The Rapid Support Forces are a preeminent paramilitary group in Sudan, whose leader — Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo — has had a meteoric rise to power that began in Sudan’s Darfur conflict in the early 2000s.
At the time, he was the leader of Sudan’s notorious Janjaweed forces implicated in human rights violations and atrocities.
In the face of international outcry over the Janjaweed’s actions in Darfur, Sudan’s then-dictator Omar al-Bashir formalized the group into a paramilitary forces known as the Border Intelligence Units. It was the beginning of an illustrious — and deeply contentious — military career.
In 2007, Khartoum made him a brigadier general and his troops became part of the country’s intelligence services. In 2013, Bashir formally created the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group led by Dagalo and overseen directly by Bashir.
He was widely known by his family’s nickname for him, Hemedti. The former dictator referred to him in public as a permutation of that nickname, Himayti, which means "my protector."
Wealth and growth of forces: Dagalo's consolidation of power went hand in hand with a rapid accumulation of wealth. The paramilitary chief seized key gold mining locations in the Darfur region. By 2017, the country’s gold sales accounted for 40% exports.
Dagalo was also developing key foreign relationships. In 2015, when Sudan joined a Saudi-led coalition to fight Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, Dagalo sent RSF units to Yemen. Among other missions, troops were tasked with a key security portfolio — guarding Saudi Arabia’s borders with the war-torn country.
Dagalo’s forces were growing rapidly into the tens of thousands, including thousands of armed pickup trucks, which regularly patrolled the streets of the capital, Khartoum.
Dagalo would go on to betray Bashir, helping to topple him. Sources told CNN at the time of Bashir’s ouster that he personally told Bashir, "the time had come to step down." At this point, he was one of the most powerful and richest men in Sudan.
After Bashir was overthrown: In June 2019, Dagalo’s forces opened fire on an anti-Bashir, pro-democracy sit-in in Khartoum, killing at least 118 people. They allegedly burned protesters’ tents, killed sit-in participants, and according to multiple accounts, raped female protesters.
Later that summer, he was appointed deputy of the transitional Sovereign Council that ruled Sudan in partnership with civilian leadership.
He had also inherited a key relationship fostered by Bashir — a working relationship with the Russian paramilitary group Wagner, which a CNN investigation found was helping to thwart democratic transition and exploit Sudan’s gold wealth in order to bust Western sanctions on Russia and help fund Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
Relationship with military chief: Sudan’s military leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Dagalo — until clashes on Saturday — were bedfellows. They were bound together by a 2021 coup and the prior toppling of Bashir.
Sources in Sudan’s civilian movement and Sudanese military sources told CNN the main points of contention included the timeline for the merger of the forces, the status given to RSF officers in the future hierarchy, and whether RSF forces should be under the command of the army chief — rather than Sudan's commander-in-chief — who is currently al-Burhan.