He's accused of torturing enemies, cozying up to Osama bin Laden in the 1990s and plotting to assassinate Egypt's president.
But presidential advisor Nafie Ali Nafie says his moderation and pragmatism won him his latest assignment: overseeing the Sudanese government's response to the conflict in Darfur.
"I was picked for this because I'm a mild person," said Nafie, maintaining a wary smile and unflappable demeanor throughout an 80-minute interview in his office here.
Mild isn't a word many others use to describe Nafie, the leader of the hard-line faction in the ruling National Congress Party.
"Nafie is viewed by many as one of the most influential and brutal security officials in Sudan," longtime Africa analyst Ted Dagne said.
Now, this son of a sesame farmer who got a doctorate in plant genetics at UC Riverside may hold the key not only to Darfur, but also to the future of Sudan's Islamist cadre, in which his power is seen as second only to President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir.
"He is first among equals in terms of policy decisions in the regime," said John Prendergast, an Africa advisor in the Clinton administration who now runs the anti-genocide Enough Project.
Asked about Nafie's growing influence, one Sudanese official said, "To say the truth, Nafie is now No. 1. He seems to be doing everything."
Nafie's ascent is all the more surprising because he lacks the usual traits that spell success in Sudan. He has no formal military training, though there are rumors of a stint in Iran. His Islamist credentials pale compared with other ideologues. As a politician, he's described as ham-fisted, unable to restrain a confrontational style that often alienates his audience.
This summer, when Nafie declared that Bashir was the best candidate for president "whether people like it or not," voters weren't sure whether that was an expression of confidence or a veiled threat.
Nafie, a former agriculture professor who was plucked to serve as head of intelligence and security from 1989 to 1995, has often played the "bad cop" in one of Africa's most powerful and long-lasting regimes.
"He was my interrogator," said Farouk Mohammed Ibrahim, a former University of Khartoum science professor and government critic who was arrested in 1989 and held in one of Sudan's notorious, secret "ghost houses" for 12 days.
"I was tortured, beaten, flogged in his presence," Ibrahim said. "He was administering the whole thing. He did it all in such a cool manner, as if he were sipping a coffee."
In his characteristic style, Nafie expressed no regrets, saying opposition activists at the time were planning counter-coups and civil war. "We were there to protect ourselves," he said with a shrug. "Definitely we were not there to play cards with them."
In his Khartoum office recently, Nafie, 61, deflected questions about his personal views or policy recommendations on Darfur and other hot-button issues, preferring to stay behind the ruling party's official line, which he says is reached by consensus.
"This process of always trying to group us into tough guys and reasonable guys isn't good," he said. "I don't like to personalize things."
But analysts and diplomats said Nafie is often the one who puts on the brakes when it comes to international relations. He opposed allowing U.N. peacekeepers into Darfur and believed that the ruling party gave up too much power in signing a 2005 U.S.-brokered peace treaty that ended a 21-year civil war with southern rebels.
He insisted that he never wanted control of what the government calls the "Darfur file." It landed on his imposing 10-foot-wide desk after a car accident killed the government's previous point person.
Asked the secret to his success, Nafie credited, perhaps with a touch of false modesty, a lack of ambition. "I survived because I didn't care if I survived," he said.
But supporters and critics alike say Nafie has his eye on succeeding Bashir, even if few believe that he would ever betray the president, whom he is always careful to avoid overshadowing.
Regarding Darfur, Nafie said claims of genocide are U.S.-manufactured "political propaganda" designed to topple Sudan's regime.
"The West is using Darfur to destabilize Sudan because Sudan is seen as a rebel government and a bad example for the rest of Africa," Nafie said. "The endgame is to install a puppet, or at least weak, government so they can take our oil."
An estimated 200,000 people have died in Darfur since 2003, mostly from disease and hunger, according to the United Nations. The conflict began when rebels attacked government bases. In response, the government is accused of arming local militias, mostly from Sudanese Arab tribes, that attacked hundreds of non-Arab villages and left more than 2.5 million people homeless.
Nafie acknowledged that the government organized private militias as a counter- insurgency tactic, but denied that "ethnic cleansing" was ever a driving factor in the campaign. He blamed much of the bloodshed on tribal feuding.
"Definitely there were some villages destroyed, but not all of those were burned by groups that fought with the government," he said. "They were done by tribal raids that had nothing to do with the government."
He said Darfur's death toll, which the government estimates at 10,000 people, was the price of the insurgency.
"If you say some of those who fought with the government also committed atrocities, again this is possible in a war, when somebody is not well organized. But nobody can claim that this was a deliberate strategy of the government."
That's exactly, however, what the International Criminal Court is alleging in its case against top Sudanese officials, including Bashir. The court is expected to issue an arrest warrant for him in coming weeks, and other officials, including Nafie, are under investigation.
Sudan has launched a diplomatic offensive to persuade the United Nations to postpone the case. But U.S. officials are balking, saying the humanitarian crisis and violence in Darfur have worsened since Nafie took over.
"He's had the Darfur file for a while now, and we would have hoped that there would be more progress," said Richard Williamson, the U.S. envoy to Sudan, whose first meeting with Nafie quickly turned into a shouting match.
"He made some dismissive attacks about the U.S. interest in humanitarian suffering, and I pushed back," said Williamson, who once described Sudan's leaders as "thugs."
Nafie defended his brash style. "I don't like diplomatic language," he said.
"You have to be transparent."
Some diplomats praised Nafie's straightforward approach and blunt analysis, saying they often prefer to negotiate with him because he rarely says things he thinks others want to hear.
"We often find ourselves saying, 'We really hate Nafie, but he's telling the truth,' " said one Western diplomat in Khartoum.
Nafie's style and clout as a hard-liner put him in a unique position to reach a breakthrough on Darfur, if he wants to, experts say. Said the diplomat, "Only Nixon can go to China."