Captured Shabaab official previously identified as group’s ‘chief of intelligence’

Note: This article has been updated and edited to reflect the uncertainty surrounding Zakariya Ismail Ahmed Hersi’s identity and conflicting accounts about his role within Shabaab.

A senior Shabaab official, Zakariya Ismail Ahmed Hersi, has been reportedly captured by Somali officials. Hersi “surrendered to the Somali police,” the Associated Press reports, citing an anonymous Somali intelligence official. According to CNN, which cites two Somali military officials, the authorities “captured Hersi and his driver without confrontation.”

Shabaab formally merged with al Qaeda in February 2012, thereby becoming the international terrorist organization’s official branch in East Africa. But Hersi and other top Shabaab officials worked closely with al Qaeda long before the formal announcement.

The US government offered a $3 million reward for information leading to Hersi’s capture in June 2012. In announcing the reward, the State Department noted that Hersi served as Shabaab’s “chief of intelligence.”

There has been some confusion over Hersi’s role within Shabaab. A report by the UN in 2013 describes Shabaab’s Amniyat as “the special clandestine division of” the group. The Amniyat operates “under the direct leadership of Ahmed Godane [Shabaab’s now deceased emir] and operational command of Mahad Mohamed Ali, a.k.a. ‘Karate’.”

The UN explains that is identification of “Karate” as the head of the Amniyat conflicts with the State Department’s reporting. “However, according to the US State Department programme of Rewards for Justice, the head of Amniyat is Zakariya Ismail Ahmed Hersi,” a footnote in the UN’s report reads.

The UN goes on to note that “Karate is also considered by to be” the deputy to Shabaab’s emir and the “Amniyat combines a wide range of responsibilities, ranging from intelligence gathering and counter-intelligence to clandestine and special operations.”

“The structure of the Amniyat is understood” to include the following, according to the UN: “Central command, Regional commanders; Finance and logistics support units; Intelligence collection units; Grenade attacks/assassination squads; and Suicide operations squads.”

The UN explained that the Amniyat was responsible for protecting Shabaab’s emir, and ensuring that he remains in power against both internal rivals and external enemies.

The UN also provided some insider details about the Amniyat. In particular, the UN identified a “50-year old Sudanese national” known as “Hassan,” who serves “as a senior training instructor for Shabaab and who claimed to be formerly with the Sudanese military.” Hassan’s other aliases include “Jimale,” “Yusuf” and “Abdi Madobe.”

The UN’s sources say Hassan was “specifically tasked by” Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s emir, “to train in Somalia African jihadists who are unable to travel to Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Hassan “is reportedly in contact with al Qaeda operatives as well as Godane in order to plan training strategies and programmes for Shabaab and other al Qaeda affiliates in Africa.”

Hassan also reportedly supervises “a training camp in South Sudan, at the border with Kenya, and left Somalia for Nigeria with a group of Boko Haram fighters after the completion of their training in March 2011.” The Aminyat’s former man told the UN that a Nigerian, and “several Yemenis, Kenyans and Ethiopians,” were “acquainted with” Hassan.

A follow up report by the UN in 2014 contends that Shabaab has been relying more heavily on the Amniyat to expand the group’s reach.

Shabaab’s “overt regional strategy has relied increasingly on its entrenched support base of Amniyat-like operatives,” the UN says. “By the end of 2013, its regional strategy had become apparent: a resurgent extremist group sufficiently assertive to fully align itself with and pursue strategies adapted to transnational [al Qaeda] operations, evident in its ability to conduct ‘complex and spectacular’ large-scale attacks, such as that on the Westgate shopping mall in Kenya, representing an evolution of operational tradecraft.”

Press reports suggest that Hersi had a falling out with Ahmed Abdi Godane in 2013. It is not clear what role Hersi played in the internal rivalries that have plagued Shabaab and led to the deaths of some long-time al Qaeda operatives serving within the group.

In early September, Shabaab quickly named Ahmed Umar as Godane’s successor. And Umar reaffirmed his allegiance to al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri.

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

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