What Are the Odds That Israel Just Attacked Sudan?

Parsing the evidence

Parsing the evidence

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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."

Khartoum isn't just further away and more densely populated than either of Israel's previous alleged targets inside the Sudan. It's probably better-protected as well. According to the 2012 edition of the International Institute for Strategic Studies' The Military Balance, the Sudanese air force still consists of 61 combat capable aircraft, as well as Russian-built Divina 2 anti-aircraft missiles. It's unlikely that the Sudanese air force's rusting collection of Cold War-era MiGs and Sukhois could take out a column of Israeli fighter jets. But an attack on the Sudanese capital is hardly a risk-free proposition, or at least it isn't as easy as attacking remote tracts of desert hundreds of kilometers northeast of Khartoum.

So why do it? Yaari hypothesizes that the facility was partly dedicated to the Iranian-assisted production of weapons headed for Gaza. "There is reason to believe that Iranians were involved in the production of munitions there, and that it was used for the weapons smuggling operation that has been going through Sudan for years now into the Sinai." Even so, it might never be publicly known why the Israelis were convinced that the destruction of the facility was worth such a unique and potentially-dangerous mission. "If it is the Israelis who carried it out they must have had very good reason to put pilots in hazard's way. This is something unprecedented in terms of the range."

Maybe that's the entire point. This was undoubtedly an anxious week for Israel's diplomatic and security apparatus. This week, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar, became the first head of state to visit the Hamas-governed Gaza Strip, in effect legitimizing the group's control of the coastal territory at time when Israel is still attempting to politically, physically, and military isolate the Islamist militant movement. Unnervingly, al-Thani's visit coincided with an uptick of Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli civilians living in the areas around Gaza; over 60 rockets and mortars landed in Israel on Tuesday and Wednesday alone. The Khartoum attack (if there was one) might have been a dramatic victory over Hamas and an allied government at a time when tensions between Israel and Gaza appear to be escalating. And it's one that doubled as a very public reminder--perhaps to a certain would-be developer of nuclear weapons -- of exactly what the Israeli military is capable of.

Or it might have been nothing more than a fire at a munitions facility. When reached for comment on Wednesday afternoon, Aaron Segui, the spokesperson for the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C., offered a straightforward "no-comment," then another "no comment" when asked if the statement could be interpreted as a denial. The mystery of what happened in Khartoum continues -- for now.