The United States government has now made five claims about
the al-Shifa factory in its attempts to justify its Cruise
missile attack on the plant on 20 August 1998. These are as
follows: The al-Shifa plant was making precursors to the VX
nerve gas, namely a compound known as Empta; that Osama bin-Laden
either owned or had a financial link to the al-Shifa factory;
that the al-Shifa factory did not produce any medicines or
drugs; that the al-Shifa factory was a high security facility
guarded by the Sudanese military; and that there were weapons
of mass destruction technology links between Sudan and Iraq
After just over one week of sifting through
American government claims, the internationally-respected
British newspaper, The Observer, has spoken of:
a catalogue of US misinformation, glaring omissions
and intelligence errors about the function of the plant.
The Observer newspaper reported
that American intelligence sources were moving to "less
and less credible positions".
An examination and assessment of the evidence
released by the United States would appear to be confused,
inconclusive and contradictory. The American evidence was
immediately challenged by American and European scientists,
chemists and chemical warfare experts.
Claim Number 1 The al-Shifa plant
was making precursors to the VX nerve gas
While claiming to have "physical evidence"
to support their attack on al-Shifa, United States officials
initially said that they would not be able to release it
for security reasons.
Speaking on CNN's Late Edition on 22 August,
the President's National Security Adviser, Sandy Berger,
refused to describe the "physical evidence" the
government had, saying that it was necessary to protect
intelligence methods and sources. In the days following
the attack, Bill Richardson, the United States ambassador
to the United Nations, said that that the United States
government was in possession of "undeniable physical
evidence" that al-Shifa was being used to manufacture
chemical weapons. He admitted that the American government
had not presented this evidence to the United Nations Security
Council, but that it had been shown to United States congressional
leaders. Richardson stated that "We believe that is
After further international pressure, the
United States government officials then stated on 24 August
that the United States had material from the plant, including
equipment and containers which carried residues of a chemical
substance with no commercial uses, but which it was said
was exclusively used in VX nerve gas. It was additionally
stated by the two anonymous officials that the CIA had used
light spectrum data collected by spy satellites to analyse
emissions from the plant and that they may also have employed
banded migratory birds that fly through Khartoum to gather
information about production at the plant.
The United States position then shifted,
and on 25 August it claimed that the key evidence justifying
its destruction of the al-Shifa plant was in fact a soil
sample of a precursor chemical in the making of the VX nerve
gas obtained months previously from the factory. The United
States government then refused to identify what they claimed
to be the precursor.
The White House press spokesman, Mike McCurry,
speaking on 24 August, stated, for example, that:
The nature of that information is classified
After several days of attempting to avoid
naming the compound, the American government stated that
the chemical was said to be O-ethylmethyl-phosphonothioic
acid, or EMPTA.
No less a person than the Under Secretary
of State, Mr Thomas Pickering, went on record to state that:
The physical evidence is a soil sample, analysis of
it shows the presence of a chemical whose simple name
is EMPTA, a known precursor for the nerve agent VX..We
think that it was this evidence, and evidence like it,
which made our decision to carry out this strike on this
particular target the correct and proper decision under
Pickering dismissed the need for an independent
investigation of the site:
I don't believe that an international investigative
committee needs to have an additional role. The evidence
in our view is clear and persuasive.
The soil samples were said to have been
obtained from the factory itself. An American intelligence
official added that:
It is a substance that has no commercial applications,
it doesn't occur naturally in the environment, it's not
a by-product of any other chemical process. The only thing
you can use it for, that we know of, is to make VX.
The American claims were almost immediately
challenged by independent sources. The Independent
newspaper reported, for example, that:
Chemical weapons experts believe the evidence presented
so far is not strong enough. They point out that key components
of chemical weapons have "dual use" and are
also used in medicines, even bubble bath and shampoo.
The newspaper quoted Alfred Frey, a chemical
weapons expert working for the United Nations, who said
that EMPTA was not conclusive scientific evidence of involvement
in producing nerve gas. Mr Frey is a United Nations Iraqi
weapons inspector. He stated:
That would tell me I found this product (the compound)
and no more.
