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The Obama Administration, terrorism, and hypocrisy

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Khartoum is again designated by the U.S. State Department as a "State Sponsor of Terrorism (April 2014); the regime targets a critical hospital in the Nuba for aerial attack—terror in another form

By Eric Reeves

May 5, 2014 - The stench of hypocrisy continues to settle more deeply over the Obama administration in its relationship with the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime in Khartoum, and two events from the past week only make more obvious the failure of the administration’s Sudan policy. First, the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) attempted to kill Dr. Tom Catena, an American citizen, in the Mother of Mercy Hospital, the Catholic Diocese of el-Obeid. Dr. Catena is sure that he was specifically targeted in the May 1, 2014 attack by virtue of a number of compelling facts:

[1] He is the only surgeon performing life-saving operations on civilians wounded in Khartoum’s relentless aerial assault on the people of the Nuba Mountains; the hospital treats some 150,000 civilians per year; the unmistakable intent on the part of the regime is to block all humanitarian assistance to the people of the Nuba, even if it means attacking a civilian hospital marked with a red cross and far from any active fighting;

[2] Dr. Catena observed an observation drone over the hospital in the days before the attack;

[3] The bombing was carried out by a Sukhoi-24 air-to-ground attack aircraft; it is a sophisticated weapon from the arsenal of the former Soviet Union and has a good deal of advanced targeting equipment; and indeed one bomb caused major damage to the facility;

[4] The following day (May 2, 2014) an Antonov aircraft again attacked Dr. Catena and the Comboni hospital; many patients, even seriously injured ones, have fled to the hills, as have many staff, thus diminishing the capacity of the hospital significantly; one person was seriously injured.

(All information here comes by way of an email received from Tom Catena, May 2, 2014; see also, however, today’s highly detailed account of the attack by Nuba Reports: http://nubareports.org/sudan-targets-only-hospital-in-nuba-mountains/)

In short, an American citizen, working to save the lives of wounded Nuba civilians, was targeted by the Khartoum regime for murder. This is an act of terrorism, if we have even the slightest imagination for what the word might mean for most of the world. And it is continuous with bombing campaigns against civilians over the past 25 years by the current regime (see "They Bombed Everything that Moved": Aerial military attacks on civilians and humanitarians in Sudan, 1999 – 2013, www.sudanbombing.org). The U.S., the EU, the UN, and the African Union have all failed abjectly in deterring Khartoum from continuing such bombing attacks, all of which are war crimes under international law (see especially the Rome Statute, Part 2 Article 8, [b] (5)); in aggregate, these attacks constitute crimes against humanity (Rome Statute, Part 2, Article 7 [a] [d] [g] [h] and [k]);). In both the Nuba and in Blue Nile this aerial terrorism has forced over a million people from their homes, and created a refugee population in South Sudan and Ethiopia that approaches 300,000. Well over a million people have lived with the prospect of starvation for almost three years, as the bombing campaign has made farming too dangerous. People live in caves and gullies, struggling to keep their families alive with a minimum of food and almost no primary medical care.

This is what makes the attack on Dr. Catena so heinous: he is alone in providing surgical treatment for victims of these largely indiscriminate bombings (when there is evidence of more precise targeting, it is generally for a civilian gathering, village, or farming locale that has been targeted). He is alone as a surgeon, working heroically at the Comboni hospital in Gidel since before the conflict began in June 2011. He is a modest and extraordinarily kind man (see my interview with Dr. Catena, March 9, 2013). There is absolutely no reason for the attempt on his life by military aircraft other than to deny civilians of the Nuba what is frequently life-saving medical care. Nor of course is there justification for terrorism of the more familiar kind; however, U.S. pursuit of such terrorism often has a mindless singularity, a pursuit that obliges ignoring attacks like that on Dr. Catena—and those attacks by SAF military aircraft that have affected millions of civilians in greater Sudan over the past quarter century.

But the second event of the past week, viewed historically, is just as disturbing as the attack on Dr. Catena, even when the issue is terrorism itself—against which the past two U.S. administration’s have declared themselves to be at war. For in the most recent report from the U.S. State Department (April 30, 2014, representing findings for 2013) Sudan is one of only four countries designated as a "State Sponsor of Terrorism" (the others are Syria, Iran, and—dubiously—Cuba). The report, with its expedient praise of the regime, seems designed to encourage Khartoum to get out of the terrorism business entirely, but such was not the case in 2013. The report notes:

• Elements of al-Qa’ida-inspired terrorist groups remained in Sudan. The Government of Sudan has taken steps to limit the activities of these elements, and has worked to disrupt foreign fighters’ use of Sudan as a logistics base and transit point for terrorists going to Mali, Syria, and Afghanistan.

