WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is offering rewards of up to $7 million (4 million pounds) for information leading to the location of seven key leaders of Somalia's al Shabaab, seeking for the first time to target top echelons of the al Qaeda-linked militant group.
U.S. officials said the rewards, to be announced on the State Department's "Rewards for Justice" website on Thursday, opened a new front in the battle against al Shabaab and signalled Washington's determination to press the fight against terrorism across Africa.
"This is the first time we've had key leaders of al Shabaab as part of the Rewards for Justice program," said Robert Hartung, an assistant director at the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, which administers the program.
"Every time we add someone to the Rewards for Justice site, that is a signal that the U.S. government is sending that it takes the fight against terrorism very seriously," Hartung said.
The U.S. government in 2008 named al Shabaab to its list of foreign terrorist organizations, imposing financial and other restrictions on the group that had seized control of large areas of south and central Somalia and sought to impose its strict version of Islam on the impoverished Horn of Africa nation.
The United States has also joined international efforts to bolster Somalia in the face of its multiple crises, pledging $300 million to support an African Union force battling al Shabaab and $250 million for humanitarian relief after drought struck the region last year.
"What we're about in Somalia is a comprehensive broad effort with a variety of partners in the region and around the world to bring stability to Somalia," said Karl Wycoff, deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs.
Thursday's announcement will for the first time set specific prices on the heads of al Shabaab leaders, topped by a reward of up to $7 million for information on the whereabouts of Ahmed Abdi aw-Mohamed, the group's founder and overall commander.
Rewards of up to $5 million are being offered for Ibrahim Haji Jama, another al Shabaab co-founder, and group financier Fuad Mohamed Khalaf, along with military commander Bashir Mohamed Mahamoud and Mukhtar Robow, who often serves as the group's spokesman.
The U.S. government will pay rewards of up to $3 million for information on the whereabouts of intelligence chief Zakariya Ismail Ahmed Hersi and Abdullahi Yare, another senior figure, Hartung said.
U.S. officials say the Rewards for Justice program has paid out more than $100 million to more than 70 informants since it was established in 1984 and helped to find and convict 1993 World Trade Center bombing mastermind Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, among others.
The program has not been without recent controversy. The State Department in April placed a $10 million bounty on Hafiz Saeed, suspected of masterminding the 2008 attack in Mumbai, India, that killed 166 people. Saeed's whereabouts in Pakistan were not usually a mystery, and he responded to the U.S. move by holding a news conference mocking it.
Counterterrorism analysts said the new rewards could boost pressure on al Shabaab as it faces a three-pronged offensive by Kenyan troops in the south, Ethiopian troops in central Somalia and an African Union force near the capital, Mogadishu.
"Al Shabaab is starting to show some signs of fatigue and fissures that are going to hinder the group," said Rick "Ozzie" Nelson, a senior security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"Putting these individuals on Rewards for Justice at this juncture is another thing which might encourage the demise of al Shabaab. We are at a tipping point here."
Other analysts said that while the Rewards for Justice program had shown only moderate success in capturing senior leaders, it was useful as a signpost of U.S. priorities.
"The large rewards haven't had an impact in bringing the top guys to justice, but these notices are important to help define the enemy and informing people about who we believe to be the top-level threats," said Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and editor of its "Long War Journal" on counterterrorism efforts.
Hartung said he was sure the large U.S. reward offers would tease out new clues about the whereabouts of al Shabaab's top leaders.
"We are confident that we will receive information pertaining to these seven," Hartung said. "What we do with that information, and the quality of that information, we'll have to wait and see."
Reporting By Andrew Quinn; Editing by Peter Cooney