The Bush administration has forged a close intelligence partnership with the Islamic regime that once welcomed Osama bin Laden here, even though Sudan continues to come under harsh U.S. and international criticism for human rights violations.
The Sudanese government, an unlikely ally in the U.S. fight against terror, remains on the most recent U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. At the same time, however, it has been providing access to terrorism suspects and sharing intelligence data with the United States.
Last week, the CIA sent an executive jet here to ferry the chief of Sudan’s intelligence agency to Washington for secret meetings sealing Khartoum’s sensitive and previously veiled partnership with the administration, U.S. government officials confirmed.
A decade ago Bin Laden and his fledgling Al Qaeda network were based in Khartoum. After they left for Afghanistan, the regime of Sudanese strongman Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir retained ties with other groups the U.S. accuses of terrorism.
As recently as September, then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell accused Sudan of committing genocide in putting down an armed rebellion in the western province of Darfur. And the administration warned that the African country’s conduct posed “an extraordinary threat to the national security” of the United States.
Behind the scenes, however, Sudan was emerging as a surprisingly valuable ally of the CIA.
The warming relationship has produced significant results, according to interviews with American and Sudanese intelligence and government officials. They disclosed, for example, that:
* Sudan’s Mukhabarat, its version of the CIA, has detained Al Qaeda suspects for interrogation by U.S. agents.
* The Sudanese intelligence agency has seized and turned over to the FBI evidence recovered in raids on suspected terrorists’ homes, including fake passports.
* Sudan has expelled extremists, putting them into the hands of Arab intelligence agencies working closely with the CIA.
* The regime is credited with foiling attacks against American targets by, among other things, detaining foreign militants moving through Sudan on their way to join forces with Iraqi insurgents.
Sudan has “given us specific information that is ... important, functional and current,” said a senior State Department official who agreed to discuss intelligence matters on condition of anonymity. The official acknowledged that the Mukhabarat could become a “top tier” partner of the CIA.
“Their competence level as a service is very high,” the official said. “You can’t survive in that part of the world without a good intelligence service, and they are in a position to provide significant help.”
From Khartoum the view is markedly upbeat.
“American intelligence considers us to be a friend,” said Maj. Gen. Yahia Hussein Babiker, a senior official in Sudan’s government.
During an interview at the presidential palace, Babiker said Sudan had achieved “a complete normalization of our relations with the CIA.”
Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Salah Abdallah Gosh, who otherwise declined comment for this article, told The Times: “We have a strong partnership with the CIA. The information we have provided has been very useful to the United States.”
The paradox of a U.S.-Sudanese intelligence partnership is personified by Gosh.
Members of Congress accused him and other senior Sudanese officials of directing military attacks against civilians in Darfur. During the 1990s, the Mukhabarat assigned Gosh to be its Al Qaeda minder. In that role he had regular contacts with Bin Laden, a former Mukhabarat official confirmed.
Today, Gosh is keeping in contact with the office of CIA Director Porter J. Goss and senior agency officials.
In exchange for the collaboration, which has been largely unpublicized, Khartoum wants to be removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. It is also pressing Washington to lift long-standing economic sanctions barring most trade between the two countries.
“There can be a strong [intelligence] partnership, but there is some hesitation because the diplomatic relationship remains poor,” said Gutbi al-Mahdi, a former head of the Mukhabarat and currently senior presidential advisor for political affairs.
Babiker, a former deputy director of the Mukhabarat, said the CIA was seeking to smooth the broader political relationship between the Bush administration and the Bashir regime.
The cooperation is politically delicate for both sides.
Bashir’s government faces strong internal opposition -- including critics within the regime itself -- to cooperating with the U.S. Responding to an uproar over rumors of collaboration with the administration in late 2001, Bashir told a Khartoum news conference, “I swear in God’s name that we have not handed and will not hand in any [terrorism suspects] to the United States.”
Official acknowledgment of the relationship by Washington could also create a political backlash in the U.S.
Sudan’s government has been accused of large-scale human rights violations, and the administration has been one of its leading global critics. In Congress, allies of human rights advocates share strong anti-Sudanese sentiment with supporters of conservative Christian groups that have been sympathetic to Christian and animist rebels in southern Sudan, where a peace deal has taken hold.
