The al-Shifa Pharmaceutical Factory was constructed in Khartoum, Sudan between 1992 and 1996 and opened in 1997. It was owned by Salah el din Ahmed Mohammed Idris, a businessman and supporter of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, an organization fighting the fundamentalist Sudanese government opposed by the United States. The al-Shifa factory played an important role in Sudanese society, producing 60% of Sudan's medicine, including medicine to fight malaria and dysentery, as well as much of the country's veterinary medicine. Furthermore, the factory sold this medication for 40% less than Western pharmaceutical manufacturers, a quite important fact in a country ravaged by civil war and poverty. The factory also employed 300 residents of Khartoum, creating jobs and stimulating the local economy.
All this changed on August 20, 1998, when then-President Bill Clinton ordered a cruise missile strike on al-Shifa as well as one in Afghanistan. The cruise missile razed the factory, instantly destroying it. The strike also killed a night guard and his family who were in the factory. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya by Osama bin Laden about two weeks earlier. The Clinton Administration provided three justifications for choosing al-Shifa as a target for this retaliation:
- The facility was guarded by the Sudanese military, the army of a regime opposed by the United States;
- The facility was owned by Osama bin Laden, the Sudanese government, or a front group for one or both of these parties;
- The facility had started to produce chemical weapons precursors and was on its way towards producing chemical weapons.
At the time, there were also many who believed that Clinton carried out the attack as a way to distract from the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Though this claim has widely been dismissed as a rumor in the United States, it is still widely viewed as credible in Sudan.
Every justification Clinton provided for selecting al-Shifa was at best thoroughly misled, if not an outright lie. There was no evidence the Sudanese military had any involvement with the factory and, as previously stated, the factory was not owned by either bin Laden or the government, but by Salah Idris, a vocal opponent of the government who had been exiled for his political activity.
Most importantly, the Clinton Administration's claim that al-Shifa was producing or beginning to produce chemical weapons, the Administration's most important justification for the bombing, was wholly untrue. Journalists who examined the rubble, including Dr. Bob Arnot, NBC's Chief Medical Correspondent, could find no evidence of chemical weapons production. In fact, the factory was structurally unable to produce these weapons: it lacked air-sealed doors, crucial for making chemical weapons. Many of those involved with the building and day-to-day operations of the plant, including foreigners, stated the plant had no capacity to engage in production of such weapons. These voices included Thomas Carnaffin, a British engineer who had acted as the technical manager during the factory's construction, and Ghazi Sulayman, the lawyer who oversaw Mr. Idris' purchase of the factory and who had been both jailed by the Sudanese government and publicly praised by US officials for his human rights advocacy. Werner Daum, the German ambassador to Sudan, also reported that he knew for certain al-Shifa had no connection to chemical weapons, nor to bin Laden, nor to the Sudanese government. Tony Lloyd, the United Kingdom's Foreign Office Minister, told the UK parliament there was no evidence the Sudanese government was making chemical weapons anywhere, let alone making them at the al-Shifa factory.
Clinton's key piece of evidence for the claim al-Shifa was producing chemical weapons was the alleged discovery of Empta, a precursor to VX nerve gas, in some soil near the plant. However, when journalist Christopher Hitchens spoke to Oxford chemist R.J.P. Williams, Hitchens was told that while Empta is a precursor of VX gas, it is also used in a variety of agricultural chemicals, products al-Shifa was known to have produced. Chemical weapons inspectors from the Hague and many other scientists concurred with Prof. Williams that any Empta could easily be the result of pesticide manufacturing. Furthermore, the soil sample allegedly containing Empta, a sample which the CIA never released for independent study, was not from plant's property, but and across the street that was not owned by the factory.
These factors, combined with several others (such as that the factory had been financed with an international-development loan, that the factory had been open for touring to Western pharmaceutical salesmen, and that the private investigative firm Kroll Associates conducted an investigation turning up absolutely no evidence to justify a missile strike on the factory) led to Clinton Administration Defense Secretary William Cohen admitting he should have known the factory produced medical and agricultural products within a week of the strike.
All of this points toward the Clinton Administration engaging in negligent intelligence practices leading to reckless, criminal behavior. Indeed the evidence that Clinton's intelligence gathering was deeply flawed and its behavior criminally reckless, if not just criminally murderous, is abundant.
Obviously, the Clinton Administration's claims of Empta in the soil being iron clad evidence of chemical weapons were ludicrous. Between the high probability of Empta being produced for numerous other reasons than the manufacture of VX gas and the soil coming not from the factory but from land near, though unaffiliated with, it, Clinton's advisers either should have known better or were seriously underqualified for the positions they were holding. Moreover, the sample was not even gathered by a CIA agent (CIA agents were barred from working in Sudan at the time), but by a friendly intelligence agency bordering Sudan. The most likely agencies that provided this information would have been Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, or Uganda, all of whom had extremely corrupt governments with incentives to provide less than objective samples for local political reasons.
