Jonathan seeks an unlikely savior in al-Qaeda

“Boko Haram is no longer a local terrorist group, it is operating clearly as an Al-Qaeda operation, it is an al-Qaeda of West Africa.” These were the words uttered by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan during a news conference held in the French capital, Paris, on 17 May. The media briefing followed an earlier African security summit, coordinated and hosted by France, where the governments of Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, Benin and Chad, pledged better regional cooperation in the fight against Boko Haram. In turn, the French government and its UK, US and EU counterparts, committed to provide logistical and technical support to regional initiatives aimed at uprooting the Islamist sect.

The ‘Boko Haram plan of action’ formulated at the summit was by no means earth-shattering or unprecedented. Speaking during a security conference in Abuja in February, French President Francois Hollande similarly promised his country’s support to Nigeria’s armed campaign against Boko Haram. “Your struggle is also our struggle,” President Hollande told delegates, further adding “We will always stand ready not only to provide our political support but our help every time you need it because the struggle against terrorism is also the struggle for democracy.”During the same address, the French president also urged for greater regional cooperation between Nigeria and its neighbouring countries —many of which may already be experiencing contagion from the Boko Haram insurgency.

However, what was unique about the 17 May summit was that it marked one of the first occasions that the Nigerian government had explicitly associated Boko Haram with the transnationalist terrorist al-Qaeda network. In all fairness, such linkages are not without merit. From reports suggesting that sect members trained and even fought alongside al-Qaeda’s North African branch in Mali, to accounts that Boko Haram may have been supported Osama Bin Laden himself, evidence linking the Nigerian militant group to al-Qaeda is plentiful. But such claims are hardly new to the Boko Haram discourse and, one would assume, would have been investigated by the Nigerian government upon first mention. So why would Jonathan only now publically label Boko Haram as an al-Qaeda offshoot? For one, by doing so, he may have potentially earned himself and his government a rather unlikely saviour.

The Chibok kidnapping  has drawn widespread attention to Boko Haram’s near decade-long insurgency against the Nigerian government; an insurgency which has killed at least 2,000 people this year alone.  Moreover, the incident has also placed a rather harsh spotlight on the Jonathan administration and the role it has played in the ensuing carnage. In doing so, a tale of chronic  governmental neglect in north eastern Nigeria ­— Boko Haram’s birthplace and primary area of operation — has come to the fore. Out of Nigeria’s six administrative zones, the country’s north east has the highest unemployment and poverty rates; human development indices which some argue are important indicators for the development of conflict and terrorism by non-state groups.

Prevailing narratives also present the story of an unprofessional and ill-disciplined military who have committed gross human rights abuses in combating the sect. Extortion, extrajudicial killings of civilians and the abduction and subsequent assault of Boko Haram wives and children, have seemingly become part and parcel of the army’s counterinsurgency strategy. In this regard, the army has not only failed to win the trust of local communities, essential to the success of any counterinsurgency campaign, but may have unknowingly aided Boko Haram in its recruitment. Then there are also those accounts which claim that the Islamist insurgency is being used as a pawn in a game of political chess — a perpetual and often ruthless game played between Nigeria’s opposing southern and northern political blocs. A game which has all too often resulted in significant collateral damage.

However, by designating Boko Haram as being northing more than an al-Qaeda proxy, Jonathan has pretty much absolved his beleaguered government of its role in the spiraling conflict. Issues of poor governance, systemic bureaucratic corruption and an ill-disciplined military, which should be central to the Boko Haram discourse, will now be concealed in the shadow cast by the global (and thankfully non-Nigerian) bogeyman. Boko Haram’s actions in the past, present and foreseeable future, will be contextualised to no more than a symptom of al-Qaeda’s global war on a democracy — a war which solely aims to displace democratic governance with a repressive and archaic rule of law which deems western education to be forbidden, commands women to be stoned for adultery and which orders the execution of apostates. A war which the armies of superpowers such as the US, UK and France are struggling to contain.

By telling the world that he is now fighting al-Qaeda and not merely Boko Haram — a global as opposed to a Nigerian enemy —Jonathan may not only be trying to save face. Indeed, he may also be attempting to convince an ever-critical domestic and international audience that his government is actually the unlikely hero in a war which to date has only known victims and villains. 

There are no strangers at this negotiation table

In what has become its preferred means of communication with the outside world, Nigerian-based Islamist extremist group Boko Haram released another video on 12 May detailing for the time first dozens of schoolgirls which the sect had kidnapped from the town of Chibok on 15 April. In the 17-minute long video, in excess of 100 girls can be seen reciting verses out of the Holy Quran, all clad in full-bodied veils which have become symbolic of the modesty expected from women within the Islamic faith. The footage then cuts to Boko Haram’s shadowy leader, Abubakar Shekau, who proceeds to reaffirm the group’s responsibility for the mass kidnapping and, perhaps more importantly, sets the terms for the hostages’ release. Speaking in Hausa, the predominant dialect of northern Nigeria, the militant leader scornfully declared “We will never release them [the girls] until after you release our brethren”.