• However, groups continued to operate in Sudan in 2013 and there continued to be reports of Sudanese nationals participating in terrorist organizations. For example, regional media outlets alleged one Sudanese national was part of an al-Shabaab terrorist cell that attacked the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in September. There was also evidence that Sudanese violent extremists participated in terrorist activities in Somalia and Mali.

• In 2013, Sudan continued to allow members of Hamas to travel, fundraise, and live in Sudan.

• The UN and NGOs reported in 2013 that the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is likely operating in the disputed Kafia Kingi area, claimed by Sudan and South Sudan, in close proximity to Sudanese Armed Forces. At year’s end, the United States continued to engage the Government of Sudan, the AU, and the UN to evaluate these reports. (the full State Department Sudan report appears as Appendix B)

The report begins by noting that Sudan has been on the State Department list since 1993, when Osama bin Laden found safe haven in Sudan and was in fact eagerly embraced by what was then known only as the National Islamic Front. Bin Laden was in Sudan from 1992 – 1996, the years during which al-Qaeda came to fruition; and there are a great many reports confirming Khartoum’s continued support for bin Laden even after he and al-Qaeda had moved on to Afghanistan.

But the history of the "State Sponsor of Terrorism" designation reveals a peculiarly torturous relationship between Khartoum and Washington, one that has reached new lows in expediency during the Obama administration. This has led most conspicuously to the "de-coupling" of Darfur from the whole issue of Khartoum’s sponsorship of terrorism, as explained by a "senior Obama administration official" (the official is not named in the State Department transcript of a November 9, 2010 background briefing):

"… the U.S. [is] prepared to accelerate the removal of Sudan from the state sponsor of terrorism list if the Government of Sudan did two things. One is to fully implement the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, and two, to live up to all of the legal conditions required under law for Sudan to be taken off the state sponsors list. By doing this, we would also be de-coupling the state sponsor of terrorism from Darfur and from the Darfur issue." (emphasis added)

This is the face of the grossest expediency and does far too much to explain why, more than three years later, Darfur’s agony continues, indeed has reached unprecedented extremes. Humanitarian access has never been so severely constrained; conditions in the camps for displaced persons, especially human security, have never been so bad; violence is accelerating rapidly as Khartoum has again deployed the Janjaweed, the time in the guise of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The RSF comprises Arab fighters from not only Darfur but Chad, Niger, Mali, and other countries in the region. It has been extremely aggressive in the destruction of civilian villages, attacks on displaced persons camps, and has worked in concert with the SAF in doing Khartoum’s bidding.

These militia forces have also been deployed to the Nuba Mountains in Khartoum’s effort to crush rebellion in the region. War crimes and crimes against humanity have defined this counter-insurgency effort from the beginning (June 5, 2011), and yet the Obama administration—even in the face of overwhelming contemporaneous evidence of these crimes—expressed a wholly unwarranted skepticism (see "Mass Graves Identified in Kadugli (South Kordofan): The End of Agnosticism," Dissent Magazine, July 14, 2011).

The Obama administration—by "de-coupling" Darfur, by failing to condemn in meaningful terms Khartoum’s aerial attacks on civilians and humanitarians, and by failing to speak out decisively about the character of the assault on the Nuba in South Kordofan, and subsequently the people of Blue Nile—clearly has an agenda that subordinates atrocity crimes to other issues. And as I have argued, and argue again here, it is a willingness to make counter-terrorism intelligence the defining feature of the U.S. relationship to Khartoum, thereby setting key policy parameters. This is evident not only in the abandonment of Darfur, and the unacknowledged genocidal character of the assault on the Nuba, but in the expedient response to the looming Abyei crisis of late 2010. A brief history may serve as a reminder of how badly the administration has performed at the critical moment in the life of a nascent South Sudan.

In the fall of 2010, senior Obama administration officials, including then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and current Secretary of State John Kerry, pushed hard for Juba to "compromise" further on the historically important region of Abyei whose indigenous population if overwhelming Dinka Ngok—especially in the Abyei defined by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (July 2009). Juba’s accepting this unfavorable finding—supposedly "final and binding"—was a mark of just how great a compromise it had already made, given the compromises already embodied in the Abyei Protocol of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (2005). As Khartoum conspicuously made military preparations for the military seizure of Abyei in early 2011—including deployments captured in great detail by satellite imagery from the Satellite Sentinel Project as well as brutal attacks by the Sudan Armed Forces and its (Arab) Misseriya militia allies—the Obama administration did nothing to warn Khartoum off this extremely provocative action. All who cared to look at the evidence knew the regime’s military seizure was imminent; and even though it would not occur until the end of May 2011, the Obama administration said nothing of consequences during this critical period—and then attempted to blame the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) for the precipitating event (what all evidence suggests was an accidental firefight during a tense encounter between SPLA and SAF elements of a supposedly "Joint Integrated Unit").

