The ruins of the Yugoslav Federal Ministry of Defence in central Belgrade, Serbia and the el-Shifa Pharmaceutical Industries Company in North Khartoum, Sudan are testament to unlawful (in terms of international law) acts of war on sovereign territory by the United States. Ugly and obnoxious, their presence is normalised within the communities that work and live amongst them. The buildings are so unremarkable they are no longer a cause for reflection by passers-by; the story of the attacks so well known, so notorious and the sense of impotence and frustration so acute that reflection has given way to the exhaustion, disinterest and apathy that now prevails. There are no shrines erected, no hallowed ‘peace gardens’ established in their place, no attempt to rebuild or replace (though in perfect irony, the Trump conglomerate has plans to build a hotel on the Belgrade site). The ruins remain civic sculptures of protest and public memorials of disenchantment with the US.
A generation later, repercussions to US foreign relations from the bombings are multifaceted. In Serbia, general hostility is pronounced. The youth of Serbia, unlike most other Balkan countries, tend to look towards Western Europe for cultural inspiration. In Belgrade’s hedonistic clubs, one hears Italian booty beats rather than American hip-hop.
In the agricultural city of Nis, Southern Serbia, where cluster bombs were dropped on a crowded market and a bridge with a passenger bus on it, I was mistaken for a US national and attacked by an old man with a cane – he whacked my half-eaten spinach and cheese burek out of my hand and stumbled after me screaming anti-American abuse. In the Serbian enclave of Mitrovica, unfortunately placed within the nascent borders of Kosovo and overseen by an Italian lead EU peacekeeping force, the resentment against the west is vitriolic.
In Sudan, the US still maintains a crippling trade embargo – though with Coca Cola and Quaker biscuits oddly exempt – as Sudan remains formally a ‘State Sponsor of Terror.’ In fact, Osama bin Laden et al. were expelled from Sudan as early as 1996. One of the many consequences of trade sanctions is the crippling of higher education study (without international – US owned – credit cards it’s impossible to access online courses, academic databases and journals, encouraging a reliance on out of date books and materials). It’s a truism, though one worth stating, that the cognisant education of a middle class is essential in any modern civil society.
Even so, many Sudanese remain starry eyed about the US – specifically about emigrating and pursuing the American dream – brandishing words like ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ though most are unable to define what such words mean. Simultaneously, it is not uncommon to see posters of bin Laden on shop windows and minibuses in Khartoum. Indeed, Bin Laden was a great benefactor to Khartoum, funding visible developments including infrastructure such as roads and bridges and establishing many businesses. Bin Laden and associates made up for some of the funding gap resulting from the sharp drop in USAID money at the advent of Omar al-Bashir and his cronies.
Officially, Sudanese foreign relations with the US are near non-existent, with American interests seen – correctly – as trying to destabilise the government and force a revolution at every turn. This ice-cold relationship is startling given that the Government, like the Sudanese climate, is scorching in its dealings with other countries of strategic importance, particularly those responsible for the International Criminal Court charges against President Bashir for alleged war crimes in Darfur and with Ethiopia about water sharing rights of the Nile.
The reasoning behind the two US attacks are complex and contentious. However, the non-partisan consensus on reflection 15 years later is that both operations were a product of faulty intelligence, poorly executed and ineffective in their goals.
NATO’s bombing of the Ministry of Defence Headquarters
NATO (commandeered by the US with a number of other yes-men countries in tow) bombed the Ministry of Defence Headquarters on May 7, 1999. The bombing was part of a 78-day aerial assault codenamed Operation Allied Force on perceived strategic targets of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro). These strategic targets included electricity plants, telecommunication towers, hospitals and other essential infrastructure. NATO launched 2,300 missiles at 990 targets and dropped 14,000 bombs, including depleted uranium bombs and cluster munitions. It was the largest campaign by the NATO alliance in history, undertaken without UN Security Council consent, preempting the multitude of diverse and problematic offensives umbrellaed under the ‘war on terror’ slogan in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Nato’s campaign caused widespread destruction and societal collapse. The bombing was ineffective because Yugoslavian army camouflage techniques made key bases and targets invisible to aerial bombardment. It was the civilian population of ethnic Serbs – not Milosevic’s army – that suffered the most with hundreds (possibly thousands) of civilian casualties, 40000 homes, 300 hospitals and 20 schools destroyed; officially recorded by NATO under the now much derided term ‘collateral damage.’ Prefiguring George Bush Jr., then Nato Spokesman James Shea noted: “there is always a cost to defeat an evil.” Despite the rhetoric, it seems that the NATO campaign caused widespread suffering and destruction without any real resolution – by most accounts it was Russia’s belated intervention with the UN’s backing that finally toppled Milosevic, leading to the slow and painful recovery for Kosovar Albanians, scapegoated and terrorised in the final whimpers of Milosevic’s dying Yugoslavia.
The US justified the NATO strikes on humanitarian grounds, national interest and – quite unbelievably – to prove to non-aligned doubters that the dormant NATO was still a military force to be reckoned with. However, the destruction of civilian infrastructures, the high death toll, and the spreading of the crisis to all of the former Yugoslavia as refugees scattered, warrants some reflection. Rights group Amnesty International’s report (which must be read with a dash of pragmatism – their moral standards perhaps idealistic and impossible) is scathing, making the case for war crimes:
“Indications are that NATO did not always meet its legal obligations in selecting targets and in choosing the means and methods of attack. On the basis of available evidence, including NATO’s own statements and accounts of specific incidents, Amnesty International believes that – whatever their intentions – NATO forces did commit serious violations of the laws of war leading in a number of cases to the unlawful killings of civilians”
Of course, the Official Report to Congress by the Department of Defence paints a highly different story, describing the operation as the ‘most effective air operation in history.’ The report notes minor issues with precision targeting –acknowledging the intelligence blunder that resulted in the bombing and destruction of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese journalists, causing outrage in Beijing and souring US-China relations for years afterwards. It didn’t spend as much time discussing the targeting errors that destroyed an entire Kosovo village, an old people’s home in Belgrade and a whole convoy of Kosovar refugees.
US bombing of the El-Shifa Pharmaceutical Industries Company.
Precision targeting problems were not relevant during the cruise missile bombing of the el-Shifa Pharmaceutical Company in North Khartoum on August 20, 1998. Around 1000 kilometres away, a submarine in the Red Sea fired thirteen missiles which hit with arresting accuracy, destroying the production facilities of the company, killing a small number of workers as well as damaging two food-processing factories nearby.
The attack was a response to the terror bombing of American Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which killed 224 people. Less than two weeks later the US military unleashed Operation Infinite Reach with bin Laden and al-Qaeda as targets. They bombed el-Shifa, as well as a suspected terrorist training camp in Afghanistan in retaliation.
Like the NATO operations, US intelligence proved startlingly uninformed, prioritising an immediate response, without consideration of the strategic and diplomatic consequences of an act of war based on inferences rather than concrete facts. To coincide with Operation Infinite Reach, the Administration engineered the vilification of bin Laden and al-Qaeda as literal embodiments of pure manichean evil. Clinton:
“Let our actions today send this message loud and clear — there are no expendable American targets…There will be no sanctuary for terrorists. We will defend our people, our interests and our values.”
The Clinton regime – then entangled in a domestic scandal over Clinton’s public deception about his relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky –was keen to display fast and decisive action. They launched attacks when links between al-Qaeda and the embassy bombings were only tenuously established. Clinton’s Administration asserted compelling proof, while FBI Director Louis Freeh stated a few days after the Sudan bombing that ‘no final conclusion’ about who orchestrated the [embassy] bombings had been reached.’ It turned out that members of the terror group Egyptian Jihad orchestrated the embassy bombings, as a revenge attack on the US for the extradition and alleged torture of four Egyptian Jihad members in Albania two months before. Egyptian Jihad did and do have formal connections to al-Qaeda. However, bin Laden denied – and later investigations clear al-Qaeda – of any involvement. Most analysts agree that bin Laden and al-Qaeda were further radicalised against the US when Clinton erroneously placed blame on them.
Clinton’s Administration justified that attack by claiming they had irrefutable evidence of sinister and clandestine operations at the factory. Security head, Sandy Berber and other senior Clinton aides declared that the plant was financed by bin Laden, had a ‘secured perimeter patrolled by the Sudanese military’ and had no traceable commercial activities. EL-Shifa’s sole purpose, the US claimed, was to manufacture ‘components for VX gas and other chemical weapons.’
Contradictions with US statements were instantly apparent on the ground. Rather than cordoning off the ruins, Sudanese officials encouraged foreign visitors and media to examine the ruins and take photos. In fact, invitations to foreign visitors were nothing new. Contrary to the Administration’s allegation that the site was off-limits to foreigners and heavily guarded by the Sudanese military, US and UK consultants were regularly on site to design and oversee the plant’s construction, the British Ambassador attended the 1996 opening of the plant, the German and Italian Ambassadors both received personal tours of the plant; two days before the bombing retired AME Bishop Hamil Hartford Brookens received a personal tour. These dignitaries unanimously chastised the US for the bombing and none noted a heavy presence of military.