Even more damning was the finding by The
New York Times that:
The chemical precursor of a nerve agent that Washington
claimed was made at a Sudanese chemical factory it destroyed
in a missile attack last week could be used for commercial
The New York Times cited the Organization
for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) as stating
that the chemical could be used "in limited quantities
for legitimate commercial purposes". These purposes
could be use in fungicides, and anti-microbial agents. It
should be noted that the OPCW is an independent international
agency which oversees the inspections of governments and
companies to ensure they are not making substances that
contravene the chemical weapons ban treaty.
There also appeared to be confusion in
the official American government claims about the Empta
compound. On 26 August, the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament
Agency stated that Empta was listed as a so-called Schedule
1 chemical - an immediate chemical weapons precursor with
no recognised commercial use - by the Organisation for the
Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The U.S. Arms Control and
Disarmament Agency then changed its public stance within
a matter of hours, after OPCW officials said that Empta
could have commercial uses. Contradicting American government
claims, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical
Weapons said that the organisation classifies Empta on its
Schedule 2b of compounds that could be used to make chemical
weapons but which also have commercial uses. The OPCW said
that Empta is identified with a process to make plastics
flexible and also with some fungicides and anti-microbial
Concerns were raised by chemical weapons
experts. Jonathan Tucker, of the Center for Nonproliferation
Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies,
voiced concern about the soil sample: "There are a
lot of questions about the soil sample: Where was it taken?
Who took it?". He also queried "the chain of custody"
and asked if it had been ensured that the soil sample had
not been contaminated. All in all, he stated:
it's a bit of a dilemma in terms of the credibility
of the U.S. case.
On 27 August, The New York Times
also stated that:
Today several American experts in chemical weapons
and analysis offered another possible explanation of what
the plant made. They said the chemical's structure resembled
that of an agricultural insecticide, known as fonofos,
which is commercially available in Africa. While the two
are not identical, they have molecular similarities and
could be confused in a laboratory test performed under
less-than-ideal conditions, such as a delay between the
taking of a soil sample in Khartoum and a scientific test
of the sample.
This possibility was put forward by Mr
Hank Ellison, a counter-terrorism expert who ran the American
army's chemical and biological warfare programs at Fort
Campbell, Kentucky, in the 1980s. Mr Ellison stated that
the chemical characteristics of Empta and fonofos were "very
similar" and that those similarities "could be
misinterpreted in a lab analysis". Mr Ellison said:
I imagine this soil sample wasn't taken under the best
of circumstances by somebody placing it in a cooler and
immediately sending it to a lab. And quality control for
the storage and manufacture of pesticides and insecticides
is not the highest in the world, so that could increase
the possibility of seeing similarities in the chemical
The New York Times also interviewed
an official with the chemical weapons organisation in the
Hague who said that research also suggested that Empta could
be the by-product of the breakdown of other pesticides.
The official also stated that companies such as Mobil and
International Chemical Industries of America had researched
commercial applications using Empta.
Mike Hiskey, an expert at the world-renowned
Los Alamos National Laboratory in the United States, said
that the chemical had commercial uses, including the manufacture
of some herbicides and pesticides.
The Guardian has also reported that:
a search of scientific papers showed that it could
be used in a variety of circumstances.
The Observer has also stated that:
US credibility has been further dented by Western scientists
who have pointed out that the same ingredients are used
for chemical weapons and beer, and that mustard gas is
similar in make-up to the anti-clogging agent in biro
ink. It has also been pointed out that the cherry flavouring
in sweets is one of the constituent parts of the gas used
in combat. Empta also has commercial uses not linked to
Professor R J P Williams FRS, at Oxford
University's Inorganic Chemistry Laboratory, has also directly
challenged the American claims, stating:
Types of the compound.an ethyl-methyl-phosphorus derivative,
can be bought on the open market. If every laboratory
which has such a chemical is to be bombed, then it is
goodbye to many chemistry departments in UK, USA and all
over the world.The public must know the facts about the
chemicals concerned in order to feel sure that terrorist
targets were attacked and not innocent parties. People
world-wide will support the effort to eliminate terrorists,
but not just random reprisal raids, just to show the ability
to strike anybody, anywhere. The USA must come clean,
as must our government.
