Austin Bodetti

In Sudan, a high-tech battle is raging between rebels armed with smartphones and a government employing the latest advances in mass surveillance to bomb its enemies into oblivion.

“With its sophisticated, varied equipment, the enemy can employ all its technologies to follow and monitor us,” Abu Bakr Hamid Nour, a rebel leader, told The New Arab – in reference to the Sudanese government.

“It can also ask for help from its friends, such as China and Iran. In the past, it has recorded our conversations and determined our locations by GPS to hit us with warplanes.”

A little-known hacker group operating under the name “Electronic Jihad” (sometimes translated from Arabic as “Cyber Jihad”) spearheads the Sudanese government’s efforts at cyber-warfare in Darfur, the Blue Nile, and the Nuba Mountains, where rebels representing ethnic minorities have been resisting its authority for decades.

The National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), the Sudanese government’s secret police, runs Electronic Jihad and staffs it by recruiting university students in Khartoum.

Rebel sources interviewed by The New Arab explained how Electronic Jihad, in conjunction with intelligence agencies, military branches, ministries, and telephone companies in Khartoum, had brought the Sudanese police state developed in the 1990s into the Information Age.

Military aircraft can strike their targets within thirty minutes of a text message’s interception

The rebels claim that, since the early 2000s, local communication service providers such as MTN Sudan, Sudani One, and Zain Sudan had allowed the Sudanese government to bug their telephone lines in the country’s more restive territories, including Niyala, the largest city in Darfur.

Electronic Jihad and the Interior Ministry pass intercepted data from the bugs through intermediaries in the NISS to the Sudanese Air Force’s military bases at airports in al-Daein, al-Damazan, al-Fashir, Geneina, Kadugli, Rabak, and Zalingei, where air traffic control distributes coordinates.

Pilots use the information to launch airstrikes against civilian and rebel targets along the Chadian and South Sudanese borders.

All told, military aircraft can strike their targets within thirty minutes of a text message’s interception. The Sudanese government started expanding the programme in 2015.

Adam Eissa Abakar, an official in the Sudanese Justice and Equality Movement, claimed to The New Arab that Electronic Jihad killed Khalil Ibrahim, the group’s founder, in 2011 after tracking his mobile phone.

The hacker group has continued to play a critical role in the Sudanese government’s ongoing offensives in Darfur, the Blue Nile, and the Nuba Mountains, where airstrikes guided by Electronic Jihad’s signals intelligence have killed dozens of civilians. Reports suggest that the hacker group has received help not only from China and Iran but also from Malaysia, Pakistan, Russia and South Korea.

Protesters in Sudan have resorted to organising through a low-tech clandestine cell structure, fearing that Electronic Jihad is watching them over Facebook

As rebellions in the country’s borderlands have begun to stall in the past four years, the Sudanese government has turned its attention and the resources of Electronic Jihad to combatting activists and dissidents.

The Doha Center for Media Freedom, a human rights group sponsored by Qatar, reported in 2013 that the hackers tried to steal Sudanese journalist Somia Hundosa’s email address, to discredit her by then sending pornography to male colleagues.

“They hacked my email when they found it in articles I published online,” she told the human rights group, showing the risks of internet activism in Sudan.

Even internet-protocol messaging platforms secured by end-to-end encryption on which Sudanese rebels rely, such as Telegram and WhatsApp, have proved far from safe.
Electronic Jihad has managed to infiltrate WhatsApp groups to discover activists’ identities, using information from a 2016 operation to arrest a journalist for administering one such group, an offence under the IT Crime Act.

Protesters in Sudan have resorted to organising through a low-tech clandestine cell structure, fearing that Electronic Jihad is watching them over Facebook. Activists say that its hackers bombard anti-government pages with pornography, then report the pages for violating Facebook’s rules.

Electronic Jihad often conducts cyber-attacks through distributed denial-of-service, pounding websites with requests from thousands of computers at once. The hacker group has even managed a few times to downSudaneseOnline, a Phoenix-based website popular with the Sudanese and South Sudanese diaspora that often criticises the Sudanese government and the NISS.

The US Treasury has lifted sanctions on Sudan, one of only three countries the State Department has labelled a State Sponsor of Terrorism. The end of sanctions may help Electronic Jihad acquire more high-tech tools from its allies in Beijing, Moscow and Tehran.

As of December 2016, Electronic Jihad was still recruiting hackers. Though the NISS has used surveillance for Western-friendly purposes, such as stopping Sudanese radicals from traveling to Syria, little suggests that Electronic Jihad will abandon its original mission: destroying rebellions at the peripheries of the country and dissolving civil disobedience in the capital.

“That’s bad news for rebellions,” CIA veteran Paul R Pillar told The New Arab. “What kind of news it is for democracy depends on the democratic inclinations, or lack thereof, of both the regime and the opposition.”

While Sudan’s intelligence agencies last year failed to stop a campaign of civil disobedience that extended from the villages of the Nuba Mountains to social media, rebel sources told The New Arab that Electronic Jihad had succeeded in sowing discord between rebels and activists, who had been cooperating since 2013 to overcome their concurrent defeats at the hands of the Sudanese government.

Abakar, the rebel official, asserted to The New Arab that Electronic Jihad continues to control telecommunications in Sudan, including German-constructed infrastructure. Further advances will likely strengthen the Sudanese government’s hold on power and Electronic Jihad’s ability to maintain it.

“This regime will not be overthrown by keyboards and WhatsApp,” declared Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in December 2016. He dared activists and rebels to “come out onto the streets,” warning them, “but we know you will not come because you know what happened in the past.”