Sudanese Islamic leader who was an early supporter of Osama bin Laden
The Sudanese politician Hassan al-Turabi, who has died aged 84, was Africa’s most active contemporary Islamic ideologue. He was involved in the imposition of strict Islamic law, and was an early mentor of Osama bin Laden.
As the long-time power behind the throne of Sudan’s despotic leader Omar Bashir, Turabi gave safe haven to Bin Laden in Sudan from 1990 to 1996; the US counter-terrorism expert and policy adviser Richard Clarke called them them “soulmates sharing a vision of a worldwide struggle to establish a pure caliphate”. In 1993 Washington designated Sudan “a state sponsor of terrorism” and the UN later imposed sanctions on Khartoum after Turabi’s agents allegedly aided an attempt to kill the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in 1995.
Two years later Turabi declared: “America incarnates the devil for all Muslims in the world.” Throughout the 1990s he facilitated training camps in Sudan for militants from Chad, Ethiopia, Somalia, Bosnia and Afghanistan. He also armed the child soldiers of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a murderous Ugandan Christian sect.
Setting the theocratic tenor of Bashir’s unelected regime in its first decade from 1989 (the BBC called him Sudan’s de facto leader), Turabi drove the start of Khartoum’s war in Darfur against secessionist rebels and often likened that conflict to a religious “jihad”. The war claimed almost 2 million lives and displaced another 4 million people, inflicting a terrible toll on Sudan’s Christian, Animist and ethnically African people in the south.
In 1999, however, he fell out with Bashir and was repeatedly imprisoned or confined to house arrest. Thereafter he recast himself, rather bizarrely, as a champion of parliamentary democracy agitating unsuccessfully for Bashir’s overthrow and demanding his indictment as a war criminal at the International Court.
Turabi was born in Kassala, an eastern province that borders Eritrea, far from the centre of Sudanese affairs. The son of a Sufi sheikh, he studied jurisprudence in Khartoum and then at the University of London (1955-57), gaining his doctorate in constitutional law from the Sorbonne in Paris in the early 1960s. Noted for his scholastic brilliance, he was able to memorise the entire Qur’an and wrote prolifically on sharia law, as in his seminal book, Al-Siyasa wa-l-Hukm (Politics and Governance).
In 1954 he had helped found the Sudanese branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, a revivalist Islamist organisation. Two years later Sudan gained independence from a British-Egyptian condominium. But subsequent governments proved fragile, and full-scale north-south ethnic and religious civil war erupted in 1962.
When Turabi returned to Sudan from his studies in 1964, he became dean of the law faculty at Khartoum University and in the same year began agitating against the military regime of general Ibrahim Abboud, who in the wake of popular protests quickly stepped aside, ushering in a period of democratic rule from 1965 onwards. Following a coup in 1969 that brought colonel Jaafar Nimeiri into power, Turabi, by then the rising star of Sudanese Islamism, was immediately jailed, spending six years in custody and another three in exile in Libya. The tide began to turn, however, when in 1978 Nimeiri changed tack and appointed Turabi as attorney general. By 1983 Turabi had successfully encouraged Nimeiri to impose strict Islamic law throughout Sudan – even though one in four Sudanese were not Muslim. The two inaugurated the new era by emptying gallons of wine, whisky and beer into the Nile.
In 1985, after popular unrest toppled Nimeiri, Turabi founded a new political party, the radical National Islamic Front (NIF), and joined a democratically elected coalition government headed by his brother-in-law, Al-Sadiq al-Mahdi, taking on a ministerial role.
In 1989 Bashir ousted Mahdi’s government with a military coup, and Turabi, showing a characteristic ability to forge new roles for himself just as his political life seemed over, switched sides to become Bashir’s eminence grise. For 10 years Turabi’s NIF set the theocratic tenor of Bashir’s regime, and NIF members rooted themselves deep in Sudan’s political and judicial infrastructure. Their Islamic banks handled remittances earned by Sudanese people in the oil-rich Gulf, and in 1998 they even joined Bashir’s new National Congress party.
As Congress’s secretary-general, Turabi enthusiastically pursued various hardline Islamic agendas. Human rights groups lambasted him for sanctioning arbitrary arrests, hangings and amputations. Once, when Turabi was addressing a meeting in London, a former victim disrupted proceedings to wave his prosthetic leg at Turabi, claiming that he had lost the original after Turabi’s operatives had tortured him.
It was during this period that Turabi also helped Bin Laden, who was married to Turabi’s niece and who invested enormously in Sudan’s infrastructure. Relations with Bin Laden cooled somewhat after the latter left Sudan in 1996, and Turabi later tried to distance himself from his activities, although if he was critical either of the 9/11 terrorist attack or of other al-Qaida operations, it was not conspicuously so.
After a decade of huge influence, tensions between Turabi and Bashir boiled over in late 1999. Desperate to clip Turabi’s wings, Bashir sacked him as National Assembly speaker and secretary of the ruling party, shutting down the legislature and slapping Turabi in prison. Overnight the moving spirit behind Sudan’s Islamic revolution was vilified as a threat to national security.
Turabi then reinvented himself as a democrat: a paradox, some noted, given that he had earlier mocked elections as “mobocracy that [empowers] a small group”. He criticised Bashir’s pursuit of war in Darfur and by 2005 was leading calls for Bashir’s overthrow, putting forward a new vision of pan-ethnic Islam and defying what he characterised as the Arab chauvinism of Khartoum. Arguing for greater recognition of non-Arab and non-Muslim rights, and accepting South Sudan’s right to secede, which it did in 2011, he even suggested that Muslim women could marry Jews and Christians, or lead prayers as an imam, and stated that he could accept a Christian woman as president of Sudan – pronouncements that led to conflict with local imams, who damned him as an apostate.
The views he espoused in this later phase of his life were a huge departure from his previous stances, but were typical of his unpredictability. Despite a history of intolerance and brutality, Turabi often cut an avuncular figure, with his distinctive white turban, scholastic spectacles, amiable smile and ever-present chuckle. While he made regular condemnations of the west throughout his life, he remembered with affection his student days in London and Paris, welcomed debate in academic forums, and at least once participated in dialogue with Jewish and Christian leaders. He held on to his espousal of democracy for the last 15 years of his life, despite being persecuted for doing so.
Turabi was re-arrested after the Arab Spring uprisings sparked economic protests in Sudan in early 2011. He and Bashir had a year-long reconciliation dialogue that ended without a positive conclusion in 2015, but which has carried on, with other parties now involved.
He is survived by his wife, Wissal al-Mahdi, and a son, Sadiq.
• Hassan Abdullah al-Turabi, religious ideologue and politician, born 1 February 1932; died 5 March 2016