The government of Sudan recently accused Israel of incinerating a car with a Hellfire missile near the coastal town of Port Sudan along the Red Sea. The aerial attack killed two people. President Omar al-Bashir's government pointed a finger at Israel, because the country is the only one in the region equipped with that ordnance.
Among the two people killed in the raid was Abdul-Latif Ashkar. A senior member of Hamas' military wing, Ashkar was reportedly a founder of Hamas' "aid and logistics department," which coordinated weapons smuggling to the Gaza Strip. It is not known when he arrived in Sudan, or how long he resided there, but the Palestinian Maan News Agency confirmed his assassination.
Maan also confirmed that he was the successor to assassinated Hamas weapons man Mahmoud Mabhouh. Mabhouh was reportedly taken out by a (presumably Israeli) hit team in a hotel room last year in Dubai.
Hamas, for its part, insists that the two men incinerated by the Hellfire "had no connection to Hamas."
But the attack fits a larger pattern. In early 2009, Israel appears to have launched three airstrikes in Sudan, targeting Iranian weapons shipments meant for Hamas in Gaza. One of those attacks reportedly targeted a 17-truck convoy, killing as many as 39 people. The Iranian press alleges that, in all, these three aerial assaults killed 119 people. Israel, as is often the case, neither confirmed nor denied the reports.
This recent activity in Sudan yields several observations:
The events in Sudan should come as no surprise. The country has long served as a hub for Iranian-sponsored terrorist activity. Sudan's opposition press even reported last year that Iran runs an illicit weapons factory in Sudan, providing arms to Hamas.
The Sudanese, however, are acting as if they are the aggrieved. In an interview with Iran's Press TV. Foreign minister Ali Karti stated that, "Sudan reserves its right to react" to what he described as an Israeli provocation. However, in all likelihood, Sudan will not take action.
First, there can be no doubt that these activities in Sudan bear Iran's fingerprints. Not long after the Muslim Brotherhood took control of the country in 1989, then-Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani began delivering military assistance and training to its new government. This included the help of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Sudan, over the years and under successive presidents, has remained an important outpost for Iran's terror operations, in both the Palestinian territories and East Africa.
Second, the weapons coming out of Sudan are the same ones that traverse Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, and are ultimately delivered to Hamas in Gaza by way of sophisticated tunnels, which Iran finances. This is well-documented. One WikiLeaks cable revealed that the US actually warned Sudan over the flow of these Iranian arms to Hamas during Israel's incursion into Gaza in early 2009. Another WikiLeaks cable, dated March 2009, revealed that the US knew of Iranian plans "to transship military equipment from Syria to Sudan, to be transferred to Hamas."
Third, Iranian arms account for much, if not all, of the more than 120 rockets and anti-tank missiles that have been hammering Israel in recent weeks, and the thousands in recent years. Thus, Israel's suspected operations on Sudanese soil should be viewed as an extension of its ongoing efforts to halt the firing of rockets by Iranian proxies, such as Hamas and Hizbullah, onto Israeli territory.
That effort is now considerably harder, after the collapse of Hosni Mubarak's regime in Egypt in February 2011. Indeed, Israeli defense officials report that Egypt recently halted construction of an underground steel wall designed to stop weapons smuggling along its border with Gaza. This makes the operations in Sudan all the more vital in stemming the flow of Iranian weapons.
Finally, the Israelis can take some satisfaction in the fact that Hamas' weapons procurement position is currently experiencing high turnover. Similarly, Hamas gun-runners in Sudan now have lower life expectancies. These facts are not lost on Iran or its proxies, ensuring that the operations in Sudan are having an important deterrent effect.
Jonathan Schanzer is vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the author of Hamas vs Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine (Palgrave, 2008)