JERUSALEM — Israeli intelligence officials said Thursday that their military has been conducting operations inside Sudan for several years in an effort to disrupt weapons supplies and training for militants in the Gaza Strip – tacit acknowledgement that Israel was responsible for the bombing Wednesday of a weapons factory in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital.
“It would be in Israel’s interest to hit a factory that was a major source of weapons for the Gaza Strip, no?” said one official who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to discuss Israel’s operations in Sudan. “Sudan has long been a playground for militants, and for Israel it would be important to send the message that they cannot use Sudan as a way station for their arms and training camps.”
Publicly, Israeli officials have declined to comment on Sudanese government accusations that Israel had bombed the Yarmouk industrial complex. Amos Gilad, a top Israeli Defense Ministry official, in an interview with Israeli army radio Thursday would say only that Sudan is a “dangerous terrorist state” and that it would take time to understand what had happened in Khartoum.
But speaking to McClatchy on condition of anonymity, several Israeli intelligence sources confirmed that Israel “had an interest” in targeting the factory and that Israel had been active in Sudan for years.
“We have a presence there, our intelligence arm has a presence in any country in which militants plot terror against the state of Israel,” said the intelligence official who’d referred to Sudan as a “playground for militants.” “Over the last five years I would say our presence there has increased in parallel with the presence of terror groups.”
The official said that Sudan has become a “major throughway” for the transfer of weapons to militants in Gaza, and that the Islamist Hamas movement operated freely in Sudan.
Analysts also noted that striking at Sudan would be useful for Israel’s development of its capabilities for hitting nuclear facilities in Iran.
“After all, we must consider that Sudan is more then 500 kilometers (310 miles) further for an Israeli plane to travel than the potential strike on Iran, and the logistical difficulties would have some similarities,” said Amir Buhbot, a military analyst for the Walla news website.
The admission that Israel had carried out military operations in Sudan added another country to the list of nations where Israel is believed in recent years to have carried out assassinations and military operations, from Iran to Dubai. Israeli officials generally respond to reports of those actions with a smile and a wink – refusing to publicly acknowledge the work of its spy agency, the Mossad, overseas, but repeating promises to target terrorists “wherever they may hide.”
Israel was first accused of an attack on Sudanese soil in late January 2009, when a convoy allegedly carrying Iranian-made Fajr-3 rockets was targeted in the Sudanese coastal city of Sheilitah.
It was widely speculated in Sudanese and Israeli media that the rockets – with a range of 40 miles – were intended for the Gaza Strip.
"We operate in every area where terrorist infrastructures can be struck," said the prime minister at the time, Ehud Olmert, when asked about the attack. "We are operating in locations near and far, and attack in a way that strengthens and increases deterrence. There is no point in elaborating. Everyone can use their imagination. Whoever needs to know, knows.”
In the ensuing years, several other mysterious explosions were cited in the Sudanese and Israeli press – along with speculation that Israeli drones were carrying out attacks on arms convoys.
Sudanese authorities remained mum on those attacks, often denying that Israel would dare to violate Sudanese airspace.
But in April 2011 a missile hit a car near the city of Port Sudan, killing two men. One of them, Abdel Latif al Ashkar, had just replaced Mahmoud al Mabhouh as director of Hamas’ arms smuggling operations. Mabhouh was famously killed in January 2010 in his hotel room in Dubai, in an operation widely speculated to have been carried out by Mossad members caught on camera.
Following the April 2011 strike, Sudanese authorities began publicly accusing Israel of carrying out attacks and filed a complaint with the United Nations.
On Wednesday, Sudanese officials again blamed Israel for the attack on the arms factory in Khartoum.
"Four planes coming from the east bombed the Yarmouk industrial complex," said Ahmed Belal Osman, the Sudanese information minister. "They used sophisticated technology. . . . We believe that Israel is behind it."
Both in 2011 and in this week’s strike on the arms factory, Sudanese communication systems were reportedly jammed while the attack was carried out.
Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.