Concern that the White House might soften its policy toward Sudan on the Darfur issue to encourage intelligence assistance was raised in an October report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. It said Gosh and other Sudanese officials had played “key roles in directing ... attacks against civilians” and noted that the administration was “concerned that going after these individuals could disrupt cooperation on counter-terrorism.”
The administration denies that it is retreating in any way.
A senior administration official called intelligence-sharing one of “the building blocks” of U.S.-Sudanese relations but said “it wouldn’t matter unless there was progress in other areas,” including human rights.
“We began mobilizing and leading international pressure on Khartoum ever since the dimensions of the Darfur situation became clear, and we have continued to do so ever since,” the official said.
The CIA jet waiting on the tarmac here last week opened its doors to a stocky, cherub-faced man with a thin mustache and a smoldering cigarette.
It was spy chief Gosh, and when he boarded, it was only the latest step in Sudan’s secret effort to improve relations with the U.S. -- using its historic ties with extremists to benefit counter-terrorism operations. .
Sudan became a haven for Islamic radicals after the 1989 military coup that brought Bashir to power. He promptly declared that any Muslim could enter the country without a passport.
Khartoum had become a “Holiday Inn for terrorists,” Barbara Bodine, a State Department official in the Clinton administration, said later.
Visitors to Khartoum during the period included members of the hard-line Abu Nidal faction that had broken with the Palestine Liberation Organization, Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Islamist guerrillas fighting governments in neighboring African states.
Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, better known as Carlos the Jackal, lived in relative luxury in Khartoum during the early 1990s. Regulars at local hotels said he took breakfasts of coffee and croissants at the Meridien and had his hair styled at the Hilton.
The Mukhabarat expelled Carlos in 1994, handing him to French authorities, reportedly while the terrorist was under an anesthetic for a vasectomy reversal operation.
Bin Laden moved his business and operations base to Khartoum in 1991 due to increasing conflict with Saudi Arabia, which revoked his citizenship three years later. His construction company built roads around the Sudanese capital. Al Qaeda expanded ties and offered financial support to a variety of radical Islamic groups.
As a Mukhabarat officer, Gosh began serving as an intermediary between the intelligence agency and Bin Laden’s fledgling Al Qaeda network. Jack Cloonan, a former FBI agent involved in tracking Bin Laden, said Sudanese members of Al Qaeda later told the bureau about Gosh’s contacts with the Saudi-born terrorist.
“We remained wary of him ... for obvious reasons, but we never had any prima facie evidence linking Gosh to any Al Qaeda [activities],” Cloonan said in an interview
Maj. Gen. Elfatih Mohammed Ahmed Erwa, now Sudan’s ambassador to the United Nations and formerly a senior Mukhabarat officer, said that Gosh at the time held the rank of colonel in the spy service and was not a decision-maker.
“He was charged with keeping an eye on those people,” he said. “He was monitoring their contacts, not discussing politics with them or facilitating their activities.”
By 1993, the Clinton administration had listed Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism, citing the country’s “disturbing relationship with a wide range of Islamic extremists.” It said Sudan’s support of terrorists “included paramilitary training, indoctrination, money, travel documentation, safe passage and refuge.”
In late 1995, the U.S. shut down its CIA station in Khartoum and, in February 1996, withdrew its ambassador.
Sudanese officials said their government, alarmed by the frayed ties, tried repeatedly without success to regain favor by turning over Bin Laden to either the Saudis or the U.S.
Even after Sudan forced Bin Laden to move operations to Afghanistan in 1996, the regime continued to make overtures to the White House and the FBI. In letters reviewed by The Times, Sudan offered cooperation on counter-terrorism efforts.
The Clinton administration accepted an invitation by Sudan to send a CIA-FBI counter-terrorism team to Khartoum in mid-2000, but otherwise the Bashir regime’s overtures were rejected -- even when, Cloonan said, it offered to turn over two suspects in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa.
