The Al-Bara Ibn Malik Brigade: a lifeline to the army or a lifelong challenge

14 June 2024

After a week’s detention, Saudi Arabian authorities released Al-Misbah Abuzeid Talha, the leader of the Al-Bara Bin Malik Brigade, an Islamist paramilitary allied with the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF). The young Islamic leader’s release and return to Port Sudan has received mixed reactions within the army, despite the Al-Bara Bin Malik Brigade’s past military support to the army.

Saudi authorities arrested Abuzeid on 4 June, after the militia leader had travelled to Saudi Arabia to attend the Hajj pilgrimage, according to a source close to the brigade. “Al-Misbah committed a grave mistake; he held several meetings with a number of Islamists inside Saudi Arabia, something that Saudi Arabia does not allow for anyone, let alone Islamists,” said a diplomatic source.

Videos and pictures obtained by Ayin confirm that Abuzeid was deported from Saudi Arabia on 12 June and arrived in Port Sudan, the same day. “This followed intense diplomatic communications between the de facto government in Port Sudan and the Saudi authorities to secure Al-Misbah’s release,” the same source told Ayin.

Al-Misbah Abuzeid with a supporter upon his release (social media)

For 14 months, Sudan’s army has fought a protracted war against the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), reducing the country into one of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Two generals, once allies and partners in a military coup that overthrew a civilian government in 2021, are now at loggerheads in a bid for political and economic control. The al Bara Ibn Malik Brigade, named after a famous Muslim combatant during early Muslim conquests, has been collaborating with the army in this conflict, claiming credits for military operations, including the February offensive in Omdurman that broke the RSF’s grip over key parts of the city.

While providing legitimate support to the army, the militia’s wide social media presence and highly visible Islamist allegiance have caused Burhan interminable diplomatic headaches.

The destroyed hall in Atbara (social media)

Atbara Attack

On 2 April, a suicide drone attack hit a hall in Atbara, River Nile State, during a Ramadan iftar held by the Al Bara Ibn Malik Brigade, killing 15 individuals. The army, the foreign ministry, and even the brigade maintained a radio silence regarding the attack, refraining from accusing the RSF or any allied group. The RSF also did not claim responsibility for the attack. 

The day following the attack, army head Lt. Gen. Abdelfattah al Burhan arrived in the state without addressing the incident, nor did he visit the injured or meet with leadership of the Brigade who attended the Ramadan iftar. It was reported that Zubeid left the hall shortly before the attack occurred.

During a secret meeting with army leaders where mobile phones were prohibited, Burhan confided that Al-Bara Ibn Malik Brigade’s extensive media presence had curtailed support from some countries, wary of the militia’s Islamist links.

Even before the conflict started, Burhan attempted a delicate balancing act of utilising political and, now, military support from the Islamists while also distancing himself from them, fearing Western and Gulf countries would not support an army with clear Islamist ties.

Several days later, after the disclosure of the meeting, Abuzeid announced they would continue to fight, with or without the army’s support. “We won’t ask for permission from anyone to engage in combat with the Rapid Support Forces,” Al Zubeid said in a video statement.

According to military expert Amin Maghzoub, the Brigade “uses Islamic slogans as an attempt to distinguish themselves from other groups that have joined the fight with the army and an attempt to attract support by being affiliated with the Islamic movement.”

Al-Misbah Abuzeid addressing new recruits (social media)

Islamic grip on the SAF

Following the military coup in 2021, a group called Al Bara Ibn Malik gained prominence by hosting communal iftar gatherings in Ramadan in the days leading up to the war with the participation of other Islamic political and security figures. The militia would use these gatherings to announce their rejection of the framework agreement negotiation between the civilian political forces and the warring parties. “Before the war, we saw how emboldened they were in these public meetings,” said Kholood Khair, the director of the think tank, Confluence Advisory. “They helped fuel the growing symptoms within SAF that sharing power with RSF won’t be in their favour.”

After the army lost considerable ground across the country, civilian training camps were set up in June last year. Militias such as Al Bara ibn Malik were also encouraging militias to participate. “The reason why the SAF needs Al Bara ibn Malik is simple: they are already armed and ready to go,” Khair said.

Loyal to the former Islamic regime under dictator Omar al-Bashir, the Al Bara Ibn Malik Brigade is part of Bashir’s “Popular Defence Force” used in conflicts in South Sudan and Darfur. Al Misbah Abuzeid used to work as a field commander, operating under the command of former Popular Defence Force leaders. “The Al-Bara Ibn Malik Brigade are loyal to the Islamists who are trying to make a comeback, no matter how that happens,” Khair told Ayin.

In a bid for political survival and fears of revolt from within the army, the Bashir regime routinely relied on militias such as Al-Bara Ibn Malik and, at one time, the RSF, to do their military bidding. High-ranking generals are wary of junior-ranked soldiers in Sudan since “every coup that takes place stems from mid-ranking to lower-ranking soldiers,” Khair explained. “So, they [military leaders] are afraid of having too much of them.” As such, the army historically and structurally has never had much of an infantry. “That’s why the army has always relied on popular defence forces and ethnic militias like the Janjaweed.”

Army leader Lt.-Gen. Abdelfattah al-Burhan addresses troops (social media)

A delicate balance

While Burhan and others may be wary of their association with the al-Bara Ibn Malik militia, there appears to be very little sign the army will break ties. In April Abuzeid mentioned on social media his intention to upgrade the militia from a “brigade” to a “corps”. But, according to Maghzoub, these statements are merely designed to boost morale and are not endorsed by the state. Even still, Burhan had guaranteed in a previous pledge to provide Abuzeid a major rank in the army. “This is a tradition within the army since the previous regime,” Maghzoub explained. “It has been announced that Al Misbah Abuzeid has been granted the rank of major, but the army leadership has not provided any explanations for the reasons behind it.”

But with the rebellion of a national security agency in the capital in 2020 and now the ongoing conflict with the RSF, once a militia supporting the army, many fear this reliance on al-Bara Ibn Malik and other armed groups will only lead to further mutinies.

The Al-Bara Ibn Malik Brigade has, however, disbanded after past military campaigns in the 1990s, Maghzoub said, and will likely do the same in relation to the current conflict.

Khair is not so sure. “Al Bara Ibn Malik is conservative, more right-wing, and more ideologically driven than the army. In contrast, the army still has officers who believe in the army as a national institution,” Khair added. “If these soldiers get the upper hand and the army becomes more of a national entity, then I can see issues arriving between them.”

 

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