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Sudan at a Crossroads: Rethinking U.S. Policy

Jason M. Blazakis
Sunday, June 9, 2019, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: Sudan is in the throes of revolution, raising hopes that a government with a brutal history may be at an end. Sudan, however, could also follow the path of Libya, Yemen and other countries where hopeful revolution devolved into civil war and slaughter. Jason Blazakis of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies argues that a U.S. role in Sudan's transition is critical.

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Editor’s Note: Sudan is in the throes of revolution, raising hopes that a government with a brutal history may be at an end. Sudan, however, could also follow the path of Libya, Yemen and other countries where hopeful revolution devolved into civil war and slaughter. Jason Blazakis of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies argues that a U.S. role in Sudan's transition is critical. In particular, Washington can leverage the country's listing as a state sponsor of terrorism, among other forms of influence, to try to push Sudan toward an accountable government that is both more democratic and able to fight terrorism.

Daniel Byman


Nearly two months after the military coup in Sudan, domestic and geopolitical forces continue to vie for power and influence. The downfall of Sudan’s strongman, Omar al Bashir, after three decades of rule was sparked by grassroots protests that began in December 2018. Immediately following Bashir’s ouster, Minister of Defense Awad Ibn Auf took control, but he decided to step aside after less than two days. Since Auf’s sudden change of heart, a 10-man transitional military council led by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan has taken responsibility for leading Sudan.

Initially, the military council said it would take up to two years to hold “free and fair elections,” but more recently, the ruling military junta pushed that timetable up, saying that elections would be held within nine months. The change was announced after the military council’s security forces fired on sit-in protestors on June 3, an echo of Bashir’s tactics, killing at least 13 people. The death toll has risen as government and militia forces continued their violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators throughout the week. As Janjaweed militia run amok in the streets of Khartoum, it is hard to take anything the military council says at face value. The African Union has moved to kick Sudan out until responsible governance takes hold, and Ethiopia’s foreign minister is trying to mediate a solution to the ongoing crisis.

It remains paramount that the United States play a greater role in facilitating a smooth and prompt transition from military to civilian rule, while also avoiding a forced rush to elections that could create more chaos and violence and set Sudan back for years. The United States should also work with Sudan to ensure the new leadership takes the necessary steps to get off the State Sponsors of Terrorism (SST) list. Sudan could become a beacon for peaceful transition in the region; or it could become the next Libya, mired in an existential tug of war among terrorist groups, warlords, militias and other nefarious actors.

Other countries are already plunging in. Shortly after the coup, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) pledged $3 billion in aid to Sudan, $500 million of which will allegedly be deposited in the Sudanese central bank. The protestors who were instrumental in Bashir’s removal were rightly apprehensive about this pledge of support; journalists reported they responded to the news by chanting, “We do not want Saudi aid even if we have to eat beans and falafel.”

Saudi and UAE moves in Sudan should be viewed with suspicion. In Libya, Saudi and UAE efforts to prop up Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army have contributed to destabilization and civil war. Saudi money has been funneling into Sudan and supporting Bashir since before the recent pledge, but for more parochial reasons—to blunt Iran’s influence in Sudan. And, for the most part, the United States encouraged this. The United States should change course and thwart these efforts moving forward, not only because of the damage done in Libya but also because Saudi Arabia’s efforts to expand the Wahhabism flavor of Islam, often via the export of funds to build mosques worldwide from Timbuktu to the Balkans, has directly and indirectly contributed to an expansion of terrorist groups.

Instead of acquiescing to Saudi and UAE efforts, the United States should take the lead in working with the transitional military council and the Sudanese Professional Association in shaping Sudan’s future. The SST list gives the United States unique leverage to do this; just removing Sudan’s name from the list will help rehabilitate the country’s public image. With such a move, U.S. businesses previously concerned about reputational risk that comes with doing business in Sudan will begin exploring investment opportunities. Future private investment may ease the economic hardships that animated the protests leading to Bashir’s downfall.