After the military seizure—an egregious violation, indeed abrogation of the CPA—the Obama administration said nothing of consequence, indicated no penalties or consequences for military actions that were completely unjustified—historically without warrant and in violation of a peace agreement the U.S. had played a key role in securing during the Bush administration.

When two weeks later, facing no meaningful condemnation, Khartoum launched its military actions in South Kordofan, the Obama administration again did not react. Even the many reports of the mass ethnic targeting of people of Nuba ethnicity in Kadugli, capital of South Kordofan, produced only tepid expressions of skeptical concern from Princeton Lyman, by this time the new Obama administration special envoy for Sudan (see a retrospective of my publications from this period, chronicling the perverse and wholly unjustified skepticism on the part of the Obama administration: "Genocide in the Nuba Mountains: A retrospective on what we knew, June 2011 – 2013," http://wp.me/p45rOG-18y).

Why this contemptible reticence? Why this wholly untenable skepticism, skepticism that was incinerated by a report produced by a UN human rights team on the ground for the month of June 2011, and which corroborates in ghastly detail the very atrocity crimes that Lyman refused to credit?

To answer this question we have to look at earlier comments by previous special envoy Scott Gration, which offer a window into how expedient the Obama administration was prepared to be in its dealings with Khartoum—and in particular, securing continued "cooperation" in the provision of counter-terrorism intelligence. During Senate testimony of July 2009, Gration declared:

"There’s no evidence in our intelligence community that supports [Sudan] being on the state sponsors of terrorism. It’s a political decision," Gration said. (National Public Radio) (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=111422940)

But of course there was ample evidence, and not all of it cited in the continuous reports by the annual State Department reports on "State Sponsors of Terrorism," which had listed Sudan every year since 1993 (see overview of Sudan’s role in supporting al-Qaeda following September 11, 2001—Appendix A). What was political was not the decision to keep Khartoum on the list but the suggestion that it did not belong there, and remained only because of "political" considerations. This evidently meant to assign blame to the advocacy community in the U.S., which clearly knew more about the men in Khartoum than Gration, who infamously spoke of encouraging these ruthless, serial génocidaires as being susceptible of influence with "smiley faces" and "gold stars." His tenure as special envoy was marked by no greater diplomatic sophistication.

It is conceivable, but unlikely, that Gration did not know of the reports on Khartoum’s involvement in supporting terrorism that had been revealed in a series of "wiki-leaked" documents earlier that year, as well as the State Department assessments from preceding years. In the latter document, to which Gration certainly had access by the time of his testimony, we find that:

…al-Qa’ida-inspired terrorist elements as well as elements of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and HAMAS, remained in Sudan in 2009 (http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/crt/2009/index.htm).

Moreover, U.S. intelligence knew that in March 2009 Sudan had played a role in supplying Iranian arms for Hamas in Gaza. The Guardian (UK) reported in late 2010 on "wiki-leaked" State Department cables from both January and March 2009, well before Gration’s testimony:

State Department cables released by WikiLeaks show that Sudan was warned by the U.S. in January 2009 not to allow the delivery of unspecified Iranian arms that were expected to be passed to Hamas in the Gaza Strip around the time of Israel’s Cast Lead offensive, in which 1,400 Palestinians were killed. (December 6, 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/dec/06/wikileaks-sudan-iranian-arms-gaza/)

US diplomats were instructed to express "exceptional concern" to Khartoum officials, but those warnings evidently went unheeded. The Guardian goes on to report:

In March 2009, Jordan and Egypt were informed by the U.S. of new Iranian plans to ship a cargo of "lethal military equipment" to Syria with onward transfer to Sudan and then to Hamas.

The cables don’t specify what the disposition of this "lethal military equipment" was. But Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Canada, the European Union, Japan—and the U.S., a fact confirmed in the most recent State Department report on "State Sponsors of Terrorism." Again, Khartoum’s role in the supply operation to Hamas in March 2009 is explicitly identified by U.S. intelligence.