The Boko Haram communiqué came mere hours after presidential adviser, Reuben Abati, made explicit that the Nigerian government would not enter into any negotiations with the militant group. Speaking to Sky News Special Correspondent, Alex Crawford, Abati stated “the government of Nigeria has no intention to pay a ransom or to buy the girls”. He further added “the determination of the [Nigerian] government is to get the girls and to ensure that the impunity that has brought this about is checked and punished.” Abati’s rhetoric echoed that of President Goodluck Jonathan who had also denounced on several previous occasions that his government would enter into any negotiations with Boko Haram — a group which he dismissed as being nothing more than a temporary problem to his administration.

Undoubtedly, the Nigerian government’s stance on this issue conforms to the internationally-professed policy which dictates that sovereign states should under no circumstances negotiate with terrorists. However, in line with the indiscretion at which this policy is implemented, the Nigerian government is seemingly no stranger to meeting Boko Haram at the negotiation table, especially when it entails securing the release of kidnap victims. In one of the sect’s first documented abductions, Boko Haram kidnapped several women and children following an attacked it had launched on a police barracks in the town of Bama . In a video released just days after the Bama incursion, Shekau officially claimed responsibility for the abduction which he cited as a reprisal for the detention of Boko Haram wives and children by the Nigerian military. While the exact circumstances surrounding their release remain unclear, the Bama hostages were eventually freed from captivity on 24 May 2013 — a day after the Nigerian authorities declared that it was releasing a number of detained Boko Harm women and children.

A month prior to the Bama abductions, Boko Haram had also claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of a French family in Dabanga, a town located in proximity to Cameroon’s shared border with Nigeria’s insurgent-embattled Borno state. The sect had once again claimed that it had abducted the French nationals in retaliation for the Nigerian and Cameroonian government’s unlawful detention of Boko Haram women and children. The hostages were eventually released on 16 April amid speculation that a cash ransom, estimated to be around USD 3 million, was paid and incarcerated Boko Haram combatants freed in exchange for their release. In November 2013, Boko Haram would strike again in northern Cameroon when it seized French priest, Georges Vandenbeusch, from the border town of Koza. Vandenbeusch was eventually released unharmed a month after his capture amid claims that French authorities had again paid a cash ransom to the group. Both France and Boko Haram denied that a ransom was paid, however, with the Islamists claiming that the priest was freed by Shekau on compassionate grounds. But this account was in turn denied by a Cameroon military source who claimed Vandenbeusch was exchanged for a senior Boko Haram commander who had been detained by Cameroonian authorities.

Although they remain subject to confirmation, the aforementioned incidents highlights that the Nigerian government may have prior experience in negotiating with Boko Haram; experience which may prove to be invaluable in brokering any deal which may result in the safe release of the Chibok hostages. Moreover, these incidents may also delineate that Boko Haram is not only receptive to conciliatory initiatives, but has an established track record of holding its end of the bargain provided its demands are met. That said, both the domestic and international focus on the fate of the Chibok hostages may complicate any current or future negotiation process. Boko Haram’s demands will likely be excessive, knowing very well that the options available to a beleaguered Nigerian government in securing the safe release of the Chibok hostages are limited. The Jonathan administration on the other hand will resist the urge to be strong-armed into ceding to the group’s demands, knowing that doing so would sets extremely dangerous precedent and perhaps catalyse further such mass abductions in the near future. All things considered, any likely negotiation process is expected to be a protracted and highly intricate exercise and it may well be a while before the Nigerian government can indeed bring back its girls from the clutches of Boko Haram.


a tale of two hashtags

Daniel Solomon (@Dan_E_Solo) looks at hashtags, violent nonstate actors, and why The Toto Effect has us grouping unrelated conflicts. Read the original here

daniel solomon

Boko Haram, in northeast Nigeria, and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), somewhere near the Central African Republic, share several common factors. They are:

  • Destructive violence: In the years since its escalation of mass violence, in 2009, Boko Haram-affiliated attacks have killed large numbers of civilians in northeast Nigeria and, increasingly, northwest Cameroon. In its three decades of insurgency, the LRA has killed fewer but still many civilians. The relative scale of Boko Haram’s violence may have as much to do with the greater demographic size of its targets–towns and, sometimes, cities, in addition to small villages–as with the group’s tactics. Casualty counts aside, the groups’ devastation is constant. Each has crippled its affected local economy, and has caused mass displacement on an extraordinary scale. Those who have survived either group’s violence will not likely live to see their communities’ restored.
  • Ideology: The common-ground between the respective ideologies of…

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Nigeria: Shekau takes BH further down Al Qaeda path – By Jacob Zenn

After four years of incessant Boko Haram violence in northern Nigeria and an estimated 8,000 deaths, Nigerians are now protesting what they see as an ineffectual government response to the insurgency. International media is now also paying greater attention to the growing humanitarian crisis in the Nigeria-Niger-Cameroon-Chad border axis. The cause of the latest outrage in Nigeria is Boko Haram’s kidnapping of 230 girls from a secondary school in Chibok, Borno State and the bombing of a motor park outside of Abuja that killed nearly 100 bystanders. Just today there has been another bombing in Abuja, latest reports indicate that 19 people have been killed.