Professor Williams has also stated that
the compound in question:
could also be linked to quite other synthetic chemical
compounds. Insect and nematode (worm) agricultural chemicals
are not unrelated. Nerve poisons are used against such
He warned that:
We must not be misled by technical language to cover
up speculation. The UN or the Hague Court must ask the
US and now the UK to say clearly what information provoked
the attack on Sudan. If we want law and order to prevail
we must show that we have just cause for such action,
otherwise we are approving terrorist methods of our own.
The Guardian has also reported on
28 August that:
Several American experts in chemical warfare say there
is an agricultural insecticide, with similar properties,
that can be easily mistaken for Empta.
The New York Times voiced continuing
concerns about the American government claims:
Despite the Administration's offer of details about
its evidence, there were still unanswered questions. The
soil sample, which presumably measured either a spill
or airborne particulars, did not prove that it was the
pharmaceutical plant that produced the chemical, Empta.
The Sudanese government had itself declared
that it was unsatisfied with the American claims to have
a soil sample.
The Sudanese information minister, Dr Ghazi
They have not produced any convincing evidence. We
have to be satisfied that the United States is not making
this up. It's not enough to produce soil which could have
been made up in the United States itself, and to claim
that the soil contains toxic agents. For a factory to
produce toxic agents, you need special facilities, special
preparations, special storage areas and preparations facilities.
You can't keep things to yourself and keep claiming you
have the final proof without allowing people to verify
It should also be pointed out that the
export manager of the al-Shifa factory, Alamaddin al-Shibli,
challenged the American claim to have obtained a soil sample:
There's no way to take a sample of soil from this factory,
according to the construction of this factory. It's either
concrete or cement or carpet.
By 26 August, ABC News reported that the
United States administration was itself unsure of its claims:
Now, U.S. officials say they do not know with certainty
whether the VX precursor was manufactured at the plant,
was stored there, or may have represented a small quantity
of research and development material.
The Observer reported that American
intelligence sources were moving to "less and less
credible positions". By 28 August, just over one week
after the destruction of the al-Shifa factory, a United
States Defence Department spokesman said:
There may have been better places to go. That doesn't
mean it was the wrong place to go.
Claim Number 2 That Osama
bin-Laden either owned or had a financial link to the al-Shifa
The United States government claimed that
Osama bin-Laden had a financial interest in the al-Shifa
factory. This was denied both by the owners and the Sudanese
government. Mr Suleiman, the al-Shifa company's lawyer said
that the owner was a Sudanese businessman, Salah Idris.
The plant had been established by Bashir Hassan Bashir,
and had been sold in March 1997 to Mr Idris.
The Financial Times stated with
reference to the ownership that:
The factory is owned by Salah Idris, a Saudi Arabia-based
Sudanese. Mr Salah is from a family with close ties to
Sudan's Khatmiyya religious sect which is vehemently opposed
to Sudan's Islamist government and by implication an unlikely
business partner for Mr bin Laden.
On 25 August a United States intelligence
official, giving an official briefing to the media on the
American missile strikes admitted that the ties between
bin-Laden and the al-Shifa factory were "fuzzy".
On the same day, Reuters reported that a United States intelligence
official had said that he:
could not confirm any direct financial link between
Bin Laden and the plant.
The Washington Post reported that:
Within days, however, U.S. officials began pulling
back from directly linking bin Laden to El Shifa Pharmaceutical.
Instead, they said that his link was to the Sudanese military
industrial complex - and that the Sudanese military was,
in turn, linked to the VX precursor at El Shifa.
