As the US intensifies its scrutiny of two African nations that it suspects of harboring terrorists, leaders from Sudan and Somalia - and five of their neighbors - gathered last week to discuss their region's growing reputation as a haven for militants, among other issues.
The ninth meeting of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) was supposed to agree on a definition terrorism, as well as address issues such as Sudan's grinding civil war. But when the two-day meeting ended Friday, the leaders of Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Uganda, and Sudan had made little progress beyond condemning terrorism.
In a region where most countries call their internal opposition "terrorists" and support militant groups in neighboring countries, the summit shows how hard it will be for leaders here to fall in line with the US-led war on terrorism.
Nonetheless, US and UN officials say that by hosting a serious debate on this issue, Sudan has signaled its own desire to end its isolation and work with the international alliance to weed out terror. One high ranking official who participated in the closed-door session said the speakers, including Sudanese President Gen. Omar Hassan Bashir, showed a sincere, and new, interest in addressing the problem of regional terrorism together.
Cooperation between the US and the once-pariah Sudan has been increasing for months. CIA and FBI operatives have settled comfortably into Khartoum and are reportedly working with these Sudanese counterparts, and some 200 intelligence files detailing the activities of Osama bin Laden and his followers during their Khartoum years have been delivered to the State Department. In addition, some 30 people suspected of being bin Laden associates were reportedly arrested and expelled.
Mr. bin Laden arrived in 1991 and stayed for five years, adopting the local dress, setting up an office downtown, opening construction, farm, and trading companies, and investing some $20 million in this poor country. It is during these years that he allegedly began pulling together the network that would grow into Al Qaeda.
Once one of Washington's principal African allies, Sudan has been out of favor since the beginning of its civil war in 1983. By 1993, the State Department had listed Sudan as a haven for terrorists. Sudan's UN delegation was implicated in the trial of the first World Trade Center bombers, and a Sudanese cell was accused of the attempted murder of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Both UN and US sanctions were imposed, and the US Embassy in Khartoum closed in 1996. Relations between the two reached a low in 1998 when, following Al Qaeda's bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the US fired missiles at the El Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, claiming - based on apparently faulty intelligence - that chemical weapons were being produced there.
But the Bush administration has shown renewed interest in Sudan. Last year it named a special peace envoy to the region and reinstated a diplomatic presence in Khartoum. In late September, the US allowed the UN to lift its sanctions, which were subsequently lifted. US sanctions remain.
"There is a new perspective in Washington. A new policy of engagement," says Information Minister Mahdi Ibrahim Mohammad.
John Prendergast, an expert on Sudan, says Khartoum is motivated to ally with Washington. "The government no longer needs the financing that it once needed from the Islamist organizations," he points out, "because of the oil revenues."
With oil reserves valued at more than $900 million last year, and with several multinational oil firms knocking on Sudan's door, some in the State Department have suggested a more liberal trade policy with Khartoum may be in the offing if permanent peace could be established and terrorism contained.
Khartoum, says one US official, knows that it can get more money from working with the US than from working with terrorists who stand against it. "We don't necessarily look into what Khartoum's reasons for fighting terror are," he says. "We are interested in results."
Critics claim Khartoum still supports terrorists and say America is being tricked. "Nothing has changed here for the better," says human rights lawyer Ghazi Sulieman, pointing to restrictions on basic civil liberties, the ongoing war against the South, and the alleged connections between high-ranking government ministers to fundamentalist Islamic terror groups.
"The government simply wants to survive," says Alfred Taban, publisher of the opposition paper Khartoum Monitor in agreement. "They don't want the Southern rebels to be suddenly turned into America's next Northern Alliance, and as such are trying to improve their image," he says. "The government's power base is the fundamentalist Islamicists, and there is no doubt in my mind that terrorists have simply gone under cover - and are receiving cover from the government.... When all this dies down, they will come out of the woodwork."
"America is under the false illusion that it can fight terrorist by working with this government," says Sulieman. "In truth the only way to really get rid of terrorists to deal with the root problems, and put pressure on the government to move towards democracy and allow for transparency and multipartyism." Otherwise, warns Sulieman, when it is no longer in the government's interest, Khartoum will start actively backing terrorists as it did before - and there will be no opposition to do anything about it.