Both the mass-kidnapping and the first of the motor park bombings occurred within a 24-hour span on April 14-15 and were highly foreseeable—and likely preventable.

In video statements since 2013, Boko Haram’s religious leader, Abubakar Shekau, has warned that ‘infidel’ women would become his “slaves” and that he would “sell them in the market.” According to Boko Haram, the girls in Chibok are “infidels” whether or not they are Muslim because they receive Western education – which Boko Haram considers apostasy – instead of Boko Haram-sanctioned Islamic Salafist education. Boko Haram founder Muhammed Yusuf preached that the only “pure” scholars that Muslims should follow are al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Usama bin Laden.

Boko Haram further believes that ‘infidels’ must pay a tax imposed on non-Muslims under Muslim rule, which is called jizyah in the Qur’an, to Boko Haram for protection. But because the girls in Chibok did not pay the tax, Boko Haram is entitled to forcibly marry them as compensation or – as Shekau promised – sell them. Boko Haram already sold several girls as ‘brides’ to Boko Haram members across the border in Cameroon for $12.

Shekau rose to become the second most important imam in Boko Haram before Nigerian security forces killed Muhammed Yusuf in 2009 and was recognized as being a charismatic—albeit chaotic— speaker on Islam. He manipulated the Islamic history of the Borno Empire, which spanned northeastern Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, Chad, Sudan and Libya, to rally followers to embrace jihad against the Nigerian government and resurrect Borno’s supremacy. It also helps that Shekau speaks Hausa (thelingua franca of northern Nigeria), Kanuri (the native language in Borno), classical Arabic (the language of the Qur’an) and English (the language of Nigeria’s elites). This suggests Shekau himself is a product of ‘Boko’, which roughly translates as ‘Western education’ in Hausa (‘haram’ means ‘forbidden’ to Muslims).

Since Boko Haram became an underground jihadist group after Yusuf’s death, Shekau likely took his cue from al-Qaeda, which Boko Haram contacted as early as 2004, and may have literally read scripts that al-Qaeda provided to him for sermons he taped from his various hideouts. Shekau typically pledges allegiance to al-Qaeda and its affiliates and threatens America in the introductions to his sermons, often with a script in hand, before chaotically “damning” all Christians, politicians and Nigeria’s Islamic leaders in a way similar to Maitatsine in 1980s. This may also explain why Shekau, who is Nigerian, often declares that Boko Haram is “waging a jihad in some African countries called Nigeria,” which makes no sense, and why Boko Haram attacked churches starting in 2010 to raise the spectre of religious war in Nigeria just like al-Qaeda has done in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere (Muhammed Yusuf, in contrast, maintained good relations with Christians).

Boko Haram’s first church attacks in Jos, Plateau State on Christmas Day, December 2010 involved five simultaneous bombings and, according to Nigerian security forces, “bore the hallmark of al-Qaeda.” Since 2010, Boko Haram has burned down hundreds of churches and looted Christian communities, which Shekau says is justified under the Qur’anic injunction of “spoils of war,” or ghanima. Yet, even when Boko Haram “conquers” such villages, it refuses to establish any governance mechanisms, suggesting that Boko Haram has learned from other al-Qaeda affiliates in northwest African and Yemen that becoming bound to territory, distracted by bureaucracy, and responsible for imposing an unpopular brand of Islamic Law, is a prescription for failure.

Yet, as Boko Haram’s power has risen, it has become clearer that Shekau’s ban on ‘Boko’, hatred of America, Christianity, secularism, and democracy, and assault on the Nigerian government’s legitimacy are not extreme in the Nigerian context. Millions of Nigerian Muslims follow religious movements with similar attitudes—from the Iranian-backed IMN and Gulf-funded Izala Movement to the animist group Ombatse. Like these movements, Boko Haram also has support from the outside, albeit from a non-state actor in al-Qaeda, which provided it with training, ideological direction, and funding likely through Usama Bin Laden’s ‘External Operations Unit’ commander, Yusuf al-Mauritani, who is now in prison in Mauritania. It is, however, Shekau’s strong domestic ideological currency in “damning” Nigeria’s ills, in particular corruption and impunity, and his ability to convey this in an Islamic and historical context that makes Boko Haram resonate among both the marginalized al-Majiri youths of northern Nigeria and under-employed intellectuals of Nigerian universities.

Nonetheless, Boko Haram’s actions, such as the mass-kidnapping of young girls in Chibok, far exceed what is considered tolerable among mainstream or even other extremist movements in Nigeria. The rise of a faction of Boko Haram in 2012 critical of Shekau (called Ansaru), whose leaders are former al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) members and accomplices of Yusuf al-Mauritani, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and other al-Qaeda figures, shows the extent to which Boko Haram deviates from the brand of Islam practiced by Muslims in Nigeria, around the world and even some al-Qaeda members.

