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Killing of top ISIS militant casts spotlight on group’s broad reach in Africa

Friday February 3, 2023

By Katharine Houreld
U.S. Special Forces targeted Bilal al-Sudani, who allegedly played a central role in ISIS financial networks

Somali security personnel carry away a body after a clash Sunday between al-Qaeda-linked extremists and soldiers at the Banadir regional administration in Mogadishu. (Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP)

NAIROBI — The killing of a senior Islamic State operative by U.S. troops in a Somali cave complex last week has cast a spotlight on a shadowy financial network stretching from the Horn of Africa to the continent’s southern tip that Islamic State-affiliated groups have used to extend their reach, experts and intelligence officials said.

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The operation by U.S. Special Forces targeted Bilal al-Sudani, who Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said “was responsible for fostering the growing presence of ISIS in Africa and for funding the group’s operations worldwide, including in Afghanistan.” Ten others were also killed in the Jan. 25 raid.

Sudani had been on the radar of the United States as early as 2012, when it imposed sanctions on him under his real name, Suhayl Salim Abd el-Rahman, for his role in facilitating the entry of foreign fighters into Somalia for al-Shabab, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the country. In August 2016, Somalia’s U.S.-trained special forces and their counterparts from Puntland, a semiautonomous region in northern Somalia, conducted a raid to try to capture him, according to the Somali special forces commander at the time, Ahmed Sheikh. He described Sudani as the most senior foreign Islamic State commander in the country.

The Islamic State captured a coastal town later in 2016 and held it for about a month before Somali forces supported by the United States drove the militants back into the mountains of Puntland. From there, Sudani’s group — known as al-Karrar — functioned as a financial and administrative hub for the Islamic State, according to United Nations investigators and current and former Somali intelligence officials.

“Their intention was not to take territory in Puntland,” said a former Somali intelligence official. Like others interviewed, he spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation. “They functioned as a bridge between central Africa, Mozambique and the Middle East.”

The group used a network of businesses run by the Ali Saleban clan to move money around Africa, he said. Most of the Islamic State leadership in Somalia comes from that large and powerful clan, he said. Puntland authorities, facing local elections this year, have refrained from tangling with it.

A U.N. report published in July that examined the role of Sudani’s group in militant finance said one member state “reported that such funds reached Afghanistan through Yemen, another asserted that the money was transferred through a cell in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”

A U.N. employee arranges flags ahead of a meeting between the president of Somalia and the U.N. secretary general in September. (Jaclyn Licht)

In Somalia, the Islamic State has generated revenue by extorting money from businesses, said a current Somali intelligence official, citing, for example, a grenade attack on a trading company and the killing of employees of a telecom firm that had initially refused to pay. The Islamic State has not been as effective at extortion as al-Shabab but has been able to wring millions of dollars annually out of larger businesses, he said.

U.S. troops are back in Somalia and scrambling to help its special forces

East Africa has traditionally been the preserve of al-Shabab. It is one of al-Qaeda’s strongest and wealthiest global affiliates and has carried out numerous attacks in the region, killing thousands of civilians in restaurants, shopping malls and universities.

In 2015, a small group of militants, including Sudani, split off from al-Shabab and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. The group had specifically recruited Sudani, a Sudanese militant working in al-Shabab’s media department, because his brother was already active with the Islamic State, said a Somali security source, citing a defector.

Congo connection

Cash transfers from Sudani’s office reinvigorated the insurgency of the Allied Democratic Forces, an Islamist rebel group largely based in the forested mountains in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, said Tara Candland, vice president of research and analysis at the Bridgeway Foundation, a private organization that aims to prevent atrocities. The arrest of the ADF’s leader in 2015 had weakened the group.

“Numerous defectors have told us that in the months before the ADF started receiving money from [the Islamic State], the group was barely surviving. They had a hard time getting food and basic necessities, and morale was low. Then money from the Islamic State began arriving, and they could buy food, medicine, and pay for fighters to come into the group,” she said.

The first Islamic State transfer that Bridgeway was able to trace was in late 2017, she said. The next year, the group formally designated central Africa as one its “provinces” and in 2019 asserted responsibility for attacks in Congo.

Sudani had worked with Meddie Nkalubo, the ADF’s external operations coordinator, nicknamed “the Punisher,” sending hundreds of thousands of dollars from Somalia through regional networks in central and southern Africa, said Candland and Dino Mahtani, an analyst with extensive experience in Mozambique, Congo and Somalia.

Candland said the cash infusion had deadly effect. After 2017, the ADF killed about 4,000 civilians in Congo and a few in Uganda, according to databases maintained by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project and the Kivu Security Tracker. During the previous five years, the group had killed about a quarter of that number.

Bridgeway’s research also linked Islamic State funding to ADF’s bombings in Uganda and an attempted bombing Rwanda in 2021. Although the group had previously carried out bombings mainly in rural areas and in defensive operations, the ADF has become more aggressive in recent years, targeting churches, restaurants and other civilian targets, she said.

Mozambique insurgency

Sudani’s operation also appeared to establish some connections with militants farther south, in Mozambique, although the insurgency there is largely driven by local grievances. Mahtani said Rwandan troops helping Mozambique’s military had seized a laptop belonging to insurgents there that contained correspondence addressed to the Puntland office. “They seemed to be sending a battlefield report,” he said.

The Islamic State insurgency in northern Mozambique has been raging since 2017 and is marked by sexual slavery, forced recruitment of child soldiers, beheadings and torture. It has claimed more than 4,000 lives and forced nearly 1 million people from their homes, but it broke into the global consciousness only in 2021, when an attack on the town of Palma killed dozens of civilians, including many foreigners, and effectively halted major gas projects in the area.

One of Sudani’s lieutenants is believed to have moved to Mozambique, said the former Somali intelligence official, echoing the conclusions of a U.N. investigation team. The man was among those sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury in a flurry of November orders. Another set of Treasury orders earlier last year targeted the Islamic State in South Africa, linking one man to Sudani.

The Islamic State operation based in Puntland may also have Ethiopia in its sights, according to the two Somali intelligence officials and the security source. Since 2019, they said, the group has sought to recruit men from Oromia, Ethiopia’s most populous province.

Oromia has a substantial Muslim population and a growing ethnic-based insurgency. Migrants from Oromia often travel through Puntland, seeking jobs in the Middle East. The Islamic State had abducted some and persuaded them to stay, offering them small salaries, the source said. About half the group’s small band of recruits are currently Oromo, the officials said.


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