March 16, 2020
Removing Sudan’s terrorism designation: Proceeding with caution
No aspect of US policy towards Sudan has garnered more scrutiny, from both inside and outside the country, than Sudan’s continued designation on the US State Sponsors of Terrorism (SST) list. To many, the listing is seen as a vestige of US policy towards the previous authoritarian regime—which was overthrown in a democratic uprising last year and replaced by a civilian-led transitional council—and of a long-past era when Sudan was an active belligerent in the spread of political Islam across the region. Sudan’s continued SST listing stands out to its critics as an anachronism and a symbol of Washington’s own lethargy in updating its policy toward Khartoum.
But the issue itself—whether Sudan should remain on the list and what would be required to remove it—is vastly complicated. To the chagrin of many Sudanese, far more than a stroke of President Trump’s pen is needed to secure Sudan’s removal. Rather, the process involves an interlocking network of legislative processes, legal rulings, financial settlements, intelligence assessments, and, most of all, politics, to unwind this ultimate tool in America’s sanctions arsenal.
This paper ultimately argues that the costs of inaction likely outweigh the benefits, but its main purpose is to outline and explain the network of complicating procedural and political factors that make this such a thorny issue to resolve with any expediency. But, despite the difficulties on the path to delisting, there is a way forward. And though, as I argue, removing Sudan’s terrorism label will have only a marginal impact on the near-term economic crisis the country faces, it is a crucial ingredient in Sudan’s long-term recovery and in its hopes of ushering in a civilian-led, democratic regime.
- What is the US State Sponsors of Terrorism list and why was Sudan placed on it?
- Why has Sudan been on the list for so long when it has cooperated with the United States on counterterrorism since 2001? Is the United States guilty of “moving the goalposts” in its promises to remove Sudan from the list?
- What is the process for removing a country from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list?
- What additional requirements has the United States imposed on Sudan for it to be delisted?
- Where is Sudan in the removal process?
- When can we expect Sudan to be removed?
- What other countries have been removed from the list and what was the process?
- What is the US policy toward removing Sudan from the terrorism list? Has the decision actually been made to remove Sudan from the SST list?
- What could cause the Trump administration to delay or decide not to remove Sudan from the SST list?
- What impact will lifting the SST designation have on Sudan’s troubled economy?
- Is this the last sanction remaining in the US-Sudan relationship?
- Should the United States remove Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list?
What is the US State Sponsors of Terrorism list and why was Sudan placed on it?
The State Sponsors of Terrorism (SST) list came into being in 1979 and is used to designate those countries that have “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.” Currently, the only countries on the list are: Sudan, Syria, Iran, and North Korea.
There has long been a popular conception that Sudan was added to the list in response to its harboring of Osama bin Laden from 1991 to 1996. However, bin Laden in those years was not yet attracting the kind of high-profile notoriety he did after the al-Qaeda attacks on the US embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya in 1998. In fact, Carlos the Jackal and Abu Nidal, both also residents of Khartoum at the time, were then seen as higher profile terrorist threats by the United States.
Rather, in its 1994 Patterns of Global Terrorism Report, following Sudan’s August 1993 addition to the list, the State Department explained that, “Despite several warnings to cease supporting radical extremists, the Sudanese Government continued to harbor international terrorist groups in Sudan. Through the National Islamic Front (NIF), which dominates the Sudanese Government, Sudan maintained a disturbing relationship with a wide range of Islamic extremists. The list includes the Abu Nidal Organization, the Palestinian HAMAS, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Lebanese Hizballah, and Egypt’s al Gama’at al-Islamiyya.”
The report also noted that “Sudan served as a convenient transit point, meeting site, and safehaven for Iranian-backed extremist groups,” and highlighted “Khartoum’s anti-US rhetoric,” especially in the wake of the 1993 Gulf War in which Sudan closely sided with Saddam Hussein and stepped up its criticism of the United States’ broader policies in the Middle East in support of Israel.
In his statement to the press, then-State Department Spokesman Mike McCurry noted that, “We also believe safe houses and other facilities used to support radical groups are allowed to exist in Sudan with the apparent approval of the Sudanese Government’s leadership… Further, we believe that reports of training in Sudan of militant extremists that commit acts of terrorism in neighboring countries are credible.”