Although it would come at great personal risk, since Boko Haram proudly assassinates detractors, including Ansaru membersSalafist clerics, and most recently Sheikh Albani of Kaduna,  religious leaders in Borno and elsewhere in Nigeria must vehemently and frequently call out and delegitimize Boko Haram for its excesses, if not its more conventional ideology.

Establishing that Boko Haram’s actions deviate from the consensus of Muslims would only be one part of the broader battle, however. Boko Haram’s military capabilities and weapons arsenals that reportedly include some tanks (and allegedly helicopters) and rocket launchers likely can only be beaten by overwhelming military force. On this account, the Nigerian military must succeed on three levels:

First, it needs to not only ‘clear’ enclosed areas in Borno, like it did in the Sambisa Forest after President Jonathan announced a State of Emergency in May 2013, but also ‘hold’ such areas so Boko Haram cannot return, like it did in order to capture the girls in Chibok.

Second, it needs to cooperate with neighboring militaries and governments in Niger, where dozens of Boko Haram members are recruited; Chad, where weapons are funneled into Borno across Lake Chad; and Cameroon, where the Chibok girls are being sold and Ansaru has kidnapped more than ten Western tourists and Christian priests and nuns.

Third, it needs to coordinate with other countries in Africa and in the West to learn the lessons of militaries with experience in counter-insurgency and undercut Boko Haram’s ties to al-Qaeda and affiliated terrorist groups. This includes al-Shabab, which provided Boko Haram with the bomb-making skills to carry out the UN Headquarters attack in Abuja in 2011 and likely also the recent Abuja motor park bombings.

The Boko Haram insurgency cannot be wished away as a “temporary crisis.” Elections are scheduled for February 2015, but if Borno and other areas in northern Nigeria are under Boko Haram’s mandate of violence, Shekau will succeed in undermining the democratic process he so despises. Moreover, theories are rampant in majority Christian southern Nigeria that Boko Haram is underwritten by northern Nigerian Muslims to undermine President Jonathan and return political power to the north. But in majority Muslim northern Nigeria, many people believe that President Jonathan and southern politicians are willfully neglecting the Boko Haram crisis to perpetuate the State of Emergency and ensure that elections in 2015 will not be held and that political power – and accompanying oil profits – will stay in the south.

Meanwhile, from a regional perspective, in 2012 it was the UN and ECOWAS seeking Nigeria’s support to combat al-Qaeda and other Islamists occupying northern Mali, but now in 2014 it is Nigeria seeking UN and ECOWAS support to combat Boko Haram and find the abducted girls from Chibok.

Boko Haram is tearing apart the fabric of Nigeria, with consequences for African stability, Muslim-Christian relations in Africa, and the viability of democracy in Nigeria. Until Nigeria cleans its own house and works with its neighbors and other allies to combat this threat, there will be no limit to Boko Haram’s ability to devastate northeastern Nigeria and its borderlands and impose a Taliban and al-Qaeda order in the region.

Jacob Zenn is an analyst of African Affairs and author of “Northern Nigeria’s Boko Haram: The Prize in al-Qaeda’s Africa Strategy,” which was published by The Jamestown Foundation.  Read the original piece at African Arguments 

The Chibok kidnapping: An intricate public relations exercise

In a video released to AFP on 5 May, Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, confirmed what many had feared – that the Islamist extremist sect was responsible for the 15 April kidnapping of more than 300 female students from the north eastern Nigerian town of Chibok.

In the communique, Shekau stated, ‘I am the one who captured all those girls and will sell all of them. I have a market where I sell human beings because it is Allah that says I should sell human beings. Yes, I will sell women, because I sell women.’

Shekau’s rhetoric seemingly confirmed my initial suggestions that human trafficking may have been a motivation for the Chibok kidnapping. In my blog entry ‘Why have you taken our girls?’ I referenced an extract from a 30 March statement which Shekau had made, threatening the abduction and possible trade of female civilians. ‘In Islam, it is allowed to take infidel women as slaves and, in due course, we will start taking women away and sell [them] in the market’, Shekau had declared.

But if human trafficking was truly the motivation behind Boko Haram’s abduction of the Chibok students, why would Shekau wait nearly three weeks to claim responsibility for the incident? More importantly, why would Boko Haram make explicit its intentions and possibly risk compromising what would otherwise be a lucrative revenue-generating enterprise? I believe the answer lies in the fact that Boko Haram never intended to sell its hostages, well at least not in the manner in which Shekau’s rhetoric suggested.

Considering the circumstances which surrounded their abduction and that which would surround Boko Haram’s claims of responsibility, the kidnapping of the Chibok girls has been orchestrated as an intricate and well-planned public relations exercise aimed at captivating both a local and international audience. In kidnapping 300 girls mere hours after killing more than 70 people in the Nigerian capital, Boko Haram has nullified any suggestions that it has suffered an operational decline and/or that the government has gained any foothold in its ongoing war against the insurgency. Narratives which the Nigerian government had often forwarded when questioned about the progression of its counterinsurgency campaign.  Furthermore, the timing of Shekau’s most recent communique was also likely a deliberate and considered decision aimed at garnering international attention. It is no coincidence that Boko Haram confirmed its responsibility for the abductions at a time when a social media campaign, using the twitter hashtag #bringbackourgirls, had peaked and where associated protest gatherings occurred with a degree of spontaneity in major cities across the world.

