Amid a spate of kidnappings targeting foreign nationals operating in northern Nigeria, a shadowy but well-coordinated Islamist militant organization calling themselves the ‘Vanguards for the Protection of Muslims in Black Africa’ has emerged. In their short existence, the group has become the pre-eminent threat to foreign interests operating in northern Nigeria.
Jama’atu Ansarul Muslimina Fi Biladis Sudan (Vanguards for the Protection of Muslims in Black Africa), commonly known as Ansaru, is an Islamist militant group operating within northern Nigeria. The group announced its formation in January 2012 by disseminating a series of pamphlets in the city of Kano, the eponymous capital of Nigeria’s northern Kano state. Although details surrounding the origins, structure and leadership of the group remain anecdotal at this stage, there is evidence to suggest that Ansaru may have developed as a possible offshoot of Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamist extremist sect, comprising of members who became disenchanted with the governance of the sect’s leader, Abu Shekau. However, there is also credible evidence to suggest that Ansaru may be nothing more than a Nigerian-proxy of the transnational al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) movement which is known to operate across the Sahel and Maghreb
Ideology and objective
While sharing Boko Haram’s ideology of Salafist jihadism, there are several key differences which exists between Ansaru and its Islamist counterpart. While Boko Haram’s ambitions tend to be focused on the toppling the Nigerian government, which it accuses of maladministration, corruption and advancing the interests of the country’s oil-rich south at the expense of the Muslim-dominated north, Ansaru’s agenda appears to favour a wider regional agenda. During a video released by the group and distributed to Mauritanian news agency, Agence NouakchottInternationale, on 26 November 2012, the group made explicit that one of its objectives was to create an Islamic Caliphate extending from Niger and incorporating northern Nigeria and Cameroon, in addition to defending African Muslims from alleged persecution by Western-backed governments. In its discourse, the group has also been highly critical of the modus operandi employed by Boko Haram which has resulted in significant civilian casualties across northern, eastern and central Nigeria. Indeed, the formal announcement of the group’s creation followed the January 2012 Boko Haram attacks in the city of Kano which saw in excess of 200 people, the majority of whom were civilians, killed in seemingly coordinated vehicle-borne improvise explosive devices (VBIED) and gun attacks targeting various state-aligned installations across the city. Ansaru stated that the Kano attacks, in addition to a similar acts of violence orchestrated by the sect across northern Nigeria, as being unislamic and undignified. In addition to the tactical and ideological dissonance which exists between Boko Haram and Ansaru, it should be noted that the latter has also made explicit its intention to directly target western nationals and interests within their areas of operation. To date, Boko Haram has generally restricted its attacks within Nigeria to domestic targets and, apart from a suicide bombing at the United Nations headquarters in Abuja on the 26 August 2011, has distanced itself from acts of violence perpetrated against foreign interests. On the contrary, Ansaru has made explicit that foreign nationals belonging to Western governments, who are either directly or tacitly supporting military operations against regional and/or international jihadist groups, will be targeted in reprisals. These threats have already manifested itself in a number of kidnapping incidents targeting expatriate workers within northern Nigeria which has either been claimed or directly attributed to Ansaru-aligned militants.
Structure and politics
As mentioned, information pertaining to the structure and leadership of Ansaru remains unclear at this time. According to terrorism profiler and analyst of African Affairs for the Jamestown Foundation, Jacob Zenn, Ansaru’s leadership may be comprised of Boko Haram commanders who are opposed to Boko Haram’s currently leader, Abu Shekau. Ansaru has in several video briefings identified their leader as Abu Usmatul al-Ansari; however, Zenn has asserted that this is likely a pseudonym and that al-Ansari may actually be former Boko Haram commander, Mamaan Nur, The Cameroonian-born Nur briefly led Boko Haram in July 2009 following the death of the sect’s founder, Ustaz Mohammed, and the wounding of Shekau, which occurred during a government crackdown on Boko Haram operations in Maiduguri, commonly referred to as the 2009 Maiduguri uprising. However, following his recovery, Shekau immediately assumed full control of the movement which allegedly caused discontent among Nur proponents. Nonetheless, Nur continued to operate as Shekau’s second-in command up until the Kano bombings of 2012 when he allegedly removed himself from the organisation. Another postulation is that al-Ansari may be the pseudonym for internationally designated terrorist and Boko Haram affiliate, Khalid al-Barnawi. Al-Barnawi, who is alleged to have close ties with the Algerian-based AQIM and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, is alleged to have masterminded a number of kidnapping incidents in North Africa, in addition to establishing kidnapping training camps in Algeria, and is rumoured to currently operate within Nigeria’s northern city of Kano. It currently remains unclear as to whether either Nur or al-Barnawi are indeed leading or actively involved within the Ansaru leadership; however, it appears that the organisation’s highest command has some discernible connections to Boko Haram and seemingly AQIM
Operational areas and tactics
Akin to the Algerian and Malian-based, AQIM movement, Ansaru appears to favour the use of kidnapping as an operational tactic. The first abduction to be claimed by the group occurred on 19 December 2012 a French engineer, Francis Colump, employed by the French-owned energy company, Vergnet, was kidnapped from a secure compound in the town of Rimi, located in Katsina state. Less than 24 hours after the abduction, Ansaru released a video claiming responsibility for the kidnapping which the group claimed to have perpetrated in retaliation for the French government’s recent decision to ban the full-faced veil (known as the niqab) and for their support for military involvement in Mali. On 19 February 2013, the group also claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of seven foreign expatriate workers, employed by the Lebanese-owned Setraco construction company, in the Jama’are Local Government Area of Bauchi State. On 10 March, the group released another video claiming that they had executed the hostages as a reprisal to an attempt by the Nigerian government to execute a security operation to free the hostages. During both of the aforementioned abductions, a group of between 20 and 30 militants attacked highly secured compounds using improvised explosive devices (IED’s) and high calibre rifles in their offensives. Although the kidnappings were the only incidents for which Ansaru have directly claimed responsibility, US and British intelligence services have stated that Ansaru was more than likely responsible for the May 2011 kidnapping of a British and Italian national in the city of Benin Kebbi, Kebbi state, in addition to the January 2012 kidnapping of a German engineer in the city of Kano. During both incidents, the hostages were executed by their captors following failed attempts by local and international security forces to liberate them.
