Jihadi archives: Islamic State’s eulogy of Sudanese jihadist Mohamad Makkawi Ibrahim

Makkawi reward poster
Makkawi’s “Rewards for Justice” poster issued by the US State Department.

In May 2016, the Islamic State (IS) issued a eulogy for the infamous Sudanese jihadist Mohamad Makkawi Ibrahim through its weekly Al-Naba newsletter. The eulogy flew under the radar at the time but offers an interesting look into the career of one of the Islamic State’s first so-called “martyrs” in Somalia. It also provides an early chronicle of the Islamic State’s history in the Horn of Africa.

According to the Islamic State, Makkawi was born and raised in the United Arab Emirates before returning to his ancestral homeland of Sudan as a teen and quickly enrolling in the Sudan University of Science and Technology’s School of Engineering. However, Makkawi did not graduate, according to IS. Instead, “God guided him to the path of truth and righteousness,” and he took up armed jihad, joining the Al-Salamah Group in Khartoum.

The Al-Salamah Group was an early Al Qaeda-affiliated cell that attempted a series of bombings in August 2007 in the eponymous southern suburb of Khartoum. The cell constituted one network within the wider group commonly referred to as Al Qaeda in the Land of Two Niles (AQTN). Though the cell managed to detonate at least one improvised explosive device, the network was quickly rolled up by Sudanese authorities. According to the Islamic State, Makkawi avoided arrest and remained active with fellow jihadists hiding in Darfur following these plots.

A few months later, in January 2008, Makkawi, along with three other individuals linked to AQTN and another Sudanese jihadist outfit, Ansar al Tawhid, returned to Khartoum and murdered two United States Agency for International Development (USAID) employees. Based on the Islamic State’s re-telling of events, the two employees, an American and a Sudanese national, were actually American intelligence agents sent to arrest Makkawi, so he “gunned them down in a storm of bullets.” However, the Islamic State’s version of the murders of John Granville and Abdelrahman Abbas Rahama is not backed by any known evidence.

This attack nevertheless earned Makkawi a spot in the US State Department’s “Rewards for Justice” program with a $5 million bounty on his head (strangely, this bounty remains active, despite Makkawi’s eulogy). One of Makkawi’s partners in the murders, Abdelbasit Alhaj Alhassan Haj Hamad, also maintains the same bounty. Others involved in the murders include Mohannad Osman Youssef, Abdul Raouf Abu Zeid Muhammad Hamza, and Murad Abdel-Rahman Abdullah. All men were later arrested and imprisoned for their role in killing the USAID workers, including Makkawi, who was arrested following a brief shootout with Sudanese police in Khartoum in February 2008. The Islamic State’s eulogy makes a point to celebrate Makkawi’s bounty, bragging about the large price tag.

Over the next two years, the five men were imprisoned at Khartoum’s Kober Prison, which is known to house detained Islamists and jihadist militants. In June 2010, however, Makkawi and his accomplices (except for Murad Abdel-Rahman Abdullah) managed to escape from the prison “in a blessing bestowed upon him by God,” according to the Islamic State. Another break in April 2023 happened at this same prison, allowing an unknown number of Islamists and jihadist militants to escape.

The 2010 prison break was later shown to have been filmed when Ansar al Tawhid released a documentary on the event in late 2012, showing the four men had dug a tunnel from their cell to the outside. Makkawi was featured prominently in the video, acting as its narrator. After escaping, the Islamic State says that Makkawi “hid out in Sudan for a year before deciding to migrate to Somalia.” Though not stated in the eulogy, it is believed that Makkawi and two others, Abdelbasit Alhaj Alhassan Haj Hamad and Mohannad Osman Youssef, again hid in Darfur during this period. The other escapee, Abdul Raouf Abu Zeid Muhammad Hamza, was quickly rearrested and remained in prison until his release in early 2023.

Makkawi with Shabaab

According to the Islamic State’s account, Makkawi’s journey to Somalia was by land and involved “crossing many international borders,” with his fake documents and passport fooling various border officials. The eulogy does not mention it, but Makkawi was not alone on the journey, as he was joined by his longtime colleague in jihad, Mohannad Osman Youssef. After arriving in Somalia sometime around May 2011, Makkawi (and ostensibly Youssef) was “welcomed by the mujahideen” and quickly placed into one of the fighting units, where he took the kunya (honorific name) of Abu Sulayman, according to the eulogy.

The Islamic State again omits this information, but Makkawi, and indeed Youssef, joined Shabaab, al Qaeda’s branch for East Africa. Youssef would be killed fighting for Shabaab shortly after arriving, according to his family. The current status of Makkawi’s remaining colleague, Abdelbasit Alhaj Alhassan Haj Hamad, remains unclear, though he is also believed to have joined Shabaab at an unknown date.

According to the Islamic State, Makkawi was placed into two separate training camps in his early days in Somalia, one ostensibly for military and physical training and the other for religious training. In this latter camp, Makkawi “was a student of knowledge and very keen on making the most of his time,” later becoming the main ideologue in his unit.

The Islamic State also notes that after some time in southern Somalia, Makkawi was stationed in “the forests of Kenya,” likely referring to the Boni Forest in Kenya’s northeastern Lamu County, a historical stronghold for the al Qaeda branch. The eulogy then narrates a story of how Makkawi inspired and became a favorite among his men after defending himself from rampaging wild animals during one of the group’s hippopotamus-poaching expeditions in the forest.

