The shadow war between Israel and Iran, acquired a new dimension last month, in
an unexpected arena. On October 24, a mysterious air attack demolished workshops
and stores at a munitions factory in Yarmouk, a suburb of Khartoum, the capital
No one claimed responsibility for the attack but Sudanese
cabinet ministers immediately accused the Israel Air Force of bombing the
Israeli officials refused to confirm or deny the reports,
creating an aura of ambiguity. But for the Israeli media and commentators it
appeared clear, for a variety of historical, military, intelligence and
operational reasons, that the Jewish state was indeed behind the
To add drama to the event, two Iranian warships docked at Port
Sudan a few days later. Official statements in both Sudan and Iran claimed that
the naval visit had been meant to demonstrate the good relations between the two
countries and was unrelated to the attack. But clearly the two events are
linked. The Iranians arrived on a fact-finding and damage-control mission. And
not only them.
A few days later the Israel Navy sent two of its warships,
via the Suez Canal, to the Red Sea, sailing along the extensive Sudanese
Like their Iranian counterparts, Israeli officials explained
that the voyage was “routine,” planned weeks in advance and had nothing to do
with the recent developments. No one takes this explanation at face
Ships, like planes and satellites, are platforms. They can carry
all sorts of loads: bombs and missiles but also cameras, sensors and listening
Like aggressive canines, the Israelis and Iranians sniff, bark
and sometimes bite each other, with state of the art electronic gadgets
extending into sea, land, air and outer space.
The two enemies take their
covert war of attrition to battlefields all over the Middle East and beyond.
Sudan is just another brick in the wall of animosity.
foreign reports, Israeli intelligence agents were behind the assassinations of
Iranian scientists and several sabotage attacks on Iranian missile and nuclear
sites. Israeli and American cyberwarfare wizards reportedly contaminated Iranian
computers and control systems, which damaged thousands of centrifuges that may
enable Tehran to produce weapons-grade nuclear material. These and other
unreported operations slowed down the pace of Iran’s nuclear program by a couple
of years, but did not stop it.
Iran retaliated directly, or via its
Hizballah proxy, by plotting to assassinate Israeli diplomats and bomb its
embassies in Azerbaijan, Georgia, India, Thailand, Egypt, West African and
Bulgaria. Most of these plots were foiled, yet one resulted in the killings of
Israeli tourists in Burgos, Bulgaria and the injury of the wife of an Israeli
diplomat in New Delhi.
Sudan is not terra incognita for
Because of its location, the country has always been a place of
interest for Israeli strategic planners. It is located on a crossroad between
North Africa and the Horn of Africa.
It overlooks the sea lanes leading
to the Gulf of Eilat (Aqaba) and the Indian Ocean. And most importantly it
borders with Egypt, the largest and most important Arab country, which until the
peace treaty of 1979 was Israel’s bitter enemy.
No wonder therefore that
Israeli intelligence and military personnel have been covertly involved in
Sudanese affairs. In the 60s and 70s, Mossad operatives and agricultural
advisors were sent to help the Christian and animist rebels of South Sudan who
were fighting the predominantly Muslim central government in Khartoum. The
Israel Air Force parachuted military and medical supplies into south Sudan.
Rebel officers were brought to Israeli for military training. The years-long
investment paid off. Nowadays, South Sudan is an independent state and has
diplomatic relations with Israel.
Another important chapter in the
Israeli- Sudanese history is humanitarian in nature. In the 1970s and 80s Mossad
agents organized, on Sudanese soil, the secret aliya of Ethiopian Jews to
Israel. At a certain stage, these missions were tacitly approved by Sudanese
President General Gaafar Nimeiry and his top security chief General Umar Abu
Both also met secretly in 1981, in Kenya, a staunch ally of Israel
in the region, with Defense Minister Ariel Sharon. As a reward for their
cooperation, the two top Sudanese leaders were handsomely paid by Israel and the
Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish- American welfare organization. Dozens
of millions of US dollars were deposited into their secret bank accounts.
But in the second half of the 80s relations
between the two countries deteriorated.
Nimeiry and his regime, accused
of collaborating with Israel, were toppled and, by 1989, replaced by a new
military dictator – General Omar al-Bashir, who still rules the country. Bashir
strengthened Sudan as a Muslim theocracy. Brutally fighting civil wars in south
Sudan and Darfur, Bashir was accused of genocide and branded by the UN and an
International Tribunal as a war criminal.
International sanctions were
imposed on Sudan and it became a pariah state, hosting master terrorists such as
“Carlos the Jackal” (Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, who was later betrayed by the regime
and “sold” to France) and Osama Bin Laden. In 1998, the US obliterated with
cruise missiles a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory, partly owned by the Saudi
terrorist-millionaire. The factory was believed to be producing the deadly nerve
Isolated, Sudan searched for support and friends and found them
in Iran. Over the last decade, Iran has supplied Sudan with oil and financial
assistance. In return Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps were allowed to use
Sudan as a launching pad to stir up trouble in pro-Western neighboring countries
such as Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia. Yet, this was not sufficient to satisfy the
Iranian appetite to extend its sphere of influence.
In March 2008, the
two countries signed a defense agreement. The Israeli and American intelligence
communities monitored with growing concern the establishment of secret Iranian
bases in Sudan. The Revolutionary Guards harbored and trained terrorists, and
built depots such as the one bombed last month, with its stores of rockets and
Israeli sources were concerned that Sudan would became a
junction for transporting Iranian weapons, mainly Grad and Katyusha rockets and
anti-aircraft missiles via Egypt to Sinai and through the underground tunnels to
Gaza’s Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror groups.
Some of these rockets are
used to shell towns and rural communities in southern Israel.
collecting solid intelligence, Israeli military forces reportedly started four
years ago to disrupt the Iranian-Sudanese lines of supply. Boats smuggling
weapons were hit from air and sea in Sudanese territorial waters.
convoys were attacked and key figures – local Sudanese and Hamas operatives – in
the supply chain were targeted. Israel has never taken responsibility for these
But what made the October attack distinct from the previous
ones is its magnitude and range. According to foreign reports, the bombed
factory was the largest target ever attacked by Israel in Sudan; at least eight
airplanes took part in the mission.
Some commentators noted that the
range – it’s 2,000 kilometers from Jerusalem to Khartoum – is even further than
between Jerusalem and Tehran. For them, the attack was a type of rehearsal for
the “real thing”: an Israeli air assault on Iran’s nuclear
However, it would be wrong to draw any conclusions from the raid
in Sudan regarding a possible Israeli attack on Iran. Sudan was an easy target.
To navigate there over the Red Sea without being detected was a relatively easy
task. Sudan’s air defenses are weak. And the risk involved was low. Even if
Sudan had contemplated retaliating (and it apparently did not), its poor
military forces are no match for the mighty IDF.
An attack on Iran would
be completely a different fire-ball game.Yossi Melman is a commentator on
security and intelligence matters for Walla, a Hebrew news website, and
co-author of the recently published "
Spies against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s
Secret wars," Levant Books, NY.