October 1, 2020
IntelBrief: Will Sudan be Removed from the State Sponsor of Terrorism List?
The United States is reportedly preparing to remove Sudan from the U.S. Department of State’s list of countries that sponsor terrorism. During the tenure of Sudanese strongman Omar al-Bashir, widely recognized as a war criminal for his role in mass atrocities committed in Darfur, Sudan provided support to a range of terrorist groups, including Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Sudan is also accused of offering safe haven to al-Qaeda militants that carried out the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, as well as the 2000 USS Cole bombing off the coast of Yemen. Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda were headquartered in Sudan in the early 1990s. Removing Sudan from the state sponsor of terrorism list could lead to complications for victims and their families who are expecting to receive financial compensation from a $335 million settlement. Some fear that if Sudan is delisted before compensation can be guaranteed, it leaves Khartoum with little incentive to follow through on the payments. Families of the victims of the September 11, 2001 al-Qaeda terrorist attacks are also seeking compensation from Sudan.
Sudan has been on this list since 1993, alongside countries such as North Korea, Syria, and Iran. If Sudan is ultimately removed from the state sponsor of terrorism list, it would make Khartoum eligible for debt relief and to receive much-needed funding to help stabilize its transition government and begin building long-neglected institutions of civil society and democracy. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called removing Sudan from the state sponsor of terrorism list ‘a critical bilateral priority for both countries.’ Relations between the United States and Sudan have been warming over the past several years. In 2016, Sudan cut ties with Iran, leading Washington to ease sanctions and seek new ways to provide counterterrorism assistance and security cooperation. The United States views Sudan as a potential counterterrorism partner in Africa where a number of jihadist groups and other violent non-state actors operate, taking advantage of weak security forces and porous borders throughout the region.
Delisting Sudan would also pave the way for a possible normalization deal with Israel, something the White House has been pushing for following similar deals in recent weeks between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, respectively. President Trump sees the normalization deals between Arab states in the Middle East and North Africa and Israel as foreign policy ‘wins’ to highlight in the lead up to the November 2020 U.S. presidential election. Some have repeatedly questioned this transactional approach to foreign policy and have wondered whether the states entering into these normalization deals have a genuine interest in working together with Israel, or are simply ‘rubber stamping’ the deal in order to receive the expected benefits. The Trump administration seems to care little about the durability of an agreement, seeking instead to use normalization deals with Israel as a centerpiece of the President's reelection campaign.
Removing Sudan from the state sponsors of terrorism list and forging a normalization deal between Sudan and Israel are two distinct issues that have become inextricably linked. Sudan’s new military-civilian governing council and Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok urgently need to stabilize the country’s economy, combat rising inflation, and subsidize the provision of basic goods and necessities for the country’s citizens. A normalization deal with Israel could provide an infusion of hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and investment. However, the deal, which looks more like a bribe, could also serve to destabilize internal Sudanese politics at a time when the country is still looking to find its footing, transitioning from decades of strongman rule to a fledgling democracy that many hope will be a model for other transitions in the region. A normalization deal with Israel could provide fodder for Islamist groups within Sudan to exploit discontent with the deal among the Sudanese population and leverage grievances to recruit and organize, further complicating Sudan’s precarious transition.