US bounties changes strategy on West African jihadis

The US is offering up to $23 million for information leading to the location of Nigeria's Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau and Al Qaeda operative Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

Tim Cocks/Reuters
A poster advertising for the search of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau is pasted on a wall in Baga village on the outskirts of Maiduguri, in the north-eastern state of Borno May 13. The highest reward of up to $7 million is for information leading to the location of Shekau, who leads the Nigeria-based Boko Haram group that has terrorized the northeast region of Nigeria.

The US is offering $23 million worth of rewards for information on key leaders of terrorist organizations in West Africa.

The list of Islamist militants – released yesterday by the US State Department’s "Reward for Justice" program – reads like a who’s-who of prominent jihadists responsible for a string of deadly attacks and high-profile kidnappings throughout North and West Africa in recent years.

The highest reward of up to $7 million is for information leading to the location of Abubakar Shekau, who leads the Nigeria-based Boko Haram group that has terrorized the northeast region of Nigeria. 

The call for information marks the first time the US is offering cash in exchange for tips on leaders of Islamist groups in West Africa, and may suggest a shift in US thinking regarding the threat posed by Islamist militants in the region. Until recently, most analysts viewed terror cells in Africa as domestic groups with local agendas and few experts considered these groups a direct threat to the US.

Perhaps the highest-profile name on the list is Mokhtar Belmokhtar: The US is offering up to $5 million leading to his location. Mr. Belmokhtar broke with an Al Qaeda-linked group last year to form his own group called the “Signed in Blood Battalion” thought responsible for a bloody attack on a gas plant in Algeria in January. 

The Chadian military claims to have killed Belmokhtar three months ago in northern Mali. But his death remains unconfirmed. That the US has decided to post a bounty for Belmokhtar – dubbed "The Uncatchable" in various intelligence circles –  suggests the US believes he is still at large. 

Smaller rewards, ranging from $3 million to $5 million, are being offered for information on the whereabouts of two leaders of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), as well as the leaders of two AQIM offshoots.

Analysts think that some of the core assumptions about the limited or parochial scope of Islamists in West Africa were called into question amid the revelation that those responsible for an attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi may have ties to AQIM.

The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao), an AQIM offshoot primarily operating in northern Mali and Niger, is similarly thought to have ties with Boko Haram.

Founded in 2002, Boko Haram – now led by Abubakar Shekau – rose to international prominence in 2010 when the group carried out a series of deadly attacks against the Nigerian government and a United Nations building in Abuja, the capital.

The group is tied to the kidnapping of a French family in Cameroon and several deadly church attacks in Nigeria. The death toll from Boko Haram attacks is estimated to be in the thousands, and recently the Nigerian government put aside talk of amnesty negotiations with the group to start another military crackdown. 

The US is also offering $5 million for information on Yahya Abu el Hamman and $3 million for Malik Abdou Adelkarim, both senior leaders within AQIM who have conducted kidnappings of Western hostages and led attacks on various targets throughout North and West Africa.

Information leading to the location on Oumar Ould Hamaha, previously a member of AQIM but now a spokesperson for Mujao, is priced at $3 million as well. Mr. Ould Hamaha is thought to have participated in several kidnappings for ransom.

Belmokhtar, one of the most sought after figures in the region, is an Algerian-born veteran jihadist who spent time fighting in Afghanistan. In the past decade he has operated between the borders of Mali, Niger, Algeria, and Libya and was the mastermind behind the January 2013 attack on a gas facility in In-Amenas, Algeria, where at least 37 hostages were killed.

Through an online statement, Belmokhtar has also claimed responsibility – in tandem with Mujao – for coordinated attacks in Niger last month, targeting a military camp in the desert city of Agadez and a French-operated uranium mine in the remote town of Arlit.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.