In addition to kidnapping, Ansaru has also demonstrated the intent and acumen to execute attacks targeting state-aligned security installations in Nigeria’s major urban centres. On 26 November 2012, 40 Ansaru militants attacked the headquarters of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), located in Abuja’s Apo district. During the attack, which was eventually repelled by security personnel, scores of prisoners managed to escape. The majority of those detained and subsequently freed during the raid included persons who were suspected of having ties to Boko Haram and other Islamist extremist movements. Another attack claimed by Ansaru occurred on 19 January 2013 when the group attacked a convoy of Nigerian troops in Kogi state who were en route to participate in combat operations in Mali. The incident marked the second attack to be claimed by Ansaru which was seemingly motivated by a transationalist as opposed to a domestic agenda.
As noted by the aforementioned incidents, Ansaru modus operandi is atypical of that delineated by the Boko Haram Islamist sect. While Boko Haram generally favours the use of vehicle-borne explosive devices and suicide bombers with the intent of causing mass casualties, Ansaru tends to be more sophisticated in their tactics, preferring to use a well-trained and highly coordinated militant detachment to attack hardened targets such as secured residential compounds and detention facilities. Ansaru attacks are also typically surgical with the predetermined targets singled out and with an overt emphasis on limiting casualties. The efficacy and sophistication delineated in the group’s operations draws parallels with the modus operandi commonly employed by AQIM during their insurgent operations in the Sahel and Maghreb which further emphasises the possibility of some symbiotic relationship existing between the movements.
Akin to the Boko Haram counterparts, Ansaru is likely to remain a key feature of Nigeria’s security environment for the short-to-medium. As mentioned, the group has demonstrated acumen in their operations which would indicate that their constituents are well-trained and highly organised and are more than likely receiving some form of patronage from regional jihadist movements. As such, it is likely that the group maintains operational and/or logistical bases outside of Nigeria, possibly in neighbouring countries such as Niger and Cameroon, which could be used as a safe haven during counterinsurgency operations conducted by the Nigerian government. In terms of their ambitions and operations, it currently appears that Ansaru will continue to focus on their primary goal which is targeting foreign personnel in acts of kidnapping, with hostages being used as bargaining chips for political concessions and/or financial reward. Indeed, if the group is found to be operating as an AQIM proxy, it is likely that kidnapping attempts by Ansaru will continue to proliferate in northern Nigeria given the considerable withdrawal of Westerners from Sahel countries, which generally coincided with the foreign military intervention in Mali, and which has mitigated kidnapping activities within the region. While the threat posed by Ansaru will be highest within the country’s northern administrative regions of Kano, Katsina, Yobe, Bauchi and Borno, the threat posed by the group will likely extend to Nigeria’s eastern states of Adamawa and Taraba from where the group may launch attacks from its purported strongholds in Cameroon. It is also likely that the group will continue to target government- and security-aligned interests in armed attacks; however, it is improbable that either the frequency or scale of such attacks would mirror those of the Boko Haram movement. In terms of its relations with the aforementioned, it is likely that Ansaru and Boko Haram will continue to operate as completely separate entities. While sharing a similar interpretation of Islamic doctrine, Boko Haram and Ansaru’s goals appear to be divergent at this time, particularly regarding the former’s targeting of local nationals in its operations. However, the disparity in their ideology will not negate the possibility of cooperation between the two movements, particularly if the endgame of such undertakings is mutually beneficial. Furthermore, there are also concerns that an escalation of Ansaru operations against foreign interests in Nigeria, which is likely to evoke support among hardline militants, may similarly prompt Boko Haram to also adopt a more hardened anti-western stance as it strives to remain the most relevant and formidable Islamist movement operating within the country.
Article by Ryan Cummings – Follow him on Twitter @Pol_Sec_Analyst
- US adds Boko Haram, Ansaru to list of foreign terrorist groups (longwarjournal.org)