But the facts surrounding the Empta claims were not nearly Clinton's only reckless act. CIA officials were ignored throughout the process of Clinton deciding to strike al-Shifa. Up until the moment of the attack, senior officials in the CIA and State Department warned that there was not enough evidence regarding any of the justifications (bin Laden/Sudanese government ownership, chemical weapons, Sudanese military involvement) to justifiably carry out the strike on al-Shifa. Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet informed Clinton that the evidence linking bin Laden to the factory was indirect and inferential and that there were gaps in the evidence. State department officials were even more candid about the lack of evidence than the CIA, informing the White House that claims regarding al-Shifa's links to bin Laden and chemical weapons were extremely weak. Additionally, Clinton not only did not take advantage of the Sudanese government's 1997 statement that it was open to chemical weapons inspectors conducting a search in the country, including those from the United Nations, but actively fought such a search from occurring.
Following the strike, Clinton engaged in apparently duplicitous behavior to cover his poor intelligence practices. The Administration refused to release any of its available evidence on why al-Shifa was bombed. It also seems to have silenced numerous voices claiming the bombing was unjustified coming from inside the CIA and the State Department, including the voices of CIA Directorate of Operations Jack Downing and the head of the African division of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, as well as in the State Department. There is also evidence that Clinton Administration Secretary of State Madeleine Albright killed reports condemning the bombing.
The global human rights non-profit Human Rights Watch summarized the Clinton Administration's action in the following manner in an open letter released after the strike:
"The [legal] requirements to do 'everything feasible' to verify the target selected [al-Shifa Pharmaceutical Factory] is a military object involves 'a continuing obligation to assign high priority collection, collation, and dissemination of timely target intelligence.'"
"It has not yet been established by the evidence in the public domain that the U.S. military planners did everything 'feasible' to establish that the al-Shifa factory met the definition of a legitimate military target, or even that it was a legitimate military target at the time of the attack...
"[The] U.S. government has not explained why its investigation on the site was sufficiently diligent in light of the fact that U.S. officials now admit 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 is hardly conclusive... that the planners did not know about the factory's legitimate activities suggests a lack of diligence in intelligence gathering. These and other facts raise serious concern in the minds of many about the thoroughness of the target-selection process."
Or, as Professor Williams put it, "Either the Administration has something to hid, or for some reason it is withholding the evidence."
The results of the bombing were catastrophic for the Sudanese people. Though the number is impossible to verify with certainty, partly due to U.S. obstructionism of an investigation in the United Nations, it is estimated that, in addition to the guard and his family that were killed in the attack itself, tens of thousands of Sudanese people died from the lack of medicine brought about by al-Shifa's destruction. After all, the factory produced 90% of Sudan's major pharmaceutical products. Following the attack, it took three months to replace the country's depleted medical stock with foreign imports to the extent it could be, though the medicine could never by replaced fully due to sanctions and the general economic poverty of the country. What's more, because Sudan now lacked a production facility for pharmaceuticals, it became dependent on foreign imports, often sold by exploitative pharmaceutical companies that raised prices well beyond what people could afford. In light of the available evidence as it is laid out above, the War Crimes Project believes there is substantial information for a Federal Attorney to prosecute former President Bill Clinton with war crimes under the War Crimes Act of 1996. Specifically, President Clinton violated 18 U.S. code § 241 (c)(2) by violating the Laws and Customs of War on Land (Hague Conventions IV of 1907) in the following ways:
- Violating Art. 23 of Hague IV ("it is especially forbidden... To employ arms, projectiles, or material calculated to cause unnecessary suffering") by employing arms against a medical facility, a calculated effort to deprive the Sudanese people of medicine that would prevent suffering and death.
- Violating Art. 23 of Hague IV ("it is especially forbidden... To destroy or seize the enemy's property, unless such destruction or seizure be imperatively demanded by the necessities of war") by destroying a medical facility, a piece of property, that had absolutely no association to any military endeavor and was in no way necessary to harm in any way.
- Violating Art. 25 of Hague IV ("The attack or bombardment, by whatever means, of buildings which are undefended is prohibited") by attacking a medical facility with no means whatsoever of defending itself against any kind of force.
- Violating Art. 27 of Hague IV ("In... bombardments all necessaary steps must be taken to spare, as far as possible, buildings dedicated to... science... [and] hospitals... provided they are not being used at the time for military purposes) by razing a facility dedicated to science and the production of medicine that the Sudanese government had taken all possible measures to demonstrate was not being for any military purpose whatsoever.
The War Crimes Project believes that President Clinton is likely culpable and should be prosecuted for several other actions he took as President in addition to the destruction of the al-Shifa Pharmaceutical Factory. Specifically, we believe President Clinton should be investigated and prosecuted for violations of the Geneva and Hague Conventions, and therefore violations of the War Crimes Act, for military actions he ordered in Iraq, Somalia, and the former Yugoslavia, as well as for his criminal and worldwide rendition (i.e. kidnapping) program.
Downloadable and Linked Resources
- Draft Legal memo on Bill Clinton's bombing of the al-Shifa Pharmaceutical Factory
- Sign the petition to prosecute Bill Clinton
- Bill Clinton wanted poster.pdf
- Bill Clinton wanted poster.jpg