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The new kidnapping threat in Nigeria

The new kidnapping threat in Nigeria

This article first appeared in the March edition of Risk Advisory's Terrorism Tracker. On 9 March, the Islamist militant group Jamaatu Ansarul Muslimina fi Biladi Sudan (Ansaru, or Supporters of the Muslims in the Land of the Blacks) announced it had killed seven foreign workers, which it kidnapped a month earlier from a compound in Nigeria’s Bauchi state. The abduction on 17 February was the group’s fourth attack in northern and central Nigeria since November 2012 – and the second kidnapping of foreign workers from their compounds during this time. This purportedly new group has mounted one attack in each of Bauchi, Katsina, Kogi and Abuja states, making its operating reach hard to gauge. What does seem clear though – based on its actions so far – is that it views Westerners as priority targets and is prepared to kill its hostages making it an extremely dangerous new faction in northern Nigeria. Ansaru claimed that a joint rescue operation by the Nigerian and British governments led to the death of ‘the seven Christian foreigners’. Both governments deny they made any such rescue attempts. But the hostages’ deaths come a year after British and Nigerian security forces led a failed attempt to rescue two Europeans kidnapped in 2011 by an unknown group in the northwestern Sokoto state. Both hostages died in that incident. The means by which the group announced the hostages' deaths, in a jihadist forum,  indicates a development in its media strategy and aligned it more with developed groups that consider themselves part of the wider global jihadist movement. The statement was posted in both Arabic and English and accompanied by screen shots of a video that appears to show four dead bodies lying in front of a gunman. It was the first time the group had disseminated a statement via a forum, rather than a media outlet or YouTube. Group background Ansaru, which many commentators speculate is a Boko Haram splinter group, announced its formation in January 2012. While the group appears to share some ideological background with Boko Haram, there are no publically available reports that suggest that Ansaru’s members used to be part of Boko Haram. Its ideological principles and aims are similar to those that Boko Haram, the most active terrorist group in Nigeria, outlines in its messaging. Ansaru has said its specific goals are to retaliate against attacks on Muslims, and restore their ‘dignity’. A statement in June focused exclusively on domestic issues, and concluded with an exhortation to ‘kill the tyrants’. The video statement explained the group’s background and detailed its aims and objectives. It cited injustice against Muslims in Nigeria as its founding motivation, alongside a lack of protection from the Christian state. Since issuing its statements of intent, Ansaru has claimed responsibility for its attacks and increased the frequency of its operations. In recent months, these statements have referred to developments outside of Nigeria – particularly international military operations in Mali – while messages last year seemed to concentrate on issues within the country. Ansaru may also have relationships with other regional groups. In February, a picture accompanying a French media report that purported to show the interior of Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s house in Gao showed a document with a prominent Ansaru logo. If the document were authentic, it would offer the first direct link between Ansaru and AQIM/MOJWA that we have seen. The similar targeting profiles of Ansaru to AQIM/MOJWA – notably the targeting of foreign nationals for abduction – may point to contacts between the group and other regional jihadist networks. Attacks and threats During the 17 February attack, Ansaru militants used explosives to breach the perimeter wall of a residential compound, before abducting four Lebanese and one citizen each from Britain, Greece and Italy. There were clear tactical similarities between the raid and the abduction of a French engineer in Katsina in December 2012. The level of security in place at the two sites remains unclear; but the incidents show the willingness and capability of the group to attack apparently secure compounds. It also points to a degree of tactical sophistication in avoiding direct assaults on entrance/exit points. In its first statement to reference developments outside Nigeria, Ansaru said it had seized the Frenchman to take revenge for France’s role in encouraging military intervention in northern Mali and its anti-Islamic laws. The group also threatened that it would continue to target ‘the French government and French citizens’. While this statement focused on France, discussions in jihadist media provide some indication as to other countries that extremists associate with these military operations. These appear to include France, Britain the UAE and ECOWAS states. In January 2013, Ansaru attacked a convoy of Nigerian soldiers heading to Mali in Kogi state. In a subsequent statement, the group warned ‘the African countries to abandon their efforts to help the Western countries in fighting against Islam and Muslims…especially the Nigerian government’ and threatened them with ‘difficulties…in any place and time’. However, the threat to citizens from countries with no links to the operations – such as Greece and Lebanon – demonstrates a wider targeting priority. Indeed, the only attack apparently caused by purely domestic motivations was an assault on a police headquarters in Abuja in November. Operational spread Ansaru’s attacks so far have taken place in Bauchi, Katsina, Kogi and Abuja. The spread of attacks suggests the group can mount attacks over a wide geographical area. All four states are located within the established operating area of Boko Haram, although based on the distribution of attacks to-date, Boko Haram has a much wider presence than Ansaru. Boko Haram said in March 2012 that it has ‘never been involved in hostage taking and it is not part of our style’, however terrorists claiming to be part of the movement abducted seven members of a French family in Cameroon near the Nigeria border in February. On 18 March, Boko Haram reportedly sent three video clips to Nigerian journalists that explained why it kidnapped the family. As we went to print, none of the videos had been posted on jihadist forums or social media sites that Risk Advisory monitor as part of our Security Intelligence & Analysis Service, but Nigerian media outlets that had seen the videos said they included a statement from Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau. Shekau reportedly warned that Boko Haram will hold the hostages until Cameroon releases members of the group currently detained in Cameroon’s prisons. He also reportedly warned that if Cameroon continues to arrest its members it will ‘multiply the kidnap operations and suicide operations in Cameroon more than in Nigeria [sic]’. If Boko Haram was indeed responsible for the Cameroon kidnapping, it would mark a significant shift in the group’s targeting, choice of tactics and area of operations. In the last three years, the majority of its attacks have targeted security personnel, Christians and clerics, rather than foreign interests. By Intelligence & Analysis, London  

Published: 11th April 2013