Why the egregious lying by Gration? Why no aggressive follow-up questions from Senators? And why no connection of the issue of terrorism to the continuing atrocity crimes in Darfur? Clearly a deal had been made, and Gration’s script called for him to directly contradict the evidence in hand. It was our clearest sign to date that Sudan policy was not really in the hands of diplomats or the State Department, but rather the security agencies of the U.S. government. And it explains the preposterous claim by special envoy Princeton Lyman in December 2011, after Khartoum’s military seizure of the Abyei and subsequent military assaults on South Kordofan and Blue Nile:

"Frankly, we do not want to see the ouster of the [Sudanese] regime, nor regime change. We want to see the regime carrying out reform via constitutional democratic measures." (Princeton Lyman’s response to a question by the respected Arabic news outlet Asharq Al-Awsat concerning Sudan and the "Arab Spring," December 3, 2011)

This truly absurd assessment, flying in the face of all evidence, would have us believe that the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime, which came to power by military coup 25 years ago, and whose president is under indictment for genocide by the International Criminal Court, can "carry out reform via constitutional democratic measures." This cynical mendacity will likely cost tens of thousands of lives—perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives—in South Kordofan, Blue Nile, Darfur, and other regions of Sudan. And as a sign of just how opposed to democratic reform the Khartoum regime remains, several hundred civilian political demonstrators were killed in a brief uprising during fall 2013 in Khartoum and other major towns—murdered by police and security forces operating under "shoot to kill" orders (Amnesty International, September 26, 2013).

Obama, in accepting Lyman’s assessment, has given unmistakable evidence of prioritizing counter-terrorism "cooperation" with the present regime over concern about ongoing atrocity crimes committed by that same regime on an ongoing basis (many highly informed observers who are not part of the Obama administration have grave reservations about the quality what this "cooperation" yields). This, in turn, directly contradicts an Obama campaign statement on this very issue; for in April 2008 candidate Obama expressed "deep concern" that the Bush administration was making an unseemly deal with the Khartoum regime as a means to bolster the fledgling but already failing UN/African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID):

"This reckless and cynical initiative [by President George W. Bush] would reward a regime in Khartoum that has a record of failing to live up to its commitments. First, no country should be removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism for any reason other than the existence of verifiable proof that the government in question does not support terrorist organizations." (http://www.barackobama.com/2008/04/18/statement_of_senator_barack_ob_10.php; NB: this link to candidate Obama’s statement has gone "dead," and merely leads to the present Obama administration self-promotion site)

Sudan policy was guided first and foremost by the concerns of the intelligence community, including the CIA. Men such as John Brennan (current head of the CIA, but formerly the Agency deputy responsible for counter-terrorism) and Denis McDonough (former Deputy National Security Advisor who wielded immense foreign policy influence with Obama and is now White House Chief of Staff) were making the key decisions, not Hillary Clinton. That the decision to extend counter-terrorism cooperation with Khartoum meant ignoring U.S. law was evidently yet another price willing to be paid:

A senior U.S. official told The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the matter. "We have told the Sudanese that what we intend to do is to waive the application of the [Congressionally mandated] Darfur Peace and Accountability Act] in this regard should they fulfill all requirements of the [Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005]," he added. (Washington Times, February 11, 2011; http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2011/feb/8/sudans-terror-list-removal-untied-from-darfur)

In fact, the Obama administration continued the botched implementation of the CPA that had begun when the Bush administration—having achieved a major diplomatic victory in Africa—walked away from the difficult challenges of implementing the CPA. One reason we are now witnessing the spectacle of ethnic slaughter and the prospect of massive famine in South Sudan is that those who secured the peace—particularly the U.S. and the UK—did not do enough to anticipate the obstacles to implementation, or the obduracy of Khartoum, or the desperate need for governance reform in the South, where the Government of South Sudan was in many ways little more than an extension of the guerrilla movement of the SPLA/SPLM. This need for reform, both within the SPLM and in the governance structure of the country as a whole, was the precipitating cause for the complex, and still not fully explained events of December 15, 2013, when fighting broke out in Juba and quickly turned into ethnically-targeted violence.

