The attacks on September 11 have brought a slow thaw to the frosty relations between Khartoum and Washington. America’s drive since then to enlist new allies for its “war on terrorism” gave the government of Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir an opportunity to establish a working relationship with Washington. Soon after the attacks Sudan offered to join the “war on terrorism.” In late September 2001 a special meeting was held in London between Walter Kansteiner, the US assistant secretary of state for Africa, and Yahia Hussein Baviker, Sudan’s deputy chief of intelligence.
Sudanese officials handed over to their American counterparts hundreds of files on “terror suspects”, including Usama bin Ladin and his chief associates, and asked for help to train a new counter-terrorism unit. The files are the fruit of years of Sudanese monitoring of the movements of bin Ladin and his associates during their stay in Khartoum. Khartoum also investigated allegations that bin Ladin was a shareholder in a Sudanese bank, and froze the accounts of individuals suspected of involvement in terrorism. They also reportedly moved to take some 30 Islamic activists living in Sudan into custody. Sudan also introduced new procedures to keep “terror suspects” from entering the country. In December 2001 the government issued a list of 20 people and distributed it to all ports of entry in the country, ordering immigration and security officials to block their entry into Sudan. Khartoum has also confiscated Sudanese travel-documents that were earlier granted to Islamic activists who had entered the country in the 1990s. A number of others were expelled from Sudan.
Sudan’s willingness to cooperate with America is not new. Tell-tale signs of the Bashir government’s eagerness to establish a working relationship with Washington pre-date September 11, although the attacks helped accelerate an existing process. During the years before the attacks on the WTC and Pentagon, intelligence officials in Washington repeatedly spurned offers from Khartoum of intelligence information on bin Ladin and some 200 members of al-Qa’ida who had stayed with him in the Sudan during the 1990s. At one point the Sudanese offered their American counterparts “an-inch-and-a-half-thick” files on many of bin Laden’s principal lieutenants, complete with photographs and detailed biographical sketches, as well as vital information about al-Qa’ida’s financial network around the world. The files reportedly included information on five of the hijackers allegedly involved in the September 11 attacks.
Washington refused to take these offers up, considering them a sop to its concerns, rather than a radical change in Sudanese policy. Washington continued, until it closed down its embassy in Khartoum in 1996, to instruct Donald Petterson and Timothy Carney, its ambassadors to Sudan, to threaten Sudanese officials with “the destruction of your economy” and “military measures that would make you pay a high price.”
The Bashir government’s eagerness to mend fences with Washington even prompted it on two occasions to offer to extradite or interview key al-Qa’ida operatives. For instance, in February 1996 Khartoum sent Major General Elfatih Erwa, then minister of state for defence, on a secret mission to the US, during which he proposed to trade bin Ladin’s extradition back to Saudi Arabia for the easing of the sanctions on Sudan. Some reports have suggested that Sudan even offered to hand bin Ladin over to the US, but this foundered on Saudi protests.
Desperate to improve relations with Washington, Khartoum moved in April 1997 to drop its demand that the US lift sanctions on Sudan in return for its cooperation in counter-terrorism. In a secret letter to Washington, Bashir expressed his readiness to allow the FBI and the CIA unconditional access to Sudanese intelligence databases. The offer was repeated by Qutbi al-Mahdi, the country’s former intelligence chief, in a letter in February 1998 to David Williams, the FBI’s Middle East and North Africa special agent-in-charge. These attempts to find ways to help the US fared no better than previous ones.
Shortly after the attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in the summer of 1998, Sudanese officials sent a memo to Louis Freeh, then director of the FBI, informing him of the arrest of two of bin Ladin’s operatives after they had entered Sudan from Kenya. Although FBI officials wanted to arrange the extradition of both detainees, Madeleine Albright, then secretary of state, forbade it. Three weeks later both were deported to Pakistan.
A few days after receiving the memo, US missiles fell on the al-Shifa’a pharmaceuticals plant outside Khartoum. The Clinton administration claimed that it had intelligence information confirming that the plant was owned by bin Ladin, and that it was manufacturing chemical weapons, including nerve-gas precursors. It emerged later that the US’s allegations were unfounded. In fact the plant supplied 60 percent of Sudan’s requirements for medication, and had been contracted by the UN to make vaccines.
Usama bin Ladin and his top cadres had moved to Sudan, one of the few Muslim countries they could enter without a visa, in 1991, shortly before his Saudi citizenship was withdrawn. Usama rented a house in the capital’s Riyadh neighbourhood, and took an office on Mak Nimer Street in downtown Khartoum. From there he oversaw the operations of a lucrative business empire throughout the country, including interests in the construction, trade, and financial and agricultural sectors. At the same time he established al-Qa’ida. But the Sudanese kept him and his followers under close surveillance. Most of his followers were “Afghan Arabs”: nationals of Arab countries who had volunteered to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Too militant to be welcomed back by their home governments, they found an alternative home in Khartoum, which was at the time a centre of Islamic political activity.
In 1996, after intense pressure from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the US, Sudan agreed to expel bin Ladin and about 300 of his associates, who moved from Sudan to Afghanistan. In the next two years Sudan deported about 3,000 “Afghan Arabs” and other Islamic activists. At about the same time, Sudan helped the French to capture the notorious international terrorist known as “Carlos the Jackal,” who had also taken refuge in Khartoum.
It was only in 2000, after years of entreaty by Khartoum, that the US accepted a government invitation to send teams of FBI, CIA and state department officials to Sudan to investigate allegations that the country was an “international terrorism” base. The teams were given a free rein to roam the country in search of alleged terrorist training camps; not one was found.
Washington’s reaction to Sudan’s cooperation since September 2001 has been mixed. On September 19, 2001, congressional leaders dropped plans to act on the Sudan Peace Act. The proposed legislation seeks to deny capital market access to any company involved in doing business in Sudan. By mid-July 2001 the bill had been passed in both the senate and the house of representatives. On September 28, 2001, the US abstained from a resolution to lift UN sanctions imposed on Sudan after an assassination attempt in 1995 on Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. The assassins were allegedly given a haven in Sudan.
Yet no amount of cooperation in Washington’s “war on terrorism” seems to be enough to get Sudan off the terrorism list altogether. Last year the state department revised the list of seven “state sponsors of terrorism,” putting Iran at the top. Syria and Sudan, while still on the list, both got credit for taking steps to sever their ties with ‘terrorism.’
In November 2001, Bush announced that separate American economic and financial sanctions against Sudan would remain in place for another year. Bush cited “continuing concern about [Sudan’s] record on terrorism and the prevalence of human-rights violations.” Shortly afterwards John R Bolton, US undersecretary of state for arms-control, expressed the US’s “growing interest” in Sudan’s efforts to develop biological weapons.
The contradictions in America’s reactions to Sudan’s cooperation are partly rooted in US domestic interests. The Sudanese civil war has forged a powerful alliance in the US between the Christian Right and the congressional Black Caucus in support of the rebel SPLA It also seems to be designed to keep Khartoum off-balance, and force Sudan to make more concessions.