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U.S. faces court action over Sudan bombing

"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.

Copyright © 2000 Time Inc.


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