U.S. drops terror reward for Somali al-Shabab leader

The Trump administration has quietly rescinded a reward of up to $5 million for information about a top member of the al-Qaida-allied extremist group al-Shabab in Somalia amid reports he may be in talks with the Somali government to leave the organization.

Sheikh Mukhtar Robow was removed from the "most wanted list" of terrorist suspects run by the State Department's "Rewards for Justice" program in recent days, a U.S. official said Friday. The official, who was not authorized to speak to the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said Robow's removal followed consultations with the Somali government but had no additional information about the step.

The official said Robow remains subject to U.S. sanctions imposed against him in 2008 when he was identified as a "specially designated global terrorist," but is no longer a Rewards for Justice target. A cached version of the program's website identifies Robow as an al-Shabab spokesman, military commander and spiritual leader who planned and executed deadly attacks on Somali government troops and African Union peacekeeping forces.

The removal follows reports that the Somali government is in talks with Robow, who fell out with the former al-Shabab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane. The fallout forced Robow to abandon rebel-held areas to escape an internal purge by Godane in attempt to finish off his rivals in the group. Pro-Godane fighters have since killed several senior militants, including the American-born Omar Hammami and Ibrahim Afghani, one of the group's highest ranking leaders.

Robow, estimated to be in his 50s, is one of al-Shabab's most experienced leaders, having traveled to Afghanistan and trained alongside al-Qaida around 2000 after studies in Sudan. Al-Shabab last year became the deadliest Islamic extremist group in Africa, with more than 4,200 people killed in 2016, according to the Washington-based Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

The extremist group has vowed to step up attacks after the recently elected government launched a new military offensive against it. The group also faces a new military push from the United States after President Donald Trump approved expanded operations, including airstrikes. Al-Shabab still controls parts of rural Somalia.

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