Sudan is a known transit country for Iranian weapons taken through the desert into Egypt and then routed to Gaza. Reports have suggested that Iran is directly involved in the Yarmouk compound, and while there is little available hard evidence on Iran's activities there, the Yarmouk facility has been cited for other illegal arms trafficking over the past decade. For instance, Yarmouk took shipments of Chinese-made weapons for distribution to Sudanese soldiers and militias, a violation of international arms embargoes on Sudan.
Attacks by Hamas and other groups in Gaza using weapons smuggled into the Gaza Strip from Sudan via Sinai obviously pose a clear threat to Israel. This threat has recently grown due to Egypt's strained internal security and its impact on bilateral relations with Israel and on security near the Egypt-Gaza border. This trend has been seen in the recent round of rocket attacks against Israel emanating from Gaza. The Egyptian government's sensitivity to Israeli military operations in Sinai further complicates Israel's ability to respond to the threat, a consideration that could prompt Israel to attempt cutting off militant supply lines at an earlier point.
An airstrike in Khartoum would be inconsistent with Israel's approach to previous reported operations in Sudan. Previous Israeli airstrikes hit targets along the country's coastline, far from the capital. In January 2009, the Israeli air force targeted and destroyed a convoy of 17 trucks filled with weapons en route to Gaza. The strike occurred in northeastern Sudan near the border with Egypt. Months later, an anonymous source in the Israeli military leaked the details of the operation, which supposedly involved dozens of attack planes, escort fighters and drones to evaluate the damage. In another incident, Sudan accused Israel of launching an airstrike on a car carrying a Hamas arms trafficker in Port Sudan in April 2011, though Israel never acknowledged conducting the operation.
There are several notable differences between those targets and the Yarmouk arms factory. The location of the factory in Khartoum is much farther away from Israel and much deeper into Sudanese airspace than any previous attack. A Stratfor source claimed that the purported Israeli jets returned by initially flying east and then exiting Sudanese airspace across the Red Sea near the Egyptian border. This would be the shortest route to return from Khartoum to Israel but still means the jets would have had to travel more than 800 kilometers (about 500 miles) through Sudanese airspace on their way out. The Israeli air force has demonstrated the capability to perform air raids at long distances before, both in military exercises and during the bombing of the Palestine Liberation Organization headquarters in Tunisia in 1985. While the threat posed by Sudanese air defenses and fighters to an attacking force may not be significant, the longer range of such an operation would increase the logistical complexity of the mission, and thus the overall risk of complications.
Additionally, attacking an arms factory in the capital of a sovereign nation presents a much higher political risk than attacking illegal smugglers in the desert. However, because Sudan has few allies, the risk of blowback for attacking a weapons factory that may be supplying arms for militants in Gaza and elsewhere would probably be limited. A larger political concern would be the need for at least a minimal level of cooperation with Egypt on such a mission. Egypt would almost certainly be notified regarding the attacking Israeli jets' flight path, and Israel would need assurances that Cairo would not to disclose this information. If the Israeli military carried out this attack, the location in Khartoum could have been specifically chosen to send a message to Sudan that it is defenseless against Israeli retaliation if Khartoum supports smuggling operations.
The potential Israeli security gains from this type of operation are unclear. Unless the Yarmouk factory in Sudan produced a significant percentage of the weapons smuggled into Gaza and used against Israel, taking out one facility would not have much impact on attacks emanating from Gaza. The attack would do nothing to eliminate weapons stocks already in the Gaza Strip, and since the fall of Moammar Gadhafi's regime, Libya has become another source for weaponry smuggled into Gaza via Sinai. Sudan also has a large stockpile of small arms and has other weapons production facilities, which would allow it to easily compensate for the loss of one facility.
If Israel ordered such an attack, it would have had to believe that taking out this facility would deal a substantial blow to militants' supply lines — a blow worth risking the loss of multiple aircraft or increasing tensions with Israel's neighbors at an already difficult time. This would be a far more assertive stance than we have seen Israel take toward Sudan in the past, and if Israel was in fact behind the explosions at the Yarmouk factory, it could signal a much tougher stance against the proliferation of small arms and support for anti-Israeli organizations in the region.
Israel has refused to comment and few countries have made official complaints about the alleged airstrike on the weapons factory, but the only purported evidence Sudan has presented thus far is a photo of ordnance that does not appear like anything the Israeli air force would be expected to use in an airstrike. Reports of a blackout in the area and witness accounts of missile sounds followed by explosions at the Yarmouk compound could all be consistent with an accidental fire at a building that was probably constructing explosive ordnance like artillery shells and short-range missiles. All currently available evidence points to an accidental explosion that was hijacked for domestic political purposes in Sudan.