• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Africa in Transition. The views expressed are the author's own.
Over the weekend, a radical Islamist group called Ansaru carried out a sophisticated kidnapping operation in Bauchi, a city in northern Nigeria. The seven victims, all expats, were working for Setraco, a Lebanese owned construction and civil engineering company. The kidnapping, which also resulted in the death of a security guard, appears to have been coordinated with an attack on the local police station. Ansaru, which may have links to Nigerian Islamist militant group Boko Haram, claimed responsibility in a statement emailed to state media.
There is media speculation that Ansaru carried out the kidnapping for ransoms to fund its operations in Nigeria, and perhaps elsewhere in the Sahel. Kidnapping for ransom is common in southern Nigeria and in parts of the Sahel, but it is rare in northern Nigeria – if not unknown. Elsewhere in the Sahel, European governments and private companies pay large ransoms that account for a significant part of the income of groups operating in the region.
Ansaru has claimed responsibility for other, recent terrorist attacks, while Boko Haram has been silent.
Ansaru may be an off-shoot of Boko Haram, but its relationship to the broader movement is unclear. Unlike Boko Haram, which has been focused on domestic Nigerian issues, Ansaru appears to have a more international scope. It may have run training camps in Algeria, and its statement justifying the recent kidnappings referred to “the transgressions and atrocities done to the religion of Allah … by the European countries in many places such as Afghanistan and Mali.” It also denounced the French government’s ban on veils in schools.
Ansaru’s official name, “Jama’atu Ansarul Muslimina Fi Biladis Sudan,” is translated as the “Vanguard for the Aid of Muslims in Black Africa.” Khalid al Barnawi, who was previously designated a 'global terrorist' by the US government, may be a leader. There is little open-source biographic information on al Barnawi. He is described as a Nigerian in his mid-thirties who comes from the northern city of Maiduguri. Some press reports that he is allied with Abubakar Shekau, often identified as the local head of Boko Haram in the area.
Recent Ansaru activities may indicate that the wider Boko Haram movement is evolving from a movement focused on specifically Nigerian issues to one with a transnational character. If so, links with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb could become more important than in the past.
Boko Haram has not specifically attacked non-Nigerian targets (with the possible exception of the UN headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria's capital, although that might have been a target because of its close ties with the hated Abuja government). The Ansaru kidnapping may be an indication that that the character of Islamism in northern Nigeria is changing. However, there are few expatriates in northern Nigeria and there are many more potential targets in the south, where Boko Haram has not carried out operations.
In addition to their work in Bauchi, the Lebanese company Setraco is the lead contractor in the construction of a new road from Port Harcourt to Lagos, an important development project that is part of Abuja’s efforts to pacify the oil-rich Niger Delta. It remains to be seen if the northern kidnapping will impact other Setraco operations hundreds of miles away.