U.S. killing of top Islamic State militant in Somalia casts spotlight on its broad reach in Africa


NAIROBI — Last week’s killing of a senior Islamic State operative by U.S. troops in a Somali cave compound has shed light on a shadowy financial network used by Islamic State-linked groups stretching from the Horn of Africa to the southern tip of the continent. are doing Experts and intelligence officials said their reach.

Bilal al-Sudani was targeted in the US special forces operation, which Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said “promotes ISIS’s growing presence in Africa and finances the group’s operations around the world, including in Afghanistan.” was responsible for doing.” Ten others were also killed in the January 25 raid.

The Sudanese had been on the U.S. radar since early 2012, when it imposed sanctions on his real name Sohail Salim Abd al-Rahman for his role in facilitating the entry of foreign fighters into Somalia for al-Shabaab. Al-Qaeda affiliation in the country. In August 2016, U.S.-trained Somali special forces and their counterparts from the semi-autonomous region of Puntland in northern Somalia attempted to capture him, according to Ahmed Sheikh, the commander of the Somali Special Forces at the time. He described Sudani as the country’s most senior foreign Islamic State commander.

Islamic State seized a coastal town in late 2016 and held it for about a month before U.S.-backed Somali forces drove the militants back into the mountains of Puntland. From there, the Sudanese group — known as al-Karrar — served as Islamic State’s financial and administrative center, according to U.N. investigators and current and former Somali intelligence officials.

“They did not intend to capture the Puntland region,” said a former Somali intelligence official. Like others interviewed, he spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation. “They served as a bridge between Central Africa, Mozambique and the Middle East.”

He said the group used a network of businesses run by the Ali Saleh clan to move money around Africa. He said that most of the leadership of the Islamic State in Somalia comes from this large and powerful tribe. Puntland officials, facing local government elections this year, have avoided entanglement.

A United Nations report published in July examining the Sudanese group’s role in financing militants noted that one member state “reported that such funds have reached Afghanistan via Yemen, while another emphasized “The money was transferred through a cell in the UK and Northern Ireland,” he said.

In Somalia, the Islamic State has obtained income by extorting money from businesses, a current Somali intelligence official cited, for example, as a grenade attack on a trading company and the killing of employees of a telecom firm. Said who initially refused to pay. He said that the Islamic State has not been as effective as al-Shabaab in extortion, but it has been able to earn millions of dollars annually from big businesses.

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

East Africa has traditionally been the protectorate of al-Shabaab. 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 Sudanese, defected from al-Shabaab and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. A Somali security source, citing a defector, said the group specifically recruited a Sudanese militant working in al-Shabaab’s media department, as his brother was already active with Islamic State.

The transfer of cash from the Sudanese office re-energized the coalition’s insurgency. Tara Kendland, vice president of research and analysis at the Bridgeway Foundation, said an Islamist rebel group based mostly in the forested mountains in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is preventing atrocities. The arrest of the ADF leader in 2015 weakened the group.

“Several defectors have told us that in the months before they received money from the ADF [the Islamic State], the group barely survived. They were having trouble getting food and basic necessities and morale was low. Then money started coming in from the Islamic State, and they could buy food, medicine and pay fighters to join the group.”

The first Islamic State transfer that Bridgeway was able to trace was in late 2017, he said. The following year, the group officially designated Central Africa as its “provinces” and claimed responsibility for attacks in the Congo in 2019.

Candland and Dino Mehtani, an analyst with extensive experience in Mozambique, said the Sudanese worked with the ADF’s external operations coordinator, Maddy Nkalubo, nicknamed “The Punisher”, in central and southern Africa. Millions of dollars were sent from Somalia through regional networks. Congo and Somalia.

Candland said the cash infusion had a fatal effect. Since 2017, the ADF has killed about 4,000 civilians in Congo and some in Uganda, according to databases maintained by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project and Kivo Security Tracker. Over the past five years, the group had killed about a quarter of that number.

Bridgeway’s research also linked Islamic State funding to ADF bombings in Uganda and a 2021 bombing attempt in Rwanda. Although the group previously carried out bombings primarily in rural areas and in defensive operations, the ADF has become more aggressive in recent years, targeting churches. Restaurants and other urban targets, he said.

The Sudanese operation also appears to have established some links with militants in the south of Mozambique, although the insurgency there is largely driven by local grievances. Mahtani said Rwandan troops, assisting the Mozambican army, seized a laptop belonging to rebels there that contained correspondence from the Puntland office. He said it looked like he was sending a battlefield report.

The Islamic State insurgency in northern Mozambique has been ongoing since 2017 and has included sexual slavery, forced recruitment of child soldiers, beheadings and torture. It has claimed more than 4,000 lives and displaced nearly one million people from their homes, but it only came to global attention in 2021, when an attack on the town of Palma killed dozens of civilians, including Many foreigners were also involved, and effectively blocked the big gas. projects in the area.

A Sudanese lieutenant is believed to have defected to Mozambique, the former Somali intelligence official said, echoing the findings of the UN investigation team. The man was among those sanctioned by the US Treasury in a wave of November orders. Another set of Treasury orders earlier last year targeted the Islamic State in South Africa, linking one person to Sudanese.

A rebellion by Somali tribes has put al-Qaeda-linked militants on the defensive

According to two Somali intelligence officials and security sources, Puntland-based Islamic State operations may also involve Ethiopia. Since 2019, the group has sought to recruit men from Oromia, Ethiopia’s most populous province, he said.

Oromia has a substantial Muslim population and a growing ethnic insurgency. Migrants from Oromia often travel through Puntland in search of jobs in the Middle East. Some were kidnapped by Islamic State and lured to stay by offering meager salaries, sources said. About half of the group’s small band recruits are currently Oromo, officials said.

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