Despite being added to the list in 1993, the low point in bilateral relations came five years later, when in 1998 the United States conducted cruise missile strikes against the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant outside of Khartoum—which was believed at the time to be manufacturing chemical weapons for use by al-Qaeda and other international terrorist groups—in retaliation for the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, for which US courts would later find Khartoum complicit.
Why has Sudan been on the list for so long when it has cooperated with the United States on counterterrorism since 2001? Is the United States guilty of “moving the goalposts” in its promises to remove Sudan from the list?
The history here is fraught and is frequently misinterpreted by both sides. Without question, the big change in Sudan’s counterterrorism (CT) relationship with the United States came in the months after the September 11, 2001 al-Qaeda attacks on the United States. In a speech to a joint session of Congress that month, President Bush famously warned,
“Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.”
Taking a lesson from the subsequent US invasion of Afghanistan, and not wishing to once again be on the wrong side of the United States or risk another strike similar to the 1998 al-Shifa attack, Sudan began a campaign of expelling foreign jihadists from its soil and cooperating with US CT officials in the fight against—primarily—al-Qaeda.
This led to a period of seemingly warmer relations between the two countries’ intelligence agencies and in bilateral relations as the United States took a lead role in brokering peace talks between North and South Sudan in Naivasha, Kenya and appointed the first ever Presidential Envoy to the country. During this period, President Bush spoke with some frequency to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, acknowledging in his calls Sudan’s newfound cooperation on CT, while also encouraging him to rewrite his own legacy by signing a historic peace deal with South Sudan.
The high-water mark in CT cooperation came in April 2005, four months after Bashir signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement with South Sudan, in the presence of US Secretary of State Colin Powell, when Salah Gosh, then Sudan’s notorious head of national intelligence, was flown via private jet to Washington for consultations with the Central Intelligence Agency as part of what Sudan saw as a first low-profile effort at removing them from the terrorism list.
However, those efforts would quickly stall as Bashir almost simultaneously escalated fighting in the country’s western Darfur region to the point of genocide. As US domestic pressure grew on President Bush to respond forcefully to the massacre of civilians, denial of humanitarian access, and blocking of United Nations (UN) peacekeepers in Darfur—with critics like future National Security Advisor Susan Rice arguing in the Washington Post for the US to “strike Sudanese airfields, aircraft, and other military assets….and blockade Port Sudan,”—any hope of discussing Sudan’s removal from the SST list became politically impossible. In the eyes of Khartoum, allowing the internal conflict in Darfur to trump the goodwill built up by the making of peace with South Sudan and cooperation on CT prompted their first charge that Washington had “moved the goalposts” on SST.
It would not be until the Obama administration that a new attempt at removing Sudan from the terror list would be initiated. This time led out of the White House by the president’s CT czar, John Brennan, the effort did not start out to acknowledge any overall improved behavior on the part of the Sudanese regime, but rather represented an attempt by the CT community, namely Brennan himself as a former intelligence officer, to rationalize the use of the list and avoid its ongoing politicization associated with keeping countries on that were clearly cooperating with the United States in fighting terrorism. As the argument went, if Sudan was not supporting international terrorism and was cooperating with US efforts to fight it, it should not be on the list, irrespective of Khartoum’s overall human rights and authoritarian record, which remained abysmal.
However, powerful constituencies within the White House, namely long-time Sudan hawks Susan Rice and Gayle Smith, now joined by anti-genocide crusader Samantha Power, effectively blocked any CT rapprochement as long as there were not parallel improvements in Sudan’s internal politics.
To get there, an elaborate “roadmap” was established that would ultimately enable Sudan to be removed from the SST list provided it continued its CT cooperation with the United States, in addition to several other important conditions. Those included: allowing South Sudan to proceed with its 2011 independence referendum and implement the results of that vote free of Sudanese interference; demonstrating a marked improvement in the country’s human rights situation; removing restrictions on the operations of UN peacekeepers in Darfur; suspending support to regional destabilizers like the Lord’s Resistance Army in neighboring Uganda; and dramatically improving international humanitarian access to war-affected areas throughout the country.
