Al-Shabab's Most Wanted: Abu Ubaidah Now Has a $6 Million Bounty on His Head

Al Shabab
Al Shabab militants parade new recruits after arriving in Mogadishu October 21, 2010, from their training camp south of the capital. The leader of Al Shabab, Abu Ubaidah, is subject to a $6 million reward for information from the U.S. State Department. Feisal Omar/Reuters

On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department issued a $6 million reward for information on the whereabouts of Abu Ubaidah, the alleged leader of the Somali militant group Al-Shabab.

Abu Ubaidah has led the militant group for just over a year since Al-Shabab's former leader, Ahmed Abdi aw-Mohamed (known as Godane), was killed in a U.S. airstrike. The militants have been active at home in Somalia and abroad under Ubaidah's leadership in 2015, most notably with a massacre at Garissa University in Kenya, in which 148 people were killed by Al-Shabab gunmen.

Here's what we know about Ubaidah and his ambitions for the militant group.

What is Al-Shabab?

Designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S. in 2008, Al-Shabab (which means "the Youth") arose as the militant youth wing of the now defunct Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which took control of the Somali capital Mogadishu in 2006.

The ICU lost control of the capital after Ethiopia invaded in December 2006, a move that had a radicalizing effect on the youth wing, according to the Council of Foreign Relations.

Al-Shabab reportedly has control of many rural areas in southern and eastern Somalia, though it has been driven out of most major towns and cities following the deployment of African Union forces in 2007 under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

In areas it controls, Al-Shabab enforces strict Shariah law. The group also has an international front—in February 2012, Al-Shabab's leadership pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda—and is reported to have between 7,000 and 9,000 fighters, according to the BBC.

Who is Abu Ubaidah?

The militant group's current leader took up his role on September 6, 2014, according to the U.S. State Department. Abu Ubaidaha—the nom de guerre for the Somali national also known as Direye or Ahmed Umar—was a close confidante of Godane, the Al-Shabab's former leader. Godane was believed to have fought against the Soviet Union during their invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s and was closely affiliated with Al-Qaeda's top brass, to whom he pledged allegiance in 2009.

Abu Ubaidah is believed to be in his 40s or 50s and joined Al-Shabab in 2007, quickly rising through the ranks. He was designated as a terrorist by the State Department in April 2015, meaning he is currently a legal target for airstrikes. However, little has been seen of the elusive figure since then.

What are Abu Ubaidah's links to Al-Qaeda?

As soon as he was promoted to the role of leader or emir of Al-Shabab, Abu Ubaidah followed his predecessor in pledging allegiance to Al-Qaeda, says Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, Head of Research at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence at King's College London. Abu Ubaidah wanted to reaffirm Al-Shabab's broader ambitions as a regional branch of the global Al-Qaeda brand, as opposed to a purely Somali insurgency.

According to Meleagrou-Hitchens, Al-Shabab have "really stepped up their efforts to carry out terrorist attacks abroad" under Abu Ubaidah's leadership, as evidenced by the Garissa attacks.

The incumbent leader is overseeing a two-fold strategy that involves maintaining a "low-level insurgency in Somalia" but also "using a lot of resources to ensure they have the capabilities to carry out terrorist attacks in countries involved in the AMISOM efforts," which include Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. "It's just a matter of time before there's another fairly big Shabab terrorist attack in Kenya particularly," Meleagrou-Hitchens says.

What about Al-Shabab's links to the Islamic State militant group (ISIS)?

Reports have emerged recently of senior figures within Al-Shabab pledging allegiance to ISIS, which is currently seeking to establish a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. ISIS has reportedly been attempting to convince Al-Shabab's leadership to swear allegiance to the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, throughout 2015.

Meleagrou-Hitchens says that the temptation of ISIS represents Abu Ubaidah's first real challenge as leader of Al-Shabab, and that splinter factions that do switch from Al-Qaeda can expect a harsh punishment.

"Can he maintain enough unity in the group to keep it together and can he fend off these advances by ISIS?" says Meleagrou-Hitchens. "He [Abu Ubaidah] is certainly going to try and they're willing to kill a lot of people to ensure that's the case."

What are Abu Ubaidah's ambitions for Al-Shabab?

Despite being confined to rural areas of Somalia, Al-Shabab appears to have enough clout and confidence to launch regular attacks in the capital Mogadishu, according to Rafaello Pantucci, security analyst at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a U.K. defense think tank. Earlier in November, an attack by the Islamist militants on a Mogadishu hotel killed at least 15 people.

Pantucci says there is evidence of fighters from Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya within Al-Shabab's ranks, indicating the concerning spread of the group's ideology in east Africa.

"They're a regional group more than anything else," Pantucci says. "They do see themselves as a branch of Al-Qaeda but they very much act in their own local interests."

Despite the pressure being applied by AMISOM and the fragmentation over ISIS, Pantucci doesn't see the threat from Al-Shabab subsiding. "It's a group which is not going away," he says.