The Obama and Trump administrations, in temporarily and then permanently lifting comprehensive sanctions on Sudan, cited improvements in the Sudanese government’s counterterrorism and its broader humanitarian and human rights record. But a closer look reveals these claims to be very problematic, with major implications for the next stage of dialogue and policy between the United States and Sudan.
Now that the comprehensive sanctions have been lifted, it is essential that the United States pivot rapidly and aggressively to the relationship’s next phase, which should focus on creating leverage in support of American counterterrorism interests and much more fundamental reforms that could change the nature of the authoritarian, kleptocratic Sudanese state and better secure the rights of Christians, minority Muslims, war-affected Sudanese people, and others who have been victimized by this regime for nearly 30 years.
Khartoum’s track record raises critical questions about its role and true interests as a counter terrorism partner. Top U.S. policymakers who chart the next phase of engagement with Sudan should account for this as they engage in anticipated discussions about remaining sanctions, a significant shift in bilateral relations, terminating Sudan’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, and forgiving Sudan’s debt, estimated to have mushroomed to $50 billion.
Sudan’s intolerant regime has a long-established tradition of religious persecution that continues today despite its bid for normalized ties with the United States and the rest of the world. It also has maintained long relationships with active extremist groups. This record suggests Sudan may be an untrustworthy partner in the bid to push back against religious extremism that is gaining momentum in the region and is essential for combatting international terrorism. The next phase of the policy effort should therefore focus on more structural changes in Sudan to address these core problems that continue to be central to the Sudanese regime: links to extremists and deep discrimination against religious minorities.
Sudan may be an untrustworthy partner in the bid to push back against religious extremism that is gaining momentum in the region.
The current Sudanese regime maintains documented, long-standing links with active extremist religious groups within Sudan, some of which call for jihad, advocate for groups like al-Qaida or the Islamic State group, threaten Westerners and Western interests, and/or are routinely involved in committing or inciting acts of religious persecution within Sudan. Some of these groups are associated with domestic attacks on religious groups (which include but are not limited to Christians, Muslim Sufi groups, and moderate Muslim scholars), and on rights defenders and intellectuals. Khartoum maintains these relationships with extremists to increase domestic and international political support for its leadership in Sudan and to demonstrate its support for jihad to international extremists. The Sudanese government also keeps these ties to claim an edge in intelligence gathering for Western intelligence services, by infiltrating extremist groups to acquire information, though these groups in turn use the space they are given by the Sudanese government to threaten Western interests. The regime in Khartoum also cultivates these ties with Salafist groups (those who adhere to an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam) and Salafist jihadi groups (ultraconservatives who support holy war against Muslims and non-Muslims they consider as threats to their interpretation of the religion) to protect the dominance of Sharia law in Sudan and intimidate and repress those of other faiths and beliefs (including Christians and many others) who seek greater rights and freedoms in Sudan.
Historically, the Sudanese regime had ties to international terrorist actors like al-Qaida and Hamas in the 1990s, which promoted jihad (see Annex I). Currently, it tolerates radical Islamist groups and clerics, allowing them to spread virulent ideologies including those of the Islamic State group and other international terrorist groups. Some of the extremist groups that the regime allows to operate freely in Sudan are involved in recruiting followers within Sudan for international terrorist groups such as al-Qaida, the Islamic State group, Boko Haram (active in several countries in West and Central Africa), and the Somali al-Shabab group. In considering these factors and the future of bilateral ties with Sudan, Sudan’s regional and international interlocutors and U.S. leaders should factor for the Sudanese regime’s extremist orientation and long history of mass killings, forced displacements, and large-scale violations of the fundamental rights and religious freedoms of the Sudanese people.
U.S. and international engagement with Khartoum should address the system of violent kleptocracy that is perpetuated by a regime that runs a militia state] and persecutes religious groups and rights defenders and commits violent abuses. Because the Sudanese regime may make small adjustments but retain its overall strategic objectives, the international community, with U.S. leadership, should use sustained pressures and incentives to encourage fundamental reforms in Sudan that would benefit all Sudanese people and align with U.S. strategic interests. Among the fundamental reforms needed in Sudan are protections of freedoms and equal rights for all Sudanese citizens, including religious freedoms, along with a comprehensive peace agreement with armed groups and more inclusive power-sharing. Most critically, Sudan should rein in groups that are currently publicly advocating and actively recruiting for violent extremist groups such as the Islamic State group, al-Qaida and their affiliates in North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa.
The Sudanese government’s record of attack, opposition, obstruction, and inaction toward these ends suggests that little is likely to change without the kinds of serious and sustained financial pressures and incentives that U.S. policymakers and their international partners can wield most effectively together.
Sustained pressures should focus on key officials and their networks that undermine peace and human rights, and these pressures should spare the Sudanese public. Financial pressures should include network sanctions (i.e., asset freezes and other measures targeting a network of multiple individuals and entities together, rather than a single person, for greater effectiveness) based on financial investigations, including information verified by The Sentry. Network sanctions should be combined with anti-money laundering measures, such as advisories issued by international financial intelligence units to encourage financial institutions to engage in heightened monitoring and alert potential money laundering activities or other risky activities, particularly by Sudanese politically exposed persons (PEPs) who may otherwise use the U.S. and international financial systems to move or obscure the proceeds of corruption. These types of anti-money laundering measures can help banking institutions comply with their due diligence obligations, generate information that helps law enforcement actors take action to counteract illicit financial flows, keep bad actors out of the global financial system, and promote the integrity of the financial system itself.
Incentives for the Sudanese government, such as removal of the state sponsor of terrorism designation and support for Sudan’s debt relief, should be tied to the implementation of fundamental reforms.
The ultimate reward that the Khartoum regime seeks, that of the abolition of its designation as a state sponsor of international terrorism, should be directly connected to real and measurable changes on the ground such as the implementation of a comprehensive peace deal in Darfur that returns the millions of forcibly displaced persons to their original areas. Other tangible reforms to be delivered by the regime in Sudan could include:
Reforming the laws that discriminate against Christians and other religious minorities;
Ensuring that constitutional provisions guaranteeing equal rights to all citizens—regardless of their religious beliefs or regional or ethnic background—are respected in practice;
Upholding the rights to free speech and freedom of association and assembly, including and especially for those defending fundamental rights; and
Genuinely countering violent extremist groups, including Salafist jihadi groups, that threaten, excommunicate, and attack those defending freedoms of religion and thought.