However, as was typical of the Bashir regime at the time, “progress” in meeting the US asks generally involved taking two steps backwards for every step forward. Where Sudanese interlocutors could make the case for rescission, their US counterparts could cite even more examples of where Sudan was engaged in deliberate backsliding. In the wake of South Sudan’s independence, this back-and-forth only further fueled the accusation by Sudanese officials that America was once again moving the goalposts on SST revision.
Despite this mixed record, there was reportedly one last-ditch effort aimed at removing Sudan from the list in the waning days of the Obama administration after Sudan, in late 2015, decided to sever its three-decades-old ties with Iran as part of an attempt to tap into Saudi Arabian resources to revive Sudan’s faltering economy. During this time, US intelligence reportedly completed the required six-month review and concluded that Sudan was no longer sponsoring terrorism and was cooperating fully with American CT efforts. However, in meeting the final requirement, Sudan reportedly refused to provide the assurances that Washington needed that it would disavow any and all future support to Hamas, which maintained a small political office in Khartoum, thus derailing Sudan’s last best effort for removal.
However, the roadmap process did eventually lead to the removal of the most biting economic sanctions on the country in the opening days of the Trump administration in 2017, which noted at the time that, “The government of Sudan’s actions during the last nine months show that it is serious about cooperating with the United States and has taken significant steps to stop conflict and improve humanitarian access within Sudan, and to promote regional stability,” but that “any further normalization of ties will require continued progress by the government of Sudan.” However, in the waning days of the Bashir regime, sufficient progress was never made to build up the political will and popular support necessary in the United States to remove Sudan from the list, prompting a final call that the United States had again moved the goalposts.
What is the process for removing a country from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list?
The process for removing a country is both legally well-defined but politically quite opaque. Herein lies the perennial challenge faced by Sudan: what must it do to sufficiently satisfy both the requirements of the statute and the powerful domestic constituencies that have long held sway over US-Sudan policy?
From a practical standpoint, the legal process involves two avenues. In the first approach, the president reports to the Congress that:
- there has been a fundamental change in the leadership and policies of the government of the country concerned;
- that government is not supporting acts of international terrorism; and
- that government has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future.
Clearly, from the time Sudan’s new civilian cabinet was established in September 2019, this was Khartoum’s strategy: declaring a fundamental change of leadership in Sudan to trigger the rescission process. Only three weeks after assuming his new role, Prime Minister Hamdok used his address at the UN General Assembly to press this point, saying:
“The Sudanese people have never sponsored, nor were supportive of terrorism. On the contrary, those were the acts of the former regime which has been continuously resisted by the Sudanese people until its final ouster. These sanctions have played havoc on our people, causing them untold misery of all types and forms.
We, in the transitional government, call on the United States of America to take Sudan off the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism and not to continue punishing the Sudanese people for the acts committed by that vicious regime, especially that our people have been victims of and courageously resistant to.”
However, while showing consistent support to the new civilian government and the grassroots protest movement that brought it to power, the Trump administration has remained skeptical over just how “fundamental the change in leadership and policies” has been in Sudan under a transitional government that amounts to a power-sharing arrangement between military, militia, and civilian actors, but where veto power—it is believed—continues to rest with armed actors.
Only after several months of unsuccessful lobbying of US officials by Sudan and its European and Arab backers in late 2019 that the transitional government is fundamentally different from the previous one has Khartoum now seemed to accept that the more traditional path toward rescission is likely its only available option.
Under that approach, the president would, forty-five days before the rescission is to enter into effect, notify Congress that:
- the government has not provided any support for acts of international terrorism during the preceding six-month period; and
- the government has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future.
What additional requirements has the United States imposed on Sudan for it to be delisted?
The United States has added a number of additional requirements related to SST rescission that mostly involve making amends for Sudan’s past acts of and support for terrorism. The most notable and explicit requests that have been relayed to Sudanese leaders from senior State Department officials are that Sudan settle the court judgments against it for the 1998 US embassy attacks in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya, along with the separate settlement for the 2000 USS Cole attack in the port of Aden, Yemen.