Tim Carney, the last ambassador to Sudan, said the stated goal of American policy was to win cooperation from the Bashir regime, but he believed that the “real agenda” was to bring on the regime’s collapse.
“That’s largely why there was no effort whatsoever to respond to Sudan’s initiatives,” he said.
Others were skeptical of Sudan’s intent. John Prendergast, who served at the National Security Council during Clinton’s second term, said Bashir’s regime remained committed to a radical Islamist project.
“Their promises of cooperation were totally opportunistic and were designed to get sanctions removed,” he said.
The newly installed Bush administration took steps early in 2001 to improve relations with Khartoum, Sudanese and American officials said. In July, Walter Kansteiner, then assistant secretary of State for African affairs, met secretly in Kenya with Sudan’s foreign minister. Another clandestine meeting followed in London, attended by Babiker, then Sudan’s deputy intelligence chief.
The meetings explored possible cooperation on terrorism issues. But there was little progress until the Sept. 11 attacks that year on the United States, which Sudan condemned.
In late September, Kansteiner and the CIA’s Africa division chief held discussions with Babiker at the U.S. Embassy in London. A deal was struck.
Days later, the Bush administration abstained on a vote at the United Nations, with the result that Sudan was freed from international sanctions imposed for its alleged role in efforts to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 1995.
At roughly the same time, the Sudanese turned over to the U.S. a stack of intelligence files several inches thick. They contained the cream of the information collected on members of Al Qaeda and other extremist groups during their years in Khartoum and thereafter.
The intelligence partnership had begun in earnest.
By November 2001, the CIA had an active station in Khartoum, according to multiple sources.
Among other programs, the agency was running surveillance on suspected foreign extremists with the knowledge and assistance of the Mukhabarat.
Material obtained by Sudanese intelligence was turned over to U.S. investigators by Babiker, said former FBI agent Cloonan -- including counterfeit visa stamps and blank passports from Arab countries seized in a raid on a terrorism suspect’s home.
Cloonan and several FBI colleagues arrived in Sudan that month to interrogate several longtime Al Qaeda members residing in Khartoum. The interviews were conducted at safe houses arranged by Sudanese intelligence. The Mukhabarat brought the suspects to the FBI.
Among those Cloonan questioned were Mohammed Bayazid, a Syrian American whose alleged ties to Bin Laden dated to the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan after Moscow’s 1979 invasion. Bayazid allegedly sought to obtain uranium for Al Qaeda.
Another person interrogated was Mubarak Douri, an Iraqi who was regarded as part of Bin Laden’s business infrastructure.
Cloonan said Douri and a second Iraqi laughed when he pressed them about possible Bin Laden ties to Saddam Hussein’s regime.
“They said Bin Laden hated Saddam,” the retired FBI investigator recalled. Bin Laden considered Hussein “a Scotch-drinking, woman-chasing apostate,” the Iraqis told the former federal agent.
The Mukhabarat also allowed the FBI to interview the manager at Al Shamal Bank, where Bin Laden held multiple business accounts while living in Sudan, Cloonan said. Those records were made available to U.S. investigators as well.
“Until then, the Sudanese had a credibility problem with the U.S., but they gave us everything we asked for,” Cloonan said.
Robert Oakley, a retired diplomat who served as special assistant to former Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), the Bush administration’s special presidential envoy to Sudan at the time, said intelligence cooperation had a positive influence on overall ties between Washington and Khartoum.
“Our relationship with their Foreign Ministry was fragile,” he said. “The only established relationship we had was through the intelligence channel because we had our people working directly with them.”
Collaboration with Sudan has steadily deepened since then.
Prendergast, the former National Security Council official, said the Sudanese have provided information to U.S. intelligence about extremist suspects. “They are valuable on these connections because they were deep in it,” he said. “They know aliases, business backgrounds, banking information and other data.”
At the request of American agencies, the Mukhabarat has continued to detain suspected extremists, some of whom have been interrogated by the FBI and CIA.
“Some were implicated in [terrorist] activities,” Babiker said. “Others had a chance to talk and cleared themselves.”
A U.S. source familiar with Sudan’s cooperation said, “They’ve not only told us who the bad guys were, they’ve gone out and gotten them for us. Hell, we can’t get the French to do that.”
