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.
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 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.