However, apart from glorifying its capabilities and highlighting the deficiencies of the Nigerian government, Boko Haram’s need for publicity may also be the most important indicator of the fate of the Chibok hostages. As mentioned, while trafficking was always considered a plausible outcome for the detainees, the sects actions to date seems incongruent with such an undertaking. Instead, it seems more plausible that Boko Haram already are or likely will use the hostages to negotiate some form of concessions from the Nigerian government. This could either see the Chibok girls being exchanged for Boko Haram detainees and/or to extort a ransom payment or other material assets. Any such outcome will not only seek to strengthen the operational capacity of the sect, but do so to the detriment of the Nigerian government. By drawing as much attention to the incident as it has, Boko Haram has placed itself in an extremely strong bargaining position and is pressuring the Goodluck Jonathan regime to act with a decisiveness and rapidity which has been sorely lacking in its response to the insurgency.

Although  Jonathan has denounced that he would enter into ransom negotiations with Boko Haram, his government does not have much of a choice in the matter. A military option aimed at rescuing the hostages is simply not feasible, as any such initiative will undoubtedly significantly risk the well-being of the hostages. Any actions by the Nigerian government which result in harm to any of the hostages would likely be considered the greatest indictment against Jonathan’s already blemished tenure. However, not responding to the situation with the conviction that the Nigerian and international communities are demanding will be equally damaging. Growing claims that Jonathan is losing his grip on the Boko Haram insurgency will only become more audible, should his government fail to secure the immediate release of the Chibok girls. Although Jonathan may consider bargaining with Boko Haram as a sign of weakness, and possibility counter-intuitive to Nigeria’s ongoing fight against the sect, he should perhaps be reminded that when one is standing on the edge of a cliff, taking a step backwards is often the only means of progress.


Boko Haram claims responsibility for the Chibok kidnapping

In this video, Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, claims responsibility for the Chibok kidnapping where in excess of 300 girls were abducted by militants from a education facility in the town of Chibok, Borno state, on 15 April. I included a partial English transcript of the communique below.

“I am going to marry out any woman who is 12 years old, and if she is younger, I will marry her out at the age of nine, just like how my mother, Aisha, the daughter of Abubakar, was married out to Prophet Mohammad at the age of nine.
“You are all in danger, I mean all of you.

I am the one who captured all those girls and will sell all of them. I have a market where I sell human beings because it is Allah that says I should sell human beings. Yes, I will sell women, because I sell women.

I captured and abducted girls in a Western school, and it became a worrying issue for all of you. You have forgotten that I have said that it is not only girls’ education I am against. I am against everyone who attends a Western school. Girls should go and marry.
Slavery is allowed in my religion, and I shall capture people and make them slaves.

Don’t think we are done yet because we are not. We are on our way to Abuja and we shall also visit the South, not to look for Jonathan but to destroy the nation’s refineries.
Talking about human rights and democracy. Nonsense. People that are doing same-sex marriage and saying they are leaders.

I will imprison Jonathan’s daughter. Anyone who turns to Islam will be saved. For me, anyone that embraces Islam is my own. Stupid Jonathan, you will be surprised. Until the land is soaked with blood.

You said you want to capture me. Surely, you will one day. But I will also haunt for Jonathan, and if I catch him, I will kill him.

Do not think I am indispensable, I am not. Anybody can kill me. Even the smallest of creature can kill me. But when you kill me, somebody more deadly will rise, and you will cry that you will rather have me than him, just as you now say that Yusuf Mohamed is more lenient that me.

I am a leader, I don’t have any president; I am my president.

Late Aminu Kano, Late Tafawa Balewa are not Muslims, they are all pagans. I am going to kill all the Imams and other Islamic clerics in Nigeria because they are not Muslims since they follow democracy and constitution. Senator Ali Modu Sheriff is a pagan, Senator Ali Ndume is also a pagan and they are all inclusive. I am against democracy and you should better get prepared.

It is Allah that instructed us, until we soak the ground of Nigeria with Christian blood, and so-called Muslims contradicting Islam. [We will kill and wonder] what to do with smelling of their corpses, smelling of Obama, Bush and Jonathan. Then we will open prison and imprison the rest. Infidels have no value.

This is a war against Christians and democracy and their constitution. Allah says we should finish them when we get them.

In fact, you are supposed to wash and re-wash a plate Christian eats food from before you eat as Muslims. Are Christians the people we should play with? They killed us in Shendam, Zangon Katab and all the places. It is either you are with us or you are with them, and when we see you, we will harvest your neck with knife.”

Who are Ansaru

4529096-3x2-940x627   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 Birnin 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.

