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Wanted in Somalia: US puts bounties on top Al Shabab leaders

Seven of Somalia’s most senior Islamist commanders were for the first time Thursday added to the State Department’s list of terrorists with multi-million dollar bounties on their heads.

A total of $33 million could be paid out for information leading to the capture of the men, all members of the country’s Al Shabab terror group, which is linked to Al Qaeda

They will join Al Qaeda’s overall commander, Ayman Al Zawahiri, Taliban leader Mullah Omar, and Hizbullah cell members on the list of people wanted under the US Rewards for Justice program. 

It has already paid out more than $100 million to 70 different people who have provided tip-offs that led the US to locate key enemies, including Saddam Hussein’s sons Uday and Qusay. 

Thursday’s move to add Somali terror suspects to the list was “politically symbolic” but would not “lead to their imminent capture,” says J. Peter Pham, director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington. 

“You generally can’t draw a direct causal link between large awards being offered through the Rewards for Justice program and senior terrorist figures being apprehended,” he says. 

“It has been helpful at finding lower level people, but in the Somali context it is a politically symbolic move that puts these men beyond the pale and in a special category where there can be no soft landing for them in the future.” 

Who’s on the list?

The list includes Al Shabab’s founder, Ahmed Abdi aw-Mohamed, also known as Ahmad Abdi Godane or Mukhtar Ali Zubeyr, for whom the largest reward of up to $7 million is offered.  

His formal announcement linking Al Shabab to Al Qaeda in February is thought to have helped prompt Thursday’s announcement. 

Up to $5 million is also offered for each of his associates, Ibrahim Haji Jama, Fuad Mohamed Khalaf, Bashir Mohamed Mahamoud, and Mukhtar Robow, and up to $3 million for Zakariya Ismail Ahmed Hersi and Abdullahi Yare.

“Al Shabab’s terrorist activities pose a threat to the stability of East Africa and to the national security interests of the United States, and the seven individuals named…are [its] key leaders,” the State Department said in a statement. 

Could it backfire?

There were concerns, however, that including some of the names could backfire and destroy chances of senior Al Shabab commanders agreeing to peace talks with Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG). 

“What’s interesting is who’s in and who’s out,” says Abdirashid Hashi, Horn of Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group in Nairobi, Kenya

“Mukhtar Robow was previously seen as a moderate, but he’s there with money on his head and any suggestion that he might agree to talks with the government is now very unlikely. More likely he’ll run for his life.” 

Both Dr. Pham and Mr. Hashi agreed that Thursday’s announcement would increase already growing pressure on Al Shabab. 

Under sustained assault from Kenyan military forces, African Union peacekeepers, and Somali government troops it has recently lost key towns. 

There were reports Wednesday that Al Shabab commanders were also fleeing Kismayo, the group’s last major urban stronghold, although Islamist leaders denied this.

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