Sudan: Shedding Stigma of Terrorism

Sudan: Shedding Stigma of Terrorism
As Sudan gingerly adopts democracy, its first major diplomatic initiative is to mend ties with Israel. Will this quicken its international acceptance?

Sudan's Legacy: A Terror Exporter

Omar al – Bashir, led a military coup in 1989 that overthrew the elected government of President Sadiq Al Mahdi. The alleged provocation was the government's efforts to start negotiations with the southern rebels to end the civil war. Bashir took the mantle of head of state, prime minister, chief of armed forces and minister of defence. Under Bashir's watch, “Sharia” was imposed in Sudan, despite more than half the country being non-Muslims. 

Omar al-Bashir allied with the radical Hassan al Turabi of the National Islamic Front to ensure there were no roadblocks in the implementation of Sharia law.  In turn, Hasan al – Turabi opened the doors to Islamic radicals, allowing them to operate out of Sudan. The final straw was the official sanctuary to Osama bin Laden that led to the labelling of Sudan as a State Sponsor of Terrorism (SST) in 1993. 

The US closed its embassy in 1996 after Sudan's role in the Pan Arab Islamic Conference became evident. In 1997, the US imposed economic, trade and financial sanctions on Sudan, making it an international pariah.  Sudan was blamed for supporting the attack on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the USS Cole bombing in 2000, which provoked Tomahawk missile strikes in Sudan. 

International banks would not operate in Sudan. But the SST designation did not directly prevent international banking or private investment in Sudan, and this led to a misconception that these sanctions were inhibiting economic growth. Conflicts began to resurface along with the deterioration of living standards. The designation also made Sudan ineligible for debt relief and financing from the IMF and World Bank.  

Omar al – Bashir's Sudan and US sanctions

The second phase of the Sudanese Civil War resulted in casualties up to two million along with human rights issues such as displacement, starvation, deprivation of health care and education. Sanctions were further tightened, although there were international calls to end the suffering of millions of Sudanese affected by the crisis.

Oil was the central drivers of conflict between North and South Sudan. Another set of conflicts involved the attempts to control territories along borders of North and South, in particular – South Kordofan, the Blue Nile and Abyei. In the South, interlocking political and tribal decisions threatened to distract the country from state-building efforts. Much of the simmering tribal conflicts were based on age-old problems for access to land, water and pasture. The War in Darfur led to causalities up to 300,000 people, and in 2008, an indictment against Omar Al Bashir stated that he had planned to destroy three ethnic groups - Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa. President Bush imposed new economic sanctions after the Darfur violence. UN-mandated sanctions related to Darfur are still applicable to prohibit arms transfer.

Sudan extended concrete cooperation against international terrorism after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre, USA. In 2017, the US lifted the 20-year-old embargo on trade with the Sudanese government. 

Al Bashir was deposed as Sudan's president in a coup d' état, after being wracked by nine months of civilian-led protests. By the end of 2019, a civilian-led transitional government was established.

Rapprochement with Israel  

The United Arab Emirates organised the meeting between Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu and the President of Sudanese Sovereignty Council, Abdel Fattah Al Burhan in 2020. It appears that Sudan expects Israel to reciprocate by expediting its removal from the US State Sponsor of Terrorism list. In turn, it is willing to sever all ties with Hamas and Hezbollah. 

This is in marked contrast to Sudan's traditional policy towards Israel enunciated under the Khartoum Resolution which stated the "Three No's" – No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel and no negotiations with it.  In solidarity with Riyadh, Sudan had severed diplomatic ties with Iran in 2016. Since then, Israel and Sudan have come closer. 

But Sudanese are not happy with the move and believe that al – Burhan has cooperated with the 'enemy'. Burhan deflected the criticism with the reasoning that it would be for the welfare of Sudanese people, emphasising that this does not diminish the support for Palestinians.


  • Sudan’s geostrategic location on the Red Sea and proximity to the Horn of Africa makes it an attractive partner for Israel.  The Red Sea is a vital waterway for Israel's trade and international presence. Access to Sudanese airspace will shorten Israeli flights to West Africa.  

  • Israel is host to over 6000 Sudanese refugees.  Israelis are angry considering the refugees as a security risk and blaming them for ruining their quality of life.  Netanyahu, fighting for his political survival, hopes to improve his ratings. With the US proposed peace deal seeing no headway, a bilateral agreement with Sudan is the only option.

  • Governance in Sudan is unstable, and democracy is in its shaky infancy.  The military continues to be the most potent force. Delisting Sudan from the SST before credible state institutions come up could jeopardise its future.  Islamic groups continue to wield considerable power and could pose the biggest threats to Sudan's democracy.

Image Courtesy: Enough Project