Friday, June 17, 2005

U.S. intelligence and security agencies are investigating reports that Sudan’s government has renewed its covert support for al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorists, The Washington Times has learned.

The information was obtained in the past several weeks and includes details on an agreement the Islamist government in Khartoum reached with al Qaeda-linked terrorists and other Muslim extremists, say U.S. government officials familiar with the reports.

The officials say the reported covert support of terrorism includes training in the use of chemical and biological weapons acquired from Iraq and comes as retaliation for foreign intervention in Sudan’s Darfur region.

The disclosure comes as the CIA has set up a liaison program with Sudan’s intelligence service that included a recent U.S. visit by the head of Sudanese intelligence.

Sudan’s government claims to be cooperating with the United States in the war on terrorism. And one U.S. official told The Times: “Al Qaeda no longer has an established operational presence in Sudan.”

A State Department official said the reports of al Qaeda aid are being investigated. But the official said the reports have not been confirmed and that so far they do not appear credible.

“We don’t have any indication of any sort of government of Sudan links to al Qaeda at this point,” the official said.

However, the official noted that Sudan is a large country and that “elements of the government” could be involved in backing terrorists.

A Sudanese Embassy spokesman could not be reached for comment.

The U.S. officials said the reports disclosed that Sudan concluded an agreement with al Qaeda-linked terrorists in July 2004, under which Khartoum lifted restrictions on foreign Islamists who were in Sudan working with al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 1994.

The reports being investigated include information stating that bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, visited one of the camps in southern Sudan in the past two to three years, the officials said. The camp was a base for bin Laden before he moved from Sudan to Afghanistan in 1996.

U.S. officials say nearly 500 foreigners are in Sudan for training as Islamic terrorists. The trainees include Palestinians and nationals from Iraq, Iran, Indonesia and Pakistan.

At least four al Qaeda training camps are operating in Sudan. A fifth training camp in Khartoum is limited to Sudanese Islamists. Two of the five are in Khartoum, one is in southern Sudan, and officials said the locations of the other two are still under investigation.

The reports also indicate that the training includes the use of explosives and machine guns, as well as training in the use of weapons of mass destruction reportedly obtained from Iraq, the officials said.

Officials say the Sudanese government agreed last year to release funds held in banks that were deposited by al Qaeda in the 1990s, and to allow al Qaeda members to travel from outlying regions in Sudan into Khartoum. The Sudanese also agreed to give al Qaeda trainees free passage, and to arrange for the Sudanese army to provide supplies and equipment for the training.

The FBI is one of the U.S. agencies investigating the new information on foreign terrorist training in Sudan. An FBI spokesman declined comment on the probe. The CIA also has been briefed on the information. Asked about new reports of terrorism training, an agency spokesman declined comment.

The activities of the foreign terrorists are being carried out under the direction of an Islamist cleric known as Sheik Mohammed Abdel-Kareem, the officials said, and are retaliation for what the government sees as Israeli and other foreign meddling in Darfur, where government-backed militias have been killing civilians in tribal violence.

Sudan’s Interior Minister Abdel Rahim Mohammed Hussein told London’s Al-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper earlier this month that “aid is reaching the [Darfur] rebels from Israel via Eritrea.”

“They are also receiving aid from a number of church organizations in Europe,” he said.

The new information on Sudanese terror training also backs reports from nongovernmental organizations working in Sudan, said Eric Reeves, a Sudan specialist at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.

“NGOs operating in Darfur have told me they have seen camps for Middle Eastern nationals, although they are unsure what the connection is to al Qaeda,” Mr. Reeves said in an interview. “But they’re there.”

Mr. Reeves said the Sudanese government is “extremely adept at covering its tracks.”

If Khartoum is backing Middle Eastern terrorists, it is probably because the government wants to warn the United States and other Western supporters of aid efforts in Darfur that Sudan is willing to turn the region into “another Iraq,” Mr. Reeves said.

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