In the past week, 14 foreigners have been kidnapped in northern Nigeria and Cameroon in two separate attacks. No group has claimed responsibility for the second attack, which occurred Feb. 19 in Cameroon, but the location is adjacent to Boko Haram's core territory in northeast Nigeria. Ansaru, a splinter group of Boko Haram, claimed responsibility for the first attack and could be responsible for the second since, unlike Boko Haram, it has a history of kidnapping foreign nationals. If Boko Haram conducted the second attack, it would signal a significant shift in the group's targets and tactics.
As Stratfor noted, Boko Haram's capabilities in 2012 were limited to soft targets near the group's base of operations in northeastern Nigeria. Ansaru has emerged over the past year and appears to have surpassed Boko Haram in its range of tactics and targets. Ansaru has relied on armed attacks for kidnappings rather than suicide bombings. Ansaru's targets have included foreigners and those involved with the intervention in Mali, while Boko Haram's targets have been Nigerian.
Nearly all of the Ansaru attacks since December 2012, as well as the unclaimed kidnapping in Cameroon, have targeted French nationals or those supporting French operations in Mali. This has raised the fear that widespread kidnappings will be fallout from the Mali intervention. A continuation of this violence could harm foreign interests in Nigeria and the surrounding countries and strengthen militant jihadism throughout the region.
Ansaru's Origins and Connections
Not a lot is known about the origin of Ansaru, but following Boko Haram's attacks on Kano -- a predominately Muslim city in Nigeria -- that killed almost 200 people in January 2012, Ansaru publicly split from Boko Haram, denouncing the killings of innocent Muslims. However, the group's formation began earlier in connection to two kidnappings.
The first was in May 2011, when a group claiming to be al Qaeda in the Land Beyond the Sahel and a faction of Boko Haram kidnapped two engineers -- one British and one Italian -- in Birnin Kebbi, Nigeria. On Dec. 1, 2011, a video was sent to Agence Nouakchott d'Information, Mauritania's state media outlet, demanding a 5 million-euro (about $6.7 million) ransom. Demanding millions in ransoms is a strategy employed by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb; Nigerian militants' demands do not typically reach this level. Agence Nouakchott d'Information is known to have close contacts with al Qaeda's North African branch and served as the mouthpiece for Mokhtar Belmokhtar during the January 2013 attack on the Ain Amenas plant in Algeria. The mediator in the ransom negotiations, Mustafa Ould Limam Chafi, also negotiated many of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's previous hostage ransoms, including the release of U.N. Special Envoy to Niger Robert Fowler, the Canadian diplomat who was kidnapped in Niger in 2008. The connections to Agence Nouakchott d'Information and Chafi suggest that the group responsible for the May 2011 kidnappings in Nigeria -- Ansaru or its predecessor faction within Boko Haram -- has close ties with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
The man behind the May 2011 operation was trained by Khalid al-Barnawi, whom the U.S. State Department designated a global terrorist in June 2012 because of his ties to Boko Haram and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Al-Barnawi's connection with North African jihadist groups includes time spent with the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, where he worked with Belmokhtar. He also set up kidnapping training camps in Algeria. It is unclear what the link is between al-Barnawi and Ansaru. Some experts have told news media that Abu Usmatul al-Ansari, who claims to be Ansaru's leader, could be a pseudonym for al-Barnawi. Al-Ansari surfaced earlier as Boko Haram's commander in Nigeria's northeastern states, which has been Ansaru's primary area of operation.
The second kidnapping was the January 2012 abduction of a German engineer in Kano. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility in a video sent to Agence Nouakchott d'Information, but it is more likely that a local group kidnapped the engineer. The hostage was killed during a rescue attempt by German special operations forces in Kano; al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb typically transports hostages to the mountains of northern Mali. According to a Stratfor source, just two weeks after the rescue attempt, the same German special operations forces group targeted a convoy of four cars in northern Nigeria, possibly to disrupt a rumored meeting between a representative of al Shabaab and Abu Zeid, a prominent al Qaeda commander in the Sahel. It is likely that the German special operations forces obtained relevant intelligence in the rescue attempt and acted on it. If such a piece of intelligence was found in Kano, then links between the group behind the operation and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb must be fairly robust, which would mean that al-Barnawi was almost certainly involved with the operation.
Since the death of Boko Haram leader Mohammed Yusuf in 2009, internal tensions have risen between nationalist factions aligned with present Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau and transnational factions. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has long sought a connection with Boko Haram, and it appears that the group has established ties with Ansaru and that the tensions between national and transnational factions of Boko Haram led to the split.