Tag Archives: Ryan Cummings

Chief v Chief: Nigeria and Yemen



Two of red24’s chief analysts, Andre Colling (AC) and Ryan Cummings (RC), go head-to-head in a Q&A covering Yemen’s increasingly likely slide towards failed state status and Boko Haram in Nigeria, respectively. The questions form part of a basic ‘key assumptions check’ and are typically used in the industry as a starting point when reassessing a security environment or the operational capability of an armed group. The answers also provide some insight into the respective security environments of each state.

Nigeria – The Boko Haram threat


(AC) Ryan, Boko Haram is a prominent, well-funded and well-supported Islamist militant group, based in Nigeria. Why do you argue that it does not have an international focus and that its activity is only (and will only be) Nigeria-focused over the medium-term?

(RC) There is mounting evidence to suggest that Boko Haram has extended its operational footprint outside of Nigeria and may have infiltrated neighbouring countries, such as Niger and Cameroon. Nonetheless, both the sect’s rhetoric and operations suggest that Boko Haram remains a Nigeria-focused, grassroots organisation. In this regard, Boko Haram’s alleged expansion into neighbouring countries is congruent with the group’s domestic agenda, as this expansion has provided the sect with an operational environment in which it can train, recruit and even launch cross-border attacks into Nigerian territory. The status quo will likely endure until such time that the respective governments of Niger and Cameroon adopt a more hardline stance against Boko Haram interests, both within and outside of their respective borders.

(AC) What is the current level of regional security coordination between Nigeria and neighbouring countries?

(RC) To date, the level of security co-operation between Nigeria and its immediate neighbours has been limited to intelligence sharing and joint border patrols. However, these initiatives have been compromised by logistical problems, including staff shortages and poor communication networks. Nevertheless, there are increasing calls by Western governments for more robust regional co-operation, particularly the execution of joint military operations. I believe it will only be a question of time before such initiatives are undertaken.

(AC) What incentives, if any, are there for resource-poor states bordering Nigeria to co-operate against militants?

(RC) The longer the Boko Haram insurgency continues, the higher the risk that the sect could become entrenched within neighbouring countries and possibly export its insurgent operations to these territories. Moreover, an often overlooked aspect of the Boko Haram insurgency is the regional humanitarian crisis it is causing. Since early 2013, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has estimated that at least 470,000 people have been displaced by Boko Haram attacks and reciprocal military offensives in north eastern Nigeria. An estimated 60,000 of the aforementioned number have sought refuge in the neighbouring countries of Chad, Cameroon and Niger, placing a significant burden on areas already experiencing food and resource scarcities. Co-operation against militants among Nigeria’s neighbouring states could help prevent these effects.

(AC) What is the long-term outlook for Nigeria? Can the government end the insurgency?

(RC) I believe that the Nigerian government can end the Boko Haram insurgency, provided that it is willing to change its current counterinsurgency strategy. To date, Nigeria has relied on a military solution to the insurgency, which is problematic, given that the Nigerian armed forces are lacking the requisite resources, training and manpower for such a strategy. In this regard, the country will likely require external assistance, both in the form of training and funding, in order to ensure that the military has the knowledge, numbers and equipment for the execution of successful counterinsurgency operations.

However, most critically will be Nigeria’s willingness to address the structural socio-economic problems that are fuelling the insurgency. By addressing issues such as poverty, unemployment and corruption, which are considered systemic in the country’s north, the government could drain Boko Haram’s grassroots support, upon which the longevity of the sect’s insurgency is dependent. In short, the government needs to make a better offer to the people than any offer from Boko Haram. Until the sect is forced into a position in which negotiation, and not violence, is the primary means of addressing its grievances, Boko Haram will continue to persist with the deadly efficacy it has demonstrated to date.

Yemen – The potential failed state


(RC) Andre, you argue that Yemen is on a path towards failed state status. Is this assessment valid, given the success of the recent National Dialogue Conference?

(AC) I think so. The National Dialogue achieved some limited success, but as recent conflict in the north, persistent tribal violence in the east and Islamist extremist agitation in the south east demonstrate, it has not achieved immediate results. In addition to these challenges, oil income has diminished and the economy is heaving under enormous pressure and reliance on foreign aid. The government is essentially in a state of flux and prone to further instability.

(RC) You touch on the issue of the presence of non-state armed groups that operate within the country. In this regard, who are the major groups?

(AC) There are a number of groups. The Shiite Houthis in the north, AQAP in the east, Harak militants in the south and, of course, the various tribal groupings, most of which are well armed. There are also numerous political parties which have an armed support base, including al-Islah, arguably the strongest opposition group in the country.

