Sudan is eager to forge closer ties with American and European intelligence agencies, possibly acting as a hub for Western-led counterterrorism operations against the Islamic State and other indigenous Islamic extremist groups, in a bid to ease U.S. economic sanctions that have been in place for decades.
Sudanese Ambassador Maowia Osman Khalid said in an interview that his country has already passed on vital information to U.S. and allied intelligence agencies on activities of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, in Libya, Egypt, Somalia and elsewhere in North and East Africa.
“Sudan has a long history of supporting countries in the region and outside the region” with military, intelligence and other operations, Mr. Khalid said in an interview at the Sudanese Embassy in Washington.
With leadership roles in agencies from eastern and central Africa, Sudanese intelligence officials have coordinated counterterrorism operations across the continent with French, Italian and American counterparts, Mr. Khalid said.
Sudan is positioned to become a critical regional player in efforts to curb the Islamic State, which is looking to expand from its bases in Libya and Somalia while continuing to ally itself with local extremist groups such as Nigerian-based Boko Haram.
Sudan is “a close partner with the United States in counterterrorism [operations] around the globe,” Mr. Khalid said.
“Our role is not limited; rather, it could be expanded in different capacities and missions,” he said, noting that Khartoum could increase support on the ground in conjunction with U.S. forces.
The Agence France-Presse news agency reported this year that the head of Sudan’s powerful intelligence agency insisted that the government would not allow the country to be used as a transit to the Islamic State’s growing base in Libya.
“Sudan will not be a crossing for extremists,” Mohamed Atta al-Mawla Abbas, director of the National Intelligence and Security Services, reportedly told recently inducted members of the counterinsurgency Rapid Support Forces, according to Agence France-Presse. “We will not tolerate any organized or cross-border crime [on] Sudanese territory.”
Mr. Khalid declined to comment on whether Sudanese President Omar Bashir’s regime would open its borders to U.S. military or intelligence officials for an anti-terrorist hub.
“I think the communication between our two [intelligence] agencies has been opened for different areas of cooperation,” he said.
Closer coordination on U.S.-led intelligence and counterterrorism efforts with Sudan, which Washington labels a state sponsor of terrorism along with Iran and Syria, may be a bridge too far for the Obama administration.
But as the Islamic State and other extremist groups in Africa continue to metastasize, Khartoum is betting that the country’s strategic benefits in the region will be enough to sway the White House to rebrand Sudan from a state sponsor of terrorism to a key counterterrorism ally.
Khartoum’s long history of ties to Islamic extremist groups including al Qaeda and Hamas — Sudan at one time provided safe haven to Osama bin Laden as well as senior members of the Iranian-backed Palestinian militant group — has cast a shadow over the country’s efforts to rejoin the international community.
Khartoum also is battling International Criminal Court charges of war crimes and genocide tied to the country’s brutal campaign to suppress rebel groups in the country’s western region of Darfur.
Despite the government’s efforts, Sudanese citizens have been prominent in the ranks of leading terrorist groups. The Pentagon last month said an American airstrike killed Abu Sa’ad al-Sudani, a Sudanese national and key Islamic State recruiter in Syria who U.S. officials say was plotting attacks in the U.S., Canada and Britain.
The Clinton administration put Sudan on the state terrorism list in 1993. The sanctions, preventing any U.S. international investment in Sudan, have badly hurt the economy and infrastructure, resulting in widespread shortages of food, medical supplies and other basic necessities.
Sudan’s appeals to Congress and the Obama administration to lift the sanctions have been colored by the Darfur conflict and a bloody civil war that ended with South Sudan’s independence in 2011.
But the U.S. need for allies in the burgeoning war with terrorist groups in the region could persuade the Obama administration to lift sanctions against Sudan.
American diplomats have publicly credited Sudan with curbing fundraising and recruiting efforts by Hamas and al Qaeda-affiliated groups within its borders.
Benjamin Moeling, the charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum, told the Sudan News Agency in a lengthy interview last month that the two countries are still feeling their way to “a path toward reconciliation and normalization.”
“The United States wants to have a relationship with Sudan,” he said. “We want to see Sudan be peaceful, stable, prosperous, integrated into the international community, and participating in solutions to regional and international conflicts and difficulties. I don’t think we have any disagreement about the results we want to get to, and it’s up to the diplomats to decide the best way to get there.”
Critical to closer bilateral relations, Mr. Moeling said, are resolutions of Sudan’s internal conflicts in Darfur and in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan region along the volatile border with South Sudan.
U.S. sanctions, Mr. Moeling said, are symptoms of the underlying internal problem.
“What we need to do is to work on U.S. and Sudan relations, and part of working on U.S.-Sudan relations is seeing Sudan achieve a resolution of its internal conflicts,” he told the news agency.
Khartoum has ended bombings and airstrikes against pockets of South Sudanese rebels in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan regions along the country’s southern border, according to the State Department. Sudanese officials have also provided “sustained humanitarian access” to civilians caught in the crossfire in both regions while pushing to restart peace talks with Juba.
Most recently, Khartoum provided information to Washington and other allies about the passage of members of the Sudanese Liberation Army into Libya. The SLA was the main opposition force in South Sudan that battled government troops before 2011.
SLA fighters have been concentrating their efforts in the oil fields of the southern Libyan city of Kufra. They reportedly have coordinated operations with fighters from Ansar al-Shariah, al Qaeda’s Libya cell, Sudanese Embassy officials said.
Khartoum also is distancing itself from Iran and seeking stronger ties with Saudi Arabia in an attempt to shed its image as a Hamas sympathizer. However, the Bashir regime continues “to allow members of Hamas to travel, fundraise, and live in Sudan,” according to the State Department.
Mr. Khalid said his government’s efforts to curb extremist groups within Sudan since 2001 present proof that Sudan is prepared to work with Washington and normalize relations.
“I think we have done a lot, [and] there is a clear testimony that Sudan should not be classified as a state sponsor of terrorism,” Mr. Khalid said. “Rather, [Sudan] is a real, reliable partner in counterterrorism.”
• Carlo Muñoz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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