Sitting behind a table in his downtown Khartoum office, Sudanese businessman Ammar Sajjad talks in a hushed tone about his son’s detention at his college campus last year.
For hours the 19-year-old electronics student was repeatedly beaten in a small room by a group of fellow pupils, who Sajjad said were members of a “jihad unit” that was active at the college.
“Nobody had access to this room, not even the police or professors,” said Sajjad.
Scores of these units were set up years ago in universities across Sudan to recruit students to fight in the country’s brutal north-south civil war.
Activists, rights groups and opposition leaders now want these paramilitary units to be dismantled, accusing them of fuelling violence on campuses.
“These jihad units must be shut. They are responsible for unrest in universities,” Hassan al-Hussein, a senior leader of the opposition Popular Congress Party said at a meeting this week.
Several student leaders said these units were now recruiting students to crush dissent on campuses.
“The civil war has ended but these pro-regime jihad units still recruit students to attack opposition students,” said one from Omdurman Ahlia University, asking not to be identified for fear of being arrested by the powerful National Intelligence and Security Service.
“The jihad units support President Omar al-Bashir’s National Congress Party, store weapons and detain opposition students on campuses,” another student leader from the University of Khartoum said on condition of anonymity.
Hundreds of students have regularly protested against various government policies, including the handling of conflicts in areas such as Darfur, and to demand the release of fellow demonstrators arrested during previous rallies.
In recent weeks, clashes between students and security forces have rocked several universities, including in Khartoum and Omdurman.
Two students were killed and scores injured during demonstrations, with the violence forcing the suspension of some classes.
While activists accuse jihad units and security forces for the death of the two protesters, officials blame supporters of rebel movements who are fighting Bashir’s government.
“Reports that armed pro-government student groups are helping government security forces to break up protests, including with live ammunition, are of particular concern,” Human Rights Watch said last month.
“There is cooperation between the two. It’s difficult to identify who’s who,” said Khalid Tigani, editor of Elaff newspaper.
“The presence of these units on campuses complicates the security inside universities.”
Experts said the jihad units were set up after Bashir came to power in a 1989 coup that ushered in an Islamist regime in Sudan, which had even hosted Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden between 1992 to 1996.
Several students from these groups were killed fighting in the civil war, said Mohamed Eljack, professor at University of Khartoum.
“They are now revered as martyrs.”
About two million people were killed in the war that finally ended with South Sudan splitting from Sudan in 2011.
“The war ended but these jihad units brought the battlefields to universities,” said Tigani, himself a former student activist.
Over the years the role of these recruits has changed, experts said.
“Now they act as backup forces to regular security forces,” said Tigani.
“They are not big in numbers, but they are well organised and they defend the regime.”
These groups have reportedly even fought rebels in conflict zones like Darfur, where tens of thousands of people have been killed since 2003.
Pro-regime student leaders denied these groups had any role in violence on campuses.
“The jihad units are run by the university administrations, and are formed for special purposes,” said Musab Mohamed Osman, head of pro-regime Sudan’s National Students Union.
“Their main role is to gather students for jihad. They are not involved in university politics.”
As long as the regime benefitted from these units they would be nurtured, said activists.
“It was jihad during the civil war,” said businessman Sajjad, who fought against south Sudan in the 1990s.
“But now there is no jihad, so we don’t need these units… but some institutions of the regime must be benefitting by keeping them.”