This would appear to jar somewhat with
a 24 August CNN report which investigated the ownership
of the factory:
The Sudanese government says that this plant is privately
owned. It produced ownership papers of the individuals
who actually own this plant. It is part of private ownership.
The government, itself, has nothing to do with this plant.
By 31 August, it was being reported by
The New York Times that:
Some U.S. officials now say Mr. bin Laden's financial
support.did not directly flow to the plant itself
Claim Number 3 That the al-Shifa
factory had no commercial products
The American news service, ABC News, stated
that senior intelligence officials had claimed in relation
to the al-Shifa factory that:
there was no evidence that commercial products were
ever sold out of the facility.
President Clinton's National Security Advisor,
Sandy Berger, personally stated that the Al-Shifa factory
has no other commercial distribution as far as we understand.
We have physical evidence of that fact and very, very
little doubt of it.
The factory's lawyer, and leading Sudanese
human rights activist, Ghazi Suleiman, said that the factory
produced 60 percent of Sudan's pharmaceutical drugs, including
antibiotics, malaria tablets and syrups, as well as drugs
for diabetes, ulcers, tuberculosis, rheumatism and hypertension.
Journalists who visited the site were able
to find thousands of containers and bottles of human medication
and animal drugs, clear evidence of the factory's commercial
The Sudanese government also made public
the fact that al-Shifa had been in the process of filling
a United Nations-approved contract to provide Iraq with
$200,000 worth of 'Shifzole 2.5 percent (Albndazole 2.5
percent for Levamisole)', a deworming drug for animals.
The U.N.'s Iraqi sanctions committee had approved the contract
in January 1998 as part of the "oil for food"
The United States government eventually
conceded that the al-Shifa factory had in fact been commercially
producing medicines and drugs. Some days after the missile
strike, State Department spokesman James Foley admitted,
That facility may very well have been producing pharmaceuticals.
The Times has also confirmed the
Clinton Administration's belated acceptance of this fact:
Now they admit it made 60 percent of
On 31 August, it was reported that the
Pentagon itself admitted that there had been an intelligence
failure on the part of the United States government in not
being aware of the commercial production of medicines and
Some of the intelligence people didn't know they would
find any of that there.
For the National Security Advisor to have
publicly made such a mistake over what should have been
the very easily verifiable issue of whether al-Shifa produced
medicines or not is a key indicator as to the quality and
accuracy of American intelligence on the factory. A simple
call to the Sudanese chamber of commerce would have sufficed.
Claim Number 4 That the al-Shifa
factory was a high security facility guarded by the Sudanese
In a briefing on the al-Shifa factory soon
after the strike on Khartoum, a senior American intelligence
official told reporters in Washington that:
The facility also has a secured perimeter and it's
patrolled by the Sudanese military.
United States government claims that the
factory was a heavily-guarded, military installation with
restricted access, have been comprehensively contradicted
by western journalists. The Economist, for example,
reported that the al-Shifa factory was "open to the
street", contrasting with other heavily guarded areas
The German ambassador to Sudan, Werner
Daum, immediately challenged United States claims about
the factory. In a communication to the German foreign ministry
written within hours of the attack he stated that the factory
had no disguise and there was nothing secret about the site,
and reported: "One can't, even if one wants to, describe
the Shifa firm as a chemical factory."
Associated Press stated that:
There are no signs of secrecy at the plant. Two prominent
signs along the road point to the factory, and foreigners
have been allowed to visit the site at all hours.
Thomas Carnaffin, the British engineer
who worked at the factory for several years up until April
1998, said that he had been "into every corner of the
It was never a plant of high security. You could walk
around anywhere you liked, and no one tried to stop you.
This was also confirmed by the British
film-maker Irwin Armstrong who visited the factory in late
It is also worth noting that Alastair Hay,
the Leeds University chemical pathologist, has said that
if there was no restricted access at the plant, then Sudan
seemed to have a good case.
Claim Number 5 That there
were weapons of mass destruction technology links between
Sudan and Iraq
Some four days after the attack on the
al-Shifa factory, the United States government position