‘We're Not a Terrorist State,’ Says Khartoum's Ambassador

Interview with Sudan's Ambassador to the United States, Khidir Haroun Ahmed, allAfrica.com, 19 November 2001

At the end of a three-day visit to Sudan, U.S. envoy John Danforth seemed pessimistic about any immediate prospects for a settlement of the civil war, telling reporters at a press briefing in Nairobi, Kenya, on Saturday, that he “wouldn't bet much on this.”

Danforth, who presented a peace plan to both the Khartoum government and rebels of the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA), set a two month deadline for meaningful action. “If they don't want peace, they will tell us by inaction,” Danforth said. “If that is what happens and it's clear to me by mid-January, I’m simply going to report to the president that we tried, we did our best and that there is no further useful role for the United States to play.”

Peace has been elusive in Africa's largest nation for almost five decades, the bitter dispute between the Christian and Animist south and the Muslim north dominating the period. In the United States, Sudan is often cited in connection with slavery and terrorism and a powerful political coalition, drawing from both left and right, has argued for the imposition of strong sanctions, as well as penalties on foreign corporations and countries who do business there. Yet, at the same time, Washington has been aggressively seeking Sudan's cooperation in its war on global terrorism and according to Administration officials has been getting it.

Thus the U.S. relationship with Sudan remains ambivalent. allAfrica's Charles Cobb Jr. spoke with Sudan's Ambassador to the United States, Khidir Haroun Ahmed. Excerpts:

On the one hand the Bush administration has been expressing some satisfaction with the cooperation its had from Sudan in the anti-terrorism fight. On the other hand, on November 1, the U.S. extended sanctions on Sudan. The administration says there are still outstanding issues and questions with regard to Sudan and terrorism and human rights. What's your response?

Well it sounds so strange to us because this dialogue on terrorism and security issues started well before the tragic incidents that took place in Washington and New York on September 11. Preliminary contact started in March 2000. And by June 2000 we were engaged in a very serious dialogue. Professionals from the United States intelligence community, from all the different agencies, they engaged with us in a very detailed dialogue on the situation in Sudan and the region.

Specifically about what?

Well, they had some questions about some organizations, about training camps in the region. And for different parts of the country—east, west, north, south—they told us what kind of information they had. So, this kind of engagement was going on for 18 months. Imagine that people sit together and every day they discuss everything—individuals, organizations—and to my best knowledge, they exhausted all outstanding issues that relate to terrorists and terrorism. We are totally convinced that when it comes to this terrorism and terrorist issues, there is nothing outstanding.

The Congress doesn't think so.

Yes. They did not take the issue of terrorism on its own merits. They confuse it with domestic politics and use it to underwrite the forces against Sudan. Here again you have a very strange situation. You have a sole superpower—the United States basing its politics on reports coming from NGOs, ethnic groups—this is the source of disinformation. On these allegations of Christian persecution, you don’t have an independent, impartial source. We have been encouraging, for some time, restaffing the [U.S.] embassy and having a normal relationship which will allow professional diplomats in Khartoum, for example, to verify these allegations, rather than depend on these people.

There are people in this country who say, “I have been to Sudan and purchased slaves from slave traders.”

Yes. This is exactly what I am trying to say. All of them, not some of them, 100 percent of them—they sneaked in illegally, sneaked into a sovereign country, to the areas controlled by a rebel movement, the SPLA. So, a very simple question would come to any reasonable person's mind: “Since the SPLA controls these areas, how do they allow slave trading to take place in regions controlled by them?”

The accusation is made that slave-trading is done by government-backed, armed militias; that this is the way the government pays them for fighting the SPLA.

Our government officially invited the United States to send an investigative team to these places. They are free to compose it [the team] the way they like and send it to Sudan to investigate these allegations, because many people in the Congress of the United States, and religious groups, some journalists very well known here to people, they never traveled to areas controlled by the government and they come up with these allegations of slavery. As I said, they only travel to areas controlled by the rebel movement. They [the SPLA] bring the boys from the village, the children, and they stage the whole thing in front of cameras in order to collect donations [and] use the donations for more arms, for more ammunition, for more killing and destruction in the South. So somebody who says I’ve been to Sudan, to be honest to the people at least, should specify where he was while there, who facilitated his trip, who was in control there!

We've admitted many times that there is inter-tribal abduction that has been going on since early times between Sudanese in the South and some between southern Sudanese and northern Sudanese over pasture, or for limited sources of water and we have a committee for the eradication of the abduction of children and women that is working in collaboration with Unicef. They’re even funded by Unicef and they are very successful. There are some Africans on that committee.

The United Nations has been critical of both the SPLA and the government of Sudan for human rights violations. It is a lengthy, and noticeably ugly war.

Yes. It is an ugly war. This is the second phase of the war which started in 1983 but, in fact,started back in 1955 before we obtained our independence. On the issue of human rights, to be very frank with you, when you have war going on you should expect people to be killing each other. When you have a war going on, I think you should concentrate on how to end that war rather than the byproducts, the natural byproducts of a war. You have civil rights violations. You have displaced people. A very bad situation of course. So people should come to our side in order to stop the war rather than to try to fuel the war, to fund the war. The U.S. Congress for the last 10 years has supported the SPLA, morally and financially. And you have the Sudan Peace Act now, again it's on track, in fact prolonging the war, prolonging the suffering of Sudanese people on both sides of the struggle. Southern Sudan now is almost depopulated by the [SPLA head John] Garang movement. Out of 5.5 million people in southern Sudan, 4.5m have migrated to the North. In Khartoum, itself, with a population of almost 6 million, almost two million are southern Sudanese. So if people are enslaved there, they wouldn't come.