The initial 2007 USS Cole case involves an $8 million judgment to the families of the seventeen US Navy servicemen killed in the attack, with the judge noting at the time that, “It is a further tragedy that the laws of the United States, in this instance, provide no remedy for the psychological and emotional losses suffered by the survivors.” This sentiment was addressed in a subsequent 2010 case in US District Court when fifteen Cole sailors and three family members sought and were awarded additional damages in the amount of $314 million. But in March 2019, the US Supreme Court overturned that ruling on the grounds that Khartoum had not been properly notified of the lawsuit. Despite that win for Sudan, the threat of further legal action has helped motivate Sudan’s new civilian government to pursue a final financial settlement directly with the plaintiffs.
Similarly, US Courts found that in relation to the US embassy bombings that Sudan “provided safe harbor, as well as financial, military and intelligence assistance, to al-Qaida,” adding at the time that “Sudanese government support was critical to the success of the 1998 embassy bombings,” and that “because this amounted to the provision of material support for acts of extrajudicial killing…Sudan was not entitled to [sovereign] immunity.” The country was ordered to pay $10.2 billion in criminal and punitive damages, only to have the $4.3 billion in punitive damages later overturned on appeal. However, plaintiffs in 2019 appealed this ruling and in February 2020 the US Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case that could very well see the $4.3 billion in punitive damages added back to the total fine. A decision on this case is expected sometime in Spring 2020.
Privately, the United States has also begun pressing Sudan to formally accept responsibility for the murder of John Granville, a US Agency for International Development employee who was gunned down along with his Sudanese driver, Abdel Rahman Abbas, in a terrorist-related attack in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2008. While the previous government of Sudan claimed no responsibility for the attack, justice was also never fully carried out for this crime, with four of the five accused mysteriously breaking out of prison in June 2010. While there is no US legal judgment against Sudan for the handling of the matter, the politically sensitive case remains an open sore in the United States’ relationship with Sudan. While the details of these talks remain private, reports suggest that the Hamdok government is seeking an appropriate settlement in line with the other formal terrorist-related claims against it.
It should also be noted that despite these many demands, Sudan in recent months has seemingly decided to go even further than what the United States has requested in trying to make amends for its past behavior in hopes of furthering its chances of losing the terrorism designation. Efforts in the past month suggesting that Sudan would seek to normalize bilateral relations with longtime foe Israel and that it would begin talks with the International Criminal Court on seeking an agreement to hold accountable five Sudanese for past atrocity crimes in Darfur, including former President Bashir, demonstrate the fundamental nature of the changes occurring in Sudan and potentially the lengths that both military and civilian rulers seem prepared to go to be removed from the terror list.
Where is Sudan in the removal process?
While no public announcement has been made, Sudan has reportedly met the most critical requirement of being delisted by having the US intelligence community complete its six-month look back at Sudan’s support for international terrorism and finding it to be supportive of US CT efforts and not supporting international terrorism. Any activity even resembling questionable behavior in this regard would likely have derailed Sudan’s chances for the foreseeable future as it would have only reinforced lingering concerns within some circles of the US government that armed factions within the transitional government remain unrepentant and in control of decision-making.
Sudan is also reportedly in the process of providing the written assurances, as required under the statute, to the State Department that it is not providing support to international terrorism and has pledged support and deepened cooperation with US CT efforts in Sudan and globally. This now presumably also explicitly includes the renunciation of support to Hamas, which was responsible for derailing Sudan’s last best chance at delisting at the end of the Obama administration.
Equally as important, Sudan has recently made considerable progress around settling the open terrorism cases against it. However, important questions and potential sticking points remain. In February 2020, Sudan’s transitional government reached a deal with the families and survivors of the USS Cole involving a $70 million settlement to the parties to the original lawsuit, thus fulfilling an important US requirement.
While there are ongoing negotiations with State Department lawyers to settle the embassy bombing lawsuit, several important factors could delay or imperil a final deal from moving forward. Given the size of the judgment against Sudan in this case, currently standing at nearly $6 billion, even a settlement involving pennies on the dollar would likely be too much for Sudan to pay for on its own given the country’s failing economy. Complicating this question of funding is the fact that US legal experts expect that when the US Supreme Court issues its final ruling on whether Sudan owes an additional $4.3 billion in punitive damages, the ruling is likely to favor the plaintiffs, which would bring Sudan’s total obligation back to over $10 billion.
