A MOUTH-WATERING bounty: About N3.6 billion. This is what any person that gives information that could help track down five leaders of militant groups accused of spreading terror in West Africa would get.

The offer came from the United States (U.S.) . On Monday, it  posted up to  $23 million (about N3.6 billion) rewards to capture the terrorists.

The highest reward of $7 million is 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 U.S. 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.

According to the Agence France Presse (AFP), 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 U.S. 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 has led a military offensive since January against the militants in Mali’s northern desert, as the West African nation prepares for presidential elections on July 28.

There are fears however that the spread of militant groups risks destabilizing 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.

Monday’s rewards acknowledged the growing links between AQIM and Nigeria’s Boko Haram, which is under pressure from a military offensive.

“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 organizations,” 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 organization, 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 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 U.S. blacklist last year, but Boko Haram has yet to be designated a foreign terrorist organization — an absence which has raised eyebrows among regional experts.

The Nigerian  government has consistently shown  lack of support for moves by American officials and lawmakers to tag Boko Haram  a terrorist organisation.

Against the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN)’s fervent calls that the group should be tagged a terrorist group, the Federal Government’s position  indicated otherwise, as the administration’s officials felt Nigerian travellers might be persecuted.

The militant group’s goal is to establish an Islamic state in Nigeria, including the implementation of a sharia legal system across the country.

The group is known as Jama’atul Alhul Sunnah Lidda’wati wal jihad or “people committed to the propagation of the prophet’s teachings and jihad.”

Aside from the current action of  the U.S. government, the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) also accused Boko Haram of engaging in crimes against humanity.

The ICC, in its report of preliminary examination activities dated November 2012, said its investigations had shown that the  group  was involved in murder and persecution.

“The office has determined that there is a reasonable basis to believe that crimes against humanity have been committed in Nigeria, namely acts of murder and persecution attributed to Boko Haram.

“Therefore, the prosecutor has decided that the preliminary examination of the situation in Nigeria should advance to phase 3 (admissibility) with a view to assessing whether the national authorities are conducting genuine proceedings in relation to those who appear to bear the greatest responsibility for such crimes, and the gravity of such crimes,” the report said.

Nigeria’s military has come under heavy criticism in its fight against Boko Haram, including allegations of arbitrary arrests, unlawful detentions and extra-judicial killings.

The military launched a sweeping offensive in the northeast on May 15 in a bid to end the four-year-old insurgency by Boko Haram.

Meanwhile, Ghana’s President John Dramani Mahama has warned that Islamist militancy poses a threat that could destabilise the whole of West Africa.

Mahama told the British Broadcasting Corporation  (BBC) that although Ghana had not been directly affected, no country was safe if insurgency was allowed to take hold elsewhere.

He said intervention led by France had helped guarantee stability in Mali, but the conflict there was not yet over.

He also backed the African Union’s plan to create a rapid reaction force.

Mahama said there had been a suggestion that it could be funded by a tax on air travel and hotels across the continent.

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