On August 19, 1998, 14 cruise missiles flattened El-Shifa, Sudan’s largest pharmaceutical factory producing essential medicines for people in the then-largest country in Africa. Then-U.S. President Bill Clinton ordered the attack on the factory and a training camp in Afghanistan in retaliation for the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania two weeks earlier by Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network.
A total of 79 missiles was launched from a submarine in the Red Sea, with 14 hitting El-Shifa industrial facility adjacent to a residential area in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. One person died in the middle-of-the-night strike, and 10 were wounded.
Clinton said at the time that El-Shifa was part-owned by bin Laden, the main suspect for the bombings of the embassies, and was producing nerve gas.
The U.S. based its case on a single soil sample supposedly acquired by the CIA from outside the El-Shifa main gate. However, when journalists from across the world toured the bombed site days later, they realized that something was amiss. Records and documents that remained at the site clearly showed that the plant produced ‘antibiotics, malaria tablets and syrups as well as drugs for hypertension, diabetes, ulcer, tuberculosis and rheumatism, a report noted.
Another report stated that half the supply of the then-standard drug for malaria, chloroquine, and most of the veterinary drugs used in Sudan came from the plant. In effect, Sudan, one of the poorest countries in the third world, suffered from an immediate shortage of these supplies. And the worst was yet to come.
But before that, journalists at the bombed site also observed what American intelligence had failed to notice – that the plant/factory was privately owned and part-financed by a development bank in Kenya. Saleh Idris, a Sudanese-born businessman, was the owner of the plant. Shortly after the incident, the U.S. government froze his bank assets, including almost $24 million held with the Bank of America. He subsequently filed a civil suit in a U.S. court against the Treasury Department and the Bank of America claiming that his assets were blocked even though there was a lack of evidence that his plant was involved in the production of materials for chemicals weapons, one account noted.
But moments before a court response was due, the U.S. government unfroze the assets. Still, the charges linking Idris to ‘international terrorism’ were not dropped. And although the charges were not being pursued, Idris sued the U.S. government in federal court in Washington for unjustifiably destroying the plant, for defaming him, and for failing to give full compensation for the facility’s destruction.
A federal judge however dismissed the lawsuit and an appeals court upheld the dismissal. “The appeals court ruled the case involved a political question covered by a legal doctrine that means the suit cannot be reviewed by the judicial branch,” Reuters reported in 2010.
But a debate about whether the El-Shifa plant ever posed a threat took place within the U.S. government at the time, and that debate remains unsolved.
Then-Secretary of Defense William Cohen said that, before the strike, the U.S. was not aware that El-Shifa was making medicines. Curiously, the plant had before the attack signed a large U.S.-approved United Nations oil-for-food contract with Iraq. Thus, part of the medicines produced at El-Shifa were being exported to Iraq. To observers, America’s bombing of El-Shifa was to give a clear message: “Help our enemy and pay the price.”
Years before the missile attack, intelligence reports had indicated that “Iraq had shifted some chemical weapons capacity to Sudan.” This emerged years before bin Laden was kicked out of Sudan in 1996 following pressure from Washington. Bin Laden had been in Sudan’s capital Khartoum for five years, building farms, bridges, roads and his al-Qaida terrorist group. Two years after he was expelled came the Sudan missile strike.
The country was struggling to emerge from years of economic struggle, dictatorship, police and military brutality when the strike occurred. Amidst famine, El-Shifa was the only factory that was producing cheap tuberculosis drugs and veterinary drugs in Sudan when it was destroyed. A public health disaster may have been the result if replacement medicines had not been provided immediately, authorities said. Still, months after the attack, an epidemic of meningitis hit Sudan. Scores of children and adults lost their lives due to lack of antibiotics for treatment.
To Dr Idris Eltayeb, chairman of El-Shifa’s board, the bombing of Sudan’s largest manufacturer of medicinal products was “just as much an act of terrorism as at the twin towers”.
“The only difference is we know who did it,” he was quoted by the Guardian. “I feel very sad about the loss of life there, but in terms of numbers, and the relative cost to a poor country, this was worse.”
Today, millions of people in Sudan are struggling through an economic crisis that has deepened as the country emerges from years of isolation and conflict. Inflation has risen to more than 300%, with shortages of essential items like food, medicine and other commodities.