The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo has built himself a nice little fiefdom.

In April, the once-quiet landscape of Sudan erupted into chaos. Clashes between the Sudanese army and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary militia, have since claimed thousands of lives and displaced countless more, tearing the fabric of Sudan’s society and infrastructure apart. As the nation teeters on the brink of civil war, many are left wondering: How does this militia fund its war machine?

Founded in 2013, with remnants of the now-infamous Janjaweed militia under its wing, the RSF quickly became a tool for the ousted regime, executing counterinsurgency operations across Darfur and South Kordofan. By 2017, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemetti, assumed control of the now officially sanctioned militia, but not without controversies. Hemetti’s reign has been marred by accusations of heinous war crimes: from burning entire villages and using rape as a weapon to violently suppressing peaceful protesters during the Khartoum uprising, and the alleged unlawful detention of activists, civilians, and even the recruitment of child soldiers for Yemen’s frontline on behalf of the Saudis.

Hemetti’s financial pipeline is an intricate web, from exploiting Sudan’s natural resources to courting foreign allies with vested interests. Gold shines the brightest among Hemetti’s resources. Through the Algunade company, a family venture in his brother’s name, Hemetti has raked in millions of dollars by trading this precious metal. Leveraging political influence and dodging regulations, Hemetti’s shadowy mining operations have made him quite wealthy.

The Gulf’s monarchies too have padded Hemetti’s war chest. After the RSF allied with the Saudi-led coalition against Yemen’s Houthi rebels in 2015, tales of RSF soldiers drawing hefty salaries began to circulate. Dig a bit deeper, and you’ll find the UAE’s fingerprints all over the RSF’s financial ledger. Investigative journalists have unveiled the transfer of millions through Dubai-based shell companies into RSF’s coffers and the shipping of military-grade vehicles. More alarmingly, allegations swirl around the UAE equipping the RSF with advanced drone technology and offering safe havens for their PR operations.

Europe isn’t entirely blameless. As part of an effort to curb illegal immigration, the RSF was reportedly equipped with tools to set up detention hubs. Although the EU distanced itself, insisting it never directly collaborated with the RSF, a recent report from September 2022 suggests that countries like Italy may have even offered intelligence training to Hemetti’s forces.

Fast forward to 2023, and Hemetti’s allies have diversified. The Wagner Group, a notorious private military company, and Libya’s strongman, Khalifa Haftar, are now in the fray. Satellite images from April reveal that Wagner had been shipping surface-to-air missiles to the RSF from its base in Libya. Both Wagner and Haftar, sources indicate, have also been channeling support from the Central African Republic.

As if all these funding sources weren’t enough, the RSF’s latest revenue stream is deeply unsettling: organized looting. Militia soldiers, during the ongoing conflict, have systematically plundered, giving rise to a black market exclusively trading in stolen wares.

However, the tides may be turning. The United States and the United Kingdom have slapped sanctions on Hemetti-affiliated companies, while Sudan’s government, or the most reasonable facsimile of one, has frozen Hemetti’s accounts. These moves, many hope, will finally rein in the militia’s rampant growth and aggression.

Mohamed Suliman is a senior researcher at Northeastern University and also holds a degree in Engineering form the University of Khartoum.