In a bid to assist Nigeria in fighting off the Boko Haram menace, the United States yesterday placed a $7m bounty on the leader of the Boko Haram Islamic sect, Abubakar Shekau.
The bounty was announced on Monday by theÂ US State Departmentâ€™s Rewards for Justice programme as part of the $23m rewards to help track down four other leaders of militant groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb spreading terror in West Africa.
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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,Â including three Americans, were killed.
A further $5m was offered for top AQIM leader YahyaÂ Â Al-Hammam, reportedly involved in the 2010 murder of an elderly French hostage in Niger Republic.
MalikÂ Abdelkarim, a senior fighter with AQIM, and Oumar Ould Hamaha, the spokesman for Maliâ€™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.
The bountiesÂ which the Federal Government described as a welcome development,Â acknowledged the growing links between AQIM and Nigeriaâ€™s Boko Haram, which is under pressure from a military offensive.
A seniorÂ US State Department official, who made this known to theÂ Agence France PresseÂ on MondayÂ said, â€œTheyâ€™ve had a relationship for some time. They send people back and forth for training, theyâ€™ve done the provision of arms back and forth.
â€œThe links areâ€¦ not quite as solid as some of the other terrorist organisations,â€ he said. â€œNonetheless, itâ€™s a dangerous link and itâ€™s something that we feel we should try and stop.â€
Â 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 byÂ AFPÂ 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.
â€œUnder his leadership, Boko Haramâ€™s capability has certainly grown,â€Â the official, who asked not to be namedÂ Â added.
He highlighted how the group set off â€œtheir first improvised explosive device in early June 2011. By August (2011) they used a car bomb against the United Nations facility,â€ an attack which killed 25 people.
â€œWhen we see someone like this whoâ€¦ is actually leading to an increase in the capability of an organisation, thatâ€™s something that we would naturally try to see if we can do something to impede,â€ he added.
Shekauâ€™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 contradictedÂ 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 â€“ an absence which has raised eyebrows among regional experts.
The US department official alsoÂ told theÂ AFPÂ that theÂ â€œAQIM has been increasingly active in the North and West Africa. Theyâ€™re one of the pre-eminent kidnap for ransom groups in the terrorist world now.â€
â€œThey 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 courtâ€¦ That is our goal,â€ he added.
The US has been increasingly worried about the spread of Islamist groups inÂ Â 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 Maliâ€™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 â€œSignatories in Blood.â€
Branded â€œthe Uncatchable,â€ 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.
The Presidency has expressed its support for the steps taken by the US to help it combat terrorism within its territory saying only a global effort can halt the scourge of terror.
According to the Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Reuben Abati,Â â€œWe welcome any effort by the international community to support Nigeriaâ€™sÂ 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.â€