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Analysis: U.S. Military kills key Islamic State leader in Africa


Saturday January 28, 2023

BY CALEB WEISS & RYAN O'FARRELL 

 

 Map of Islamic State Somalia presence in Puntland (map by Ryan O’Farrell)

The United States announced yesterday that it conducted a special operations forces (SOF) raid on a hideout of the Islamic State’s branch in Somalia. During the raid, the SOF troops killed Bilal al-Sudani, an important leader for the Islamic State’s operations across much of eastern, central, and southern Africa. 

This type of raid is a rare occurrence in Somalia, where the U.S. primarily conducts drone strikes against Shabaab, al-Qaeda’s branch in East Africa. That the U.S. put boots on the ground in an Islamic State stronghold to target Sudani shows how important the terrorist operative was to the Islamic State and the United States’ efforts to defeat the group. 

In a press statement, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced “on January 25, on orders from the President, the U.S. military conducted an assault operation in northern Somalia that resulted in the death of a number of ISIS members, including Bilal-al-Sudani, an ISIS leader in Somalia and a key facilitator for ISIS’s global network.”

Secretary Austin went on to say that Sudani was “responsible for fostering the growing presence of ISIS in Africa and for funding the group’s operations worldwide, including in Afghanistan.” Sudani, a Sudanese national who was previously a member of Shabaab, was killed alongside an additional 10 Sudanese members of the Islamic State’s local Somali wing.

The announcement follows several reports in Somali media describing a U.S. drone strike on Islamic State-Somalia (ISS) militants in the Iskushuban area of the Cal Miskaad Mountains of Somalia’s northern semi-autonomous area of Puntland. The mountain range, which spans much of northern Puntland, has been a hideout of ISS since its inception in late Oct. 2015. 

The U.S. statement did not specify where exactly in Puntland that Sudani was killed. However, reporting from The New York Times confirms that Sudani was killed in a cave complex within the Cal Miskaad Mountains, matching earlier Somali reports. U.S. SOF troops were inserted near the complex via helicopters and intended to capture Sudani alive, though an intense firefight caused the terrorist leader’s demise. 

Much of ISS’ leadership is thought to be based near Galgala, a locale southwest of the coastal city of Bosaso on the border of Puntland and claimed Somaliland territory (a self-governing region that claims independence from Somalia). 

That said, much of ISS’ operational activity in Puntland is instead near the localities of Turmasaale and Balidhidin, both sitting in Puntland’s Iskushuban District to the southeast of Bosaso deep in the mountains (see map below).

Map of Islamic State Somalia presence in Puntland (map by Ryan O’Farrell)

Earlier this month, for example, ISS raided a Puntland security post near Balidhidin, killing at least one police officer. Though the ISS commander responsible for the raid –an Ethiopian national –was also killed in the assault, this raid marked a rare major operation for the local Islamic State branch. 

The group had previously briefly seized Balidhidin in August 2021, one of the the group’s first major captures of a town since the assault on the northern coastal town of Qandala in late 2016.

Though it conducts the occasional assassination or improvised explosive device (IED) attack, particularly in Mogadishu, ISS is not as operationally capable as its rival, al-Qaeda’s Shabaab. Instead, its real threat is in its coordination and facilitation of the Islamic State’s affairs across much of Africa (and beyond). 

Islamic State Somalia’s outsized role in the global network

The Islamic State’s Somalia wing, led by former Shabaab commander Abdulqadir Mu’min, also hosts the Islamic State’s Al-Karrar regional office. Al-Karrar is responsible for acting as the coordination hub for all of the Islamic State’s affairs in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mozambique, South Africa and the networks between them, with indications it is now also coordinating well beyond Africa. 

Before his death, al-Sudani was thought to play a key role in, or even direct, the Al-Karrar office. U.S. officials speaking to The New York Times made this clear, saying

“There was no one else in the Islamic State’s global constellation of operatives who rivaled Mr. al-Sudani in his ability to receive and distribute illicit funds — as much as hundreds of thousands of dollars at any given time — to far-flung ISIS affiliates on at least three continents through a network of clandestine contacts he built over more than a decade.”

