State places $10 million bounty on Kenyan Shabaab commander

Rewards for Justice poster for Mohamoud Abdi Aden

Just a few days after placing a similar bounty on Maalim Ayman, the head of Shabaab’s Kenyan military wing, the U.S. State Department’s Rewards for Justice Program is now also offering $10 million for information leading to the arrest of Mohamoud Abdi Aden. The U.S. State Department now offers a $10 million bounty on five Shabaab leaders, far more than any other Sunni terrorist group. 

Aden is a Kenyan-Somali commander of the al-Qaeda branch and one of the leaders responsible for the 2019 Dusit D2 attack in Nairobi, Kenya. Though Aden is believed currently based inside Somalia, he is thought to be a senior official within Shabaab’s Kenyan wing. He was initially arrested in 2014 in Kenya for his connection to Shabaab, but later released in 2017 and immediately rejoined the group. 

According to the Kenyan government, Aden helped plan the Dusit D2 attack along with other Shabaab leaders such as Abdikadir Mohamed Abdikadir (also known as Ikrima), another Kenyan-Somali commander of Shabaab. 

Aden’s reported associate Ikrima has a long history of involvement in al-Qaeda’s terror across East Africa. Ikrima was also involved with al-Qaeda’s attacks in Mombasa, Kenya, in 2002, which also included a plot to shoot down an Israeli airliner. Ikrima was additionally a close associate of now-deceased al-Qaeda leader Fazul Muhammad, who was the overall emir of al-Qaeda across East Africa. And in 2013, the U.S. military targeted Ikrima and said he was in close contact with al-Qaeda’s general command in Pakistan. 

The 2019 assault, which saw Shabaab gunmen storm the DusitD2 hotel complex in Nairobi, Kenya, left at least 21 people, including a U.S. citizen, dead. At least one suicide bombing, utilized at the onset of the raid, also took place. The 2019 hotel assault was the deadliest terrorist attack inside Nairobi since the 2013 Westgate Mall attack, which was also perpetrated by Shabaab. 

The Dusit siege was conducted by Shabaab’s Saleh Abu Nabhan Brigade, a unit named after one of al-Qaeda’s now deceased leaders in East Africa. It was Saleh Abu Nabhan who initially made bay’ah [a pledge of allegiance] to Osama bin Laden on behalf of Shabaab in 2008, though relations between the groups were kept secret and unofficial until 2012. This eponymous unit has also been used for terrorist attacks inside Somalia and Uganda

Immediately following the end of the Dusit assault, Shabaab released a statement saying the DusitD2 siege was conducted in accordance with guidelines set by then-al-Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri. 

Shabaab said it conducted the attack as part of al-Qaeda’s “Jerusalem Will Not Be Judaized” campaign, a response to increasing Arab normalization with the Jewish state of Israel and the United States moving its embassy to Jerusalem. 

Another African al-Qaeda branch, the Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM) in Mali, also stated it perpetrated a complex assault on United Nations troops in northern Mali in the name of Zawahiri’s campaign around the same time. 

In a following statement, however, Shabaab also made clear its continuing animosity to the Kenyan state. The additional communique added that the Dusit siege was part of the guerilla war against Kenya and that it will continue until Kenya “withdraws its troops from Somalia.”

Increasing bounties on Shabaab

The U.S. government has increased its rewards on several other members of Shabaab’s top leadership in recent days and months.

The moves are believed to have been made in conjunction with Somalia’s current major counter-offensive against Shabaab across much of central Somalia. As part of these moves, US also increased its drone targeting in the country and levied more economic sanctions on the group.

Just last week, Rewards for Justice upped its bounty on Maalim Ayman, the leader of Shabaab’s military wing inside Kenya, to also $10 million. Known as Jaysh Ayman, the unit is responsible for numerous strikes across northeastern Kenya. 

Ayman was also responsible for the January 2020 Manda Bay attack which killed one U.S. service member and two American contractors. 

In Nov. 2022, the Rewards for Justice program upped the bounties for Abu Ubaidah Direye, or Abu Ubaidah Ahmad Umar, Mahad Karate, and Jehad Serwan Mostafa, to $10 million each.

Abu Ubaidah is the overall leader of Shabaab, while Mahad Karate is a deputy emir and a leader within Shabaab’s Amniyat (or internal security and intelligence wing) and its finance department. While Jehad Serwan Mostafa, is an American Shabaab leader who is regarded as “the highest-ranking U.S. citizen fighting overseas with a terrorist organization” by the U.S. government.

The rewards of $10 million for Mohamoud Abdi Aden,  Maalim Ayman, and the three other Shabaab leaders are at the top tier of Sunni jihadists.

The other Sunni jihadist leaders with with a $10 million bounty are Saif al Adel, who is thought to be Zawahiri’s successor; Taliban deputy emir and interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani; Islamic State Khorasan Province emir Sanaullah Ghafari; Muhammad al-Jowlani the head of Syria’s Hay’at Tahrir al Sham; and Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba founder and leader Hafiz Saeed.

Only the top leaders of both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have generated higher bounties among Sunni jihadis. For instance, both Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri each demanded a $25 million bounty and former Islamic State head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi once had a similar price tag on his head.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of The Long War Journal. Caleb Weiss is a research analyst at 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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