Analyzing Foreign Influence and Jihadi Networks in Nigeria

After France intervened militarily in Mali on January 11, a move that hastened the deployment of Malian soldiers and African partners to northern Mali, many expected a kind of ripple effect expanding outward from Mali. This was driven out of concern both that such a move would push militants into neighboring countries, and draw negative responses from Muslims around the world. Yet hordes of angry protestors have thus far not materialized, and the response so far among jihadist groups in the sub-region’s other prominent hotspot for violent extremism, Nigeria, has been decidedly mixed. The Boko Haram splinter group Ansaru, whose full name is Jama’atu Ansaril Muslimina fi Biladis Sudan, or “Vanguard for the Protection of Muslims in Black Africa,” attacked a group of Nigerian soldiers heading to Mali on January 20, killing two officers. Meanwhile, a Boko Haram spokesman announced a ceasefire after a brief increase in violence, to the general surprise of observers. However, these different responses may give us a window to examine differences between Ansaru and Boko Haram, the role that groups like al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have and have not played in shaping these groups, and the frameworks analysts apply when examining jihadist militancy.

While Boko Haram’s violence and links to regional militant groups like AQIM has garnered significant attention in Nigeria, Africa, and the West, Ansaru, which announced its dissidence from Boko Haram in January 2012, has kept a somewhat lower profile. Though the group distanced itself from Boko Haram due to the latter’s attacks against Muslims, violence Ansaru’s first statement termed “inhuman,” it has since become known for its similarities and suspected links to AQIM and allied groups like the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). In addition to the attack on Nigerian soldiers, Ansaru claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of a French engineer in the state of Katsina, an operation involving 30 men assaulting a compound. In a statement, the group said the operation was prompted by ” the stance of the French government and the French people on Islam and Muslims,” including France’s ban on the niqab and partial ban on the hijab, as well as  “France’s major role in the (planned) attack on the Islamic state in northern Mali.”

This was the second kidnapping believed to have been carried by Ansaru, with the first coming in May 2011 when gunmen seized two men, a Briton named Christopher McManus and an Italian named Franco Lamolinara, from Birnin-Kebbi. Though the kidnapping was claimed by “Al-Qaeda in the Lands Beyond the Sahel” the British government suggested in October 2012 when it declared Ansaru a terrorist organization that the group was actually behind the seizure, which ended tragically in the deaths of both hostages in a failed rescue attempt in March 2012. As Jacob Zenn points out, this kidnapping was similar to to previous AQIM operations, and certainly looked very similar to the kidnapping of a German engineer in Kano, an operation claimed directly by AQIM (though I have lingering doubts about AQIM directly carrying out a kidnapping in Nigeria, as opposed to being allowed to claim credit for an action carried out by a group like Ansaru or another jihadist or criminal faction).

Regardless, the pattern of attacks, the available evidence, and denials of involvement from Boko Haram’s leadership suggest a certain kinship between Ansaru and AQIM, though Boko Haram has its own share of assumed, reported, and occasionally confirmed links to the array of groups operating in northern Mali. It is this international aspect to Ansaru’s activities and rhetoric that seems to define it for some analysts. Yet there is a distinct aspect to Ansaru that has gone largely unexplored: Its specific ideological links to AQIM and its particular brand of international jihadism — though I prefer Jean-Luc Marret’s characterization of the group as “glocal.”

Current writing about AQIM tends to obscure or leave out altogether important components of its history, namely that its predecessor, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) was itself a splinter group of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which formed in the late 1990’s largely in response to the uncontrolled violence perpetrated by the GIA against Algerian civilians. It is striking that, given the aspirational and possibly operational closeness between Ansaru and AQIM, Ansaru’s stated justification for its split from Boko Haram was largely the same as that of the GSPC in leaving the GIA.

With that in mind, let’s re-examine Ansaru’s admittedly brief history. Broadly speaking, there are two ways of interpreting the May 2011 kidnapping in particular, as well as the December 2012 kidnapping and the January attack on Nigerian troops. On the one hand, the choice of name used to claim the May 2011 kidnapping, as well as the choice of tactics and target for that and subsequent actions, can be seen as overtures to AQIM, a means of showing agreement and a desire to cooperate by mirroring the more prominent organization. The other way to evaluate Ansaru’s actions is as a sign of pre-existing links with AQIM and associates of the group that in turn shaped the group that would eventually become Ansaru.

