A Profile of Islamic State’s Former Top Operative in Somalia: Bilal al-Sudani

Publication: Militant Leadership Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 2

Bilal al-Sudani via IntelligenceBriefs.com

A 2017 UN report concerning Somalia and Eritrea found that an Islamic State (IS) fighter in Somalia who defected from the group named “Abd El-Rahman” as his immediate superior in IS in Somalia (ISS) (UN Security Council, November 2, 2017). However, according to that report, two other former ISS militants in Bosaso (a port town in Puntland) stated that the same “Arabic-speaking Sudanese foreigner” was named “Bilal.” In May 2017, one month after the interview of the two former IS in the Sahel Province (ISSP) militants, ISS carried out its first ever claimed attack in Bosaso. This suggests that the town was being used as a recruitment and operational hub by ISS (africanews.com, May 24, 2017). It turns out that “Abd al-Rahman” was, in fact, Bilal al-Sudani, who was killed in January in a raid by US Navy Seals in Somalia.

In 2022, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned “Abd al-Rahman” and noted he was from Rabak, Sudan, which is near the Ethiopian border (OFAC, December 15, 2022). Further, he was born in 1984, which means he would have been around 23 when al-Shabaab was formed in Somalia in 2007. Al-Shabaab was originally formed with the support of formerly Sudan-based or Sudanese al-Qaeda operatives. ISS itself was formed in 2015 when Puntland-based al-Shabaab members, including those from Bosaso, split from al-Shabaab to pledge loyalty to the IS caliph, Abubakar al-Baghdadi (hiiraan.com, November 23, 2015). “Abd al-Rahman” would likely have been among them.

Little was known about “Abd al-Rahman”—given his high level of operational security—until the US announced it killed “Bilal al-Sudani” and nine other ISS members in a Seal Team raid on January 27 (somtribune.com, January 28, 2023). Unsurprisingly, he was killed in Puntland, where he had originally been among the founding ISS members. According to US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, “al-Sudani was responsible for fostering the growing presence of IS in Africa,” including not only Somalia, but also in the Congo and Mozambique. In fact, US officials had already designated him as a terrorist in 2022 for financing IS cells in South Africa; the US later claimed he also financed and oversaw the infamous Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) attack that killed 13 US troops at an airport in Kabul as the US was withdrawing from Afghanistan (treasury.gov, March 1, 2022). So important was al-Sudani to US counter-terrorism efforts that the Seal Team members rehearsed the raid in the same way they had with Osama bin Laden’s compound, practicing the assault on a mock model of al-Sudani’s residence (hiiraan.com, January 27, 2023).

Considering that “Abd al-Rahman” had the alias “Bilal,” was based in Puntland, and was known to top ISS militants as a high-ranking member at the time that ISS was formed, it is clear that “Abd al-Rahman” is “Bilal al-Sudani.” Although IS had managed to keep his identity largely unknown to outsiders, “Abd al-Rahman”/“Bilal al-Sudani” was a significant IS operative. Al-Sudani’s life is reflective of how Africa’s more permissive operational environment is allowing it to become a center of IS external operations outside of the Middle East.

More generally, IS appears to be delegating increasing leadership authority to its African provinces. While the caliph must remain an Arab from the al-Quraishi tribe, according to IS’ religious interpretation, the main provinces need not be in the Middle East. The jury is still out, however, about whether or not IS loyalists in the Middle East and beyond will remain attracted to an IS whose key battlegrounds are in Somalia and Nigeria, rather than in the Islamic “heartlands” of Syria and the Levant.