Reports are that Sudan is working feverishly to reach a settlement on the $6 billion outstanding, rumored to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 million, before the US Supreme Court rules and victims’ families decide to try for a substantially higher settlement that would be even further out of reach for Sudan to afford or finance. So, while timing is of the essence, so too is the question of financing.
Sudan hasn’t anywhere close to the necessary funds to cover the $70 million owed to victims of the USS Cole, let alone the ability to find an additional $500 million for the embassy bombing settlement. And even if they did, popular outrage could well topple any government that chose to repay a foreign debt to the richest country in the world, at a time of such domestic economic crisis, and that the public steadfastly believes it is ultimately not responsible for.
Sudan’s politics aside, the United States for its part has also not determined what financing arrangement it will accept—whether a pledge of repayment is sufficient or whether the funds must be transferred in whole to a US bank or, harder still, that the funds be dispersed in full to the parties to the lawsuits. The modalities of each of these is critical as each one has the potential of adding weeks or months to the time it takes to ultimately satisfy the US conditions.
And finally, though mention has been made of the enormous sums that Sudan is soon going to owe under these various settlement agreements, very little has been done to determine where the money might come from and when it might be available to settle these suits. The overwhelming presumption is that sums this large would necessarily have to come from supportive Gulf states, which have previously floated Sudan’s economy billions in direct budgetary support. However, Gulf states themselves have recently privately indicated that such largesse may no longer be forthcoming. To that end, an international donor conference for Sudan, intended to support the country’s economic stabilization and long-term development, still cannot find a host four months after being announced, suggesting that Khartoum’s traditional benefactors may have reached their own saturation point.
This dilemma presents a perhaps insurmountable challenge to Sudan that may only be resolved through Washington’s direct intervention with Gulf states on Khartoum’s behalf. Thus far, Washington has largely used its influence with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to create political space for Sudan to continue along its path of transition free of foreign interference from regional actors that may have a preferred outcome to Sudan’s ultimate leadership question. But if that political investment is to pay off, Washington may soon need to double down on its involvement on behalf of Khartoum—thus making the delisting truly a shared project of these two governments.
When can we expect Sudan to be removed?
Given the many challenges (outlined above) of money, political will, timing, and attention required to remove Sudan from the list, the most optimistic scenario if all those elements align perfectly would be to see the start of the forty-five-day review process by Congress initiated sometime towards the end of Spring 2020. That would allow for the earliest possible removal by mid-summer. However, it should also be noted that during the forty-five-day period, Congress is free to introduce a joint resolution that could impose additional demands or prerequisites on any delisting being finalized.
An alternative, and perhaps more likely, scenario would be that for a variety of reasons, Sudan misses the small window it currently has at being removed and is forced to wait until potentially months after the US presidential election to revisit the issue.
What other countries have been removed from the list and what was the process?
In large and complicated policy processes, it is not uncommon for lawyers, bureaucrats, and politicians to lean on precedent when charting a path forward. Regrettably for Sudan, the delisting process for SST has few precedents and the lessons that have been drawn from them suggest a more cautious, go-slow approach than what Sudan is likely hoping for.
Since the creation of the list in 1979, only five countries have ever been removed: Cuba, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and South Yemen—the latter when it merged with the Yemen Arab Republic in 1990. Of these, North Korea was relisted in 2017, nine years after being delisted, for violating the terms of its nuclear agreement with the United States. At various points, both Iraq and Libya have been seen as contenders for relisting as well given the various terrorist forces that have emanated from both since their respective delistings in 2004 and 2006. Cuba, too, whose delisting came as part of a larger deal by the Obama administration in 2015 to reestablish bilateral relations after Fidel Castro relinquished power, is still seen in many circles as a mistake.
In all cases, the requirements for delisting were equally as long and as complicated as the case of Sudan is proving to be, if not longer. The Libya case is particularly relevant as it is the case that Sudan’s delisting efforts are reportedly being modeled on. In this example, over the course of eight years, Tripoli, under then-President Muammar al-Qaddafi, agreed to turn over two of its citizens for trial in the Hague for their role in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland; accepted responsibility as a government for the bombing and agreed to pay millions in compensation to victims’ families; repeatedly pledged to renounce terrorism by cutting funding to and closing terrorist training camps on its soil; and lastly, surrendering the entirety of its weapons of mass destruction program to UN inspectors.
