What Are the Odds That Israel Just Attacked Sudan?

Parsing the evidence

Yarmouk banner.jpg
Fire engulfs the Yarmouk ammunition factory in Khartoum. (Reuters)

It's not often that a government eagerly announces a military facility in its capital city has been destroyed in a stunning and audacious sneak attack, even in light of plausible evidence to the contrary. Yet here we are: Yesterday, Sudanese culture and information minister Ahmed Bilal Osman alleged that the previous evening, four Israeli fighter jets flew over Khartoum from the east and partially destroyed the Yarmouk munitions factory, in the city's south. 

The night before, the governor of Khartoum claimed on local television and radio that an accidental fire was to blame for the incident, according to sources I was able to contact in Sudan. And Israel is an all-too-convenient scapegoat for everything from shark attacks to major political assassinations. After all, it makes intuitive sense that a broke, beleaguered and internationally-sanctioned Sudanese government would rather trumpet its failure in protecting the capital than allow an exploding weapons factory to serve as an all-too-obvious reminder of the country's dysfunction. Blaming an external enemy could unite a fractured and restive populace; indeed, nationalistic feeling surged during the country's brief military confrontation with the South Sudan this past spring. Acknowledging the truth has no such advantage. It is plausible that Sudan's nominally-Islamist and Iran-allied government would rather blame Israel than openly acknowledge the depths that austerity, economic depression and international pariah-status have brought it to. There was reason to doubt Osman's claims.

But there is plenty of reason not to dismiss them. Evidence abounds that the facility was destroyed in an aerial bombardment. An AFP report from Khartoum states that both an AFP journalist and local residents witnessed either an "aircraft or missile" flying overhead. The journalist "saw two or three fires flaring across a wide area, with heavy smoke and intermittent flashes of white light bursting above the state-owned factory." A video of the incident uploaded to YouTube is consistent with this description -- it's clear that there were explosions above the factory, even if it is unclear what caused them. Yesterday, Girifna, a global network of Sudanese anti-regime activists with numerous sources and members in Khartoum, tweeted, "witnesses suggest [the facility] was attacked."

There's really only one country that has the capabilities or the motive to wage a pinpointed aerial assault on a single wing of a single weapons facility in the southern reaches of city of a 5 million people: Israel. The defense ministers of Sudan and Iran signed a "military cooperation agreement" in 2008. Sudan has hosted Iranian Revolutionary Guard personnel, and allegedly served as a transit point for weapons bound for Hamas, in the Gaza Strip. The Israelis are acutely aware of the situation: an April, 2009 diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks paraphrases Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as telling U.S. officials that "the arms pipeline runs from Iran to Sudan to Egypt." And in a meeting with U.S. special envoy Scott Gration, Sudanese intelligence chief Salah Ghosh acknowledged that anti-Israel weapons smuggling was occurring on Sudanese territory -- but denied that his government was directly involved ("'The Rashaida (tribe in the eastern Sudan engaged in smuggling) in many countries is now beginning to talk about killing Americans and Israelis,'" Ghosh was reported as saying).

Israel might have struck inside the Sudan before: once, in early 2009, when it allegedly destroyed a 23-truck weapons smuggling convoy in the country's east, and again in April of 2011, when Israel might have been responsible for the bombing of a Hamas arms trafficker in Port Sudan. Assuming it was also Israel's doing, the destruction of the weapons facility would represent another level of audacity. "I would say that if the Sudanese government's claims are correct, then this is longest strike -- the farthest strike -- ever executed by the Israeli air force," says Ehud Yaari, the Israel-based Lafer International Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "We are talking about something that is 1,800 or 1,900 kilometers [from Israel], depending on the route. That's farther away than the range from Israel to the main Iranian nuclear installations in Natanz and Qom."

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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