El-Shifa: A forgotten war crime


This article recounts a major war crime committed against the people of Sudan in August 1998. Reflecting on the rationale and unfolding of this crime, it examines the veracity of the official claims, the reactions and implications of the deed. The importance of remembering our past in an accurate and unbiased manner is underscored.

You have to know the past to understand the present. Carl Sagan

Missiles out of nowhere

Twenty-one years ago, on 19 August 1998, the then largest country in Africa was the scene of a grave war crime. I talk of Sudan, a nation that has been on the front news pages of recent. But I do not refer to Darfur, the civil war in the south or other oppressive acts of the regime. I have in mind the sudden destruction of a factory in Khartoum that was producing essential medicines needed by the people.

On that day, United States President Bill Clinton ordered cruise missiles attacks on two nations, Afghanistan and Sudan. A total of 79 missiles were dispatched. In a televised address, he justified the strikes with one key word:

Our target was terror. Our mission was clear. President Bill Clinton, 20 August 1998.

On 7 August 1998, two US embassies in Africa were bombed within minutes of each other. Two hundred and twenty four people perished, and about 4000 were injured, mostly nationals of Kenya and Tanzania. The US State Department laid the blame for the bombing on a group led by Osama Bin Laden, a shadowy Saudi Arabian dissident. It was not noted that this group was a progeny of the paramilitary groups that had received lavish US financial, material and diplomatic backing barely a decade earlier. 

The targets of the missile attacks in Afghanistan were declared to be Bin Laden, his followers and facilities. Four missiles went off course, landing in the newly nuclear armed Pakistan. Independent information on these targets is scarce, but at least 25 civilians died and more than 50 were injured in the attack (Ahmad 2001; Read 2003). 

On the other hand, much is known about the target in Sudan, at which 14 missiles were fired. It was the El-Shifa industrial facility adjacent to a residential area in Khartoum. It was reduced to rubble. Senior US and British officials, including the American Secretary of Defence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff gave a specific rationale for selecting the target, depicting it with ‘high confidence’ as a tightly guarded secret plant for the manufacture of chemical ingredients that could be used to make the deadly nerve gas, VX (Healy 1998).

A minute amount of VX absorbed through the skin blocks the nervous and respiratory systems, causing death from suffocation and vomiting. Relatively inexpensive and easy to produce, it was first manufactured in the 1950s by the British military. The production method alleged to have been used by Sudan was devised by chemists working for the US Army (BBC 1999d; Zorpette 1998). 

US officials slated it as an act of self-defence to thwart future terrorist attacks. According to the Secretary of State, the strike heralded the wars of the future. Editorials in major media across that nation chimed in their loyal support.

The United States has demonstrated its readiness to act unilaterally against terrorists if need be, exercising its right to self-defence. Editorial (1998a).

To declare that Sudan is involved in the production of VX is a serious charge. It calls for a United Nations initiated investigation and sanction, if true. The two key issues were: (i) What was produced at the plant? (ii) Who owned and financed it? A further question is: Even if the allegations were true, was the US justified to act unilaterally as it did?

What did the factory produce?

Despite calls from respected domestic and foreign quarters, the US did not make public its evidence that a precursor of VX was produced at the plant. Knowledgeable experts queried the accuracy of the tests used to identify the chemical. They said that available pesticides and herbicides have ingredients similar to the one in question (Hitchens 1999). It was conceded that the US case rested on a single soil sample supposedly taken near the plant (Risen 1999). Hence, the room for error was wide. A closed-door session held by Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) scientists to explain the strike to other analysts within the US government was deemed unconvincing by the attendees (Whitelaw, Strobel and Duffy 1999). When asked to submit the incriminating sample for independent analysis, the inimitable answer was: It had been used up in testing. In October 1998, the owner of the factory hired the head of the Chemistry Department of Boston University to collect a set of ‘carefully catalogued samples’ from the plant site and the vicinity. No trace of chemical weapons material was detected (Risen and Johnston 1999). As the technical loopholes in the official rationale mounted, a stony silence became the ultimate response. 

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