In an unprecedented move, the United States monday posted up to $23 million in rewards to help track down five leaders of militant groups accused of spreading terror in West Africa.
The highest reward of $7 million was offered for the Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau, who last week called on Islamists in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq to join the bloody fight to create an Islamic state in Nigeria.
The US State Department's Rewards for Justice programme also targeted Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), offering its first ever bounties for wanted militants in West Africa.
Up to $5 million was posted for Al-Qaeda veteran Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the one-eyed Islamist behind the devastating attack on an Algerian gas plant in January in which 37 foreigners, including three Americans, were killed.
A further $5 million was offered for top AQIM leader, Yahya Abou Al-Hammam, reportedly involved in the 2010 murder of an elderly French hostage in Niger.
Malik Abou Abdelkarim, a senior fighter with AQIM, and Oumar Ould Hamaha, the spokesman for Mali's Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), were also targeted by the rewards programme, which will give up to $3 million each for information leading to their arrests.
“AQIM has been increasingly active in north and West Africa. They're one of the pre-eminent kidnap for ransom groups in the terrorist world right now,” a senior State Department official told AFP, asking not to be named.
“They cause us a great deal of concern. Anything that we can do naturally to cut down on the capabilities of AQIM, anything that we can do to get information on these people so that we can get them in front of a court… That is our goal.”
The United States has been increasingly worried about the spread of Islamist groups in Mali and across the vast and lawless Sahel since a military coup ousted the government in the country’s capital, Bamako.
Former colonial power France has led a military offensive since January against the militants in Mali's northern desert, as the West African nation prepares for presidential election on July 28.
There are fears however that the spread of militant groups risks destabilising the entire West African region.
Belmokhtar, who was a senior commander for AQIM, broke away from the group last year to set up his own group dubbed the “Signatories in Blood”.
Branded “the Uncatchable”, Belmokhtar also personally supervised the operational plans for the twin car bombings in Niger that killed at least 20 people late last month, according to a spokesman for his group.
Yesterday’s rewards acknowledged the growing links between AQIM and Nigeria's Boko Haram, which is under pressure from a military offensive led by the country’s troops.
“They've had a relationship for some time. They send people back and forth for training, they've done the provision of arms back and forth,” the State Department official said.
“The links are… not quite as solid as some of the other terrorist organisations,” he said. “Nonetheless, it's a dangerous link and it's something that we feel we should try and stop.”
Shekau, in a video obtained by AFP last week, claimed his forces had made significant gains against the Nigerian army while sustaining little damage since the start of the military offensive on May 15.
“Under his leadership, Boko Haram's capability has certainly grown,” the State Department official told AFP.
He highlighted how the group set off “their first improvised explosive device in early June 2011. By August (2011) they used a car bomb against the United Nations facility,” an attack which killed 25 people.
“When we see someone like this who… is actually leading to an increase in the capability of an organisation, that's something that we would naturally try to see if we can do something to impede,” he added.
Shekau's whereabouts could not be determined in the video, in which he is shown seated and dressed in camouflage and a turban, with an AK-47 at his side.
His comments contradict statements from the Nigerian military, which has claimed major successes during the offensive, including the destruction of Boko Haram camps and dozens of arrests.
Shekau was placed on a US blacklist last year, but Boko Haram has yet to be designated a foreign terrorist organisation — an absence which has raised eyebrows among regional experts.
Reacting to rewards offered by the US government for the terrorists, the President’s Special Adviser, Media and Publicity, Dr. Rueben Abati, said yesterday that the bounty was a positive development.
He said: “Terrorism is a global phenomenon which must be addressed by all nations collectively.
“So we welcome any effort by the international community to support Nigeria’s effort to put an end to the scourge of terrorism in the country and West Africa.”