A senior Shabaab official, Zakariya Ismail Ahmed Hersi, has been reportedly captured by Somali officials. Hersi “surrendered to the Somali police,” the Associated Press reports, citing an anonymous Somali intelligence official. According to CNN, which cites two Somali military officials, the authorities “captured Hersi and his driver without confrontation.”
Shabaab formally merged with al Qaeda in February 2012, thereby becoming the international terrorist organization’s official branch in East Africa. But Hersi and other top Shabaab officials worked closely with al Qaeda long before the formal announcement.
The US government offered a $3 million reward for information leading to Hersi’s capture in June 2012. In announcing the reward, the State Department noted that Hersi served as Shabaab’s “chief of intelligence.”
Hersi, who is also known as Hassan Abdullah Hersi al Turki, was first designated as an al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist by the State Department in 2004. Foggy Bottom reported at the time that Hersi “has been associated with al Qaeda and has provided support for acts of terrorism.”
The UN followed suit, adding Hersi to its al Qaeda sanctions list. According to a biography published on the UN’s web site in 2009, Hersi “has maintained links to members of Al-Qaida’s East Africa network since 1998.” In particular, there is evidence tying Hersi to the al Qaeda operatives responsible for the twin bombings at the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on Aug. 7, 1998.
Hersi was a leader in the Al-Itihaad al-Islamiya (AIAI), another group based in Somalia. When al Qaeda “was preparing to attack the United States Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya” in 1997 and 1998, Hersi “organized” an AIAI “training camp in Ras Kamboni” in support of the operation. “Twenty individuals linked to [Hersi] traveled from Somalia to Kenya to set up a structure to carry out the attack on the United States Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya,” the UN found.
The UN would later strengthen its allegation, directly connecting Hersi to the 1998 embassy bombings. In May 2013, the UN amended its designation of Hersi to allege that he was “[b]elieved to have been involved in the attacks on the United States embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in August 1998.”
Additional information regarding Hersi’s longtime al Qaeda ties can be found in a leaked threat assessment authored by Joint Task Force-Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO). The file notes that Hersi, who was part of the Islamic Courts Union at the time, conspired with a senior al Qaeda operative known as Abu Talha al Sudani. The pair helped plot the capture of Kismayo, a key Somali port that was held for a time by Shabaab. Sudani was wanted by the US for his role in the 1998 embassy bombings until his death in 2008.
Hersi joined Shabaab in 2009, but supported the group’s operations before officially joining its ranks. In 2008, the UN notes, Hersi “ran a military training camp for” Shabaab “fighters near the Kenya-Somalia border.” And as “the officer in charge of Juba Valley,” he permitted the training of [Shabaab] forces on territory under his control.” Hersi’s forces, which were part of the Ras Kamboni brigade, “conducted joint operations with [Shabaab], including the capture of Kismayo in August 2008.”
Press reports suggest that Hersi had a falling out with Ahmed Abdi Godane in 2013. Godane led Shabaab until his death in September. Shabaab quickly named Ahmed Umar as Godane’s successor. And Umar reaffirmed his allegiance to al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri.