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Senior Islamic State leader killed in US raid in Somalia

Bilal al-Sudani, "a key operator and global facilitator for IS’ global network," died along with 10 companions in a firefight with US forces in a cave complex last night, Biden administration officials said.
Police officers take up positions outside of the Mayor's office where an ongoing gun battle erupted following a reported explosion, in Mogadishu, on January 22, 2023. (Photo by HASSAN ALI ELMI/AFP via Getty Images)

A senior Islamic State (IS) leader was killed during a raid by US special operations forces in a cave complex in the mountains of northern Somalia on Wednesday night, Biden administration officials said.

Bilal al-Sudani, a former al-Shabaab operative, played a “key operational and financial role” in an IS funding network that supported the jihadist group’s franchises in Afghanistan and Africa, a senior administration official said Thursday.

Ten of Sudani’s associates were also killed in the raid, which US President Joe Biden authorized earlier this week on the recommendations of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and after consultation with top Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and top advisers about risks to US troops and civilians.

Senior White House national security officials were aware of Sudani’s location for several months, the official said, adding that Pentagon officials briefed President Biden and his top national security advisers last week as preparations reached a critical stage.

Among those present for the briefing were Attorney General Merrick Garland, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and Deputy CIA Director David Cohen.

“This operation was the result of extraordinary coordination and careful planning across all elements of the US government for many months,” the senior administration official said.

US forces had prepared to take Sudani alive, but “the hostile forces’ response to the operation” obviated the attempt, according to the official. Two senior administration officials briefing reporters on the operation provided no further details of how Sudani died, nor of how many, nor which, US forces carried out the raid.

"Our preference is to pursue capture. That is in our guidance," the senior administration official said. "In this case, it wasn't feasible."

The officials said no civilians were harmed in the assault. A US service member was bitten by a US military service dog during the raid, the officials said.

“We have notified key counterterroism partners, including the Somali government,” the first senior official said, without specifying whether the notification came before or after the operation.

Administration officials speaking to reporters characterized the operation as a success for over-the-horizon targeting of transnational terrorists, following the drone strike that killed al-Qaeda godfather Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul and the raids that led to the death of IS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi in Syria last year.

"Al-Shabaab, as well as ISIS, take advantage of ungoverned spaces to operate with too much freedom and impunity," the second administration official said. 

Sudani, a former al-Shabaab official previously sanctioned by the US Treasury Department for terrorism, shifted allegiances to the Islamic State and directed funds to foster growing IS franchises, including IS-Khorosam in Afghanistan, and to support their operations around the world, officials said. 

From his base in rugged northern Somalia, Sudani "had a key operational and financial role with specialized skills, which made him an important target for US counterterrorism action," the second official said. 

US forces on the ground in Somalia have advised pro-government forces against al-Shabaab since the George W. Bush administration. 

Just prior to leaving office, former US President Donald Trump ordered all American forces to withdraw from Somalia against the advice of Pentagon officials, some of whom said the withdrawal would reduce their access to intelligence on terrorist networks in the country.

President Joe Biden reversed that policy last May, authorizing the redeployment of fewer than 500 US special operations forces to the country after restricting authorities for certain counterterrorism drone strikes.

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