As evidence to support the latter conclusion, observers have pointed to the role that a man known as Khalid al-Barnawi (alternately spelled Barnawy or Barnaoui) reportedly played in the kidnapping. Barnawi was designated as a “global terrorist” by the U.S. State Department in June 2012. The Mauritanian news service Agence Nouakchott d’Information (ANI) reported after the two men were killed that they were held by a group led by Barnawi, adding that Barnawi was one of the first  Nigeriens* to join the GSPC and participated in the assault on the Mauritanian army post at Lemgheity in June 2005. His reported participation has in part led Zenn (see footnote 45) and Morgan Lorraine Roach to conclude that al-Barnawi is a leader in Ansaru. Another interesting indication of possible links to AQIM is that, again according to ANI, the negotiator handling talks for a ransom payment to free Lamolinara and McManus was none other than Mustapha Ould Limam Chaffi, a Mauritanian opposition figure, special counselor to Blaise Compaoré, and negotiator who handled multiple AQIM hostage takings. However Chaffi came to be part of the negotiations (assuming the ANI story was correct), his presence bolsters the anecdotal evidence of certain ties between Ansaru, or at least factions of Boko Haram, and AQIM.

The possibility of ties between AQIM in northern Mali and Ansaru, or a Boko Haram faction that would later become Ansaru, raises a significant question about Nigerian jihadis in Mali. Nigerians have been reportedly training with the GSPC and AQIM for years, though the last two years and specifically the last nine months have seen a proliferation of reports placing Boko Haram fighters specifically in northern Mali, working alongside AQIM and allied groups. I’ve questioned these reports in the past, and while it seems certain at this point that Nigerian jihadis have been flowing in some numbers into northern Mali, whether to train, join AQIM/MUJAO, or cooperate with them, I have often wondered how exactly  the journalists reporting these stories came to identify these fighters specifically as Boko Haram members. Did the fighters identify themselves as Boko Haram members? Did local witnesses hear fighters speaking Hausa, and assume that they were from Boko Haram? Did intelligence agencies tracking known Boko Haram members or Nigerian jihadis find evidence of movement into and out of Northern Mali? With relatively few exceptions, we just don’t know. But I would posit that given the anecdotal evidence and the ideological affinity between Ansaru and AQIM/MUJAO, at least some of the fighters in Mali identified as belonging to Boko Haram may actually have been with — or subsequently joined — Ansaru.

While this may seem like a very nitpicky point (because it is) it could influence the relative strength of the groups in question, as well as their future operations. After all, different groups, even splinters that maintain ties, still have different motivations and make different cost/benefit calculations about operations based on different factors. Which ultimately goes to show that, counter to what some might think, not all Muslims think and react the same way to complex and rapidly evolving events. Not even Nigerian jihadis.

*There seems to be some disagreement over Barnawi’s origin. The State Department refers to Barnawi as being from Nigeria, and indeed his name *could* signify that he is from the Nigerian state of Borno. However, as Alex Thurston pointed out last year, “Khaled al-Barnawi” is roughly the equivalent of “Bob from Maine” in terms of helping actually identify someone. Additionally, this name could simply mean that al-Barnawi spent time in Borno, something that would in no way be unusual for a Nigerien. While the U.S. Government may have specific information on Barnawi’s origins to which I am not privy, ANI is generally well-informed on security and terrorism issues, and cited a source close to AQIM for the story I linked to above. 

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5 Responses to Analyzing Foreign Influence and Jihadi Networks in Nigeria

  1. Pingback: Mali – when and where does the backlash materialize? | Wirtschaftsprofiling und Unternehmenssicherheit

  2. J.A.Z. says:

    Nice analysis. Notably Shabab also has had an internationalist/nationalist split and I attribute the BH/Ansaru split partly related to militants with Nigeria-oriented goals, including revenge for July 2009, and those who see no borders or identify with the internationalist mission. I also agree with the difficulty of discerning Nigerians v BH Nigerian in Mali, though WSJ has an article out today once again affirming based on local sources Nigerians in Mali — whether they were BH is unclear.

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