US offers rewards for Boko Haram, African al Qaeda leaders

The US State Department yesterday added the emir of the Nigeria-based Boko Haram terrorist group and four al Qaeda commanders to the “Rewards for Justice” list. The State Department also noted that the African organization and al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen and Saudi Arabia are cooperating to “strengthen Boko Haram’s capacity to conduct terrorist attacks.” The reward offers highlight the working relationships between African jihadist groups and al Qaeda.

The US announced the following rewards yesterday: up to $7 million for Boko Haram emir Abubakar Shekau; $5 million each for Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the head of al Qaeda’s Those who Sign in Blood Brigade and Yahya Abu Hammam, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s commander in the Sahel; and $3 million each for Malik Abou Abdelkarim, an AQIM company commander, and Oumar Ould Hamaha, the spokesman for the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa.

The $7 million reward for Shekau puts him in the top echelon of wanted jihadist commanders. Ayman al Zawahiri has the largest price on his head, at $25 million. Shekau’s bounty is just the same as the reward offered for Muhsin al Fadhli (the current leader of al Qaeda in Iran), and Ahmed Abdi Aw Mohamed (the head of Shabaab). It is just below the $10 million reward offered for Abu Du’a (al Qaeda in Iraq’s emir), Mullah Omar (the emir of the Taliban), Hafiz Mohammad Saeed (the leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba), and Yasin al Suri (the former chief of al Qaeda’s network in Iran).

The rewards of $5 million each for Belmokhtar and Hammam put them in a group of other wanted high-profile al Qaeda and affiliated leaders that includes Saif al Adel, Hakeemullah Mehsud, Sirajuddin Haqqani, and Adnan G. el Shukrijumah.

In the Shekau reward offer, the State Department also noted that the African terror groups, which include Boko Haram, AQIM, and Shabaab, as well as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, are cooperating to boost Boko Haram’s ability to wage jihad in the region.

“There are reported communications, training, and weapons links between Boko Haram, al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al Shabaab [al Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia], and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which may strengthen Boko Haram’s capacity to conduct terrorist attacks.”

In a reciprocal relationship, as the terror groups are working to build Boko Haram, the Nigerian terror group is known to support al Qaeda’s operations in neighboring Mali. Boko Haram commanders and fighters bolstered the forces of AQIM, MUJAO, and Ansar Dine during the time the groups controlled northern Mali from March 2012 to January 2013.

Abubakar Shekau

Shekau, who was added to the US’s list of global terrorists in June 2012, took control of the organization after his predecessor was killed by Nigerian forces in 2010. He has overseen a burgeoning jihadist insurgency that has spread throughout northern Nigeria. Boko Haram has launched dozens of suicide attacks in Nigeria and hundreds of IED and armed attacks in the north.

Shortly after ascending to the top leadership position, Shekau “threatened to attack Western interests in Nigeria,” expressed “solidarity with al Qaeda,” and threatened the United States.

Shekau has backed up his threat to attack Western institutions. In August 2011, a Boko Haram suicide bomber attacked the United Nations headquarters in the capital of Abuja. Additionally, a number of Westerners have been kidnapped and ransomed in Nigeria.

In the announcement of the reward for Shekau, the group was called “a Nigeria-based terrorist organization that seeks to overthrow the current Nigerian government and replace it with a regime based on Islamic law.”

Boko Haram was described as such despite the fact that the group has not been added to the US’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.

Mokhtar Belmokhtar

Belmokhtar is the leader of the al Qaeda-linked al Mua’qi’oon Biddam, or the Those Who Sign in Blood Brigade. He split with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb last December due to leadership issues with the group.

Although Belmokhtar split with AQIM in December 2012, he still conducts joint operations with the group as well as with MUJAO. Belmokhtar reports directly to al Qaeda’s central leadership, according to his spokesman. Documents found by The Associated Press after French forces drove the al Qaeda alliance from their strongholds in northern Mali confirmed that Belmokhtar had a direct line to al Qaeda’s central leadership.