What do you think accounts for this almost unique hostility to the government in Khartoum? Why Sudan?

Many factors. You have your own fanatics, people who believe there should be war between civilizations rather than co-existence. Some people for their own reasons, for their own agenda, would like to portray this war as a religious war between Christians and Muslims. This could generate money for some of them. I would say the majority of people supporting this war are well-meaning people who are misinformed. It is very natural for the people here, or anywhere else, to sympathize with their Christian fellows. It is very legitimate. Unfortunately they have been successful at manipulating the entire system against a third world country, a very poor country that has no infrastructure. Sudan is five times the state of Texas, seven times the size of California, with very limited resources. Instead of coming to help the people, or to see for yourself, we have this sensational campaign.

Isn't there some degree of credibility to some of the concern about Sudan? Your country hosted Osama Bin Laden for the better part of the 1990s. Hamas and other terrorist groups based in Sudan, trained there. Men who attempted to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Ethiopia in 1995 reportedly fled to Sudan. Hasan al-Turabi, although he has been ousted from government now, used Sudan as a staging area for his Islamist ambition to turn East African nations into Islamic states. The charges against Sudan didn’t come out of nowhere.

Yes. It is a well-orchestrated campaign.

You think none of that is true?

No, I'm not saying that. What I am saying is that Osama Bin Laden belongs to a very famous family [in Saudi Arabia]. When he came to Sudan he came as a businessman. Nobody was accusing him of anything. He was doing business in Sudan—construction, roads. He even built an airport through two of his companies. This was around 1992, I think. But when the United States approached Sudan and asked to expel him out of the country we asked if they had anything against him. They said no, just expel him. They never asked for him to be extradited to the United States, just expelled. They said they had no case against him. So to us, and to the world at that time, Osama Bin Laden was a businessman. When the United States asked us to expel him, we did that, despite the fact that our relations with the United States were very strained at that time.

Talking about Hamas and other Palestinian groups, they are perceived by the entire Arab world as engaged as a political organization opposing occupation and it used to have bureaus in most of the Arab countries. And none of them in Sudan, at that time, were accused by anybody of being involved in terrorism. Sudan was not unique in any way.

With respect to the assassination attempt against Hosni Mubarak in 1995, Sudan was not accused of playing any part in that. Sudan was asked officially by the Egyptian government to extradite three suspects—three Egyptian suspects—who it was believed had penetrated the country at that time. And we tried to do that! We kept looking for them. As you know Sudan is the largest country in Africa and it is one of the least developed countries in the world. They asked us to try to apprehend these men in a country that as I said is five times the size of Texas. We kept looking for these people and we did not find them. Eventually, the Egyptian government, as well as then Ethiopian government, was satisfied that we had done all we could and they wrote officially last year to the United Nations Security Council that they believed that Sudan has done what it was supposed to do, so we recommend the lifting of sanctions. You know without that letter, without the consent of Egypt and Ethiopia, we would not have been out from under those sanctions. We Sudanese do not have any “notorious” name. You never heard of a Sudanese terrorist organization.

Do you expect to get off the State Department's terrorist nation list?

I certainly think we should be removed from it. The decision by the Security Council was delayed by the United States. Last year 14 out of 15 countries, all except the United States, agreed that sanctions should be removed. So there was an international consensus. As I said, according to my own knowledge, there is no outstanding issue between the United States and Sudan, with respect to the issue of terrorism. I hope that domestic politics will not again confuse issues. I don’t know, but I think we have very legitimate cause to be removed from that list.

The Administration has expressed some satisfaction with the cooperation it is getting from Sudan in its anti-terrorism campaign, what other kind of cooperation between Sudan and the United States is possible now?

The cooperation between the U.S. and Sudan is not confined to the terrorism issues. We also cooperate fully with USAID. We welcome any efforts to feed our people, whether they are on the SPLA side or the government side. We have already allowed the United States to distribute food in areas that are controlled by the Garang movement. Ultimately they are Sudanese.

But we have heard of aid being denied, craft attacked.

Sometimes there are complications. Sometimes when we strike a deal with the United Nations or United States—fire-free zones or truces—the SPLA immediately takes advantage of the situation. Knowing there will be no war here, takes their troops and attacks. that's why we have been asking for some time for a comprehensive ceasefire as a prerequisite for settling humanitarian issues. But the other side keeps refusing. They don’t want it.

At some point it would seem that peace in the Sudan will certainly require that the SPLA and the Khartoum government sit down at the table, face to face. Is that possible, or likely, within the foreseeable future?

No doubt about that. The only thing is that the SPLA has been discouraged by this country from getting into peace talks with the government. So, if there is a strong signal from the United States to the SPLA that, “Look! Enough is enough. Now we are for peace! You have to sit with the government in order to solve this problem, in order to stop bloodshed,” I am sure they will do that.

At this point are you, as ambassador to the United States, making any headway among the fairly powerful array of forces, in Congress particularly, that are antagonistic to Sudan?

They are moving on the Peace Act and what I know is that by doing this, Congress is sending a very negative signal to Danforth's mission because the administration cannot send someone with the status of former Senator Danforth to make peace, and while he is still there [in Sudan] start discussing what they call a Sudan Peace Act—I always call it the Sudan war act. If you read the act you will find that it contains a point in which they are going to provide the rebel movement with ten million dollars. So what kind of peace act is that? How could the administration send someone in order to strike a peace dea and, at the same time, say we are waging war against the country? The United States has again put its credibility on the line.