This description of Sudani matches United Nations reporting on Al-Karrar. The United Nations Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, citing member states, offered the most detailed explanation to date of Al-Karrar’s substantial role in the Islamic State’s regional financial apparatus, which has been a key node of the group’s regional reorganization since 2018.

Under intense military pressure by the United States and its local allies in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State’s central apparatus faced significant resource constraints, a severe decline from the group’s height as one of the most well-resourced terrorist organizations in modern history. 

This led the Islamic State to direct its affiliates to pursue financial self-sufficiency, which is structured under several regional “offices” that coordinate revenue generation and money laundering between affiliates and networks within particular regions, rather than money flowing from Iraq and Syria to Islamic State affiliates around the world.

With counterparts in West Africa, South Asia, Syria and elsewhere, ISS’s Al-Karrar office oversees substantial fundraising operations through extortion rackets and criminal activity in Somalia and South Africa. 

Al-Karrar also oversees the networks that then transferred this money to the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in eastern Congo and Al-Shabaab in Mozambique (not to be confused with al-Qaeda’s Shabaab in Somalia), both of whom pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in early and mid-2019, respectively.

According to data from the Kivu Security Tracker, a conflict monitoring project, violence by the ADF in eastern Congo has sharply increased since the first documented transfer of funds from the Islamic State in November 2017. While the group was responsible for only 61 civilian deaths in 2017, by 2020 this had increased to 782 and reached 1275 in 2021

This money has also allowed the ADF to transform itself into a more regional terrorist actor. Since the summer of 2021, the ADF has been responsible for urban bombings, including suicide bombings, and other foiled plots, in Congo, Uganda, and Rwanda. It is only through the Islamic State’s money, facilitated by Sudani and the Al-Karrar office, that these operations were able to be conducted.

Similarly, the establishment of regional Islamic State financial networks linking Somalia and Mozambique, facilitated by Sudani and the Al-Karrar office, correlates with major gains by Al-Shabaab’s insurgency in Mozambique. For instance, the first documented Islamic State financial transfer (receipts reviewed by the authors) to Mozambique was in October 2019. 

This was just only a few months before a series of offensives by Al-Shabaab in Mozambique in early 2020, leading to the capture of significant territory by that summer, including the largest cities captured by any Islamic State affiliates in the world since 2017. 

To be clear, foreign interventions beginning in summer 2021 have since rolled back much of the group’s territory, though Al-Shabaab (or officially the Islamic State’s Mozambique Province since May 2022) has managed to pivot back towards an insurgency and even expand its area of operations.

Al-Karrar also oversaw the movement of tactical advisors to Islamic State in Congo and Mozambique and the production of propaganda from both groups. These advisors have reportedly instructed Islamic State in Congo on the use of drones, while a member of ISS reportedly journeyed to the group in Mozambique in early 2020

Media production by both groups, which goes to the Islamic State’s central media apparatus via the Al-Karrar office, has also sharply escalated as the Islamic State’s propaganda apparatus has shifted its focus to Africa.

According to the United Nations, Al-Karrar also recently began facilitating funding to the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (ISKP) in Afghanistan. This was seemingly also confirmed by the United States, as Secretary Austin mentioned Sudani’s role in sending money to Afghanistan

Al-Karrar’s increased role in the Islamic State’s global apparatus beyond Africa may indicate the Islamic State’s confidence in the regional office’s ability to generate and launder funds. If so, this speaks to the important role that Sudani and his office played for the Islamic State more broadly.

Al-Sudani’s death is thus a major blow to the Islamic State’s global networks and especially to its efforts across much of central, eastern, and southern Africa. His absence impacts the group’s ability to effectively facilitate funds, personnel, and materiel to the Islamic State’s men in the DRC, Mozambique, South Africa, and beyond. 



 





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