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What Are Sudan's Prospects for Removal From US Terrorism List?

Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok flashes the victory gesture during a press conference unveiling the first cabinet since veteran leader Omar al-Bashir's overthrow, in Khartoum, Sept. 5, 2019.

Three months after being sworn into office, the civilian-led transitional government in Sudan has been trying to overcome political and economic challenges in the African country after decades under the former regime of Omar al-Bashir, who was toppled in April this year after months of popular protests against his government.

One major objective for the new government of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has been the removal of Sudan from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, right,meets with Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in Washington, Dec. 3, 2019.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, right,meets with Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in Washington, Dec. 3, 2019.

During his recent visit to Washington, where he met with senior U.S. officials, Hamdok emphasized that removing his country from the list of the states sponsoring terrorism was essential for the success of the new government in carrying out necessary reforms.

"This issue has a lot of bearing on so many processes, not to mention debt and investment but also opening the country at large," Hamdok said last week during remarks at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

"This is something, unless it is addressed, all these other processes will not take place," he added, linking the removal of Sudan from the U.S. terrorism list to top priorities his government has taken on for the transitional period.

Sponsoring terrorism

Sudan was added to the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism in 1993 over charges by Washington that Bashir's Islamist government was supporting terrorism. The country was also targeted by U.S. sanctions over Khartoum's alleged support for terror groups, including al-Qaida, Hamas and Hezbollah.

"When Bashir took over the country [in 1989], and then the fundamentalists and Islamists gained more and more power, Sudan was harboring some very bad people, including Osama bin Laden," said former U.S. Ambassador Mary Carlin Yates, co-chair of the Sudan Task Force at the Atlantic Council, who was the U.S. chargé d'affaires to Sudan from 2011 to 2012.

"The more power the Islamists had within the government then, the more of whom we would call the bad actors [and] terrorists came to spend time in Sudan," she told VOA.

But Sudanese officials maintain that it was the former regime that supported terrorism and that the Sudanese people shouldn't be punished for crimes committed by Bashir's regime.

Normalized relations

Since the overthrow of Bashir, U.S. officials have expressed support for the new Sudanese government.

Earlier this month, U.S. and Sudan announced the warming of their diplomatic relations through an exchange of ambassadors for the first time in 23 years.

This move, experts say, could be a gesture of goodwill as both sides are trying to open a new page in their relations.

"Having ambassadors in both countries will certainly make efforts to delist Sudan from the terrorism list more effective," said al-Noor Mohammed, a Sudanese researcher based in Khartoum.

"It gives our government a great deal of legitimacy as it seeks to turn this opening into meaningful outcomes, such as the removal of Sudan from the U.S. [terrorism] list," he told VOA in a phone interview.

Essential for Sudan's economy

Experts believe lifting economic sanctions imposed on Sudan and removing the country from the terrorism list will significantly help alleviate economic hardships that Sudan has faced for many years.

"The new government has inherited a country with an enormous debt of about $60 billion," said Yousif al-Jalal, a Khartoum-based political analyst.

He told VOA that "removing the country from that list will allow Hamdok's government to reach out to international monetary lenders to address the debt issue."

The designation of Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism bars the country from debt relief and financing from international financial lenders such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Some groups such as the Sentry, an organization that monitors conflicts in Africa, have called on the U.S. government to accelerate the process of taking Sudan off the terrorism list.

Removing Sudan from the list "will help unlock essential financial support and bolster Sudan's economic prospects," the Sentry said in a statement Thursday.

"If it occurs in conjunction with meaningful economic, governance and human rights reforms, the prospects for economic recovery and democratic transformation in the country will grow exponentially," it added.

U.S. conditions

U.S. officials say that one of the important steps in removing Sudan from the list is reaching a settlement with families of those killed in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal last week, Sudan's Hamdok said in addition to settling with the victims' families, his government was also pursuing a deal with those injured in the 2000 bombing of the guided-missile destroyer USS Cole.

FILE - In this Oct. 15, 2000 file photo, experts in a speed boat examine the damaged hull of the USS Cole at the Yemeni port of Aden after an al-Qaida attack that killed 17 sailors.
FILE - In this Oct. 15, 2000 file photo, experts in a speed boat examine the damaged hull of the USS Cole at the Yemeni port of Aden after an al-Qaida attack that killed 17 sailors.

Sudan is accused of providing material support to al-Qaida, which was responsible for all those attacks.

U.S. officials have also expressed concerns about the presence of some military personnel in the newly established authority in Sudan who had ties with the former regime.

"Sudan needs to give assurances to Washington that these military people won't have the power to take over the government at some point," analyst al-Jalal said.

The U.S. also raised questions during Hamdok's recent visit to Washington about Sudan's intelligence agency and whether it has fully been transferred to a civilian leadership.

The delisting process

Removing Sudan from the U.S. State Department list requires approval from Congress after a six-month review.

"There is an interagency discussion that happens," Yates said, adding that the State Department, Defense Department and the intelligence community discuss the outcome and "then they refer the decision to the president."

She noted that Congress has to be notified after the process is over.

"But after a 45-day period, if the Congress does nothing, then [Sudan would be] delisted," Yates said.