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Official Pariah Sudan Valuable to America's War on Terrorism

Despite once harboring Bin Laden, Khartoum regime has supplied key intelligence, officials say.

April 29, 2005|Ken Silverstein | Times Staff Writer

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.

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