The disastrous last-minute diplomatic press around Abyei, almost six years after the signing of the CPA, is a measure of how much the U.S. had let implementation issues slide. For in addition to Abyei, the CPA-stipulated border delineation and demarcation of Sudan and South Sudan had not occurred; there was no agreement on oil transit fees or revenue sharing between Khartoum and Juba, even as independence was slated for July 9, 2011; several of the five main contested areas are potential flash-points for renewed North/South conflict, including Kafia Kingi (clearly part of the South if we are guided by the maps defining the region as of January 1, 1956). This is the area where there is very strong evidence that Khartoum is again supporting the maniacally brutal Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) of Joseph Kony:

The UN and NGOs reported in 2013 that the Lord’s Resistance Army is likely operating in the disputed Kafia Kingi area, claimed by Sudan and South Sudan, in close proximity to Sudanese Armed Forces. (U.S. State Department, State Sponsors of Terrorism Overview, April 30, 2014)

Certainly there is no disputing that Khartoum used the LRA as a proxy force during the long civil war, against both South Sudan and Uganda, trying in the latter case to prevent Uganda from assisting the SPLA. Renewed support for the LRA, which looks increasingly likely, is an inexpensive extension of the regime’s brutal counter-insurgency strategy.

The evidence of the priority given to counter-terrorism extends well back into the Bush administration. As Ken Silverstein of the Los Angeles Times reported on June 17, 2005 with remarkably authoritative detail, and with shocking interviews, Salah Gosh, the ruthless head of Khartoum’s security services and minder of Osama bin Laden during his years in Sudan, was flown to Washington on an executive jet by the CIA that same month. Notably, the State Department had been kept out of the loop, Silverstein reports. Here it is important to bear in mind that Gosh had been deeply complicit in or responsible for a wide range of atrocity crimes at the time, including torture, extrajudicial executions, and taking a central role in the Darfur genocide; but this seemed not to trouble the CIA in its insatiable quest for counter-terrorism intelligence:

The CIA and Mukhabarat [Khartoum’s intelligence and security services] officials have met regularly over the last few years, but Gosh had been seeking an invitation to Washington in recognition of his government’s efforts, sources told The [Los Angeles] Times. The CIA, hoping to seal the partnership, extended the invitation. "The agency’s view was that the Sudanese are helping us on terrorism and it was proud to bring him over," said a government source with knowledge of Gosh’s visit. "They didn’t care about the political implications."

Silverstein’s account gives a clear sense of what Khartoum perceived to be U.S. priorities. Ted Dagne, a Sudan specialist with the Congressional Research Service, said administration officials believed Gosh’s trip would "send a political signal to the [Sudanese] government that Darfur would not prevent Sudan from winning support in Washington." That "signal" was not made fully explicit until the Obama administration publicly "de-coupled" Darfur from bilateral issues between Washington and Khartoum concerning counter-terrorism.

But the signal of "de-coupling" Darfur has not been the only signal sent by the Obama administration to Khartoum. By essentially sacrificing Abyei to preserve the Southern referendum on self-determination; by refusing to condemn in appropriate terms the atrocity crimes in South Kordofan and Blue Nile; by not insisting that Khartoum open a humanitarian corridor to aid the more than one million people in desperate need in the regions; by accepting now completely discredited UN accounts of Darfur’s realities; by refusing to demand, in consequential fashion, an end to all Khartoum’s ruthless obstructions of humanitarian relief in Sudan (including not only Darfur, South Kordofan, Blue Nile, but also eastern Sudan); by appointing stubborn fools such as Scott Gration as special envoy (with no diplomatic background and no relevant regional experiences); and by any number of actions and instances of culpable inaction, the Obama administration has sent an unmistakable "signal" to Khartoum, its "partner in counter-terrorism""

The U.S under Obama will remain committed to maintaining this "partnership" even when Khartoum deliberately targets a hospital, marked with a Red Cross, whose most important medical staff person is an American (a fact certainly known by Khartoum). Despite surely understanding the implications of destroying the only facility in the Nuba Mountains capable of treating the countless number of children, women, and men—the infirm and the elderly—who have been wounded by aerial attacks that have continued relentlessly for almost three full years, the Obama administration will not re-calibrate its priorities in dealing with Khartoum. Thousands have died from these attacks; more would certainly have died without the heroic efforts of Tom Catena. Even in the face of such a despicable crime, directed against an American citizen whose only goal in the Nuba is to save lives by means of his surgical skills, American priorities in dealing with Khartoum will remain unchanged.

Past expediency, mendacity, and callousness have made clear that this administration will do nothing of consequence in the wake of the attack on Dr. Catena—nothing. This is a national disgrace.

(Appendices A and B: at http://wp.me/p45rOG-1i6/)

Eric Reeves is a professor at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. His most recent book on Sudan is Compromising With Evil: An archival history of greater Sudan, 2007 – 2012. His new book-length study of greater Sudan (Compromising With Evil: An archival history of greater Sudan, 2007 - 2012; available at no cost: www.CompromisingWithEvil.org Website: www.sudanreeves.org



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