A Nigerian soldier stands in the ruin of the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok, Borno State.
Earlier in March, French journalist, Georges Malbrunot, of Le Figaro noted on social media that a French military source confirmed ISIS had sent as many as 15 of its military trainers to Nigeria’s north-east. Their deployment to the state of Adamawa, specifically the enclave of Sambisa Forest, was to train fighters of the Boko Haram Islamist extremist movement who, via their now disputed firebrand leader Abubakar Shekau, pledged allegiance to the Levant-based patrons. Malbrunot’s claims, if verified, would be the first definitive evidence of direct operational linkages between Boko Haram and ISIS. Yet, despite providing important inference to both Boko Haram’s inner workings and its relationship with the wider jihadi community, Malbrunot’s assertion was not the most significant revelation to surface recently regarding the shadowy sect and its international connections.
In the fourth edition of its al-Risalah magazine, al-Qaeda published a chapter tracing both the origins and the current state of jihad in Nigeria. The chapter commences with a description of the 19th century Islamic uprising led by Usman Don Fodio, which would lead to the establishment of one of the most powerful Islamic empires in Africa. The author proceeds to detail how the Sokoto Caliphate would eventually be destroyed with the arrival of British colonialists who displaced the Sharia-based judicial and political system with secular laws, ultimately giving rise to the socio-political ills afflicting the modern-day Nigerian state.
The al-Qaeda magazine also alludes to the life and death of Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf, as well as the militarisation of the sect following the Maiduguri uprising and what al-Qaeda says is the current, anti-Islamic disposition of the sect under Shekau’s leadership.
Apart from providing a definitive chronology on the rise of Boko Haram, the chapter also delineates one of the lesser discussed aspects of the insurgency – namely al-Qaeda’s connection to the Islamist sect. The author of the chapter identifies himself as Sheikh Abu Usamatul Ansary, the self-professed leader of Ansarul-Muslimin Fi Biladis-Sudan, or Ansaru, as it has become more popularly known. Ansary details how Shekau’s penchant for gratuitous violence against Muslims was the reason that Ansaru split from Boko Haram in 2012 and how the group established itself as an independent faction when the firebrand commander dismissed criticism of his leadership.
Importantly, however, Ansary details how Ansaru was established in consultation with their “Algerian brothers in the Sahara” – a clear reference to the group’s allegiance to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Indeed, following the announcement of its establishment in the city of Kano in 2012, Ansaru’s tactics were anomalous with that of Boko Haram. Instead of executing bomb attacks targeting crowded public places and insurgent raids on rural civilian settlements, Ansaru favoured daring kidnapping operations targeting western nationals. The first of these abductions occurred in the city of Bernin Kebbi in May 2011, when a British and an Italian national were seized by gunmen who later identified themselves as ‘al-Qaeda in the Lands Beyond the Sahel.’
The pair were later executed in the city of Sokoto amid a botched joint rescue operation by British and Nigerian special forces. A second kidnapping of a foreign national occurred in Kano city in January 2012, coinciding with the announcement of Ansaru’s formation. Interestingly, while no group claimed the abduction, the terms for the release of the German hostage were set by AQIM who demanded the release of Felize Gelowicz – a German national convicted on charges relating to her husband’s intent to conduct terrorist attacks on German soil – in exchange for the incarcerated engineer.
Similar to the Binin Kebbi abduction, the hostage was executed after his abductors suspected that attempts were made to forcibly rescue the victim. While Ansaru never claimed the aforementioned kidnappings, their publicised alliance to AQIM and the similar modus operandi employed in subsequent kidnappings claimed by the movement – which occurred in the cities of Jamaare in Bauchi state and Rimi in Katsina state between 2012 and 2013 – suggests that the group may have been acting independently of Boko Haram even prior to its formation. In addition to these kidnapping operations – which conformed to the AQIM playbook of western-hostage takings – Ansaru launched an attack on a Nigerian military contingent in Kogi state, which was en route to join counter-insurgency operations against AQIM in northern Mali.
While a three-year period of inactivity has led many to believe that Ansaru has been rendered defunct by a combination of counter-terrorism operations and purges by Shekau loyalists, its feature in the January 2017 edition of al-Risalah indicates that it is very much a going concern. More importantly, it also indicates that al-Qaeda perceives Nigeria as a theatre of interest despite the dominant Islamist group in the country being an ISIS affiliate.
While it may be premature to assess the strategic intent behind Ansaru and al-Qaeda’s message in al-Risalah, the anti-Shekau rhetoric employed by Ansary is conspicuously similar to that of Abu Musab al-Barnawi, ISIS’ handpicked leader of Boko Haram. This could indicate that al-Qaeda and Ansaru may be attempting to court the Barnawi faction given its shared ideological stance, its displayed willingness to pledge allegiance to a larger transnational group and, perhaps most importantly, given the waning influence of ISIS’ presence on the African continent.
The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.