Sudan desperately wants to be removed from the list of pariah states. Since 1993, Sudan has been listed as an SST, largely due to Osama bin Laden’s presence and a wide array of business interests that allowed al-Qaeda to finance its operations. Wilting under U.S. pressure, Hassan al-Turabi, Sudan’s key power broker at the time, evicted bin Laden from Sudan in 1996. Sudan’s support to terrorists, however, was much broader than providing a safe haven to al-Qaeda. Shortly after Sudan’s listing as an SST, the State Department’s Patterns of Global Terrorism report noted that in 1994 Sudan provided support to a broad array of terrorist groups, including Abu Nidal, the Armed Islamic Group, al-Gama’a al-Islamiya and Egyptian Islamic Jihad. It’s also been well documented that Sudan allowed Hamas, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization (FTO), to use its territory as a node in the Iran-Hamas arms supply chain.

More recently, Sudan has distanced itself from its terrorist-supporting ways. The most recent iteration of the State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism does not implicate Sudan in any provision of support to terrorists. In fact, the report praises Sudan for its “continued pursuit of counterterrorism operations alongside regional partners, including operations to counter threats to U.S. interests and personnel in Sudan.” The incongruity of Sudan’s continued placement on the SST list becomes more stark when Sudan isn’t on the State Department’s list of countries not fully cooperating with U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Technically, the U.S. policy position on Sudan is that it sponsors terrorism but it cooperates fully with U.S. counterterrorism efforts. This sends a very confusing message to Sudan.

Messaging and decision-making on SST are key issues that will shape the future of U.S.-Sudan relations, Sudanese stability and the extent of Saudi influence. General Burhan has said that the military council will send a delegation to the United States in an effort to remove Sudan from the SST list. In the past, as this writer knows from first-hand experience, senior U.S. policymakers have done a poor job describing the process for SST removal to Sudanese interlocutors, and the Sudanese have done a poor job comprehending U.S. technical requirements surrounding SST delisting determinations. Specifically, in 2015, Sudan government officials didn’t understand why they needed to provide assurances to the United States that the country was out of the terrorism-sponsoring business.

Delisting an SST is a discretionary decision, and the United States will, and should, always leverage a removal to achieve additional political concessions. First, the United States should make it clear to Sudanese interlocutors that the SST review process will not begin until the transition to a civilian leadership has been completed. Rewarding those responsible for a military coup, of course, sends the wrong message. Second, there are two legal pathways for SST rescission; the one more relevant to Sudan speaks to a change of government and requires the new leadership to commit to not supporting terrorism and to provide letters of assurance to the United States that it no longer engages in such support. If the United States removes Sudan from the SST list while it is still ruled by a military council but later a civilian government is elected to govern, the commitments made by the interim government may have little or no bearing on how the new elected leadership will govern. If there is going to be a transition to a new government, it makes more sense to wait and evaluate that government’s bona fides as a partner in fighting terror.

Aside from the technical requirements and the need to negotiate a delisting with a civilian government, what else should the U.S. government seek from Sudan? First, the United States should publicly encourage (and privately demand) that Bashir face his day at the International Criminal Court (ICC). He is the first sitting president to be wanted by the ICC and the first person to be charged by the ICC for the crime of genocide. Second, Bashir’s ill-gotten wealth should be frozen and used to compensate the victims of his tyranny and their families. Third, the new civilian government must participate in transitional justice efforts to ensure that other former and current government officials own up to their war crimes. Specifically, individuals such as Salah Gosh, former head of Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), should be prosecuted. If a new civilian government commits to these high-level policy advances, then the formal SST review process should begin and move quickly. If a serious process were to begin and Sudan provided the necessary assurances, it is highly likely that Sudan would be removed from the list of state sponsors. Once that occurs, the foreign assistance spigot should be turned on quickly.

Just as the United States pushes for significant reforms, it must also ensure Sudan does not dissolve into chaos and that government institutions remain strong enough to fight terrorism, among other priorities. Libya, for example, seemed to offer a ray of hope when Qaddafi fell, but it has collapsed into chaos, and counterterrorism and other goals have suffered. Completely dissolving the security services, as some protesters demand, would be a mistake. U.S. support can help a new regime weather what will inevitably be a political transition. This would be a win both for Sudan and for the world as a whole.

Jason M. Blazakis is a professor of practice at Middlebury Institute of International Studies, director of its Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism, and a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center. From 2008 to August 2018, he was director of the State Department’s Office of Counterterrorism Finance and Designations. He also worked at State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research and was a domestic intelligence analyst with the Congressional Research Service.

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