Soft words in Sudan conceal face of terror: Hassan al-Turabi wears his notoriety lightly, Charles Richards found in Khartoum

HASSAN al-Turabi has a curious distinction. It is his photograph, in black and white, of his face smiling between bright white robe and turban, which is the first in the 1992 Patterns of Global Terrorism, a report put out by the US State Department.

The report does not actually label the founder and leader of Sudan's National Islamic Front (NIF) a terrorist leader. But the implication is clear. In the text, he is accused of keeping dubious company. 'In 1992,' the report says, 'the government of Sudan continued a disturbing pattern of relationships with international terrorist groups. Sudan's increasing support for radical Arab terrorist groups is directly related to the extension of NIF influence over the government of Sudan. Elements of the Abu Nidal Organisation, the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist organisation continue to find refuge in Sudan.'

Throughout North Africa, and in the corridors of power in Washington, government officials spit out Mr Turabi's name with venom. In Tunisia, senior ministers have accused him of membership of a triumvirate of a new Islamic international. His co-conspirators are said to be Rashid al-Ghannouchi, head of Tunisia's Abn-Nahda party (who came to his London exile on two Sudanese diplomatic passports, since withdrawn), and Omar Abderrahman, the blind Egyptian sheikh living in New Jersey whose virulently anti-government sermons have inspired some of Egypt's Islamic groups.

Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak has accused Sudan of being behind the spate of violence by Islamic extremists. His previous interior minister publicly disagreed. He said that from a security point of view there was no evidence of Sudanese involvement. The minister paid for his indiscretion with summary dismissal.

In the West, heavyweight journals like Foreign Affairs, Commentary and the Economist have explored whether there has arisen a new Islamic threat, a Green Peril, acting against Western interests. The spectre serves the interests of parties such as Israel, which needs to show its US backers it is a bulwark against these fanatic hordes as it once was the front line against the Red Menace. Mr Turabi has been cast as the Svengali of modern Islamic movements, and Sudan the twin pillar with Iran of this supposed new Khomeintern.

Hassan al-Turabi wears such notoriety lightly. For a man who is the bane of so many who would dearly like to see him disappear, he is remarkably lightly protected. There is no evident security at his offices of the Popular Arab and Islamic Conference, of which he is secretary-general, in Khartoum's Baladeyya Street. On a visit to Canada last year he was felled by a karate chop to the back of the head by a dissident Sudanese black belt.

Some have discerned a slowing of Mr Turabi's mental and physical powers. The demonstration of his own vulnerability set off a power struggle among his lieutenants. And there is some evidence that he is not completely in charge in Sudan (of course, he would deny any official role now whatsoever, but no one believes that).

Whatever the damage to his powers, he is still as fluent and charming in three languages (law degree from London and doctorate - on emergency laws - from the Sorbonne) as ever. The only warning that he is about to mouth some monstrous disingenuousness comes with his childlike giggle.

Mr Turabi is dismissive about his reputation. 'The West unfortunately knows very little about Islam. Westerners are not familiar with the new revival so they think it is just a fanatic religious revival. They think that religious revival means terrorism or force.'

So why should the North African states be afraid of him? 'Because we are a religious movement. Religion is based on sincerity and honesty to God. There is no coercion in religion (a quotation from the Koran), otherwise it means hypocrisy and artificiality. Any country which does not allow Islam to express itself gradually, peacefully, will run into resistance or jihad. Jihad means Islamic resistance, or struggle, it does not mean holy war as you know.'

Mr Turabi's glibness is seductive. But, his critics say, that is his danger, his ability to promote a double discourse, a language of militant Islam to his supporters, cocooned in the language of liberal reasonableness for Western ears. For Mr Turabi's vision of Islam allows no dissent, no opposition. One-third of this very diverse country, the non-Muslim part, would be subject to Islamic law in the north 'as Sudanese in London are subject to English law'.

And for all his talk about the popular will, he was heavily defeated in the last free and fair general elections in Sudan, in April 1986. The NIF only gained power thanks to the military coup in 1989 by the sympathetic General Omar Hassan el Beshir. His career has been dictated by political expediency, compromising principle whenever necessary, forming alliances with successive governments, with the sole aim of obtaining power. Which he now enjoys. But to what end? Is he, is Sudan, an actual threat, or merely a potential threat?

So far, no major terrorist incident has been traced to the Islamic regime in Sudan. The Sudanese lack the logistical abilities to run terrorist networks, like the Iraqis or Libyans, even if they wished.

What about charges that Sudan is aiding anti-government Egyptian groups? Mr Turabi is adamant: 'There is not a single Egyptian opposition member in Sudan actually.' He is also categorical that there is no axis with Iran. 'There are no Iranian tourists, Iran is not supplying Sudan with oil. Iran is not supplying Sudan with any credit at all.'