CAIRO – Sudan's transitional government said Thursday it has reached a settlement with families of the victims of the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, a key step in having the U.S. remove Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism so it can rejoin the international community after years of exclusion.
Copies of the agreements obtained by The Associated Press show that $70 million will be split among families of 17 people killed, as well as 15 sailors who were injured and two of their spouses. In the agreement, Sudan makes no admission of wrongdoing.
The announcement was the latest in a series of efforts by the interim government to close the book on former President Omar al-Bashir, whose three decades of iron-fisted rule was brought to an end in popular protests last year.
Al-Bashir’s Islamist government promoted policies that ensured Sudan remained a pariah to much of the world. The International Criminal Court has accused him of genocide for his leadership of a scorched-earth campaign in the southern area of Darfur in response to a rebel insurgency there. Up to 300,000 people were killed and 2.7 million were driven from their homes.
But in recent weeks the transitional government has sought to erase remnants of al-Bashir's rule so it can heal the country's battered economy. On Tuesday, it said it would hand him and other Sudanese officials over to the court in The Hague to be tried for war crimes.
Settling the case of the USS Cole would be another big move in Sudan's rehabilitation.
On Oct. 12, 2000, two suicide bombers in a boat detonated their explosives alongside the USS Cole as the U.S. Navy destroyer was refueling in the Yemeni port of Aden. The blast killed 17 sailors and wounded more than three dozen others.
Sudan was accused of providing support to al-Qaida, which claimed responsibility for the attack. Under al-Bashir, the country was designated by Washington as a “state sponsor of terror” for hosting the group's leader, Osama bin Laden, in the early years of his militant movement.
Observers and Sudanese officials have said the settlement was among the last hurdles faced by Sudan on its path to being removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Sudan's Justice Ministry said the agreement was signed with the victims' families on Feb. 7.
Faisal Saleh, Sudan's information minister and interim government spokesman, told the AP that Justice Minister Nasr-Eddin Abdul-Bari had traveled to Washington to sign the deal.
He said the figures could not be disclosed because the Sudanese government is still in negotiations to reach settlements with families of victims of the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. More than 200 people were killed and more than 1,000 were wounded in those attacks.
But Adam Hall, a lawyer for the families of the victims, said it would provide $70 million to be split among families of the 17 people killed as well as 15 sailors who were injured in the attack. That money is on top of $14 million that was awarded in an earlier case.
He said $30.6 million is dedicated to the families of the dead and $39.4 million goes to those who were injured.
He and the families have been pursuing the case for more than 15 years, Hall said.
“Sudan was finally of the view that it was willing to resolve these cases,” he said.
“There is a huge difference between getting a judgment you may never collect and actually receiving a substantial amount of money. ... The fact that we are actually collecting just makes me so happy for the families,” he said.
The new Sudanese rulers maintain they are not responsible for the attack on the USS Cole and that they had negotiated the deal out of their desire "to resolve old terror claims inherited from the ousted regime” of al-Bashir.
The families of the dead and the wounded sailors had sued the Sudanese government in U.S. courts, demanding compensation for the country's role in supporting al-Qaida.
In 2012, a federal judge issued a judgment of nearly $315 million against Sudan, but the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that ruling in March 2019 on the grounds that Sudan had not been properly notified of the lawsuit.
The United States has been looking at whether to remove Sudan's terror designation “for quite some time,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters Thursday, but he didn't offer any indication over when such a change to its status could take place.
Pompeo said that the settlement for USS Cole victims was one of the outstanding issues.
Saleh also told the AP that the U.S. administration has set the overhaul of the country's security apparatus as another condition to remove Sudan from the terror list.
“The Americans believe Sudan's support for terror was carried out through its security apparatus,” Saleh said. “So they want to be assured that there has been a radical change" in the way it operates.
Daniel Benjamin, a former State Department counterterrorism coordinator and ambassador-at-large, described the state sponsor of terrorism designation as “kind of a diplomatic nuclear bomb” because of the draconian sanctions that accompany it, the fact that it is seldom used and the difficulties in getting off it.
“The politics of getting off the list are always incredibly complicated and draw in issues that don’t directly have anything to do with terrorism,” said Benjamin, who now directs the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College.
Reaching settlements in the cases involving the attacks on the USS Cole and the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were made more difficult because Sudan'is strapped for cash. Initial claims had been in the billions, Saleh said, and Sudan's interim government had “inherited an empty treasury."
He said he hoped the international community would be sympathetic.
“We expect the United States and the world to understand and to be supportive instead of imposing more obstacles," he said.
As Sudan seeks to present a new face to the world, its political situation remains fragile.
Sudan's main challenge is its shaky economy, which for decades has been distorted by heavy government subsidies. To implement social programs, the government needs loans from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, but cannot receive them as long as the country remains on the terror list.
The transitional leaders fear that if they don't immediately improve living conditions for its people, many of whom live below the poverty line, they risk more protests, which initially started after staple food prices spiked. And the country's military, which remain the country's power brokers, have made it clear they will not tolerate any more unrest.
After the military's takeover last year, pro-democracy protesters were subjected to a brutal crackdown. On June 3, Sudan’s security forces violently swept away a protest camp near the military headquarters in the capital, Khartoum. Protest leaders estimated that at least 128 people had been killed.
The government has also not said when the 76-year-old al-Bashir, who remains jailed in Khartoum, will be handed over to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. He faces three counts of genocide, five counts of crimes against humanity and two counts of war crimes for his alleged role in leading the deadly onslaught on civilians in response to the insurgency in Darfur.
The indictments were issued in 2009 and 2010, marking the first time the global court had charged a suspect with genocide.
Al-Bashir's lawyer, Mohammed al-Hassan, warned that handing him over would have “dire political and security repercussions” for Sudan and that the matter “will not happen easily.”
In another major policy shift, the interim leaders met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who announced that Israel and Sudan would normalize relations after decades of enmity.
Associated Press writers Matthew Barakat in Falls Church, Virginia; Matthew Lee in Istanbul; and Eric Tucker in Washington contributed.