In keeping with its promise to help Nigeria end terrorism, the United States has offerred a $7m (N1.1bn) reward to persons with information on the whereabouts of the leader of militant islamist sect, Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau.
Shekau and four other leaders of militant groups such as the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) who are the main purveyors of terrorism in West Africa have been declared for a total of $23m by the US State Department’s Rewards for Justice programme.
Up to $5m 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 persons, including three Americans, were killed.
A further $5m was offered for top AQIM leader Yahya Al-Hammam, reportedly involved in the 2010 murder of an elderly French hostage in Niger Republic.
Malik Abdelkarim, a senior fighter with AQIM, and Oumar Ould Hamaha, the spokesman for Mali’s Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, were also targeted by the rewards which will give up to $3m each for information leading to their arrests.
A senior US State Department official, who made this known to the Agence France Presse on Monday said, “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 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 had last week called on Islamists in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq to join the bloody fight to create an Islamic state in Nigeria.
In a video obtained by AFP last week, he claimed Boko Haram 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 official, who asked not to be named added.
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 was shown seated and dressed in camouflage and a turban, with an AK-47 at his side.
His comments contradicted statements from the military, which 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.
The US department official also told the AFP that the “AQIM has been increasingly active in the North and West Africa. They’re one of the pre-eminent kidnap for ransom groups in the terrorist world now.”
“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,” he added.
The US 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 Bamako.
Former colonial power France had led a military offensive in January against the militants in Mali’s northern desert. The West African nation prepares for presidential elections 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.
In its reaction, the Federal Government welcomed the development as an acknowledgement of the growing links between AQIM and Nigeria’s Boko Haram, which is under pressure from a military offensive.
“We welcome any effort by the international community to support Nigeria’s effort at waging war against terrorism and its perpetrators. What this proves is that terrorism is a global phenomenon that requires global effort at combating it. Nigeria believes that the international community needs to come together to combat terrorism, ” said presidential spokesman, Dr Reuben Abati to journalists.