How Do You Get Off the Terror Watch List? With Cold, Hard Cash

How do you get off a “terrorist” list? It seems that hard cash helps.

Take Sudan. Its ministry of justice has just announced that it’s finalised a February deal with the families of the 17 US sailors killed in the suicide attack on the USS Cole in Aden harbour in October 2000. The dead Americans left 11 children behind them and so the reported $70m (£59m) settlement will care for them too. The relatives claimed that Sudan, under its then war criminal president Omar al-Bashir, had provided support to al-Qaeda, which claimed the attack.

Who knows? The US listed Sudan as a “state sponsor of terror” in 1993 – the same year I first met Osama bin Laden in the Sudanese village of Almatig, surrounded by his unarmed warriors and Sudan’s very well-armed security cops. But he was expelled to Afghanistan three years later. That’s four years before two al-Qaeda suicide bombers in an explosives-heavy fibreglass boat smashed into the hull of the four-year-old Aegis-class guided missile destroyer Cole as it lay moored, refuelling, off Aden harbour. Omar al-Bashir took power in Khartoum in 1989.

Now that he has been overthrown, Sudan’s transitional government desperately needs debt relief and international funding. The ministry of justice was quite frank about that this week: “Removing Sudan’s name from this list is necessary to remove the stigma of terrorism off the people of Sudan and to reintegrate Sudan back in the international community.”

The government, it seems, first negotiated with the families of the dead sailors, then with the US administration to compensate for al-Qaeda attacks in east Africa.

But it isn’t that simple. The head of the two-bomber unit which attacked the Cole was a Yemeni named Jamal al-Badawi, killed in a US air raid last year. According to the US, however, the man who planned the attack on the Cole was Abd Rahman al-Nashiri, a Saudi currently imprisoned in Guantanamo. Needless to say, Saudi Arabia – having never been involved in any attack on anyone, ever – got off the hook. As it did seven years after the Aden bombing, when 15 of the 19 hijackers of 9/11 turned out to be Saudi citizens. But that’s not quite the point.

The most interesting aspect of the money to be paid out by Sudan – blood money, in Arab eyes – is that Sudan still does not regard itself as responsible for the Cole attack, or any other “terrorist” act.

The ministry of justice in Khartoum made this quite explicit in its formal statement this week. The agreement was made, it said, “because of the strategic interests of Sudan … so it can remove its name from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism.” Sudanese officials also claimed that it wanted the US to “stop punishing” the people of Sudan “for crimes committed by the former regime”.

Now, this makes sense – up to a point. But can you really dump one dictator for the promise of democracy, and then claim you have a clean hand? Germans no longer support Hitler but they continue to believe that their nation was responsible for the greatest evil visited upon mankind in modern history. They were not allowed to make a single ex gratiapayment and then wash their hands of guilt.

I’m not comparing al-Bashir’s Sudan to Nazi Germany, but once you consign moral responsibility to what amounts to a business deal, new precedents have been set.

The problem in this case is that the precedent is not at all new. Most of us have now forgotten just how Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya got off the “terrorism” hook when – after Tony Blair had slobbered over the crackpot dictator and whose surrender of non-existent nuclear weapons was described as “statesmanship” by then-MP Jack Straw – it paid $1.5bn (£1.2bn) in compensation to victims of the Lockerbie Pan Am bombing (total dead: 270) and an attack on a Berlin disco that killed two US servicemen and a Turkish woman. Interestingly, this arrangement also called for $300m (£240m) in compensation for the Libyan victims of Ronald Reagan’s later airstrikes on Tripoli and Benghazi.

But the money had spoken. Even while still running Libya, Gaddafi’s regime shrugged off any responsibility once cash had been paid. He was only later blasted from power with the help of Nato, and then reaccused of crimes against humanity, including the mass hanging of opponents in Benghazi in the 1970s.

But Ghaddafi was killed. Al-Bashir is still alive.

“Justice” – always a slippery subject in the Middle East – has often been resolved with the payment of “blood money”, often compensation in lieu of punishment. And Western armies have often paid restitution in cash to the innocent victims of air raids and military attacks.

Such payments – in which the British as well as the American military have been involved – have been made on the understanding that the dead were not intentionally killed. Such victims were thus regarded as being, in that most repulsive of phrases, “collateral damage”. In some cases, military officers would negotiate directly, as well as through third parties, with the families of the dead.

I doubt if al-Bashir will ever come to trial for the bombing of the USS Cole – even if he was guilty by association – and, as we know, Gaddafi could not be made available for any personal prosecution even before his overthrow. The real question is whether nations can be held accountable. And how much “justice” can be seen to be done by financial transfers rather than real trials.

The US has a wad of “terror” accusations against Iran. Lockerbie might well have been one of them if the Americans had not dumped the blame on Gaddafi’s Libya.

And it’s also worth recording how the United States reacted when its military personnel were involved in the deliberate killing – the murder – of innocent Iraqis and Afghans. After the slaughter of 24 Iraqi civilians by US Marines at Haditha in 2005, for example, the US paid $38,000 (£30,000) to the families of 15 of the dead. That’s just over $2,500 (£1,990) a corpse. Of the eight American Marines to face charges, six had their cases dropped, a seventh was found not guilty and the eighth was found guilty of “negligent dereliction of duty” but escaped prison.

After the 2012 Kandahar massacre – in which four men, three women and nine children were shot and knifed to death – a single US soldier was sentenced to life imprisonment. Afghan witnesses claimed other troops were involved. The US government paid out $46,000 (£36,000) for each Afghan civilian killed and $10,000 (£7,900) for each person injured. Separately, the UK paid out £2.8m to the family of Iraqi Baha Moussa, killed in British custody at Basra in 2003, and nine other men beaten in UK hands at the same time. As a result, a single British soldier was convicted of “ill treatment” of detainees and imprisoned for a year.

Neither the US nor the British governments, of course, regarded themselves as responsible for any of these killings. These outrages were, after all, not state-sponsored murders. But they got away with it by doing what the Libyans did – and what the Sudanese have now done. They paid cash.

Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared.