The El Shifa Tragedy
by Scott Loughrey
On August 20, 1998 Bill Clinton launched 79 cruise missiles at seven defenseless targets in the Middle East. One was a pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan called El Shifa. A pair of outstanding articles in Covert Action Quarterly (CAQ, Winter, 99) illustrates what a colossal crime was committed by this act of terrorism from our now-unimpeachable president.
According to a well-researched article written by Richard Becker, Sara Flounders and John Parker in CAQ, the El Shifa pharmaceutical plant was responsible for over 50% of Sudan’s medicine. This included 90% of the most critically needed drugs. In their words:
“…the bombing will inexorably cause the suffering and death of tens of thousands of innocent people all over Africa, many of them children, by depriving them of basic medicines against malaria, tuberculosis, and other easily curable diseases.”
Has anyone seen commentary like this in the Washington Post or Baltimore Sun recently? Although the New York Times and Washington Post have each quietly admitted that the El Shifa plant was not what Clinton said it was, their silence regarding the potential civilian casualties from Clinton’s deed has been deafening.
(Clinton said it was a chemical weapons-making facility owned by Osama bin Laden. He also claimed that the plant was an “imminent threat…to our national security.” Recall that bin Laden is widely suspected of having instigated the bombings of U.S. embassies in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. However likely that is true, no connection between bin Laden and the African bombings has been proven.)
A recent Post article (2/16/99) is a good example. The Post writer discussed the lawsuit filed in U.S. District court against the Clinton administration by the owner of El Shifa, Saleh Idris. The writer did not devote a single word to the potential casualties from the missile attack. In fact, this daily reader cannot recall a single mention so far in the Post of the potential casualties from the El Shifa bombing. Now, if one considers that the Sudanese are black, and that Clinton’s support in the black community since the Monica thing blew by is a shade less than A. Lincoln knew in his heyday, one could argue the media’s silence regarding Clinton’s victims has racial overtones. If 10,000 Swedes were due to die or suffer from a presidential bombing, would the media be as quiet about it?
Becker, Flounders and Parker also say that U.S. officials were admitting a month after the attack that there was no evidence the plant produced anything but pharmaceuticals. A delegation of six, led by former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, thoroughly investigated the bomb site and concluded the plant was solely a medicine factory. They labeled the missile attack a “war crime” and offered their opinion that the bombing was done to destabilize the region. The authors of the CAQ article offer plenty of support that the U.S. has been trying to destabilize the Sudan, since it would not go along with the U.S. when it wanted to start the Persian Gulf War.
The authors also point out that there are intelligence officials who still say that Idris is a front man for Osama bin Laden. Their response is to repeat that Idris? lawyer says his client has never met bin Laden. However, if Idris eventually proves to have been connected to bin Laden in some way, is bombing the plant before it could be proven to be a chemical weapons facility an example of our democratic beliefs?
The El-Shifa plant was never clandestine. It was opened in June 1997 with much fanfare. Over the years it was visited by heads of state, foreign ministers, ambassadors, by international guests including the president of the Republic of Niger, the World Health Organization’s director for the Mediterranean Region, the British and German ambassadors to Khartoum, students of pharmacology, including Sudanese school children, and pharmacists from Switzerland, Britain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Would all these people have visited a chemical weapons facility?
The authors also comment upon the soil sample that the CIA claims they found in the vicinity of the plant (although no one is allowed to see it) that allegedly contains Empta, which is usually seen wherever nerve gas is being made. However, Empta is also found when pesticides decompose. Further, the authors cite investigative reporter Seymour Hersh as saying that Empta is highly reactive. If it were in the ground it would immediately begin to react with other chemicals before breaking down.
Hersh also is cited as saying that several chemical weapons experts agreed that the CIA’s soil sample, if not carefully preserved and quickly tested, could easily result in misidentification of the key ingredient. The experts say that Empta is chemically similar to several commercially available pesticides and herbicides, including the commercially available weed-killer called Round-Up. Weeds could certainly have been growing around this facility in the Sudan.
In the same issue of CAQ (Winter, ’99), Lee Siu Hin finds a troubling connection between the multitudinous airstrikes launched on 8/20/98 and the Raytheon Company. He says the number of missiles launched at the Middle East targets that night astounded some former Persian Gulf war commanders. A former Operation Desert Storm planner added “during Desert Storm, they would never have dreamed of putting more than 8 or 12 Tomahawks on one target.” This is because, at about $750,000 each, Tomahawks are very expensive.
Incredibly, Clinton has increased the level of permissible force against defenseless targets. In addition, Clinton spent about a $100 million of money out of our Treasury to bomb Sudan and Afghanistan that evening. He also did so before raising the matter with the U.N. Security Council, a frequent occurrence these days.
Hin points out that that both the Tomahawk and Patriot missiles used are manufactured by the Massachusetts-based Raytheon Company, one of our nation’s biggest weapons manufacturers, with billions of dollars in annual sales. Raytheon is also a heavy contributor to both the Democratic and Republican parties. Hin’s controversial analysis, hardly expressible in the mainstream media, is that the more friendly the relationship between Raytheon and our Commander in Chief, the more likely that our military will continue to launch Raytheon’s missiles without restraint against weak and defenseless countries. This is an old game. As the media overlooks the obvious problem of the President using terrorism to seemingly combat it, Congressional hawks at the same time can justify spending far more on the missiles produced by their benefactor, Raytheon, than is realistically necessary to defend our country.
The destruction of the El Shifa plant in Sudan will someday be studied by U.S. students, but it is certainly not a topic that can be explored with much depth in the mainstream media as the twenty-first century arrives.
U.S. faces court action over Sudan bombing
by Tony Karon
“Our forces … attacked a factory in Sudan associated with the bin Laden network,” President Clinton told the world on August 20, 1998. “The factory was involved in the production of materials for chemical weapons.”
Wrong on both counts, says the plant’s owner, and he’s setting out to prove it.
The president was referring to a cruise missile strike, which, together with another on Afghanistan, he ordered in retaliation for the bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa, bombings that were allegedly authored by reputed super-terrorist Osama bin Laden.
But Salah Idris, who owns the Al Shifa pharmaceuticals plant in Sudan that was destroyed in the attack, has hired a Washington law firm and marshaled evidence to disprove both the chemical weapons charges and the bin Laden link. His attorney, Stephen Brogan, filed suit in Washington, D.C., Thursday, seeking compensation from the U.S. government.
Of course this isn’t about Clinton, who relies entirely on his security advisers for such information. But Idris’ complaint notes that U.S. officials steadily backed away from allegations about the factory and its owner that were made in the weeks following the strike, eventually basing their justification for the attack primarily on the claim that a soil sample collected near the plant contained traces of EMPTA, a chemical compound used in the manufacture of VX nerve gas.
That’s why Idris’ lawyers commissioned research institutes in Boston and the Netherlands to independently examine samples taken from the ruins of the plant, which experts agree would likely still contain substantial evidence of chemical weapons agents were any being produced there. Both studies found no trace of EMPTA.
But forensics aside, even the media coverage of the Sudan strike gave Idris’ attorneys plenty to work with. Within hours of the strike, sources ranging from Western diplomats and experts in the Sudan to unnamed U.S. government officials were questioning Washington’s claims.
And as these “facts” came under withering fire, Washington began to noticeably backpedal. A number of Al Shifa clients, including the United Nation, stepped forward to testify that they’d purchased pharmaceuticals from the factory, which in fact produced almost half of Sudan’s supply of antibiotics, painkillers, antimalarials and other medicines for both humans and animals. Western diplomats and engineers who’d spent time at the plant pooh-poohed the claims that it was guarded, citing regular tours by students and every visiting dignitary.
And a number of experts familiar with the plant said it lacked some of the basic requirements of a chemical weapons facility. In response, intelligence officials offered a tragicomic explanation for their denial that Al Shifa produced pharmaceuticals: The factory’s Web site offered no medicines for sale. Others began suggesting that EMPTA may have been stored at or transported through rather than manufactured at Al Shifa.
Having discovered only after the strike that Idris was the owner of the plant, some U.S. officials alleged he was linked with bin Laden and other terrorist groups. But despite these claims, Idris was never added to the State Department’s terrorist watch list, for which he’d have been an obvious candidate if the link was strong enough to justify bombing a factory. And last year Washington quietly released his assets in U.S. financial institutions, which had been frozen following the raid. The Wall Street Journal characterized Idris as “a Westernized Saudi Arabian banker” with no known ties to Islamic extremists. Islamic fundamentalist terrorists and their acolytes certainly aren’t generally in the habit of filing suit in Washington, D.C.
A month after the bombing, the New York Times reported, that many governmental officials were asking “whether questionable intelligence had prompted the United States to blow up the wrong building.” And last October, the Times even alleged that the State Department had suppressed an in-house intelligence report challenging the official justification for the program.
Of course, the U.S. doesn’t glibly fire cruise missiles at a factory in a far-off country. The decision was taken against the backdrop of the pressure to retaliate for the embassy strike, very real concerns that bin Laden might be planning further attacks using chemical weapons, Sudan’s history as a haven for terrorists (including bin Laden) and evidence that bin Laden had sought to develop chemical weapons there. All of that, and a soil sample showing traces of a nerve gas building block.
The administration’s position was summed up a month after the missile strike by National Security Adviser Sandy Berger: “With the knowledge that we had… had we not hit that target and had bin Laden used chemical weapons in a terrorist attack, I don’t know how we could have looked the American people in the face.”
Until now, the administration has stuck by its decision to target Al Shifa, despite the doubts cast by the leakers and the critics, and it has resisted calls for an independent investigation. But now the man who lost a $30 million investment wants Washington to either pony up or else prove its case in one of its own courts.