(RC) Are any of these groups interconnected and, if so, how do these relationships influence the power dynamic within the country?

(AC) Many, if not most, of these groups share certain ‘commonalities’. For example, there is evidence to suggest that some tribesmen are working with AQAP (in kidnapping operations) and that AQAP members have inter-married with tribes’ people, in order to cement alliances and secure operational ‘space’. Some political parties and tribal groupings are also loosely allied. Al-Islah has a close connection to the al-Ahmer tribe, which is in turn the dominant force in the Hashid Tribal federation. The Hashid comprises a number of smaller tribal groupings who are loyal to opponents of al-Islah and al-Ahmer, such as the Houthis. The government also runs a patronage system through its Ministry of Tribal Affairs, which allegedly pays off certain tribal figures in return for their allegiance or neutrality. The security forces are also split in many areas along tribal lines, while many politicians have split allegiances. Typically, one is loyal to one’s family, tribe, religious order, party and, usually lastly, the state. So in summary, these groups are connected through a complicated mix where alliances are frequently forged or broken in response to political and security developments.

(RC) Are there any discernible shifts in the current alliances which could worsen or improve Yemen’s political and security outlook within the short- to medium-term?

(AC) Discerning shifts in alliances remains a difficult undertaking. While small shifts are frequently occurring in response to security and political developments, major alliance shifts occur less frequently. The last major upheaval occurred in 2011, when elements within the army withdrew support from then-president, Ali Saleh. However, even this split was accepted as a likely outcome, given the entrenched differences that already existed within the ‘unified military command’ and political hierarchy. Similarly, any major political development over the near-term will act to further destabilise and polarise Yemen. Such triggers could include a high-profile political assassination that undermines the recent political gains, or a major advance or capture of territory by one of the major non-state armed groups.

Follow Ryan @Pol_Sec_Analyst and Andre @AndreColling

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Boko Haram: A domestic or regional threat?


There are concerns that the Boko Haram, which has generally been regarded as a domestic terrorist group, is on the verge of adopting a transnational agenda. In doing so, Boko Haram would pose a significant threat in an African region already afflicted by a myriad of challenges; these include political instability, ethnic conflicts and Islamist extremism.

For the full free analysis, click here

Analysis by Ryan Cummings, follow him @Pol_Sec_Analyst

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Could CAR become the next Somalia?


Jihadist intervention in the CAR crisis: Could it happen?

In September 2013, French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, warned that ensuing lawlessness within the Central African Republic (CAR) could see the country become the next Somalia; i.e. a failed state, which could serve as a safe haven for both regional and transnational terrorist groups. Less than two months later, Fabius’ concerns were reiterated by Assistant Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations at the United Nations, Edmund Mulet, who claimed that al-Qaeda-aligned militants were on the verge of exploiting growing instability within the CAR to their advantage. However, in contrast to Fabius, Mulet likened the prevailing situation within the CAR to that of northern Mali, where a power vacuum resulting from a military coup had seen the region fall under the control of Islamist extremists. Initially dismissed as mere rhetoric aimed at generating greater international attention to the CAR crisis, Fabius and Mulet’s claims recently gained credence following a statement released by Nigerian-based Islamist extremist group, Boko Haram. In a video message posted online on 14 February, Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, purportedly threatened to avenge what he coined the massacre of Muslim communities in the CAR by Christian militias collectively known as anti-balaka.

Although somewhat unexpected, Boko Haram’s threat to enter the CAR conflict is not all that surprising. Since Seleka rebels toppled the government of Francois Bozize in March 2013, the CAR has experienced widespread and sustained outbreaks of ethno-religious violence, which has seemingly pitted the country’s Muslim and Christian populace against each other. The CAR’s minority Islamic population has been particularly hard hit by the violence, with human rights advocacy group, Amnesty International, recently asserting that the ethnic cleansing of Muslims were occurring within the country. Conforming to the Salafi jihadism interpretation of Islam, extremist groups such as Boko Haram would likely consider it their religious duty to avenge the persecution of Muslims by members of another religion. Such reasoning was perhaps best exemplified during the Bosnian civil war where hundreds of foreign Muslim jihadists fought alongside their Bosniak counterparts against a predominantly orthodox Christian Serbian army. Within the African context, coordinated jihadist intervention was also recently witnessed in northern Mali where various Islamist militant groups, including Boko Haram, allegedly engaged in joint combat operations against Malian, Chadian and French forces. Although the avenging of Muslim persecution was not central to this co-operation, the Malian conflict nevertheless underlined that regional Islamist extremist groups possessed both the intent and operational capacity to coordinate combat operations on foreign soil.

