Trump to Remove Sudan From Terrorist List, Following Behind-the-Scenes Pressure on Israel

Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok said Trump's tweet is 'the strongest support to Sudans transition to democracy' (Hannibal Hanschke - Reuters)

Robbie Gramer

Foreign Policy  /  October 19, 2020

The announcement could end Sudan’s three decades as an international pariah. But it comes at a cost.

President Donald Trump announced on Monday that the United States will remove Sudan from its list of countries that sponsor terrorism, paving the way for the East African country to join the global financial system after nearly three decades as an international pariah and setting the stage for Khartoum to normalize relations with Israel. 

The United States had already agreed in principle to lift Sudan from the state sponsor of terrorism list, after it agreed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to the families of victims of terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the bombing of a U.S. naval vessel in Yemen in 2000. The United States accused the former Sudanese regime of supporting those attacks, carried out by al Qaeda under Osama bin Laden.

But in recent weeks, the Trump administration balked on the agreement, refusing to announce it unless Sudan first agreed to recognize Israel, thereby netting the Trump administration another diplomatic victory ahead of the 2020 elections, according to current and former officials familiar with the matter. 

The announcement Monday came after months of behind-the-scenes negotiations that cut the State Department’s Africa bureau largely out of deliberations, according to current and former officials and congressional aides familiar with the matter. In a final agreement that came together over the weekend, officials said, Trump would announce that Sudan would be taken off the terrorism list. In exchange, in addition to a plan to pay more than $300 million for terrorism restitution, Sudan’s transitional government is expected to announce it will begin the process of normalizing ties with Israel in the coming week. That’s a top priority for the Trump administration after laying the groundwork for the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to re-establish formal diplomatic relations with Israel earlier this year. 

Officials familiar with the matter described negotiations between the United States and Sudan as fraught and tense given the Trump administration’s pressure on Sudan to recognize Israel—a politically delicate move in the Arab country, as its post-revolution government struggles with political fragility and an economy on the brink of collapse.

To sweeten the deal, the United States has quietly offered Sudan a raft of economic and political inducements, current and former officials said. This includes additional humanitarian assistance, a U.S. trade and investment conference along with organizing a high-level trade delegation to Sudan led by the Development Finance Corporation, a pledge from the United States to expedite discussions with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank for sorely needed economic relief, and U.S. assistance on debt relief.

A popular revolution in Sudan in 2019 ousted the country’s long-time authoritarian leader, Omar al-Bashir, after nearly three decades in power, during which time his government was accused of supporting terrorist groups, widespread human rights abuses, and crimes against humanity and genocide in the country’s Darfur region.

“From a symbolic sense, it really is a definitive end of the Bashir era, and it is resetting the relationship with the United States which had been on a very antagonistic track for the better part of 30 years,” said Cameron Hudson, an expert on East Africa with the Atlantic Council and a former diplomat. “From a practical side, it is a huge political win to the transitional government and it opens up new channels for financing and economic support that the country desperately needs.”

The new transitional government, led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, has faltered amid political disputes and a poor economy, along with internal power struggles, as elements of Bashir’s former regime still retain power. 

Sudan, North Korea, Syria, and Iran are the only four countries on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. Sudan was first placed on the list in 1993. 

Trump’s announcement begins a process in which Sudan will transfer $335 million into escrow accounts, which would then in turn be distributed to victims and families of victims of the terrorist attacks in the 1990s as Congress reaches a deal to grant Sudan “legal peace” and resolve the legal claims against it; negotiations on Capitol Hill are still ongoing. The president will notify Congress of his intent to remove Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, and from there, unless Congress voices its disapproval, the arrangement goes through.

“By any objective metric, this is a historic step forward for Sudan,” said Ed Royce, a former Republican congressman who served as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and now represents some of the families of victims of the 1998 embassy bombings. “But it only happens if this Congress ratifies this deal. Whatever your political stripes are, doing right by the victims and families of those who lost their lives in terror attacks like the 1998 Nairobi bombing is something both parties should agree must be done and I encourage the leaders in both the Senate and House to act.”

The Trump administration made sure to cut career diplomats out of the talks, keeping only the National Security Council and some senior State Department officials in the loop. Both the Bureau of African Affairs and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s own special envoy to Sudan, Donald Booth, were largely side-lined during the negotiations, current and former officials said.

The State Department declined to comment, referring the matter to the White House. The White House did not respond to a request for comment. 

But even Trump’s announcement may not be the end of Sudan’s headaches—or give it full access to global financial markets. Sudan still faces outstanding legal claims from families of victims of terrorism, including those of the 9/11 attacks. Congress has for months worked to advance legislation that would grant Sudan “legal peace”—thereby absolving it of further legal claims in American courts as a sovereign country. Some families of victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks have launched a campaign to convince lawmakers to oppose such a move, saying they want their day in court to determine whether Sudan bears any responsibility for the attacks. Privately, some U.S. officials cast doubt on whether Sudan’s former regime played any role in those attacks, since bin Laden had left Sudan and was in Afghanistan at the time. 

Without legal peace, lawyers who represent the families of victims of terrorist attacks could still impede business dealings between the United States and Sudan by pursuing any Sudanese assets found in the United States.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy