The Killing Technology Next Door: Can South Sudan Learn from the Assassination of Darfur’s JEM Leader?

By: Thon Agany Ayiei

The deliberate killing on December 25, 2011, of the leader of Darfur's Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), Khalil Ibrahim, inspired mixed reporting at first. In their initial reports, the Sudanese government in Khartoum and the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), claimed that Khalil died due to the wounds he sustained during a clash between his forces and the SAF while fighting his way toward Kordofan to join the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North, which was already fighting the SAF in that area. JEM, however, disputed the SAF's account about how its leader died, saying that he was assassinated in a sophisticated airstrike of a type not previously seen in Sudan.

On Tuesday, the 28th of December, 2011, the defense minister of the Republic of Sudan, Abdul Rahim Mohamed, publicly announced that Khalil was killed in an air strike carried out by the SAF. The minister added that "the tracking of a phone call had enabled the army to pinpoint the location of Khalil and strike him." This account confirmed JEM's statement and disproved the SAF's initial account of how Khalil died. At the same time, the defense minister praised the work of Khartoum's intelligence services, claiming that the killing of Khalil represented the "climax of a great intelligence operation." He further asserted that "killing Khalil was tantamount to beheading the rebellion in Darfur." This statement suggests that Khalil's killing resulted from a military analysis of JEM's center of gravity. It is worth noting that to determine the center of gravity requires looking at the components of a particular force and determining its strongest component which, if eliminated, would result in the destruction of that force.

After Khalil's targeted assassination, Khartoum vowed to destroy JEM forces before they reached their destination, which was thought to be Southern Kordofan. However, later reports from Khartoum confirmed that JEM forces had reached their destination, and that they were now at the border with South Sudan. So, did Khartoum miscalculate JEM's center of gravity? It would seem so.

The focus of this short article is not whether the killing of Khalil gave Khartoum an advantage in any way, or whether his demise is going to end JEM's armed struggle. Rather, the purpose is to draw attention to the sophisticated technological capability used in his assassination, and ask whether South Sudan, as a direct neighbor of Sudan, can learn anything from it, and to what extent such capabilities should cause South Sudan and Khartoum's other neighbors concern.

Sophisticated assassinations such as the one that eliminated Khalil—tracking targets by electronic devices and eliminating them by air without any error of any kind—have until now been carried out only by security and intelligence agencies of the most powerful and developed countries. This technology was used by the United States military to track down Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in the Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan in 2001, forcing him and his fighters to stop using electronic communications. Thus, for Khartoum to demonstrate such a capability poses a major question: Is anything, or anyone, within reach of Khartoum safe? What about targets of value to Khartoum in South Sudan?

Juba and Khartoum have been engaged in a security tug-of-war since the two countries separated in July 2011. The revelation of this new targeting capability could set in motion a regional arms race, in which not only those two countries but possibly others as well compete to field more weapons, larger armies, and gain superior military technology. Remote targeting is an escalation that could well force South Sudan to look for ways to counter it, because it poses a potential threat to South Sudan's national security.

Sudan, a state that is run by realists—elites who put national interest and security above anything else—recently openly complained that a visit by South Sudan's President, Salva Kiir, to Israel posed a national security threat to Sudan. This complaint serves as testimony that Khartoum is watching Juba's security and international moves very closely. Of course, Khartoum's warning to Juba about its relations with Jerusalem breaches international norms since South Sudan is an independent state and has every right to foster diplomatic relations with any country it chooses to in the international arena.

President Kiir, for his part, pointed out that Sudan has been South Sudan's "main challenge" since independence. Events such as Khartoum's confiscation of ships bearing oil from the South; the SAF's occupation of the disputed border town of Abyei; its ground attacks on the South Sudan town of Jau and air bombardment of other border towns; and Khartoum's support of militias in the South, all demonstrate that Khartoum has been not only a difficult, but also a dangerous neighbor.*

Given Khartoum‘s vigilance about South Sudan's security and international arrangements, it would be short-sighted for Juba not to look just as closely into Khartoum's security affairs, and to be especially concerned about what the killing of Khalil reveals: Khartoum's adoption of and proven willingness to use a new military capability, one that has the potential to change the sub-regional security equation altogether.


* This article was submitted to CTX well before the most recent clashes between Sudan and South Sudan took place.—Ed.

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