With both motivations and statements of intent for Islamist extremist involvement within the CAR made explicit, what is the actual threat of such a development occurring? Any such undertaking will be subject to significant logistical challenges. In terms of its geographical location, the CAR is far less accessible to Islamist militants than Mali. In terms of the latter, Islamist militants had near-unrestricted access to the region from their operational strongholds in neighbouring Algeria and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Niger and Mauritania. Moreover, long-established and clandestine smuggling routes located across much of Mali’s desert north also provided militants with a constant supply of arms and other resources. As mentioned, access routes for both supplies and personnel deployment is not as readily available for Islamist extremist groups seeking to infiltrate the CAR. There have been claims that Sudan’s Darfur region, which shares a common border with the CAR’s northern Vakanga province, could be used as a platform for Islamist extremist groups to deploy both personnel and arms into the country. However, such assertions have largely been based on spurious claims of an existing jihadist presence within Darfur, in addition to simplifying the motivations of Sudanese militias involved in the Darfur conflict. Another suggestion is that Nigerian Islamist militants, such as Boko Haram and its alleged offshoot, Ansaru, could infiltrate the CAR from neighbouring Cameroon. Although there is significant evidence to suggest that the aforementioned groups possess an operational presence within Cameroon, their operations to date have been limited to areas along the Nigerian border, specifically within the country’s Far-North province. These areas are located several hundred kilometers away from the Cameroon-CAR border, which itself has been fortified by the Cameroonian military amid an influx of CAR refugee populations.

Apart from logistical problems, jihadist infiltration within the CAR will also likely be subject to several operational challenges. The majority of Islamist militant groups operating within Africa have done so within the semi-arid Sahel and Maghreb regions of the continent. Their familiarity with often harsh and inhospitable desert conditions have given them the edge over regional and/or international forces tasked with uprooting them from such areas. However, the desert plains of North and West Africa differ considerably to the jungle and savannah which comprise much of the CAR. Islamist militants’ unfamiliarity with such conditions may not only see them lose an important tactical advantage but could place them firmly on the back foot against local militias accustomed to such environments. Further to this, an Islamist infiltration within the CAR will occur in the absence of any significant on-the-ground support. According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, the majority of the CAR’s Muslim population has fled to neighboring Chad and Cameroon. Those left behind have found refuge in ad hoc refugee camps dotted across the country. As such, local intelligence networks, upon which militant groups rely on, would be minimal to non-existent within the CAR. Although the possibility exists that Seleka rebels could assist jihadist fighters in their operations, such co-operation is by no means guaranteed. It is true that Seleka is mainly comprised of Muslim fighters, primarily emanating from Chad and Sudan; however, the group was never motivated or united by religion. Instead, the majority of rebel combatants coalesced under the motley Seleka rebel coalition due to individual motivations, which ranged from grievances against the Bozize regime to the mere economic reward of pillaging civilian populations. With the majority of such motivations already fulfilled, there is little evidence to suggest that Seleka’s assistance to jihadists groups is assured or even likely.

At first glance, the CAR appears to have all the conditions desirable for Islamist infiltration. The collapse of security and governance structures in the vast and sparsely populated country could serve as the ideal environment for Islamist extremists to hide or even establish an operational presence. In addition, jihadist groups would likely consider it their religious duty to avenge the hundreds of CAR Muslims killed by their Christian counterparts. However, on closer inspection, it becomes apparent that sustaining any armed campaign within the CAR will be subject to significant, if not insurmountable, challenges. Nonetheless, threats issued by Islamist groups such as Boko Haram should not be dismissed. Instead, they should serve to exemplify just how far the CAR conflict has spiraled out of control and how urgent the need is to find a lasting solution to the crisis. With international and regional troops already struggling to contain disorganised bands of machete-wielding militias, the risk of highly-trained and conflict-hardened terrorist groups gaining a foothold in CAR is one that simply cannot be taken.

Article by Ryan Cummings, follow him @Pol_Sec_Analyst

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Ansaru: The new vanguard of terrorism in northern Nigeria


Amid a spate of kidnappings targeting foreign nationals operating in northern Nigeria, a shadowy but well-coordinated Islamist militant organization calling themselves theVanguards 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.

Future outlook

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.

Ansaru Map

Article by Ryan Cummings – Follow him on Twitter @Pol_Sec_Analyst

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