Joining the Islamic State

The eulogy then skips over several years, only noting that Makkawi “continued to be a mujahid and defending his religion,” followed by describing the period shortly after the announcement of the Islamic State’s caliphate in June 2014. According to IS, the “Jews of jihad,” referring to Shabaab, refused to listen to the call to swear fealty to the new Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Makkawi, however, “considered what was right in this matter,” and the Islamic State says that “the truth became clear to him” after he had consulted many religious texts over several months. Makkawi pledged bay’ah (allegiance) to Baghdadi.

The Islamic State then notes that Makkawi began preaching the virtues of joining Baghdadi and his caliphate to his unit and others in Shabaab back in southern Somalia. This preaching reportedly gained a following, and Makkawi was soon head of a small pro-Islamic State group within Shabaab. The eulogy then states that Shabaab leaders attempted to silence him and stop the dissent by moving his name up the list of approved “martyrdom seekers” (Shabaab’s sign-up sheet for would-be suicide bombers). However, Makkawi refused to take part in a ‘martyrdom operation’ unless it was under a “true banner [of Islam].” As pressure mounted from Shabaab officials, the eulogy notes that Makkawi and his small group then decided to make hijrah (migrate) to the Islamic State’s Libya Province—which was the preeminent Islamic State wing outside of Iraq and Syria in 2014 and 2015.

Makkawi’s bay’ah video to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
Screenshot from Makkawi’s bay’ah video to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. According to the Islamic State, Makkawi is the man featured in the middle, leading the pledge.

After being blocked from traveling by Shabaab’s loyal cadres, the Islamic State says that Makkawi and his men decided to arrange for travel to Puntland in northern Somalia, where another Islamic State group had emerged. Before this trip, however, Makkawi and his men recorded their pledge of allegiance to Baghdadi and sent it to the Islamic State, which later published the video under the title “Bay’ah From a Group of Somali Mujahideen” in November 2015.

Based on the Islamic State’s eulogy, Makkawi led the pledge of allegiance in the video. Makkawi’s video (a screenshot from it can be seen above) came a month after a former Shabaab official and ideologue in Puntland, Abdul Qadir Mumin, also joined Baghdadi and quickly became the overall head of the Islamic State’s Somali wing. Shabaab, which had seen Makkawi’s video, then decided to take decisive action and actively hunt for Makkawi and his group.

Shabaab squashes pro-Islamic State groups

While it’s omitted from the Islamic State’s account, Makkawi’s pro-Islamic State faction was just one of several that emerged in Somalia during this period.

A month after Makkawi’s video, another prominent pro-Islamic State commander within Shabaab, Bashir Abu Nu’man, released his own bay’ah video to Baghdadi from Somalia’s southern Jubaland region. And though they did not issue videos, other prominent Shabaab commanders, Hussein Abdi Gedi (Shabaab’s former deputy shadow governor for Jubaland) and Abdul Wadud (an influential commander from the Somali Rahanweyn clan in southern Somalia), also switched allegiances and joined the Islamic State in Somalia’s south along with their men at this time. By late 2015, the Islamic State thus had a core group of followers in Puntland with Mumin and several geographically disparate groups deep within Shabaab’s traditional strongholds in southern Somalia.

With several prominent commanders defecting, Shabaab took a hardline stance of opposition towards the Islamic State, remaining steadfastly loyal to al Qaeda and its now-deceased leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. For the rest of 2015 and much of 2016, Shabaab and its amniyat [internal security wing] violently crushed pro-Islamic State groups in southern Somalia, including those of Bashir Abu Nu’man, Hussein Abdi Gedi, and Abdul Wadud, all killed by Shabaab’s men. Pro-Islamic State individuals within Shabaab’s ranks, including many foreign fighters, were also systematically hunted and executed.

Some pro-Islamic State groups have periodically emerged in central and southern Somalia since, including a small cadre of Islamic State-loyal militants in the central city of Beledweyne in late 2018, a group along the Kenya-Somalia border in early 2019, and a group led by former Shabaab commander Abu Zakariye in the southern locale of Bu’ale, also in early 2019. Nevertheless, the Islamic State in Somalia is largely relegated to the mountains of Puntland. However, IS maintains operational and financial cells in Mogadishu, where the bulk of its active operations take place.

Based on the Islamic State’s account, it did not take long for Shabaab’s amniyat to locate Makkawi and his group at some point in November or December 2015. Makkawi was reportedly killed immediately when the clash between Shabaab’s amniyat and Makkawi’s group began, a fight which also left the majority of his cadre dead or imprisoned by Shabaab. The death of the jihadist veteran received little attention, with only a brief article announcing his killing in the Sudan Tribune, in whichhis family confirmed his death. For the Islamic State’s part, it offers condolences on his death but congratulates him and his men for achieving “martyrdom in the path of God.” The Islamic State also sarcastically chastised the “Jews of jihad” (Shabaab) for “saving the American treasury,” as now no one can claim his $5 million bounty.

Makkawi, once known for making headlines with his brazen murder of an American in the streets of Khartoum and a later prison break from Sudan’s toughest prison, died in relative silence. His stint as an early Islamic State leader in Somalia, however, provides a brief glimpse into the organization’s early history in the Horn of Africa, where the Islamic State in Somalia is now becoming a top concern for the United States.

Caleb Weiss is an editor of FDD's Long War Journal and a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation, where he focuses on the spread of the Islamic State in Central Africa.

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