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Sudan-US intelligence exchanges unaffected by sanctions

At first glance, this week's meeting of Sudan's Top Security Chief with the heads of the American intelligence FBI and CIA appears to herald a new phase in the relationship between Washington and Khartoum, but security analysts who have followed Sudanese-American intelligence relations for decades will be aware that the lines of communication between the two sides have never fallen silent and the relationship is as strong as it has ever been.

The visit by Mohammed Atta Al-Moula, Sudan's director of Intelligence and Security Services and his entourage, this week, could mean that United States Intelligence chiefs will give the go ahead for Sudan to be returned on 12 June into the international community and the sanctions imposed in 1997 and 2006 could finally be lifted.

Washington's presidential decree under Barack Obama praised Sudan for its cooperation on terrorism, but throughout the troubled late 1990s and 2000s, Sudan have always been prepared to cooperate with the US in combatting terrorism in the region; helping to keep tabs on wanted fugitives and handing over intelligence on terror suspects when necessary.

The irony it is the United States that has been, on occasions, unwilling to engage with Sudan to the extent of ignoring important intelligence because of disputes within the US administration.

In fact, in 2004, Sudan set up its Counter-Intelligence Department to deal with the threat of terrorist attacks inside and outside its borders. In June 2005, the then security chief, Salah Abdallah Gosh, was flown secretly to Washington where he met intelligence CIA staff and reportedly discussed his continuing cooperation to fight terrorism and the growing disquiet about the situation in Darfur.

The New York Times report of the visit in 2005 confirms that Sudan had been instrumental in helping Washington apprehend terror suspects and providing information on Al-Qaeda. The visit caused a dispute with the administration, some of whom, tried to get Gosh arrested for his part in the Darfur conflict, which the Bush administration and the UN described as a "genocide".

However, a senior administration officer confirmed that the CIA ties with Sudan were extremely important. "The purpose of this visit was to continue to build a stronger professional relationship between two intelligence services," the official said.

"For years, the CIA was forbidden to meet with anyone who didn't qualify for choirboy. After 9/11, it became clear that you have to talk to bad guys from bad neighbourhoods to fight terrorism," he said.

Image of Donald M. Payne [Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives]

Image of Donald M. Payne [Office of the Clerk, US House of Representatives]

Salah Gosh's visit also brought to light that the then Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice's representative, Donald M. Payne, had also made numerous visits to Sudan. Payne said they did not have any direct evidence of the role Gosh might have played in the Darfur atrocities.

Observers were always perplexed with the lukewarm stance the Bush government took against Sudan over the conflict in Darfur but it would be another 12 months before Bush, under considerable pressure, imposed further sanctions on Sudan, even though this did not affect the exchange of information and Sudan's counter-terrorism strategy.

Sudan's ambassador to the United States, Khidir Haroun Ahmed, went further in 2005, by stating the country's cooperation with the CIA predated the 9/11 attacks. "Frankly, this is very surprising to me that there are people who still question our cooperation over combating international terrorism," Ahmed said. Differences over Darfur, he said, "should be no reason to stop exchanges with Sudan."

Image of Al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden

Image of Al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden

Indeed, former Sudan Ambassador Ahmed was right. Sudan had been cooperating with the US intelligence services long before 9/11 in 2001. In fact, in 1995, Osama Bin Laden was resident in Sudan and Major General Elfatih Erwa the defence secretary. Erwa secretly visited the United States to propose a deal, Bin Laden's extradition to Saudi Arabia in return for an easing of political and economic sanctions.

When Saudi Arabia refused to take him back fearing the backlash and stripped Bin Laden of citizenship, Sudan offered to hand Bin Laden over to US authorities. The offer was also turned down. However, in keeping with US demands Bin Laden was told to leave. In August 1996, Hassan Abdullah Al-Turabi, the Islamic thinker and general-secretary of the ruling party wrote to US President Bill Clinton suggesting that Sudan become a "special ally" and be given prominence over other countries in the region. There was no reply.

Later that year, Sudan's security chief showed the US sensitive intelligence on terrorists tracked through Khartoum and of terrorist training camps. Again, the US did not respond. The following year in April 1997, Sudanese President Al-Bashir offered the FBI and CIA counter-terrorism units unfettered and unconditional access to Khartoum's intelligence.

Sudan's policy sparked a debate at the State Department, but according to the Washington Post, the decision by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to reengage Sudan was overturned by Susan Rice, National Security Council's Africa specialist and Richard Clarke NSC's terrorism specialist.

In 1998, Sudan made another attempt to engage Washington, on 24 June, Williams wrote to Sudan Security Chief saying he was "not in a position to accept your kind offer." The US embassies in Kenya and Tanzaniawere bombed six weeks later in an attack which is believed to have been orchestrated from the Sudan.

From the Sudanese point of view, the complete lifting of sanctions in June has not occurred as result of improved intelligence collaboration with the United States. Rather, the move would be seen as a change in the geo-political climate of the region. However, post sanctions, as far as intelligence cooperation is concerned, it would simply be "business as usual".

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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AfricaArticleAsia & AmericasOpinionSudanUS
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