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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Ties to Kabul bombing put Islamic State leader in Somalia in US crosshairs

A victim of the suicide bombing outside the airport during the U.S. military evacuation arrives at a hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 26, 2021.


Bilal al-Sudani was no stranger to American counterterrorism officials.

Before joining an affiliate of the Islamic State militant group in Somalia, al-Sudani was subjected to punitive sanctions by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2012 for his involvement with al-Shabab, al-Qaida’s branch in the East African country.

But it wasn’t until U.S. officials started digging deeper into the background of another Islamic State branch, the one in Afghanistan that had carried out the deadly bombing at Kabul’s international airport in August 2021, that analysts fully realized that al-Sudani oversaw a sprawling Islamic State financial and logistical network across Africa, Europe and Afghanistan.

Al-Sudani’s newly revealed role as the financier for the Islamic State branch responsible for the death of 13 U.S. service members in Kabul rocketed him to the top ranks of U.S. counterterrorism kill-or-capture lists, senior U.S. officials said. Late last month, commandos from the Navy’s SEAL Team 6 killed him in an early-morning helicopter-to-ground raid in a remote cave complex in northern Somalia.

“Al-Sudani helped to put money in the pockets of the same elements of ISIS-K responsible for Abbey Gate,” said a senior U.S. official, referring to the Afghan group ISIS Khorasan and the location of the Kabul airport bombing.

The death of al-Sudani, whose Somalia-based headquarters coordinated trainers and funding for Islamic State affiliates in Afghanistan, the Congo, Mozambique and South Africa, underscores the group’s global connections and support structure, analysts say.

Despite his killing, analysts point to the Islamic State’s resiliency nearly four years since the end of its so-called caliphate, or religious state, in Iraq and Syria as it leverages terrorist networks to sustain new and established affiliates.

“Sudani’s death may temporarily disrupt this administrative network and the support reaching these affiliates, but is unlikely to dampen this support permanently,” the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project said in an assessment this past week.

Under intense military pressure by the United States and its local allies, the Islamic State’s leadership in Iraq and Syria has faced significant resource constraints in recent years, a sharp decline from the group’s peak as one of the best-financed terrorist organizations in the world.

This led the Islamic State to direct its affiliates to pursue financial self-sufficiency, as several “offices” coordinate revenue generation and money laundering among affiliates and networks within regions, rather than money flowing from Iraq and Syria to branches around the world, according to a recent analysis in the Long War Journal, a website run by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies that tracks military strikes against militant groups.

The Islamic State group has attempted to expand its influence in Africa through large-scale operations in areas where government control is limited. In announcing sanctions against four South African-based financiers for the group, the Treasury Department said in March that Islamic State branches in Africa were relying on local fundraising schemes such as theft, extortion and kidnapping for ransom, as well as financial support from the Islamic State hierarchy.

Somalia is better known as a sanctuary for al-Shabab, the terrorist group linked to al-Qaida, than for the Islamic State. But the Islamic State branch in the country has played an outsize role for the global terrorist organization despite having only 200 to 280 fighters.

The Islamic State’s Somalia wing includes a regional office called Al Karrar, which serves as a coordination hub for operations in the Congo, Mozambique, South Africa and the networks among them, Caleb Weiss and Ryan O’Farrell wrote in the Long War Journal analysis.

With counterparts in West Africa, South Asia, Syria and elsewhere, the Al Karrar office oversees substantial fundraising operations through extortion rackets and criminal activity in Somalia and South Africa, the analysis concluded.

But U.S. and other Western intelligence services have in the past year detected increasing ties between Al Karrar and ISIS Khorasan in Afghanistan. A United Nations report in July concluded that Al Karrar facilitated the flow of money to the Afghan affiliate through cells in Yemen, Kenya and Britain.

The U.N. report said that ISIS Khorasan “uses these funds in the acquisition of weapons and to pay the salaries of fighters.”

Before his death, al-Sudani was thought to play a key role in, or even direct, the Al Karrar office, officials said. “There’s evidence he was pulling the strings from East Africa,” said Heather Nicell, an Africa analyst with Janes, a London-based defense intelligence firm.

A senior administration official said no one else in the Islamic State group rivaled 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 affiliates on at least three continents through a network of clandestine contacts he had built over more than a decade.

As al-Sudani’s role in supporting Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan — including the Kabul airport bomber — came into sharper focus, the military’s secretive Joint Special Operations Command ramped up its planning to kill or capture him, officials said.

The Special Operations raid Jan. 25 took place in a remote mountainous cave complex in the Puntland region of northern Somalia, months after American spy networks first detected al-Sudani’s hidden headquarters and began using spy satellites and other surveillance aircraft to study his movements.

The U.S. commandos had been prepared to capture al-Sudani, but he and 10 other Sudanese associates were killed in a gunbattle after they resisted, a senior administration official told reporters after the raid was disclosed.

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