Another bombing in Abuja: There are no heroes in this war, just victims and villains

At around 19:30 local time on the evening of 1 May, reports began filtering in of another suspected terrorist attack in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. The incident occurred within the city’s Nyanya district; where, less than three weeks ago, a bombing targeting a crowded bus station killed in excess of 70 people and left scores others wounded.

As was the case with the 14 April attack, the latest incident is likely to have been perpetrated by the Boko Haram Islamist extremist sect. For over a decade, Boko Haram has waged an armed campaign in Nigeria, aimed at toppling the country’s secular government and transforming Africa’s most populous country into an Islamic state governed by Sharia Law. Although the sect predominantly operates in the country’s north east, it has exhibited both the intent and operational capacity to execute attacks across Nigeria, including within the capital.

Although Boko Haram traditionally favoured attacks against state-aligned institutions, such as police stations and detention centres, there has been a discernible shift in its modus operandi over the past 12 months. Incidents targeting civilian interests have increased markedly, specifically within Nigeria’s north east, where reports of civilian massacres have become a near-daily occurrence. This operational transcendence has also been witnessed in the sect’s recent operations in the capital. Previous attacks in Abuja targeted highly fortified facilities such as the police headquarters, the offices of the United Nations, as well as a Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) detention facility. However, the 14 April and 1 May attacks were aimed at civilian targets and were seemingly orchestrated with the intention of causing maximum casualties.


I had initially postured that Boko Haram’s operational shift was forced upon them. I claimed that the sect may have been weakened by counterinsurgency operations launched against its positions in Sambisa Forest, in addition to its logistical networks within the cities of Maiduguri, Kano, Yola and Damaturu. I suggested that the focus on ‘softer’ targets may delineate that the sect had undergone an operational decline and no longer had the capacity to execute attacks against hardened targets with the relative frequency which was previously witnessed.

Currently, I find myself questioning my initial assertions. Boko Haram’s targeting of civilians in acts of violence which have included mass shootings, bombings and perhaps most recently, the kidnapping of 234 female students, may well be deliberate. In adopting this strategy, the sect is undermining the authority and perhaps the very legitimacy of the Nigerian government. With each act of violence perpetrated, disenchantment with the government’s handling of the insurgency has increased. As the violence continues unabated, Nigerians are as angry at the government for its failure in protecting its citizens as they are at those harming them in the first place. It is fast becoming apparent that there are no heroes or heroines in this deadly war, there are just victims and villains.

With Boko Haram successfully undermining faith in President Goodluck Jonathan and his cabinet on the home front, could the sect now be trying to belittle the government in the eyes of the international community? In less than six days’ time, Abuja will host the World Economic Forum (WEF). Foreign dignitaries attending the event will already be questioning whether their hosts are able to guarantee their safety. Boko Haram will undoubtedly view the symposium as a high-value target, knowing very well that even the most minor of security breaches will likely draw global attention and pose further questions over the government’s aptitude for handling the insurgency. However, even an incident-free, successful hosting of the WEF summit may be an indictment against the Jonathan regime. With the proceedings likely to occur within a climate of tight security, many Nigerians may be left wondering why the government is not prioritising the safety of its own citizenry with the same vigour and robustness being afforded to its foreign visitors…

Why have you taken our girls? Analyzing motivations for the Chibok kidnapping


Less than 24 hours after an explosion ripped through the Nyanya Motor Park in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, reports of another act of terror filtered in from the country’s north east. On the morning of 15 April, a group of unidentified gunmen attacked Chibok, a settlement located near the Cameroonian border in Nigeria’s Borno state.

Upon initial inspection, the attack was no different to the plethora of incursions which have become a near daily occurrence in Nigeria’s insurgent-embattled north east; the assailants mortally wounded a number of residents, torched several commercial and residential properties, and attacked the area’s largest education facility. However, by the time the insurgents had departed, with the same etherealness which marked their arrival, it was clear that the attack in Chibok was of an unprecedented scale.

Initial reports detailing the incident indicated that 85 female students were abducted from the Chibok Government Secondary School, which seemingly served as the focal point of the incursion. Several hours later, an official communiqué by the Nigerian military stated that the number of abductees was as high as 129, but claimed that at least 100 hostages had been freed. However, the statement was later recanted and the official toll of female students unaccounted for increased to 234.

While there have been no official claims of responsibility for the kidnapping, suspicion has fallen on Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamist sect. For more than a decade, Boko Haram has waged an armed campaign in north eastern Nigeria, aimed at toppling its secular government and transforming Africa’s most populous country into an Islamic state governed by Sharia Law. Although the majority of the sect’s insurgent operations have targeted state-aligned facilities and interests in northern and eastern Nigeria, over the past 12 months Boko Haram has increasingly shifted its focus to civilian targets – an operational transference which has resulted in the deaths of at least 1,500 people since the beginning of 2014.

An act of vengeance?

The question remains; what would motivate Boko Haram to kidnap a group of female students who pose a minimal to non-existent threat to the sect’s aspirations and/or longevity?