In the end, Congress chose not to use its forty-five-day review period to hold up the laboriously arrived at agreement spanning two presidential administrations, but did introduce subsequent legislation expressing that, “The President should not accept the credentials of any representative of the Government of Libya until…a good faith effort to resolve all outstanding claims of United States victims of terrorism sponsored by Libya had been made…and that final payment be made to the families of the victims of the attack on Pan Am Flight 103.”
Given this precedent, Sudan should be prepared for similar legislative action from Congress that would guard against future backsliding or the military reasserting itself into a more powerful governance role.
What is the US policy toward removing Sudan from the terrorism list? Has the decision actually been made to remove Sudan from the SST list?
There has been an active and ongoing debate within the US interagency (the collection of government departments and agencies that have a stake in the national security decision-making process) about how best to support civilian rule in Sudan’s transition to democracy. Despite the overall lack of an approved policy, the national security bureaucracy appears to be moving forward as if the delisting has been decided so that when, and if, the decision is made the effects can be immediate.
However, important differences in the US approach do remain and will have to be resolved before Washington is able to fully commit to taking its own politically costly steps, outlined above, that will be necessary to ultimately remove Sudan from the list. In one policy camp are those with the knowledge that while the terrorism designation is having both a tremendous detrimental effect on the Sudanese economy by deterring new investment and preventing Sudan from accessing certain forms of international financing, it is also a potentially very powerful point of leverage to help press for the continued consolidation of civilian rule.
By this argument, this group contends that removing the terrorism designation toward the end of the transitional period in 2022 would both create the incentive for continued reforms but also hopefully keep the military and security services in check during this period. At the same time, it would buy time and build the confidence of US authorities, which remain leery of the future ambitions of the military and certain threatening individuals like Rapid Support Forces leader Mohammed “Hemedti” Dagalo, that these military actors no longer pose a threat to the new Sudan.
The greatest concern of this group is that the United States could move too quickly in lifting sanctions and give up whatever powerful leverage might have built up over the years. Some also fear that if the United States were to deliver Hamdok the single biggest win the new government has laid out for itself in the first year of a three-year transition, he might rapidly, and inadvertently, outlive his usefulness in the eyes of the security sector, whose officials, many believe, have not yet given up their designs on power. In the end, as much as Washington does not want to be held responsible for the failure of the transitional government because it waited too long to deliver sanctions relief, it also does not want to inadvertently empower the very armed factions it wants to see removed from the political scene.
The other camp in the US policy debate reflects a more traditional view of the dispensation of American influence and tracks more consistently with positions pursued by European allies. In short, they argue that the United States should move as fast as it can to remove as many of the sanctions and barriers to trade and investment with Sudan as possible, overwhelming the new government with political backing and financial assistance such that the vast majority of Sudanese civilians experience an immediate benefit from the change in government brought about by their revolution. This scenario, it is argued, offers the most unambiguous proof that the tidal change toward democracy and economic reform would lift all boats in the Sudanese political space. The risk here is that in the event of backsliding later on, the United States has no tools left to punish or deter future bad behavior because all incentives have been frontloaded.
The case most often cited by US officials today is that of Myanmar, where comprehensive US sanctions on the country, not unlike those in place for decades on Sudan, were lifted in 2013 shortly after the parliamentary election of the country’s then-human rights icon, Aung San Suu Kyi. At the same time, Myanmar’s military, which still held executive power in the country, began a campaign of mass human rights abuses and genocide against the minority Muslim Rohingya community that continues to this day. Regrettably, US officials no longer have their powerful sanctions tools in place because those incentives were frontloaded as part of Myanmar’s presumed democratic transition to encourage further reforms.
Reflecting on the debate still playing out in the US approach to Sudan, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo noted at the Munich Security Conference in February 2020, after a brief pull-aside meeting with Sudanese Prime Minister Hamdok, “The Sudanese reminded me that they would love to get off the [terrorism] list and we always measure twice and cut once before we remove someone from a list like that.”
What could cause the Trump administration to delay or decide not to remove Sudan from the SST list?
