Portrait of an Islamist radical

KHARTOUM: A conversation with Sheikh Hassan al-Turabi, derided by the West as the “Black Pope of Terrorism,” is like descending into the dark heart of Islamist radicalism that flaunts its hatred of the “evil” America and takes refuge in the fantasies of a morally pure world founded on certainties of faith. Sitting in the elegant drawing room of his house in a posh neighbourhood in Khartoum, Turabi does not look the satanic mind that the West has conjured up. Dressed impeccably in the Sudanese ghealbiya, and looking fit and sprightly for a 75-year-old man, Sheikh, as locals call him, is in his element as he begins talking.

The dark, bespectacled ideologue has lost none of his venom for his pet hate America that made him a darling of Islamist radicals worldwide, including Osama bin Laden who was a 30-something young man when Turabi took him under his wings after he was expelled from Saudi Arabia in 1990. As he speaks, he looks with an air of gravitas at the holy words from the Quran embossed in a silver plaque memento lying on a side table in his drawing room. “The goal of my prayer is to surrender before you. When it happens, all hurdles will go away. I shall be free from bondage. Forever.”

One can see the old hatred seething in every word he speaks, but the years have seasoned those invectives with a dash of dark wit. Defying stereotypes of a fire-breathing Islamist ideologue, Turabi comes across as an urbane intellectual who can meld history, myths and faith in the same sentence. A heady cocktail that intoxicates the misguided faithfuls and fills them with visions of a jihad that can bring them promised redemption and a paradise teeming with uptight virgins that this mundane distracted world denies them.

Memories of years of mentoring Bin Laden are incandescent in his mind. He speaks fondly of the man who has obsessed the Western imagination since the 9/11 attacks. “Osama bin Laden could not have plotted the WTC attacks. Neither did Al Qaeda. It’s all a myth created by the West,” says Turabi, with the finesse of a politician and a PR wizard.

“He came here not to fight. He was building roads and airports and bridges in Sudan. He was a simple man. He could not have done it,” Turabi told this writer when asked whether he thought bin Laden was the key architect of the 9/11 bombings of the World Trade Centre (WTC) in New York that shook the world over six years ago.

“Anyone who comes here is welcome. Yes, he was angry with the Americans and the British. But he is not the man behind Al Qaeda. Bin Laden comes from southern Saudi Arabia. He hasn’t travelled a lot. He is alone,” says Turabi, whose niece is married to bin Laden.

Turabi hosted and patronised Osama after the latter was expelled from Saudi Arabia for protesting the presence of the US troops on the Saudi soil after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. In 1991, Turbai founded the Popular Arab and Islamist Congress, an annual jamboree of militant Islamist leaders from around the world.

According to the US 9/11 Commission Report, bin Laden found haven in Sudan during 1991-1996, a period in which he built a nearly 800-km road from Khartoum to Port Sudan, perfected his jehadi methods and declared a fatwa against the American occupation of Islamic lands.

“He (Bin Laden) may have provided ideological inspiration. But he could not have done it. Every time you are branded as a terrorist, you awaken to your identity.”

Bin Laden, the terror mastermind, was a myth invented by the Americans, says Turabi with a flourish that smacks of easy intellectual arrogance.

“After the collapse of communism, they were looking for a target. They found it in bin Laden. The devil is now everywhere. Bin Laden is a myth. It’s like Che Guevara. It’s an image,” says Turabi, the polyglot ideologue who speaks five languages, including English, French and Arabic.

Having studied law in the University of London and done his PhD from the Sorbonne, he knows all the tricks of intellectual sophistry, which he deploys with panache when he critiques American power.

“I don’t like the quality of the American administration. The Americans are totally ignorant of the world. When I met Ronald Reagan, he thought Sudan was in Latin America,” he says, looking for signs of incredulity in my eyes.

Terrorism is a relative term, after all, he says, breaking into a smirk, revelling in his witty asides at American “double standards”.

“When their kind of people resist, they call it resistance. When they don’t like resistance, they call it terrorism,” he said, fixing you with an intense stare. A post-modern auteur or a deconstructionist, one wonders? There are no texts, but only interpretations.

History is a nightmare which he wants to light up with suicidal fireworks of jihadist fervour. “The biggest human crime was the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Why didn’t they distinguish between combatants and non-combatants then?” he says, his eyes aglow with what the Arabs call seqina, the peace that descends on a devout Muslim when he goes to war.

“Killing of innocents is not fair. But then angry people get violent sometimes,” he says philosophically when asked whether he thought it was justified to kill innocent civilians in the name of some cause or other.

Is the world heading towards a clash of civilisations between the West and Islam? It’s a carryover of the crusade mindset, says Turbai, who feels that the US is whipping up the issue of alleged mass killings in Sudan’s western province Darfur not because of humanitarian reasons but because it is eyeing the country’s oil wealth.

Turabi was a key ally of Sudan’s President Omar-al-Bashir and a leading Islamist networker but fell out with him over his alleged role in a coup and was imprisoned in March 2004. He was freed in June 2005.

“The Americans want to spread their language and culture. They are very intolerant of other cultures. They have a historical grudge against Islam. They don’t want any independent ideology.”

“In 1961, as a young man, I went all over the US except the south. Most politicians and journalists knew little about Africa and Asia.”

“If democracy gives birth to natural will, they don’t like it. They don’t want any independent ideology,” he says with an air of omniscience.

Does he see American power declining in the days to come?

“The sun is rising in the east. China is a threat (to the US). India is a threat. They are growing too fast for American tastes.”

“The Americans are very ignorant people. They are trying to lead the world, but they are going to be in competition from India, China, Japan and Europe.”

“The West is interested in only dominating Africa and Asia. They are not interested in democracy if it is too independent or non-Christian. First the onslaught was crusade against Islam, now they want to control the resources of Asia and Africa,” he says.

Author Profile

Manish Chand
Manish Chand
Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network (www.indiawrites.org) and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.