The Cipher Brief’s Bennett Seftel spoke with retired Ambassador Phil Carter, former Senior Advisor, Acting Assistant Secretary, and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the State Department’s Africa Bureau, to discuss Sudan’s progress on counterterrorism and whether State should continue to list the country as a state sponsor of terror.
The Cipher Brief: Can you tell us a little bit about Sudan’s history as it relates to terrorism?
Phil Carter: Sudan was something of an entrepôt for all kinds of issues in the 1990s and the 2000s. There was concern that it was supporting terrorist activities and certain movements, that it was acting as a kind of clearinghouse for money and material, and that it was a trans-shipment point for materials, personnel, and resources heading to terrorist groups.
Compound these factors with the conflation of Sudan’s behavior in places like Darfur and the challenges that were emanating out of the peace talks in Naivasha in the early 2000s that ended the second Sudanese civil war and South Sudan’s independence, and there was a significant amount going on there.
Furthermore, there was the fact that Sudan follows a very strident, conservative, and structured view towards Islam in terms of some of the regulations that were put in place in the country during that time frame.
So there were a lot of issues facing Sudan, which was designated by the U.S State Department as a state sponsor of terror in 1993. As a consequence, the sanctions regime was put in place.
TCB: What is the current terrorist threat emanating from the country?
PC: Terrorism in Sudan has always been a challenge, not necessarily due to the actual presence of terrorist groups in the country – although there may have been people passing through there such as al Qaeda – but because of the government’s facilitation of material support to terrorist groups. A lot of the sanctions that were placed on Sudan were due to their financial transactions.
If you recall, about a year ago, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) – an inter-governmental body that combats money laundering and terrorist financing – lifted sanctions on the activities of the Central Bank of Sudan. The FATF ensured that the bank was following international laws and statutes on transparency, so it was no longer included on any kind of a blacklist.
There have been efforts on the part of the Sudanese to address some of challenges and concerns they are facing, but whether their efforts have been to the satisfaction of the people overseeing the process is debatable.
Also, the issue of the conflation between the legalistic approach to some of the issues that were happening with the sanctions and the humanitarian crisis of Darfur and the behavior of the government both in regard to the Janjaweed militia and in terms of UN operations, access, and the violence that was associated with the group presents a separate set of issues.
TCB: Have the Sudanese government’s efforts been sufficient in mitigating these concerns and proving that it is no longer a state sponsor of terror?
PC: Before he left office, former U.S. President Barack Obama eased some of the sanctions on Sudan in January, but there were some conditionalities in terms of further review. To be completely removed from the list, certain conditions, such as ceasing hostilities in Darfur and what they call the two areas, Kordofan and the Blue Nile, improving humanitarian access, ending the negative interference in South Sudan, enhancing counterterrorism cooperation, and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), had to be addressed.
Now let’s go back up this list. With the LRA, there was a recent announcement that the U.S. is going to terminate its operations in search of Joseph Kony, the head of the LRA, because the LRA has pretty much been neutralized as a threat and the mission is no longer needed.
With regard to South Sudan, there needs to be a lot more attention paid to what is going on in South Sudan itself. There have been efforts on the part of the Sudanese to work jointly with the Ethiopians and others to address border security issues and other concerns. There have also been statements from Khartoum indicating that South Sudan has to find its own solutions amongst the parties within South Sudan and do things to alleviate the crisis there.
But access to information regarding what is going on in the Abyei or the other northern border regions, is still sketchy. Access to that part of the world is difficult. That will be one of the challenges for people looking at this issue – the quantity and quality of information that’s required to make a full evaluation that these conditions have been met.
With regard to humanitarian access, there have been ongoing discussions between the UN and the government of Sudan on this issue. I’m sure the Sudanese government is trying to do everything it can to show that they’ve made some positive progress. Whether their actions are sufficient remains to be seen. But the UN evaluation has to come out and we haven’t seen everything yet.
Finally, there is also the issue of Darfur and the two areas – Kordofan and the Blue Nile. We’ve seen an uptick in violence those areas. Whether this violence continues to be directed by the government in Khartoum is a question that has to be explored and debated.
