October 21, 2020 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 237

Free At Last? Sudan Goes Off The American Terrorism List

October 21, 2020 | By Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
Sudan | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 237

A story I heard from senior local officials in Sudan when I served there as U.S. chargé d'affaires went something like this:  In 2004, just about when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between President Bashir's ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) was close to being agreed upon, the Khartoum regime got cold feet, thinking that the Americans would not keep their promises. As the story goes, the Americans picked up the phone to the State Department Counterterrorism Bureau head, Ambassador Cofer Black, who personally reassured Sudanese chief negotiator (and vice president) Ali Osman Taha that if the CPA was signed, then the U.S. would remove Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism List (SST). Bashir's Sudan had been placed on that list, a designation it richly deserved, in August 1993.

Now, in October 2020, comes the news that Sudan will finally be removed from the terrorism list by the Trump administration, 18 months after the overthrow of the Bashir regime and a little over a year since the inauguration of the reformist civilian government of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. The removal is part of a package of steps, including debt forgiveness, aimed at helping Sudan's battered economy and helping it reintegrate into the international community. This will be followed, after a decent interval, by steps towards normalization of relations between Sudan and Israel.

Removing Sudan from the terrorism list was a frequent subject of discussion between Sudan and both the Obama and Bush administrations, and most Sudanese, even those opposed to the Bashir regime, regarded Sudan's presence on that blacklist as outdated and unfair.

While many Sudanese were relieved and happy at the news (while worried about other aspects of the deal), some voices in the West used the opportunity to attack the Trump administration for having executed the long-desired de-listing the wrong way.[1] The Washington Post warned that "bullying" Sudan on Israel could "backfire" and embolden Islamists waiting in the wings to retake power after three decades.

There is no doubt that, behind the scenes, the negotiations were tough and often acrimonious. At one point in late September, NSC Senior Director for the Middle East Gen. Miguel Correa told the stubborn Sudanese that they would be on the SST list forever (the administration cut out the Sudan office at the State Department from the talks). Efforts to play the Sudanese military and civilian government against each other also seemed to have failed, although the military has indeed been more forward-leaning on the normalization issue than some of the civilians. 

But much of the criticism of the Trump administration in this case seems partisan and misguided. The greatest threat to Sudan's getting the full benefit of this deal is not the Trump administration, but a cabal of aggressive lawyers looking for more payouts for their clients from a bankrupt Sudan and the – mostly Democratic – U.S. Senators supporting them.[2]  The most sensitive issue in Sudan – one played up by both Islamists and the Islamist Qatari television network Al-Jazeera – has not been normalization with Israel, or the (real) anger at American bullying, but that a poor country like Sudan must pay $335 million in compensation to American victims of terror for actions involving the previous overthrown regime.[3] The Sudanese are not stupid, and know that countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia haven't paid a dime for the 9/11 attacks or other activities. The threat now is that the already highly controversial $335 million which Sudan agreed to pay, and was able to scrounge up, is not enough. The biggest concern of the Sudanese now is that the question of "sovereign immunity" will never be resolved to the satisfaction of the litigious and greedy Americans.

All of the other concerns expressed about the deal are issues that already exist in regards to Sudan. There has been, and will continue to be, tension between the military and civilian elements of the fragile Sudanese state.  Sudanese Islamists and their friends in Turkey and Qatar are already trying to overthrow the government, which has taken many steps towards secularism, women's rights, and religious freedom that the Islamists abhor.[4] 

The danger that the current (or next) American administration will overpromise and underdeliver is an ever-present one, and has often been a bone of contention between the two countries. But the idea that Sudan had all the time in the world to get this agreement just right, or to wait for a Biden administration to appear and magically save the day, is a pipe dream. The country's deep crisis is now, and any tangible benefits Khartoum can obtain now is worth more than some romanticized future ideal.

Certainly, the American administration, having done the right thing in a clumsy way but at least having done it, needs to understand all that is still at stake in Sudan.  It is not only in the American interest to have Sudan transition into a full-fledged democracy that is stable and is making economic progress. You can say that about a lot of countries, and America's foreign-policy attention span is often limited in any administration. Sudan is unique because it is trying to transition to a tolerant, liberal democracy from three decades (and actually longer given the tendencies of the previous Sadiq Al-Mahdi and Nimeiry regimes) of Islamist dictatorship.  And that is a pioneering political experiment very much in the interests of the U.S. and the West to see develop and succeed.


*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.


[1], October 21, 2020.

[2], October 20, 2020.

[3], October 19, 2020.

[4], October 20, 2020.

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