Once again there are a set of practical impediments, but also political ones, that could imperil any final arrangement on removing Sudan from the SST list. On the practical side there are the details outlined above as to whether Sudan will be able to reach a final settlement on all the outstanding terrorism cases and then whether and how it will be able to meet the financial requirements attached to each of those in a timely matter.
There is also the practical question of timing. This is an election year in the United States and by the time many details of a possible deal are finally in place, the president could well be out of Washington for long stretches on the campaign trail or else not focused on concluding the deal. And, of course, there is also the very real question around the nature and quality of the deal that gets struck and whether the president will approve of the final settlement. With only months before the election, the administration will want a deal that achieves the maximum benefit for the American victims of terrorism, but too high a bill will put its implementation out of reach for Sudan and its backers.
Perhaps most importantly, the United States continues to pay close attention to the situation on the ground in Sudan and any recidivistic moves on the part of the military or associated militias to resist further reforms or undermine the existing constitutional agreement will only confirm Washington’s worst fears and would likely pause any forward progress.
Furthermore, any dramatic changes to Sudan’s governing structure would also likely imperil a future thaw. The risk of Prime Minister Hamdok being removed either by assassination, which was attempted in early March 2020, or even by nominally democratic means by the Forces of Freedom and Change coalition, acting currently as a parliament-in-waiting, would shake American confidence in the transition process to date, which has become personified to many in the West by the prime minister individually. His political, and literal, survival remains an essential ingredient for delisting going forward.
What impact will lifting the SST designation have on Sudan’s troubled economy?
Much has already been written about the likely impact that removing the SST designation will have on the Sudanese economy, but the short answer is that it will likely have little effect in the near-term. It should be noted, once again, that the bulk of the comprehensive sanctions against Sudan were lifted by the Trump administration in early 2017. In fact, it was after this lifting that Sudan’s economic freefall was accelerated, leading to the dramatic events that ended with the overthrow of President Bashir just two years later. Moreover, recently-announced investments by US firms Oracle, Visa, and even Yum! Brands (operator of Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken, now with outposts in Khartoum) demonstrate that the terror designation was not the barrier to entry into the Sudanese market that many thought it was.
What many in Sudan have failed to fully grasp is that the lack of new foreign direct investment into the country during the 2017 to 2019 period, when sanctions were lifted and Bashir was still in office, demonstrates just how powerful the lingering effects of Sudan’s thirty years of autocratic rule and terror designation are on the country. So while removing Sudan from a terror club that currently includes Iran, Syria, and North Korea will begin to remedy some of the reputational effects of being listed, the terror designation is only one symptom of a much larger disease that has grown out of Sudan’s well-documented history of autocratic rule, terrorism, gross human rights abuses, Islamic fundamentalism, and genocide. That is a reputation that the overthrow of a dictator and six months of civilian rule cannot erase, but that the further transition to civilian rule and democratic freedoms will over time.
Beyond the removal of sanctions, another key inhibitor to Sudan’s economic growth is the country’s opaque business and financial environment which has suffered from decades of being off limits to the Western financial services industry. In addition, Sudan’s banking laws remain woefully inadequate to meeting international standards for transparency and combatting illicit and terrorist finance. Until significant efforts are made, presumably with Western technical assistance, to introduce new transparency and banking supervision laws to meet international standards, the kinds of Western financial backing and investment partnerships Sudanese believe will be unlocked by the removal of sanctions are unlikely to materialize.
Is this the last sanction remaining in the US-Sudan relationship?
While the terror designation in the Sudanese popular consciousness is seen as the end-all and be-all, there are numerous other US sanctions and prohibitions which will continue as bilateral irritants but will likely not have the biting effect that previous sanctions or the terrorism designation have had. In particular, prohibitions under Section 7008 of the State Department Foreign Operations funding, known colloquially as the “coup provision,” which limits certain kinds of foreign assistance to governments and their militaries where “a country’s military has overthrown, or played a decisive role in overthrowing, the government,” will remain in place.
In the case of Sudan, the 1989 coup that brought Bashir and the National Islamic Front to power remains the last official change in government and even though Bashir was removed from office in 2019 and a new civilian cabinet was installed, because neither occurred through a democratic election and because the military still maintains executive authority under the transitional constitution, the coup provision will remain in effect until at least 2022 when the next elections are expected.