Vengeance is a possibility. In a series of communiqués released by Boko Haram in 2012, the sect’s shadowy leader, Abubakar Shekau, routinely accused the Nigerian government of kidnapping the wives and children of suspected militants. Shekau’s rhetoric coincided with documented reports that the Nigerian authorities had detained at least 100 civilians, mostly women and children, on the suspicion that these individuals had familial ties to several high-ranking Boko Haram militants. Unconfirmed reports suggest that members of Shekau’s immediate family were seized during such security operations, which have purportedly become a mainstay of Nigeria’s counter-insurgency strategy. In many of his statements, Shekau has accused government forces of mistreating and sexually assaulting civilian detainees, and he has stated that the same fate would await the wives and children of government officials and soldiers alike.

On 7 May 2013, this threat seemingly came to pass when the sect captured several women and children following an attack on a police barracks in the town of Bama. In a video released to a jihadist website, Shekau claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and vowed to make the hostages his personal slaves if several of his conditions were not met – the foremost of which was the immediate release of all women detained by the Nigerian military. Coinciding with the release of scores of detained Boko Haram wives and children, the sect released a number of hostages on 24 May 2013.

Boko Haram and the use of kidnapping as an operational tactic

However, reciprocal reprisals may not be the sole motivation for the Chibok kidnapping. In conjunction with the sect’s increased targeting of civilians in Nigeria’s north east, Boko Haram has increasingly adopted kidnapping as both a finance- and concession-generating tactic. In Cameroon’s Far North province, which shares a border with Nigeria’s insurgent-battled Borno state, Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for at least two kidnappings, both of which involved the abduction of foreign expatriates.

In the first such incident, a family of seven was kidnapped near the town of Dabanga in February 2013. Eight months later, the sect kidnapped a French priest near the Cameroonian border town of Koza. Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the abductions, citing reprisal for the ongoing detention of sect members by the Nigerian government, in addition to France’s ongoing involvement in combat operations against Africa-based jihadist groups.

In both cases, the victims were released unharmed. Although the exact circumstances surrounding their releases remain unclear, it is widely speculated that a cash ransom was paid and/or that senior Boko Haram members were released in exchange for the safe return of the hostages. Given the high-profile nature of the Chibok kidnapping, in addition to the immense strain that the incident has and continues to place on Goodluck Jonathan’s administration, it would not be implausible to assume that Boko Haram conducted the kidnappings as a means of negotiating the release of its detained commanders and/or to garner some form of ransom payment from the Nigerian authorities. After all, either outcome would further strengthen Boko Haram and undermine any gains the country’s armed forces may have made against the insurgent group.

The trade of human trafficking

In addition to ransom payments, the abduction of the teenage girls could also serve as another finance-generating method for Boko Haram, through the form of human trafficking. As is the case across much of the world, this is a thriving industry in West Africa, which provides criminal and insurgent groups with revenue streams which can tally into the millions.

The first indication that the Chibok students may have been targeted for trafficking purposes came from a video statement released by Boko Haram in March 2014. Further to confirming that the group was behind the 14 March attack at the Giwa Barracks in Borno state’s capital, Maiduguri, Shekau also indicated that Boko Haram would abduct female civilians.

In an English transcript of his communiqué, which was delivered in the Hausa dialect, Shekau stated that, ‘in Islam, it is allowed to take infidel women as slaves and, in due course, we will start taking women away and sell [them] in the market.’ Human trafficking gained further credence as a possible explanation for the Chibok kidnapping on 29 April, when Chibok community leader, Pogo Bitrus, claimed that the students had been sold off as wives to Boko Haram militants for as little as 2,000 naira (US$12). Bitrus further claimed that the hostages had been separated into groups and were trafficked to neighbouring countries, such as Cameroon and Chad, where the Islamist sect is believed to have established operational and logistical bases. Despite this, the Nigerian government has yet to comment on the veracity of Bitrus’ claims.

A tenuous situation

The motivations for the kidnapping of the Chibok students should not be considered mutually exclusive; the abductions may have been conducted to fulfil a number, if not all, of the aforementioned purposes. That being said, while considerations focusing on the reason behind the mass abduction are important, a more pressing concern is the prevailing environment in which the abductions took place. While the Nigerian government has claimed that Boko Haram is merely a ‘temporary problem’ and that it is winning the war against the sect, the ease with which a group of gunmen could abduct 234 girls from what should otherwise be a place of safety may delineate a more inconvenient truth about the progression of the insurgency. Without a discernible change in the tenuous status quo, it may simply be a matter of time before Nigeria is once again faced with the burning question, ‘Why have you taken our girls?’

Assessing the jihadist threat in the Central African Republic

In September 2013, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius warned that ensuing lawlessness in the Central African Republic (CAR) could see the country become “the next Somalia” − in other words, a failed state and safe haven for regional and transnational armed groups. Less than two months later, Fabius’ concerns were reiterated by Edmund Mulet, Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations at the UN, who said that Islamist militants were already on the verge of gaining a foothold in the country, though in contrast to Fabius likened the situation to northern Mali.

