Sudanese intelligence chief Salah Gosh held secret talks with the head of Mossad in Germany last month as part of a plot hatched by Israel's Gulf allies to elevate him to the presidency when Omar al-Bashir is toppled from power, a senior Sudanese military source has told Middle East Eye.
Gosh, the head of Sudan's National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS), met Yossi Cohen on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference in a meeting arranged by Egyptian intermediaries with the backing of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the source said.
The Saudis, the Emiratis and the Egyptians see Gosh as "their man," the source said, in a behind-the-scenes power struggle now taking place in Khartoum after months of anti-government protests that many now see as the beginning of the end of Bashir''s three-decade rule.
"There is a consensus that Bashir will go within the ruling party and the army. The battle is about who is coming after," said the source.
"Gosh has strong links with the Saudis, the Emiratis and the Egyptians. They want Bashir out, and they want their man in his place."
A spokesperson for the Munich Security Conference confirmed that both Gosh and Cohen had attended this year's event, which took place 15-17 February. Another diplomatic source spoken to by MEE corroborated details of the meeting.
Gosh also met European intelligence chiefs, the head of the Common Media Center, which is close to the Sudanese government, told MEE.
Why are Sudanese protesting against their government?+ Show
Hundreds of people have been taking to the streets of a series of towns and cities in Sudan since 19 December 2018 to protest a government decision to remove subsidies on wheat and electricity.
Sudan's economy has been struggling over the past decade with inflation spiking to around 70 percent over the past year alone.
This has caused the price of bread to double, cash shortages and salaries left unpaid. The austerity measures adopted by the government are part of larger economic reforms proposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The mobilisation on the ground against the price hikes - organised by a group known as the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) - found almost immediate resonance among opposition leaders, youth and women movements and rapidly turned into a larger show of discontent with 75-year-old President Omar al-Bashir.
Protesters have been reportedly chanting "freedom, peace, justice” and “revolution is the people’s choice” as they march through the streets of the capital, Khartoum.
Sudan's armed forces have responded to protesters with tear gas and at times, live ammunition, mowing down at least 30 people, according to government figures.
Human Rights Watch, the international rights watchdog, says the death toll is closer to 51.
The protests have energised the Sudanese diaspora culminating in the biggest ever challenge to Bashir's rule since he took over the country in 1989.
According to the source, Bashir was unaware of the "unprecedented" meeting between Gosh and Cohen in Munich. Its purpose was to highlight Gosh as his potential successor and to bring Israel on board to secure US support for the plan.
"The Israelis are seen as their ally, the one they can depend on to open doors in Washington," he said.
The Mossad, Israel's national intelligence, has played the role of foreign ministry in dealing with officials of countries that do not have a peace treaty with Israel, according to Israeli media.
"The Mossad is being used as a foreign ministry in ties with all the states that do not have diplomatic ties with Israel," an Israeli official told Channel 13 in a report on normalising ties between Israel and Bahrain.
CIA's man in Khartoum
Gosh is well known in Washington, where he earned a reputation during the 2000s as a spy chief with whom the CIA could work in the "war on terror" against al-Qaeda, even visiting the US in 2005 when, as now, Sudan was listed by the State Department as a state sponsor of terrorism.
A report by the Africa Intelligence website last month also said that the CIA had identified Gosh as its preferred successor to Bashir if the Sudanese president's position became untenable.
Citing a report by a Gulf state embassy in Washington, the website said that the CIA was not working to bring about regime change because the Sudanese government was providing valuable intelligence on al-Shabaab in Somalia, in Libya, and on the Muslim Brotherhood.
But the embassy report said the CIA would work to ensure that Gosh replaced Bashir if the protests could not be contained.
Bashir has sought to assert his authority in recent days by promoting army officers to senior positions and introducing sweeping new emergency powers by presidential decree in an effort to halt the countrywide protests.
The government reshuffle came soon after Gosh had told reporters in Khartoum on Friday that Bashir would step down as leader of the ruling National Congress Party and would not contest presidential elections in 2020.
Bashir named his defence minister, General Awad Ibnou, as first vice-president and appointed 16 army officers and two NISS officers as governors of the country's 18 provinces.
On Thursday night, he handed over leadership of the NCP to his newly appointed deputy, Ahmed Harun. The NCP said in a statement that Harun would serve as acting chief until a new president was elected at the party’s next convention.
'Militarisation' of the state
Analysts in Khartoum told MEE this week that Bashir appeared to be moving towards the "full militarisation" of the state and elimination of all opposition within the ruling party.
But MEE's source said that the army remained wary of Gosh and Saudi and Emirati influence in the country. He pointed to sympathetic coverage of the protests in Saudi-backed media usually opposed to "popular change".
"The media are very interested in these protests. That would not happen without a green light," he said.
Gosh headed NISS between 2004 and 2009, when Bashir appointed him as his national security adviser. He was sacked in 2011 and later arrested on suspicion of involvement in a coup plot, but was released with a presidential pardon in 2013.
He was reappointed as the head of NISS in February 2018. His return was seen as a move by Bashir to crack down on dissent as the country faced worsening economic problems and anti-austerity protests, and also to build bridges once again with the US following the lifting of sanctions in late 2017.
According to MEE's source, Gosh's return to NISS was also sweetened by Saudi promises of financial support for the ailing Sudanese economy.
In January, Saudi Minister of Commerce and Investment Majid Al-Qasabi said during a visit to Khartoum that Riyadh had provided 8bn riyals ($2.1bn) to Sudan over the past four years.
But Bashir has also sought to play the Saudis and the Emiratis off against regional rivals Qatar and Turkey, which also have strategic interests in Khartoum, costing him goodwill on all sides, according to a regional analyst quoted by the Africa Confidential website.
"Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, as well as Doha, have regarded Bashir as a fickle friend because of his tendency to play both ends against the middle," the unnamed analyst said.
"He has pledged allegiance in the past in return for subsidies and then gone his own way."
MEE understands that American and British diplomats are also working to persuade Bashir to step down in return for a promise of immunity from prosecution at the International Criminal Court where he was charged with war crimes in 2009 over alleged atrocities committed by government forces and pro-government militias in Darfur.
Bashir is also reported to have discussed possible immunity with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on the sidelines of last month's African Union summit in Ethiopia.
Elements of the Sudanese political opposition, most notably its figurehead, Sadiq al-Mahdi, have long proposed freezing the ICC indictment in return for Bashir stepping down as a possible way forward.
However, rebel groups in Darfur, some of whose leaders have handed themselves into ICC custody after also being charged with war crimes, have said they would reject any such move and would abandon peace talks as a result.
The Munich Security Conference has long provided a Bavarian backdrop for discreet encounters between geopolitical antagonists and intelligence chiefs, with Cohen a regular attendee at the event.
This year's speakers included Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani.