Bill Clinton’s Act of Terrorism

In 1998, Bill Clinton ordered the bombing of a medicine factory in Sudan. The country has yet to recover.

Medicine bottles at the site of the destroyed Al-Shifa factory, Sudan. Khairudin / Flickr

Before fourteen cruise missiles turned it into a heap of twisted steel and medical detritus, the Al Shifa factory in Khartoum was the largest manufacturer of medicines in all of Sudan, producing over half of the country’s pharmaceutical products and specializing in anti-malaria drugs. But on August 20, 1998, the plant was “pulverized,” reduced to nothing but “broken concrete and iron bars,” leaving “thousands of brown bottles of veterinary and other medicines” littered across the sand. Fourteen years later, its wreckage remained, a shrine to an incident that locals still refer to as a terrorist attack.

The Al Shifa plant had been taken out on the direct orders of Bill Clinton. The strike was in retaliation for Osama bin Laden’s recent bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. In addition to destroying the Al Shifa, the administration targeted a group of Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan.

When it was pointed out to the Clinton administration that they had just eliminated one of Sudan’s major medical suppliers, spokespeople “claimed the plant was actually a disguised chemical weapons factory.” They insisted that “soil samples taken outside the plant had shown the presence of a substance known as Empta, whose only function was to make the nerve gas VX.” The plant, they said, “was heavily guarded . . . and it showed a suspicious lack of ordinary commercial activities.”

All of this turned out to be false. As Richard Bernstein explained:

A British engineer, Thomas Carnaffin, who worked as a technical manager during the plant’s construction between 1992 and 1996, emerged to tell reporters there was nothing secret or heavily guarded about the plant at all, and that he never saw any evidence of the production of an ingredient needed for nerve gas. The group that monitors compliance with the treaty banning chemical weapons announced that Empta did have legitimate commercial purposes in the manufacture of fungicides and antibiotics. The owner of the Shifa factory gave interviews in which he emphatically denied that the plant was used for anything other than pharmaceuticals, and there was never persuasive evidence to contradict his assertion. At the same time, members of the administration retreated from claims they made earlier that Osama bin Laden had what [Defense Secretary William] Cohen called “a financial interest in contributing to this particular facility.” It turned out that no direct financial relationship between bin Laden and the plant could be established.

Striking the Al Shifa facility had been contentious within the Clinton administration. The New York Times reported that “the voices of dissent were numerous” and that “[o]fficials throughout the Government raised doubts up to the eve of the attack about whether the United States had sufficient information linking the factory to either chemical weapons or to bin Laden, according to participants in the discussions.” As the US ambassador to Sudan conceded afterward, “[t]he evidence was not conclusive and was not enough to justify an act of war.” Slate journalist Timothy Noah goes further, writing that any suggestion the plant was making nerve gas components was “desperate conjecture” on the administration’s part.

After the attack, public calls were made for the Clinton administration to justify the bombing. Human Rights Watch wrote a letter to Clinton in which it said:

The US government has not explained why its investigation of the site was sufficiently diligent in light of the fact that US officials now admit that they did not know the plant manufactured legitimate pharmaceuticals. The evidence these officials cite for their belief that the plant had no legitimate civilian purpose — unlike the web sites of other known pharmaceutical manufacturers in Sudan, this company’s web site did not mention any products — is hardly conclusive . . . The US government should attempt to ease these concerns by providing further elaboration of the diligence of its pre-bombing investigation of the plant.

HRW criticized the Clinton administration for “resisting a proposal to send UN chemical weapons investigators to Sudan to examine the al Shifa factory” in order to examine whether the administration’s justifications were true. But the Clinton administration was extremely reluctant to allow such a move; after all, it knew what the likely outcome would be.

The administration instead worked hard to make sure the sloppy decision-making behind the bombing was not revealed. As the New York Times reported, “[i]n the aftermath, some senior officials moved to suppress internal dissent . . . Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and a senior deputy, they said, encouraged State Department intelligence analysts to kill a report being drafted that said the bombing was not justified.”

Regardless of the cover-up, though, the damage could not be undone. The factory was completely destroyed, never to be rebuilt, an enormous supply of medicine wiped out in an instant. The factory’s owners sued in US federal court in an attempt to receive compensation for the destruction, but the court dismissed their suit, reasoning that “the enemy target of military force” has no right to compensation for “the destruction of property designated by the President as enemy war-making property.”

The human costs however, far exceeded the property damage. As James Astill reported in the Guardian, Al Shifa was:

. . . one of only three medium-sized pharmaceutical factories in Sudan, and the only one producing TB drugs — for more than 100,000 patients, at about £1 a month. Costlier imported versions are not an option for most of them — or for their husbands, wives and children, who will have been infected since. Al-Shifa was also the only factory making veterinary drugs in this vast, mostly pastoralist, country. Its specialty was drugs to kill the parasites which pass from herds to herders, one of Sudan’s principal causes of infant mortality. Since the bombing, “people have gone back to doing without,” says Eltayeb, with a shrug.

Some, like Germany’s then ambassador to Sudan, Werner Daum, estimated that the destruction of the Al Shifa plant may have led to thousands of deaths, though there does not actually appear to be reliable data on the public health consequences of the bombing. Jonathan Belke, in the Boston Globe, reported that the factory’s destruction likely exacerbated a medical catastrophe:

Without the lifesaving medicine it produced, Sudan’s death toll from the bombing has continued, quietly, to rise . . . this factory provided affordable medicine for humans and all the locally available veterinary medicine in Sudan. It produced 90 percent of Sudan’s major pharmaceutical products. Sanctions against Sudan make it impossible to import adequate amounts of medicines required to cover the serious gap left by the plant’s destruction. Thus, tens of thousands of people — many of them children — have suffered and died from malaria, tuberculosis, and other treatable diseases . . .

But whatever the specific cost in human lives, the destruction of an enormous storehouse of life-saving medicines, in a country with which the United States was not at war, was nevertheless an extraordinary act to be taken without diligence.

Why did Clinton bomb the Al Shifa factory? He was not, presumably, consciously attempting to destroy Sudan’s supply of malaria drugs. But since Clinton had been given ample reason to doubt that the factory was making chemical weapons, and senior officials were offering grave doubts as to the wisdom of destroying the factory, why did he go through with it?

Some have posited a “wag the dog” story to explain Clinton’s conduct; the bombing coincided with Monica Lewinsky’s testimony in front of a grand jury, and the hypothesis is that Clinton urgently wanted a strike against Al Qaeda as a distraction, leading him to ignore evidence of the factory’s innocence out of a wish to hastily blow something up. That’s a deeply cynical interpretation, and unfounded. But we can believe the second half without necessarily buying the conspiratorial first half; whether or not it had anything to do with Lewinsky, Clinton wanted to strike back at Al Qaeda after the embassy bombings, and his desire for a bombing overtook his desire to make sure that bombing was against the correct target.

As the New York Times reported, “[s]ome officials said they were told that the President and his aides approved the operation . . . to show that the United States could hit back against an adversary who had bombed American embassies simultaneously in two countries.” It’s not that Clinton knew the building was a medicine factory, then, it was that he didn’t care enough to find out.

This interpretation, which fits well with the facts, suggests once again that Clinton’s strategic calculus rarely gives any real weight to black people’s lives. For Clinton, if there was a chance that the factory was producing nerve gas, that was sufficient reason to destroy it, period.

But for a moral human being, the chances that the factory is producing nerve gas must be set against the chance that it is an aspirin factory, and the potential human toll of a mistake should be factored into the decision-making. Given how serious the doubts about the factory were, and how decisive Clinton was against the advice of his senior officials, we must conclude that Clinton was simply not very concerned with the lives that were at stake in the question of whether the intelligence was reliable.

Clinton’s behavior was consistent. When it came to foreign policy the interests of America (and more importantly, of Bill Clinton) were the only factor given any consideration. The interests of the anonymous Africans who stood to bear the consequences were given no consideration at all.