Since the collapse of former dictator Omar al-Bashir’s regime in 2019, Sudan’s new governing authorities have eagerly sought to restore relations with the international community. A snag in those efforts was the fact that, for decades, Sudan had been designated by the United States as a state sponsor of terrorism. The reason is evident enough: Khartoum was implicated in the bombings of the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. Bashir also harboured terrorists, most famously Osama bin Laden, the erstwhile leader of al Qaeda.
Being proscribed as a state sponsor of terrorism by Washington meant that Sudan was a pariah state, one excluded from enjoying the economic benefits of American foreign direct investment. Sudan was also the target of political scorn and economic sanctions. But now Sudan has been removed from the U.S.’ state sponsors of terrorism list. The question is: at what price?
The process of listing and de-listing states for materially contributing to terrorism is a fundamentally political one, rather than one driven by factual or legal analysis. It may not be controversial to see states like Sudan (under Bashir) or Iran listed. But there are states, geopolitical allies of the country, that do not appear on Washington’s list, like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. As one scholar points out, the “listing of states sponsors of terrorism by the executive branch is at best extraordinarily delicate and difficult, and at worst pure political manipulation.” Once on the list, it is hard to get off. It took Sudan twenty-seven years.
As part of the negotiations to rid itself of this designation, Sudan agreed to pay over $330 million in compensation to the families of victims of the aforementioned bombings on American Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam as well as the USS Cole. The deal was met with great fanfare by President Donald Trump, who declared: “Once deposited, I will lift Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. At long last, JUSTICE for the American people and BIG step for Sudan!”
Not everyone views the deal in such glowing terms, however. Requiring legislative approval, the compensation-for-normalization pact was met with resistance by Democratic Senators and families of victims of the 11 September 2001 attacks. Their concern was that normalizing relations with Khartoum would restore Sudan’s sovereign immunity and thus jeopardize the ability of 9/11 victims to sue Sudan in U.S. courts. The wife of one victim criticized Trump’s deal with Khartoum, declaring that “[t]he White House has been working all year to trade away our rights, in an apparent effort to secure an unrelated diplomatic win.”
Another concern is that the cost of gaining better relations with Washington is too high for a country in the midst of a precarious transition. Sudan is facing economic, environmental, and humanitarian crises on numerous fronts. Inflation soared past 200 percent last year and some have described the economy as being in “free fall”. As Michelle Gavin, a Senior Fellow for Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes, “for Sudanese people suffering immediate economic hardship and food insecurity, the fact that Sudan has agreed to pay $335 million to compensate victims of the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and the 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole in exchange for delisting can be a bitter pill.”
The people of Sudan have only just managed to escape decades of autocratic rule and many aspire to democratic and responsible governance. Political transitions like the one that Sudan is undergoing are susceptible to disturbances and backtracking. In this context, it is also worth stressing that it was economic conditions that fueled the unrest that led to Bashir’s ouster in 2019. Today, breadlines in some parts of the country are longer than when price increases led to the demonstrations that eventually toppled Bashir’s regime.
To say that the situation in Sudan is fragile would be an understatement. Washington must chart a careful path. After all, successive American administrations have sought democratic reform and political change in Khartoum. Now that Sudan’s transformation is underway, anything to thwart support for Sudan’s delicate transition would not just undermine the new governing authorities, but would destabilize the democratic transition that civilians have worked so hard to achieve.
There are ways to make the $335 million compensation-for-recognition deal a win-win. If the new Democrat administration under President Joe Biden thinks creatively, it can help ensure that Sudan’s current debt load is quickly relieved, humanitarian assistance is bolstered, investment grows, and political support for the transition is ramped up. Some of these measures appear to have been already contemplated but should be put into action immediately and without additional conditions or burdens placed on Sudanese civilians, who are trying to navigate multiple crises and consolidate a democratic transition. If these policies are implemented effectively and efficiently, the cost of compensating American victims of Sudanese terrorism may look minimal in hindsight.
But victims of mass atrocities should not fall out the proverbial bottom. Nor should they be pawns in geopolitical games. The families of the victims of Sudan’s terrorist acts deserve justice and reparations. So too do the victims and survivors of Bashir’s decades of repression and atrocity in South Sudan, Darfur, and beyond. Proof of Sudan’s return to a community of states that respect democracy and the rule of law won’t come in the form of financial investment or dollars and cents.
It will be measured by the justice that is meted to those who have been waiting for it for so long.