How Two U.S. Presidents Reshaped America’s Policy Toward Sudan
As thousands protest the Bashir regime, Washington has helped legitimize it.
The Sudanese government held a reception earlier this year at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the country’s independence day. Bantering with guests was the top Sudanese diplomat to the United States, Mohamed Atta, a former chief of the country’s intelligence service who is accused of crimes against humanity.
Outside the hotel, around 100 protesters waved Sudanese flags and demonstrated against Atta and the country’s leader, Omar al-Bashir. For months, a wave of dramatic protests have flooded Sudan, challenging Bashir’s rule and prompting harsh crackdowns in which at least 60 people were killed and hundreds arrested, according to rights groups. “Stop shooting peaceful protesters in Sudan,” one sign read. From their perch outside the Willard Hotel the protesters could glimpse the White House grounds, where U.S. officials have engineered a dramatic shift in policy toward Sudan, starting with former President Barack Obama’s administration and continuing under President Donald Trump.
For decades, the United States led the effort to isolate Sudan, making it an international pariah comparable to North Korea and Iran. Washington considered Bashir’s regime a perpetrator of terrorism and genocide in Darfur and said he should be tried for war crimes. At one point, U.S. officials discussed a coup plot with Sudanese officials who wanted to oust Bashir. Successive administrations imposed devastating sanctions on the Sudanese regime.
But inside the Willard Hotel that January night, the top State Department official in Washington on Sudan, Brian Shukan, and a handful of other U.S. diplomats joined in the celebration, networking with Atta and the guests. The following month, the senior Africa advisor at the White House, Cyril Sartor, traveled to Khartoum to discuss the next phase of rapprochement, including removing Sudan from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism in exchange for progress on human rights and other issues.
As part of the warming relationship, Sudanese intelligence and security officials have participated in U.S. government conferences. Intelligence cooperation is close, and some U.S. sanctions have been lifted as part of a first phase of diplomatic re-engagement. Top Trump administration officials have remained mostly quiet about Bashir’s crackdown on protests, outside of sporadic statements of concern from the State Department. As the demonstrations raged in February, the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum posted photos on Facebook of meetings between its diplomats and representatives of a U.S. oil company, touting business opportunities in Sudan.
Now, the demonstrators in Sudan—emboldened by protests in Algeria that pushed longtime president Abdelaziz Bouteflika to step down last week—have evolved into the largest challenge yet to Bashir’s 30-year rule. Thousands of people marched to the military’s headquarters over the weekend, calling on the army to oust the president, and elements of the military appear to be splitting off and siding with protesters.
Members of Sudan’s national intelligence service and allied militias used live ammunition against the protesters in the early hours of Monday morning, according to Sara Abdelgalil, a spokeswoman for the Sudanese Professionals Association, a group that has been organizing the protests. At least seven people have died, she said.
Analysts and U.S. officials believe that Bashir, still facing charges of genocide and war crimes from the International Criminal Court, is grasping for an exit strategy and might order the army to use lethal force to break up the protests. “If that happens, the army may decide they have to get rid of Bashir rather than the protesters,” said Abdelwahab El-Affendi, a former Sudanese diplomat who now serves as the dean of the School of Social Sciences and Humanities at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies.
Washington’s relationship with Khartoum, since as far back as the 1990s, has been defined by both secrecy and contradiction. In 1993, the United States accused Khartoum of being a state sponsor of terrorism and imposed sanctions. Yet even when Washington sought to isolate Khartoum, the CIA quietly maintained its own ties with the regime, benefiting from intelligence cooperation in the growing fight against terrorist groups in East Africa. During the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya, Sudan provided intelligence to the alliance and became a conduit for weapons transfers to the opposition, according to a report corroborated by two former U.S. officials. Sudan also claimed that it had valuable information about senior leaders of the Somalia-based al-Shabab terrorist group, some of whom were educated at the University of Khartoum.
Some U.S. defense officials viewed Khartoum’s information with suspicion. “I did not see any value in Sudanese intelligence at all,” said retired Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc, a former deputy director and head of special operations at U.S. Africa Command. “As a matter of fact, I would be very suspicious and cautious to use Sudanese intelligence in the event they were setting us up for something.”
But when Sudan cut off intelligence ties with the United States in 2015 (for reasons that remain unclear), Obama administration officials, led by CIA chief John Brennan, pushed for a rapprochement. After some deliberation, a plan emerged to drop U.S. sanctions against Sudan and remove the terrorism designation in exchange for Sudan improving cooperation on counterterrorism, access to humanitarian aid, and other priorities. Obama embraced the plan, and Trump followed suit after he took office. It stood out as one of the few major Obama foreign-policy initiatives that Trump did not dismantle.
