made up of his African tribe, Zaghawa, Islamist activists and Turabi followers.
Even though Ibrahim claimed he was leading a battle against the discrimination practiced by African tribes in Darfur, he said in an interview with the Saudi-owned Al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper on May 3, 2005, that his goal was not at all the independence of Darfur: "We oppose the secession of any part of Sudan. We do not want the Darfur sultanate. What are we going to do with it? We live in the age of large blocs. We want to unite the Horn of Africa region in one state that includes Egypt, Libya, and Chad. We want a continent state." he said.
Ibrahim, became a good friend of former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who became deeply involved in the Darfur crisis, and openly supported Ibrahim against the central government of Sudan. Since May 2010, after being barred entry to Chad while the Chadian government was trying to pursue a rapprochement with Sudan, Ibrahim moved to Libya. It is noteworthy that Sudan's foreign ministry stated that members of Ibrahim's movement were supporting Gaddafi as mercenaries in the 2011 uprising.
Indeed Darfur is in need of new leaders, who will fight for the region's independence. Ibrahim was an Islamist warrior with Christians' blood on his hands. He was more interested in creating an Islamic regional power than in helping his own people.