El-Shifa was patronised and celebrated by foreign dignitaries because it was the leading producer of Sudan’s pharmaceutical needs manufacturing 40-50% of Sudan’s medicines for people and animals at prices that were affordable to local Sudanese. Critically, it was only producer of TB medicines in the country.
Despite the outcry of Ambassadors and foreign nationals, the Clinton Administration continued to state that the plant had no commercial activities – until someone pointed out that a year before the plant was approved by the UN Security Council – which requires US approval – to package veterinary medicines for relief shipments to Iraq as part of the UN Oil for Food Programme. Amongst the ruins, journalists snapped photographs of vials of livestock antibiotics and strips of antimalarial tablets. Sometime after the bombing then Secretary of Defence William Cohen stated that prior to the strike the US was unaware that the plant was making medicines. If taken at his word, then the paucity of US intelligence gathering is unnerving – as is the decision not to seek intelligence from its own strategic allies who, unlike the US, had nationals in the country.
The destruction of the plant – the collateral damage – meant that hundreds of thousands of people lost access to the medicines they needed. One report notes that the destruction of el-Shifa resulted in a sharp increase in infant mortality as it was the only producer of drugs that stopped transmissions of parasites from a herd to the herder. Werner Daum, Germany’s Ambassador to the Sudan at the time, estimated that the destruction “probably led to tens of thousands of deaths.”
The allegation that bin Laden financed the plant was also false. Sudanese-Saudi millionaire Salah el Din Ahmed Mohammed Idris owned the plant with partial financial backing from a Kenyan development bank. Within days, it became obvious that US intelligence did not know Idris was the principal owner; they scrambled to vilify him as an al-Qaeda front man. A month after the bombing, the Administration admitted that they had no hard evidence to link bin Laden to either the plant or to Idris. Regardless, they froze Idris’s US bank accounts for years afterwards.
The most serious accusation was that the plant produced precursor agents in the manufacture of chemical weapons. This allegation also began to unravel. With the collapse of all other justifications for the attack the ‘compelling and unanimous evidence’ turned out to be from a single sample taken by a non-US national on behalf of the CIA. The sample contained EMPTA, which the US claims is required to make VX Nerve Gas.
However, chemists from the American Chemical Society and Oxford University, including an EMPTA specialist, formally expressed doubts that a single EMPTA sample was reliable evidence of chemical weapon manufacture. They unsuccessfully petitioned the CIA to release information about the amount of EMPTA discovered, the method of analysis, and how the results were determined. The Sudanese government also invited the UN to examine the soils in and around the plant, an invitation vetoed by the US. Plant owner Idris – who unsuccessfully sued the US government for damages and for a formal admission of a mistake – paid an independent American company to conduct an analysis of the soil and drainage sludge of the site: no EMPTA or breakdown composites were found at the site, however residue of pesticides with similar EMPTA properties were discovered.
The current US Administration continues to support the decision to destroy the pharmaceutical company. No apology or redress has been offered to Idris or to Sudan. However, the former American Ambassador to Sudan, Donald Petterson now admits: “The evidence was not conclusive and was not enough to justify an act of war.”
The hope that subsequent US Administrations learned lessons from the blunders and wanton destruction of the Infinite Reach and Allied Force Operations were short-lived. While Clinton fanned the Us vs. Them rhetoric, George Bush the 2nd detonated it. Like his predecessors, Obama continues with routine breaches into sovereign territory through covert military operations while hypocritically lambasting other countries for doing the same. It appears that until the US is prepared to hold itself to the same standards that it holds other countries and people; to pacify its military industrial complex that requires the proliferation of war and violence; and to renounce its demoralising moral universalism, it will continue to humiliate, alienate and radicalise communities all over the globe.
The international community knows that the US is not the bastion of virtue and diplomacy that many of it’s citizens delude themselves it is. Like all countries, the US is greedy, selfish and xenophobic; this is an unavoidable reality of modern nationhood. Perhaps, what is needed is for the international community – guided by emerging strong players like the Gulf States, China, India, Germany and Russia – to be more vigorous in its condemnation of reckless US aggression in sovereign territories. Without such combined diplomatic and economic pressure on the US, its clumsy, rash and imprudent aggressions will continue to make the US’s own problems everyone else’s problem – as too painfully evidenced in Iraq and Afghanistan/Pakistan in present times.