Like other issues under Trump, the Sudan policy has been hobbled by a chaotic decision-making process and vacancies in key senior roles across government, according to three U.S. officials who focus on Africa and spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson planned to eliminate the State Department’s Sudan and South Sudan special envoy position as part of his ill-fated drive to reform the department. The senior U.S. Agency for International Development post on Africa has sat empty for years. All the while, U.S. officials have struggled to get Sudan on the foreign-policy agenda of a president who in 2018 infamously derided African nations as “shithole countries.” These officials say engagement with Bashir continues more through bureaucratic inertia than a proactive strategy.
“What’s happening in Sudan is a sea change, and there’s nobody minding the store,” said one former senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The policy process is broken.”
A senior State Department official said it was important to continue talks with Khartoum, and Bashir’s response to the protests has been relatively restrained thanks in part to U.S. engagement. “Authoritarian governments often will come out swinging much harder than the Sudanese have,” the official said. “We have protested whenever there was overreactions. We have protested to arbitrary arrests.”
The official said the process of removing Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism is moving forward, but slowly. “It’s something between six months and 10 years,” the official said when asked for clarification on timing.
Muawiya Shaddad, a member of Sudan’s Civil Society Alliances Forces who was detained in February for protesting, urged the United States to take a stronger position supporting the protests. “Please step out. Step out to support this revolution,” he said in a phone interview with FP.
U.S. lawmakers, who have a say in the decision to lift Sudan’s role as a state sponsor of terror, are also pressuring the Trump administration to take a stronger stance on human rights in the country.
“We continue to press the government to listen to the Sudanese people rather than jail and suppress them,” a State Department official said in response to a request for comment. “We hope that the voices of the Sudanese people will be heard and drive a process for meaningful change and reform.”
The official stressed repairing formal U.S.-Sudan relations hinges on progress in human rights, religious freedom, and other issues.
In an interview last November, Sudanese Foreign Minister Al-Dirdiri Mohamed Ahmed told FP that the state sponsor of terrorism label was an unfair “stigma” that made it difficult to secure sorely needed international debt relief to buoy the country’s anemic economy. With the current designation, “the U.S. will automatically object at the International Monetary Fund to Sudan from benefiting for this package,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed also claimed that genocide accusations against Sudan had been “disproven” and that “Darfur’s chapter has already been closed.” In fact, as many as 300,000 people died in the conflict in Darfur, and women have described being forced into sex slavery by government security forces.
Atta, the former intelligence chief, has come under fire for his role in human rights violations in Sudan. In December, two top Democratic senators sent a letter to the Trump administration calling for his expulsion from the United States.
“The fact that they sent their former intelligence head here says so much about how they view our relationship,” one U.S. official told FP. Despite the criticism from lawmakers, Atta remains the top Sudanese diplomat to the United States.
In Khartoum, meanwhile, Bashir’s rule seems to be teetering. In February, he declared a state of emergency and removed his cabinet to hedge growing rifts inside Sudan’s government. “It was the infighting within the regime, and particularly the rivalry between the intelligence service and the army,” said Alex de Waal, the executive director of the World Peace Foundation and a professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School.
Sudan’s intelligence chief, Salah Gosh, is widely seen as an architect of the genocide in Darfur and now the crackdown against protesters. Gosh was installed with support from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. His rivals include the military’s top generals, some of whom blame Bashir for Sudan’s international pariah status, according to current and former U.S. officials. Bashir has reshuffled the army’s leadership repeatedly over the past year. A Sudanese intelligence document obtained by FP details surveillance orders against military figures.
The rivalry might offer a glimpse of things to come in a new era.
“When you have an intricate patronage-based system, removing the president is like decapitating the head in a drug cartel, said de Waal, the Tufts professor. “You will get an outbreak of rivalry among the oligarchs, which could become a civil war.
“The issue in Sudan is not authoritarianism versus democracy. It’s, do you have a well-organized autocracy, a coalition of security chiefs, or anarchy? The worst is the free-for-all,” he said.
Some officials and experts worry that Sudan might suffer the same chaos and violence that plagued Libya after the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011.
“The fear of another Libya certainly looms over this problem set,” said Judd Devermont, a former senior CIA analyst now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The trick is, how do you remove Bashir without dismantling the state?”
Justin Lynch is a journalist covering Eastern Europe, Africa, and cybersecurity. Twitter: @just1nlynch