The Price Sudan Pays to Shed its Title as a State Sponsor of Terrorism

The Price Sudan Pays to Shed its Title as a State Sponsor of Terrorism 

By Hannah Pedone

Photo credit: Sudanese Cabinet via Associated Press

On October 23rd, President Trump signed an order to remove Sudan’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism (SST).  Sudan has held the SST title since 1993 when the government was accused of harboring Hezbollah-affiliated terrorists and Osama Bin Laden.  The SST delisting clears pathways for international financial market access and much-needed debt relief for Sudan. These benefits come with a sizable price tag. 

As a condition for delisting, Sudan agreed to pay $335 million to compensate U.S. victims of the 1998 Nairobi and Dar es Salaam bombings. Sudan provided passports and sheltered militants involved in the embassy bombings which killed 244 people, 12 of which were U.S. citizens.  Arguably included in the American ‘fee’ is the Sudanese agreement (or concession) to normalise relations with Israel, a move which clashes with Khartoum’s Arab League promise since 1967: “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it”.  Washington has also pressed Sudan to adopt a pro-Egypt position on the issue of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a project which Egypt sees as a major resource security threat. 

What does Sudan gain from delisting? The possibility of lifting 45 million citizens out of poverty and securing relief for $60bn in debt are potential motives. President Trump’s decision means Sudan may be able to more easily access international financial support and debt relief for a crippled economy suffering from severe inflation and interest rate hikes. 

 Removal of the SST status, however, will not be a silver bullet for attracting international finance and necessary debt relief. Since being delisted, the Sudanese transitional government has requested a Staff-Monitored Program (SMP) from the IMF which would help Sudan address macro imbalances and establish a credible track record that may aid Sudan in its efforts to secure an HIPC (Highly Indebted Poor Country) debt relief package. It is important to note that the SST designation did not prohibit countries other than the U.S. from providing debt relief to Sudan.  Sudan’s economic system is mired with lack of transparency and corruption, causing international banks to struggle to conduct due diligence on clients and operate effectively in the region.  While the IMF and World Bank may now play more of a role in debt relief for Sudan, the country will need ambitious reform of the banking sector in order to bring about long-term economic stability. 

The decision to only now delist Sudan reveals a lot about how the U.S. prioritises securitisation of terrorist threats over provision of assistance to vulnerable populations.  By keeping Sudan on the list, the U.S. effectively withheld development assistance and tactfully preserved American negotiating leverage for an advantageous domestic political moment. With debt relief on the line, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok fiercely lobbied the U.S. government to drop Sudan from the list.  For the past year, the Trump administration dangled the possibility of SST delisting while Hamdok advertised to Washington notable Sudanese reforms: banning female genital cutting, trying Mr. al-Bashir, and signing peace agreement with rebel groups. The Trump administration sought to shape its national security vision in the Horn of Africa and in Israel, irrespective of mounting Sudanese economic distress and pandemic-related poverty.

With less than two weeks before the presidential election, the Trump administration cashed in its bargaining chip and scored a diplomatic victory by facilitating normalisation of Israeli-Sudanese relations.  American voters and international observers may rightly question whether this foreign policy win will do much to boost President Trump in the polls.  Removing domestic electoral politics from the equation, one may moreover wonder whether the use of a carrot, like SST delisting, as a diplomatic tool of reward and pubishment is ultimately effective in curbing terrorism by setting an example to other SST countries (those remaining are North Korea, Iran, and Syria).  If American priorities are to establish stability in the Horn of Africa, as the Trump administration national security doctrine emphasises, then surely relief to Sudan through earlier delisting may have taken priority over superbly-timed diplomatic glory.  


Sudan’s recent delisting after 27 years, is just one of the many examples of how African governments have been required to abide by the interests and timing of the global donor community, over the needs of local economies.  American and non-American families and victims seek justice for the horrific 1998 bombings from a Sudan that is not the same Sudan as it was in 1993 and 1998.  While the population may face many of the same grievances, Omar al-Bashir has been overthrown after wide-scale protests, and a transitional government is in place.  South Sudan only became independent in 2011. The U.S. has economically isolated Sudan’s population by withholding potential debt relief until now despite major governance transformations, shifts in territorial boundaries, and citizen demands. Such developments, which have occurred over nearly three decades, raise the question of whether the SST list is an effective or ethical diplomatic tool for long-term justice. There are strong reasons for leveraging SST designations to bring about a safer world.  Yet, the Sudanese case generates a ripe moment for nuanced discussion about the effects of keeping aid-dependent countries under blanket terrorist designations, in unprecedented pandemic times.

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