The most credible information coming out of Sudan over the past week came from an NGO set up by Hollywood megastar George Clooney.
The Satellite Sentinel Project was established in October 2010 by Mr Clooney and fellow human-rights activists in Sudan to use satellite footage to deter the regime of President Omar al-Bashir from committing atrocities against its civilians. Shortly after reports of explosions early on Wednesday morning near Khartoum, the project’s analysts were poring over images of the bomb site and comparing them with previous satellite images taken earlier this month.
The photographs indicate that an area where around 40 shipping containers were previously held had been obliterated by at least six air-launched bombs. Residents of southern Khartoum who spoke to the project’s researchers reported seeing at least three fighter aircraft flying low.
The Sudanese government accused Israel of having attacked a munitions factory and various media reports claimed that Iranian ballistic missiles were being manufactured on the site. Media reports also claimed that the strike was an Israeli rehearsal for a future bombing mission against Iran’s nuclear installations. Israel, as usual in these cases, neither denied nor confirmed any involvement.
Little of this makes sense. To start with, a surgical strike on one relatively small target in impoverished Sudan is very different from the complex, multi-stage operation that will have to be carried out if Iran’s nuclear programme is ever attacked by Israel or the United States. And while Iran has close relations with the Sudanese government, it is very hard to see it basing the manufacture of its advanced long-range missiles outside its borders.
It is unlikely that this was a rehearsal for a strike on Iran
But if it was indeed the Israeli Air Force operating in the sky over Khartoum, then the Satellite Sentinel Project offers the best understanding of the nature of the target.
Sudan is a nexus for arms smuggling to Hizbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinian groups in Gaza. The shipments leave Iranian ports and sail through the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea to the Sudanese coast, from where they are taken overland to Egypt and onwards, either through the Rafah tunnels to Gaza or by container ships to a Lebanese port.
A silent war is being waged between Israel and Iran along these routes. Beyond sightings of Israeli warships in the Suez Canal and visits by Iranian naval vessels to Port Sudan — both of which happened early this week — very little ever gets reported on the subject.
Interdictions — preventive interceptions — are usually at sea and not normally acknowledged by either side. An attack on a sovereign land target in Sudan would normally only occur if Israel had advance information on “game-changing” weapons on their way to Hizbollah or Gaza. Such an attack apparently took place in 2009 when an arms convoy was bombed from the air on a remote Sudanese road. This seems to be the most likely scenario for last week’s attack.