Sudan killings were 'an act of worship': Charles Richards, in Omdurman, finds two zealots waiting to die for murdering 16 fellow Muslims they did not consider true believers

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The Independent Online
THE SUDANESE hangman could slip the noose round the neck of Mohamed al-Kholeifi at any time. Here in one of the world's most Islamic states he opened fire on worshippers in a mosque because he felt society was not sufficiently Muslim enough. When Judge Abdel Rahman Sharfi handed down sentence on 3 August, it was the appropriate hadd or Islamic punishment: death by hanging.

The young man has been convicted of opening fire on the Al Thawra - Revolution - mosque of the Ansar al-Sunna sect in Omdurman at the end of Friday prayers on 4 February, killing 16 worshippers. His surviving fellow conspirator, Mohamed Al-Mahi Ahmed, was also condemned to death. He can appeal for clemency on the grounds he was merely an accessory, either to the president of the republic or to the families of the victims. Under Islamic and tribal law, they can spare his life.

The case was extraordinary. Sudan is run by a military junta guided by a minority group that has embraced a form of Islamic puritanism with few equals in the Islamic world. Even by the rigid standards of the state, the Ansar al- Sunna sect were extreme. Not to be confused with the Ansar, the tribal-sectarian group headed by the deposed prime minister Sadik al-Mahdi, the Ansar al-Sunna have a similar fanatical puritanism to the Wahhabis from Saudi Arabia. The Ansar al-Sunna or Followers of the Sunna are adherents of the most literal interpretation of Islam's holy writings. But even they were not considered pure enough for al-Kholeifi and his zealots.

On that fateful day, four armed men in a Toyota pick-up opened fire first on the nearby police station then at the mosque. The supposed target, Sheikh Abu Zeid Mohamed Hamza, the leader of the Ansar al-Sunna in Sudan, was not in the mosque that day.

A list of people they wished to kill was said by the authorities to have been found on them. They included Hassan al-Turabi, idealogue and lifelong activist of the National Islamic Front, the minority party that sets the political orientation for the government; and Al-Hibir Nuraldaim, head of the Muslim Brotherhood. In this leaflet and during the course of the trial they said that their aim was to purify Sudan of what they called 'polytheistic gatherings, brothers of Satan and figures of Sufism'.

After the mosque shooting, the group drove off to the Riyadh area of Khartoum behind the airport, a residential area for the well-to-do. They started firing in the direction of the house of Osama bin Laden, a wealthy and ascetic Saudi businessman and roadbuilder active in supporting Arabs fighting alongside the Afghan mujahedin. He is accused by Egypt of sponsoring Islamic groups in Egypt and was recently stripped of his Saudi citizenship. In a shoot-out with security men, two of the four assailants were killed, as were two guards.

Who were these fanatics and what made them do what they did? These are the questions that even now, after televised broadcasts of court proceedings, have not been fully answered. Al- Kholeifi is said to be a Sudanese of Saudi origin whose family lived for many years in Libya. With his pale skin and straight hair he looks very un-Sudanese. The second defendant is Sudanese.

The most obvious explanation is that they were men who, in the existing climate of religious fervour, became obsessed with the idea that the whole of Sudan was not as Islamic as it should be. Sudan and the Sudanese were in their eyes still in effect kaafir, or unbelieving. Their solution was to remove this stain from the face of the earth.

Throughout the history of Islam there have arisen fanatic groups that have considered the Muslim world to be failing to measure up to standard. Some, such as Takfir wal Hijra, have believed society so fallen that they have retreated from it. Others have confronted it head on. For Al-Kholeifi the spilling of kaafir blood was lawful.

Some officials and apologists for the regime suspect a hidden hand and mutter darkly about the Saudis, the Egyptians or the CIA. Most, however, believe the group were merely extremists, with no links to any outside power or organisation, who acted alone.