Some 25 years after Sudan was notoriously labelled as a state sponsor of terror, the job of clearing its name and the hope of overturning the classification remains one of Sudan’s top priorities. Without its removal, sanctions linked to the terror listing persist and investment prospects remain diminished. This month there have been encouraging signs that the final jigsaw in the puzzle might well be put in place when a top US official visited Sudan and said that the United States would consider removing Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. However, is Sudan still sponsoring terror and if not just when will the African nation get its name removed; what’s it going to take to achieve this?
Removal from the listing would be the latest step in improved relations between the US and Sudan. Sudan’s hopes were emboldened by its removal from the Trump administration’s travel ban, but the US has been at pains to point out that the travel ban and the removal of the country from the terror list are unconnected. However, for Sudan the two issues are intrinsically linked. One Sudanese diplomat recently told MEMO, “The prospect of removing all forms of sanctions, including the removal from the terror list, was substantially strengthened when our name was removed from the Trump travel ban”.
That note of optimism follows a two-day visit by Deputy Secretary of State John. J. Sullivan to Khartoum earlier this month which reports say was encouraged by Israel and Saudi Arabia. There, Sudan’s Foreign Secretary Prof. Ibrahim Ghandour, responded to another US demand concerning Sudanese military links with North Korea but said he expects to have more talks in the coming months.
The original listing came in 1993 after Sudan was accused of habouring associates of the Egyptian ‘Blind Sheikh’ Omar Abdel Rahman who was jailed as the mastermind of a plan to bomb the United Nations and the New York headquarters of the FBI. Subsequently, in the early and mid-1990s, Sudan’s reputation took a nose dive in the eyes of the Western world when the country hosted the leader of Al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden and fighters returning from the Afghan war against the Soviet Union.
On 26 June 1995, as then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s motorcade arrived to attend the African Union summit, he reported seeing the eyes of masked gunmen, later named as Mustafa Hamza and Safwat Abdel-Ghani, leader of Egypt’s Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, who opened fire injuring body guards and forcing the Egyptian president, who survived the assassination attempt, to return to Cairo. On his return Mubarak put the blame squarely on the Sudanese government in Khartoum.
At the time Sudan rejected the accusation but it was too late. Sudanese politician Hassan Abdullah Turabi, in an interview in 2010 with the Al Jazeera TV network, blamed a group of Sudanese officials including former First Vice President of Sudan Ali Osman Taha and the former head of the intelligence services, Salah Gosh, for being the masterminds behind the assassination attempt on Mubarak.
Al-Turabi, after falling out with the Omar Al-Bashir government, disclosed that the plot to kill Mubarak was funded to the tune of $1 million and secretly paid to the Egyptian and Sudanese operatives who were given Sudanese diplomatic passports and flown to Ethiopia. His comments seem to confirm for the first time that Sudan may have been linked to some terrorist activity, but Taha has always publicly denied this claim.
Egypt’s indignation added further credibility to the then Clinton administration’s belief that Sudan operated as a rouge nation that allowed Al-Qaeda to use its soil as a base to plan and execute terror operations including the bombings of the American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya that left 224 people dead and injured hundreds more.
It was 1998 and although Osama Bin Laden himself had already been driven out of Sudan in 1995 after sustained pressure from the US, Bin Laden’s operatives remained. Out of concern that the embassy plots would be traced back to Sudan fairly or unjustly the Sudanese decided to hastily dismantle the Bin Laden network and forced most of his affiliates, despite some being naturalised Sudanese citizens, to leave. Those who had children with Sudanese spouses were afforded immunity from “forceful” deportation.
Bin Laden’s infrastructure and tannery businesses were wound down, military registered vehicles belonging to his operatives were deregistered or repossessed and the Bin Laden headquarters in Khartoum was turned into a nursery.
However, despite Sudan’s Al-Qaeda clean-up operation, the blame for the bombing on the African embassies was placed on Al-Qaeda and Clinton gave the orders to hit Al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan and to simultaneously launch 14 cruise missiles on a pharmaceutical factory in Bahri, north Khartoum. Washington alleged that the factory was partly owned by Bin Laden and was producing nerve gas. But by the time the first TV crews arrived in protective clothing it was already clear that something was wrong. The fallout of aspirins, carpeting the sandy ground all around, gave it away. So did the fact, overlooked by American intelligence, that the factory was privately owned (not by Bin Laden) and part-financed by a Kenya based development bank. The factory owner sued the American government for $35 million.
Today Hosni Mubarak and Ali Osman Taha are no longer in positions of power and Al-Turabi and Osama bin Laden are no longer alive but the incident in Addis Ababa – the twin attack of the American embassies – continues to hang over Sudan’s political and economic future right up to the present day.
After almost three decades of close integration and co-operation with Sudan few commentators seriously believe that Sudan has the capability to sponsor terrorist attacks in other parts of the world or is actively involved in conspiracies to commit acts of terror. One Sudanese journalist, speaking to MEMO, pointed to the opening of a CIA office in the centre of the capital city, Khartoum: “You just do not open intelligence gathering offices, like the CIA, in countries on the terror list. Can you imagine the CIA doing the same in Iran or Syria or even North Korea?”
Washington’s next get out of jail card to secure Sudan’s removal from the terror list appears to be linked to the country’s decision to sever military ties with North Korea, a state added to the terror list by the Trump administration just last week. The US State Department has already welcomed Sudan’s announcement but what happens next depends on how much it distances itself from Pyongyang once and for all.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.