One day before terrorists attacked the United States, on Sept. 10, the government in Sudan shut down the country's only English language newspaper, the Khartoum Monitor. The Monitor had harmed national unity, the government charged, when the newspaper accused the government of "having plundered the riches of the south," a reference to its forcible takeover of oil-rich land in south-central Sudan. The ban lasted only three days, but is a commonplace repression under a regime that regularly confiscates private property and displaces its own people. Sudan's radical Islamic government also has made a practice of hosting terrorists, including Osama bin Laden, earning it perennial slots on lists of state sponsors of terrorism all over the world.
None of those precedents has kept the Bush administration from courting Sudan, along with other nations once regarded as mere rogues, in its war on terrorism.
Two weeks ago Secretary of State Colin Powell pronounced himself "pleased" with Sudan's cooperation and said the Islamic government had been "forthcoming" in its efforts to comply with the United States. Under pressure from the administration, Congress shelved a bill to aid Christians fighting the government, the Sudan Peace Act, Sept. 24 just as it was being readied for final passage and the president's signature. On Sept. 28 the UN Security Council voted to end terrorist-related sanctions against Sudan after the United States agreed not to block such a move. It also lifted travel restrictions for Sudanese diplomats in the United States.
Sudan is not the only country with a bad past to be reincarnated as an ally in the aftermath of September attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Sanctions against Pakistan are fading, along with denunciations of the repressive tactics of Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan. Across Central Asia and the Middle East, the Bush administration has reached out to predominantly Muslim regimes and post-Soviet dictators in search for leads and favors that could further isolate Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network of terrorists. In the black-and-white canvas of the war on terrorism-in the words of President George W. Bush, "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists"-the diplomatic dealmaking is a campaign tending toward shades of gray.
Making friends of yesterday's enemies may be a shrewd show of realpolitik bargaining in the post-Sept. 11 world, but it offends many who have campaigned against radical Islam longer than Mr. Bush and his new coalition have. Those skeptics say the coalition can become too broad to have any depth-or teeth. Bartering with terrorist-friendly nations in the pursuit of terrorists, say critics, can lead in only one direction: handing the fox the keys to the henhouse.
"It's obvious we have to deal with regimes we don't like. There is no such thing as immaculate foreign policy," said Paul Marshall of the Freedom House Center for Religious Freedom. "But the United States is making a destructive deal with Sudan. Sudan is Islamic radicalism. And it is exporting it."
"The justice of our cause can hardly be disputed," said Smith College professor and Sudan expert Eric Reeves. "But one of the ugliest consequences of such a war will be the betrayal of moral principle amidst the fierce lust for intelligence about various terrorist groups."
In late September key members of the Bush foreign-policy team-including Walter Kansteiner, assistant secretary of state for Africa; FBI and CIA representatives-met in London with Yahia Hussien Baviker, Sudan's deputy chief of intelligence. That meeting reportedly opened intelligence channels with Khartoum, which has extensive dossiers on Mr. bin Laden and his operatives dating back to Mr. bin Laden's 1991-1996 residency in Sudan.
Shortly after that meeting the State Department announced that Sudan had arrested 30 "extremists" involved in plotting international terrorism. Asked by a reporter if the United States could be sure those were extremists and not just political opponents of the regime, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, "I think we have enough information ourselves to know that." Pressed by reporters about whether the United States had the identity of those arrested, he said, "We do. You don't."
Critics of the new relationship with Sudan acknowledge that they are not privy to the administration's secret calculations; but they do not believe the signs of cooperation warrant this thaw. Unlike others, assistance from Sudan has come at no apparent cost. Pakistan, for instance, risks internal rebellion and regional conflict over siding with the United States. Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, and others become targets as they provide staging areas for U.S. military forces. "Sudan is not taking risks as a regime," notes Mr. Marshall. "It is exchanging information it could have exchanged anytime."
The Bashir regime, which took power in a 1986 coup, also has not disavowed support for radical Islam, including jihad not only against fellow Sudanese but also against outsiders. At a June rally organized to whip up support for its civil war against the south, President Omar el-Bashir told 7,000 supporters his government "will continue going along the path of jihad and martyrdom." He also told them that the rebels fighting his regime received "American assistance" and were planning to gain control of oilfields in the south in order to drive out foreign oil companies and "replace them with American companies."
In addition to a ruthless civil war, Sudan continues to permit the operation of banks and other entities set up by Mr. bin Laden. The terrorist mastermind once claimed to have capitalized Al Shamal Bank in Khartoum with $50 million of his own money in 1991. In exchange, the Sudanese government gave him title to 1 million acres of land in western Sudan that became the nuclei for cattle-raising and other agricultural enterprises. Those ventures funneled money back into the banks.
Shortly after the September attacks, according to Sudan foreign minister Mustafa Osman Ismail, the Khartoum government gave the Bush administration information "that Al Shamal Bank belongs to Osama bin Laden and he has large participation in it." But when Mr. Bush on Sept. 24 announced a freeze on U.S. assets of groups connected to Mr. bin Laden, Al Shamal was not on the list.
Other nations took action instead. France froze Al Shamal assets the following week after an extensive French intelligence paper outlined the bin Laden financial network and concluded, "Everything can be traced back to Sudan." An Islamic banking watchdog group in Bahrain announced that it was investigating Al Shamal and two other Sudanese banks with connections to Mr. bin Laden. That group based its inquiry on testimony from the U.S. embassy bombing trial in New York last summer. Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl, a Sudanese who described himself as Mr. bin Laden's "paymaster," became the government's key witness. He testified that Mr. bin Laden used his Sudan banking connections as a base for laundering funds to terrorists worldwide.
Al Shamal bank has acknowledged past ties to Mr. bin Laden and al-Qaeda, but deputy general manager Ismail Mohammed Osman told Reuters that his institution has had no ties since the mid-1990s.
He said investigators have not contacted the bank since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Skeptics worry that coalition-building may lead the Bush administration to overlook other crucial bin Laden connections. Conspicuously absent from the president's list of terrorists, in addition to Al Shamal, are Palestinian-based Hamas and Syrian-backed Hezbollah. CIA Director George Tenet told the Senate Intelligence Committee last year that Hamas is trying to obtain chemical weapons and may, along with Mr. bin Laden, already have them. "Although terrorists we've preempted still appear to be relying on conventional weapons, we know that a number of these groups are seeking chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear agents," Mr. Tenet testified. "We are aware of several instances in which terrorists have contemplated using these materials."
None of that is deterring the foreign-policy establishment from building relationships. Regarding Sudan, State Department insiders say, the Bush administration is willing to trade in a lot of political concerns for a small amount of help on its terrorism fight. In one meeting the consensus among diplomats was to take the cooperation now and worry about other issues later. The question is, when does later come?