These comments were initially dismissed by many observers as mere rhetoric aimed at generating greater international attention to the CAR crisis. But they may have recently gained some credence following a statement released by Nigerian-based Islamist militants Boko Haram.

In a purported communiqué from Nigerian Islamist militant group Boko Haram posted online on 14 February, the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, threatened to avenge what he called the massacre of Muslim communities by militias collectively known as the anti-balaka.

On the one hand, this threat is perhaps not all that surprising. The fighting that has been taking place in the CAR since March 2013, when the Séléka rebels toppled the government of President Francois Bozizé, has increasingly been coded in religious terms, pitting Christians and Muslims against one other. And especially since Bozizé’s successor, Michel Djotodia, stepped down in January, it is the minority Muslim population that has been heavily victimised. Amnesty International have even asserted that ethnic cleansing of Muslims may be occurring, although others dispute that this threshold has been reached.

Conforming to the Salafi jihadist interpretation of Islam, groups such as Boko Haram likely consider it their religious duty to avenge the persecution of Muslims around the world. Such reasoning was well expressed during the Bosnian civil war when hundreds of foreign Muslims fought alongside their Bosniak counterparts against a predominantly Christian Orthodox Serbian army. Within the African context, such coordination was also recently witnessed in northern Mali where various Islamist militant groups allegedly engaged in joint combat operations against Malian, Chadian and French forces.

Although the avenging of Muslim persecution wasn’t the driving motivation behind this cooperation, the Malian conflict nevertheless underlined that regional Islamist militants possess both the willing and at least some operational capacity to coordinate on foreign soil.

But could this happen in the CAR?

From the Sahel to the Savannah
To begin with, it is worth noting that any such deployment to the CAR would be subject to significant logistical challenges. In terms of its geographical location, the CAR is far less accessible to Islamist militants than northern Mali.

In Mali, Islamist militants had near unrestricted access from their operational strongholds in neighbouring Algeria and, to a lesser extent, Niger and Mauritania. Moreover, long-established and clandestine smuggling routes across much of Mali’s desert north provided militants with a constant supply of arms and other resources.

In the CAR, access routes for both supplies and personnel are not nearly as readily available. There have been some claims that Sudan’s western Darfur region, which shares a border with the CAR’s northern Vakaga province, could be a platform for Islamist groups to access the country. However, such assertions have largely been based on spurious claims of an existing militant Islamist presence in Darfur.

Another suggestion is that Nigerian Islamist militants such as Boko Haram and its alleged offshoot, Ansaru, could infiltrate the CAR from neighbouring Cameroon. But while there is credible evidence to suggest that these groups possess an operational presence in Cameroon, their operations to date have been limited to areas along the Nigerian border, specifically within the country’s Extrême-Nord region. This is several hundred kilometres away from the Central African border which has been also fortified by the Cameroonian military amid an influx of refugees from the CAR.

Aside from logistical problems, militant infiltration into the CAR will also likely be subject to several operational challenges. For one, the majority of Islamist militant groups operating in Africa do so in the semi-arid Sahel and Maghreb regions. 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, these desert plains of North and West Africa differ considerably with the jungle and savannah bushes 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 which are accustomed to such environs.

Furthermore, an Islamist infiltration in the CAR would likely occur in the absence of significant on-the-ground support. According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, the majority of the CAR’s Muslim population has fled to neighbouring Chad and Cameroon. Those left behind have found refuge in ad hoc refugee camps dotted across the country. As such, local intelligence networks, on which militant groups typically rely, would be minimal to non-existent.

There is a possibility that the Séléka could assist Islamist militants in their operations, but such cooperation is by no means guaranteed either. While it is true that the Séléka is mainly comprised of Muslim fighters, some emanating from Chad and Sudan, the group was never motivated or united by religion. Instead, the majority of rebel combatants coalesced in a motley rebel coalition due to individual motivations which ranged from grievances against the Bozizé regime to the mere economic reward of pillaging civilian populations. With many of these motivations already fulfilled, there is little reason to assume Séléka’s assistance to jihadists groups is assured or even likely.

A warning shot

At first glance, the CAR appears to be a fertile ground for Islamist infiltration. The collapse of security and governance structures in the vast and sparsely populated country makes it look like the ideal environment for militants to hide or even establish an operational presence. In addition, Islamist groups would likely consider it their religious duty to avenge the many Muslims killed. However, on closer inspection, it becomes apparent that sustaining any armed campaign within the CAR would be subject to significant, if not insurmountable, challenges.

It is also worth noting that a recent statement from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) blamed the 2,000-strong French force in the country for attacks on Muslims and vowed to punish France. AQIM’s assertion that the French − rather than Central African Christians − should be targeted in reprisal attacks further suggests a low probability of that Islamist militants are looking to switch tack and get involved in the CAR.

The threats issued by Islamist groups such as Boko Haram should not be dismissed. Instead, they serve to exemplify just how far the CAR conflict has spiralled 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 militias, the risk of highly-trained and conflict-hardened militant groups gaining a foothold in CAR − however low it seems at the moment − is one that cannot be taken too lightly.