Sudanese Islamist leader, bin Laden ally Hassan al-Turabi dies

Sudanese Islamist leader Hassan al-Turabi, shown in a 2014 photo, died Saturday of an illness, state news reported.

Story highlights

  • Hassan al-Turabi's health deteriorated Saturday and he died in the evening, state news reports
  • He was an Islamist leader who invited Osama bin Laden to Sudan, according to the U.S. 9/11 report
  • Turabi was once an ally of President Omer al-Bashir, although the two were later at odds

(CNN)Hassan al-Turabi, who invited Osama bin Laden to Sudan and remained a powerful presence in that African nation even after the al Qaeda leader's exit, died Saturday evening, Sudanese state news reported.

He was 84.
    The Islamic intellectual and Popular Congress party leader's health deteriorated Saturday morning, after which he was moved to Khartoum's Royal Care International Hospital, the official Sudan News Agency (SUNA) reported. He died there from the unspecified illness that evening.
    Born in eastern Sudan, Turabi first went to the University of Khartoum. He then earned a master's degree from England's Oxford University in 1957 and a doctorate from France's Sorbonne in 1964, according to SUNA.
    Turabi -- who was fluent in Arabic, English, French and German -- returned to Sudan, at one point becoming the University of Khartoum's law dean.
    He soon established himself in Sudanese politics as well, including a stint as justice minister. He also developed a reputation as a leading Islamist, as illustrated by his founding of the National Islamic Front.

    9/11 report: Hosted, allied with bin Laden

    His stature rose when his then ally Omer al-Bashir seized power in a military coup in 1989, which gave Turabi more power and leverage than ever. That same year, Turabi served as Sudan's foreign minister.
    This was around the time that Turabi reached out to bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda, and "urged him to transplant his whole organization to Sudan," according to the United States' 9/11 Commission report.
    Bin Laden "agreed to help Turabi in an ongoing war against African Christian separatists in southern Sudan and also to do some road building," the 9/11 report said. "Turabi in return would let [bin Laden] use Sudan as a base for worldwide business operations and for preparations for jihad."
    And this bargain held, picking up steam especially after bin Laden himself made Sudan his home in 1991. The 9/11 report noted that the terror leader, who was a trained civil engineer, helped build a highway from Khartoum to the Red Sea, while al Qaeda officials (via bin Laden's businesses) amassed "weapons, explosives and technical equipment for terrorist purposes."
    Meanwhile, Turabi continued to exert himself as an Islamist leader who perhaps inspired bin Laden to rally Muslims together.
    "Turabi sought to persuade Shiites and Sunnis to put aside their divisions and join against the common enemy," the 9/11 report said, noting Sudan's part in supporting al Qaeda and Iranian operatives' "training for actions carried out primarily against Israel and the United States."

    Formed major opposition political party

    He retained influence, too, with bin Laden as when he reportedly brokered a deal so al Qaeda wouldn't back insurgents against then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
    By the mid-1990s, Western and other governments ramped up pressure on Bashir not to harbor al Qaeda anymore. in 1996, Sudanese officials expelled bin Laden, who moved with his family to then Taliban-run Afghanistan.
    Turabi was pushed out, too, from Bashir's circle. Yet he maintained influence by founding the opposition Popular Congress Party and, in 1996, becoming speaker of Sudan's legislature.
    He lasted in that role until 1999, when he proposed laws limiting a president's powers. Bashir responded by dissolving the assembly.
    That put Turabi out of the speaker's job, but not out of the political picture.
    He remained a force in Sudanese politics and a thorn in Bashir's side, a fact that may have contributed to his being arrested several times -- including in 2010 after criticizing the President and recent elections in an interview with a local newspaper.