In terms of counterterrorism issues, I think Sudan has taken action and is continuing to take actions to mitigate these concerns. They’ve been having discussions with a lot of folks, and the neighborhood they are in is getting tougher for them in many respects. Also, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is also looking at ways to normalize Sudan’s relationships with its neighbors and to focus more on the domestic development and economic challenges his country is facing.
In addition, Bashir is facing has his own internal political dynamic. External problems can only complicate things for him further. I can’t say I fully understand everything that is going on, but I know that it is quite complex.
TCB: How close are Sudan’s ties to Iran and to terrorist groups that Iran funds, such as Hezbollah? Could this be another reason for Sudan’s designation?
PC: There have always have been concerns of Sudan facilitating trans-shipments of material and weapons from Iran to groups such as Hezbollah. We know that the Israeli government has also looked at this issue quite closely and has responded based on the public reporting of certain events happening in the past few years.
Having said that, however, Sudan has changed its relationship somewhat with Iran. There was a recent news report indicating that there may have been some commercial activity between Iran and Sudan, though I have to say, what you have seen is more of a blossoming of the relationship between Sudan and the Gulf States, specifically with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Saudi Arabia has come up with an extensive loan, some billions of dollars, to help Sudan’s economic condition. That assistance has probably done much more to temper or limit Sudan’s relationship with Iran.
Sudan has recognized that they needed to change their ways and recalibrate the value of certain relationships. The question of the Sudanese-Iranian relationship is one they have been trying to address. Whether it has been fully resolved is a question I can’t speak to. But I do know that they do have a much more robust relationship with Saudi Arabia, and I’m sure that came at the cost of their relationship with Iran.
TCB: Should Sudan continue to be listed as a state sponsor of terror until certain criteria are fully met, or is there room for the country to be removed from the list as the U.S. works with it on addressing worrisome issues?
PC: The latter issue is the question that you have to address. Technically, are they a state sponsor of terrorism? That is the question that in many respects the Sudanese have felt they have addressed over the past several years but they feel that they have been somewhat burdened by the humanitarian crisis in Darfur and in Kordofan and the Blue Nile.
The calculus has to made about how far along we are going to get in terms of dealing with counterterrorism issues in the Horn of Africa and other parts of Africa with Sudan. In a sense they’ve done a lot, technically they’ve done quite a few things, so there could be an easing of some of these sanctions. But the relationship has to continue to grow and their behavior has to be examined or verified on a routine basis. Access to areas that have been questionable is going to be important, if not essential, for effective verification.
Also, there are different kinds of sanctions out there. You’re specifically looking at the counterterrorism sanctions and the state sponsorship sanctions because the financial sanctions under the FATF have been lifted. Within that rubric, technically, should they still be considered a state sponsor of terror is a question that can be resolved with regard to the sanctions regime. Whether you are also looking at the challenges that they face on the humanitarian front is something that has to be explored further. I would expect there to be some sort of graduated and nuanced approach to the sanction regime when the review of Sudan is taken up by the Trump Administration in July.
These sanctions are going to have to be reviewed by Congress, so the relationships and the sentiments among the Senate and the House of Representatives will be critical.
In January, President Obama said there was going to be a partial lifting, an easing, or softening – whatever you want to call it – of sanctions, but that there will be a more full review at the end of June and the first part of July.
Another challenge that we face is how will the position of Special Envoy to Sudan be addressed. There might be a need for further visits. Has the Trump Administration appointed someone or are they going to continue with the most recent Special Envoy, Ambassador Donald Booth? These are things that have to be examined before July.
Finally, there is a question about the quality and quantity of information to make an evaluation of the sanctions regime and the requirements to lift it.
But what happens when you have satisfactory information that out of five conditions, three have been met and two haven’t? is there a three-fifths or partial solution? What are you going to do? Those are the kinds of debates that need to happen.
Engaging Sudan in a positive way to get things done in this context is important especially because there have been improvements. That is something most people would agree. The general consensus on counterterrorism issues is that there has been a marked improvement by Sudan.
The opinions and characterizations expressed are those of retired Ambassador Carter, and do not necessarily represent the official positions of the U.S. government.