Sudanese and American sources confirmed that the Bashir government has turned over terrorist suspects to other Arab security services, including agencies in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Libya, another country long at odds with the U.S. that has been cooperating on counter-terrorism.
One of those expelled to the Saudi kingdom was a Sudanese national named Abu Huzifa, a suspected Al Qaeda operative who reportedly admitted taking part in a failed 2002 plot to shoot down an American military plane in Saudi Arabia with a surface-to-air missile. He was sentenced by the Saudis to prison for committing “terrorist acts against vital installations in the kingdom.”
Sudan also has initiated an internal crackdown on suspected extremists, and it is closely monitoring foreigners moving through the country.
“If they detect someone coming in that we might be concerned about, they let us know,” the senior State Department official said.
In May 2003, security forces raided a suspected terrorist training camp in Sudan. They arrested more than a dozen people -- mostly Saudis, who were expelled to the kingdom. Four months later, a Sudanese court convicted three men accused of training foreign radicals to conduct attacks in Iraq, Eritrea and Israel, a State Department report said.
Beyond its cooperation since 9/11, Sudan’s intelligence service presents an opportunity to gather information on suspected extremist groups in countries where U.S. agents are unable to operate effectively.
Middle Eastern and Muslim intelligence agencies such as the Mukhabarat can “get firsthand information while we get 10th-hand information,” said Lee S. Wolosky, a former National Security Council staffer in the Clinton and Bush administrations.
Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail acknowledged in an interview that the Mukhabarat already has served as the eyes and ears of the CIA in Somalia, a sanctuary for Islamic militants.
Late last year, a senior Mukhabarat official met in Washington with the CIA’s counter-terrorism center to discuss Iraq, according to sources familiar with the talks. .
Though the Bashir regime vocally opposed the American invasion of Iraq, it never had close ties with Hussein’s regime, which repressed religious parties and movements.
But in 2003, as the U.S. invasion of Iraq neared, Hussein sympathizers recruited local and foreign jihadists to fight American troops, sending small numbers to Baghdad.
The Mukhabarat monitored and rolled up the pro-Hussein network. Those efforts also “led to the discovery of cells in other countries that were active and planning to target U.S. interests,” Babiker said.
Sudan’s extensive cooperation with the U.S. has been noted in the State Department’s annual reports on terrorism. The latest report said Sudan’s assistance had “produced significant progress in combating terrorist activity.”
A senior U.S. government official familiar with terrorist threats in the region said Khartoum was not at present a state sponsor of terrorism.
“These are not all nice guys, but they have gone way past a passing grade on counter-terrorism cooperation and don’t technically belong on the list,” he said. “The reason they are still there is Darfur, which is not related to state-sponsored terrorism but makes lifting sanctions now politically impossible.”
The State Department list also includes Cuba, Iran, Libya, North Korea and Syria.
In March, the U.S. successfully pushed for a U.N. resolution imposing sanctions on Sudanese officials implicated in Darfur atrocities.
The Bashir government rejects charges of genocide in Darfur and denies that senior officials such as Gosh have ordered attacks on civilians, which it blames on rogue army elements and militias that it says largely operate beyond its control. In late March, Sudan announced that it had arrested and charged 15 members of its military and security forces with war crimes.
Former assistant secretary of State Kansteiner said Sudan’s collaboration with the CIA did not win it a free pass from the Bush administration. “We always made clear that the relationship was not just about counter-terrorism, but also about the peace process with the south and human rights in general,” he said.
But critics are impatient for a stronger response on Darfur.
“We have not taken adequate measures given the enormity of the crimes because we don’t want to directly confront Sudan [on Darfur] when it is cooperating on terrorism,” said Prendergast, the former National Security Council staffer.
Last month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sent a letter to the Bashir government calling for steps to end the conflict in Darfur.
But the letter, reviewed by The Times, also congratulated Sudan for increased cooperation with an African Union mission to Darfur. It also said the administration hoped to establish a “fruitful relationship” with Sudan and looked forward to continued “close cooperation” on terrorism.