Islamic extremist leader with $4m bounty on his head surrenders in Somalia: Officials

A file photo taken on Feb 17, 2011 shows Islamist fighters loyal to Somalia’s Al-Qaeda inspired Al-Shebab group performing military drills at a village in Lower Shabelle region, some 25 kilometres outside Mogadishu. -- PHOTO: AFP
A file photo taken on Feb 17, 2011 shows Islamist fighters loyal to Somalia’s Al-Qaeda inspired Al-Shebab group performing military drills at a village in Lower Shabelle region, some 25 kilometres outside Mogadishu. -- PHOTO: AFP

MOGADISHU (AFP) - A top leader of Somalia’s Al-Qaeda-affiliated Shebab rebels, intelligence chief Zakariya Ismail Ahmed Hersi, has surrendered to government and African Union forces and is now in custody, officials said Saturday.

The militant is the subject of a US$3 million (S$4 million) bounty as part of the US State Department “Rewards for Justice” programme.

Officials said he surrendered in the Gedo region, where Somalia borders Kenya and Ethiopia.

“Zakariya Ahmed was a very senior person who worked with Godane,” said regional military official Jama Muse, referring to former Shebab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane, killed by a US air strike in September.

“He was in charge of intelligence and finances. He was one of the senior Al-Shebab commanders who the Americans put a lot of money on their head,” he added.

Another Somali military official, Mohamed Osmail, said the militant was hiding in a house in the border town in the El-Wak area, and made contact with government officials in order to hand himself in.

Another intelligence source said the surrender was believed to have been motivated by a series of recent bloody splits and purges within the group, with Godane having ruthlessly eliminated many of his rivals and his successor, Ahmad Umar Abu Ubaidah, continuing to maintain strict internal security.

Although presented by the officials as a senior Shebab operative, it was unclear if Zakariya Ahmed had still been active within the Shebab in recent months or weeks, or if he was among a large group of commanders who had already fallen out with Godane prior to his death – some of whom were killed in a purge.

There was no immediate comment from the Shebab.

'POTENTIAL INTELLIGENCE BONANZA'

The surrender brings some welcome good news for Somalia’s fragile, internationally-backed government as well as the African Union’s Amisom force, who have been facing an almost constant wave of attacks from the Shebab despite recent territorial gains in the south and centre of the Horn of Africa nation.

The Somali government has also been locked in bitter infighting, with the president this month falling out with his prime minister.

According to a Western intelligence source, the surrender could deliver an “intelligence bonanza” that could prove highly damaging to the Al-Qaeda-linked group.

“We’re looking at someone who, potentially, will bring with them an encyclopaedic knowledge of the organisation: who is in charge of what, what their modus operandi is and so on. It could fill in a lot of intelligence gaps,” said the source, who asked not to be identified.

The source said members of Amisom or the African Union force in Somalia, in particular Kenya, will be urgently trying to recover actionable intelligence on Shebab operations in the border region, the scene of two recent massacres on Kenyan soil carried out by the militants.

The surrender comes two days after Shebab militants carried out another high-profile raid in the capital Mogadishu, where they struck Amisom’s heavily-fortified headquarters and killed three soldiers and a civilian contractor.

After the attack, the Shebab released a statement vowing that “the mujahideen can and will, by the permission of Allah, strike you anywhere in Somalia.”

“What awaits you will be far more grievous and bitter than all preceding attacks. Expect to hear from us again,” the group said.