Beyond that, a network of Darfur-related executive and congressional sanctions is also still on the books. While the negotiations that the government is leading in Juba, South Sudan to a comprehensive peace agreement with the remaining armed groups continues, the Darfur-related sanctions remain in effect. And while the practical impact of those sanctions may not seem significant now, they will continue to have a dampening effect on outside investment until durable peace and credible accountability mechanisms have been implemented.
One final impediment exists at the state level when during the height of the Darfur conflict advocacy groups established a divestment task force which lobbied more than thirty state legislatures to pass laws prohibiting companies doing business in Sudan to get contracts or receive investments from state pension funds. Those laws are still on the books, with some slated to be removed when the US government lifts its own Darfur sanctions, while others would require additional legislative action.
While President Bush signed into the law the Sudan Accountability and Divestment Act, which enabled these sanctions to be enacted, the concern of the policy community at the time was that if and when Sudan ever did what was required of it to have these sanctions removed, would the advocacy community be as strong and vocal in encouraging new investments in Sudan as they were in deterring and divesting past investments? Sadly, the answer to that question is clearly no. But at a minimum, they should bear the responsibility of working to ensure that individual states, which are not paying close attention to unfolding events in Sudan, are taking appropriate steps to unwind their sanctions when the conditions are finally met.
Should the United States remove Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list?
The time has most certainly come for Sudan to be removed from the SST list if for no other reason than it is neither reflective of Sudan’s behavior in the past twenty years or the present. While there are no guarantees of what Sudan’s future might hold, removing the country now increases the likelihood for a soft landing and could create even greater leverage for the United States to shape an outcome to its liking.
But where flaws in this question emerge is in assuming that the designation is the only choice Washington has to make and the only piece of leverage that the United States has to shape the road ahead in Sudan. Rather than framing this as a binary question, posed in a vacuum, the decision to remove Sudan should be nested in a much broader US strategy that seeks to continue to empower the role of moderates and civilians across the government and mitigate the potential for spoilers, such that at the end of Sudan’s transition period in 2022 it is poised to usher in a new chapter of legitimately democratic rule. Ideally this would include a set of policies and accompanying funding authorities that emphasize economic recovery and budgetary transparency; reform of the security sector; reform of the justice sector to promote broad-based accountability; a commitment to fighting corruption; and lastly, investments to reform the political space and strengthen the capacity of government institutions.
It is a large and complex undertaking, but fortunately not one that the United States will have to shoulder on its own. Already, German, French, and European Union commitments to supporting these priorities are quite substantial—totaling nearly €200 million. Even if the United States did nothing else, removing its terrorism designation would, at a minimum, have a catalytic effect on others’ development efforts and would unleash the power of Sudan’s own private sector to tap into international capital markets to help rebuild the economy on both concessional and commercial terms.
But perhaps more importantly, the United States cannot afford for Sudan’s revolution and experiment in civilian rule to fail for reasons that go well beyond the country. Sitting at the crossroads of the African continent and Arab world, Sudan has emerged as a frontline state in the battle between authoritarianism and democracy. As Prime Minister Hamdok proudly contends, after a series of failed democratic transitions from Egypt to Syria, Sudan could very well become the model for what transitions can and should look like in a region more marked by militarism than liberalism. As forces from expanding youth populations, to the power of the internet, to declining living standards, to climate change continue to test the populations of this region, supporting examples of successful transitions will become critical to ensuring soft landings and avoiding crises of migration, conflict, and extremism.
Nowhere is that example more present than in the Sahel region on Sudan’s western border. And as the Trump administration doubles down on an expanded diplomatic strategy there, with the recent announcement of a new Special Envoy for the region, to push back against the terrorist forces engulfing countries from Mauritania to Chad, Sudan can either stand as a reliable bulwark against the further spread of radical Islam across Africa to the Red Sea or it can fall prey to those same forces and contribute further to the broader region’s unrest.
On whatever grounds the United States is motivated to act in Sudan, for promoting democracy or preventing extremism, the path forward should include removing the country’s terrorism designation.
Cameron Hudson is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. Previously he served as the chief of staff to the special envoy for Sudan and as director for African Affairs on the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter @_hudsonc.