His Those Who Sign in Blood Brigade is responsible for three major terrorist attacks in Algeria and Niger over the past several months.

In January, just after French forces invaded Mali to eject AQIM, MUJAO, and Ansar Dine from the north, Belmokhtar launched a large-scale suicide assault against the In Amenas gas facility in southeastern Algeria. More than 40 fighters carried out the attack and Belmokhtar claimed the operation in the name of al Qaeda.

In late May, Belmokhtar’s force launched two suicide assaults, the first of their kind in Niger, targeting a military barracks in Agadez and a uranium mine in Arlit that supplies French reactors. The attacks were executed along with fighters from MUJAO, and Belmokhtar claimed their purpose was to avenge the death of Abou Zeid, a senior al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb commander who was killed while fighting in Mali earlier this year.

Yahya Abu Hammam

Hammam, the chief of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s operations in the Sahel region of North Africa, was added to the US’s the list of global terrorists in January 2013. He assumed command last fall after his predecessor, Nabil Abu Alqama, was killed in a car crash.

Hammam, whose real name is Jemal Oukacha, was added the the list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists by the US for his “key role in the group’s ongoing terrorist activities in North Africa and Mali.”

Hammam has been waging jihad in North Africa since the 1990s. He was detained by the Algerian government for 18 months, then released. He subsequently joined the Salafist Group for Prayer and Combat, which eventually morphed into AQIM in 2006.

He has been “planning operations and kidnapping Westerners in North and West Africa,” and “has played a key role in perpetuating AQIM’s terrorist activities in West Africa and Mali, and participated in several AQIM terrorist attacks in Mauritania,” according to the State Department.

He also served as the group’s emir in the northern Malian town of Timbuktu. Under his rule, numerous Muslim shrines were destroyed and civilians were beaten for the slightest infractions of sharia, or Islamic law.

Malik Abou Abdelkarim

Abdelkarim, a Malian citizen, is described by Rewards for Justice as “a senior leader of a company of fighters within” AQIM.

“Under Abdelkarim’s command, his company has acquired weapons and conducted kidnappings and small-scale terrorist attacks in North and West Africa,” State reported.

Additionally, “Abdelkarim was reportedly responsible for killing a seventy-eight year old French hostage in Niger in July 2010,” and “[a]n attack in June 2010 carried out by Abdelkarim’s company resulted in the death of 11 Algerian gendarmes.”

Oumar Ould Hamaha

According to the State Department, Hamaha currently serves as the spokesman for MUJAO. Late last year, however, State identified him as a spokesman for Belmokhtar’s outfit. He had previously served as a commander in AQIM.

“As a member of AQIM, Hamaha participated in kidnappings of foreigners for ransom, including the kidnapping of Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler from Niamey, Niger, in December 2008,” State said in yesterday’s reward offer. “Hamaha has also made threats against Westerners in Mali and has been associated with the abduction of Europeans in the region.”

While he was in AQIM, he is said to have served as a deputy to Belmokhtar.

In December 2012, Hamaha identified himself as a spokesman for Belmokhtar’s Those who Sign in Blood Brigade. Hamaha said that Belmokhtar remains in touch with al Qaeda’s top leadership and claimed the split with AQIM was a calculated shift to facilitate attacks in the Sahara.

“It’s so that we can better operate in the field that we have left this group which is tied to the ‘Maghreb’ appellation,” he told The Associated Press. “We want to enlarge our zone of operation throughout the entire Sahara, going from Niger through to Chad and Burkina Faso.”

Links to Rewards for Justice profiles

Wanted – Information leading to the location of Abubakar Shekau – Up to $7 Million Reward

Wanted – Information leading to the location of Mokhtar Belmokhtar – Up to $5 Million Reward

Wanted – Information leading to the location of Yahya Abu el Hammam – Up to $5 Million Reward

Wanted – Information leading to the location of Malik Abou Abdelkarim – Up to $3 Million Reward

Wanted – Information leading to the location of Oumar Ould Hamaha – Up to $3 Million Reward

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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