The Resurgence of Ansaru Nigeria’s Silent Enemy

The re-emergence of Ansaru, after some years of inactivity, is perhaps an opportunity for the Nigerian state to reassess its strategy towards the war on terror.

The Origins of Ansaru

‘Jama’atu Ansaril Muslimina fi Biladis Sudan’, meaning the Vanguard of Aid and Protection for Muslim’s in Black Africa (or JAMB), is also referred to as ‘Al-Qaeda in the Lands Beyond the Sahel’. More commonly, the group is known as ‘Ansaru’ and its motto, Jihad Fi Sabilillah ‘struggle towards the path of Allah,’ is a reflection of their ideology and objective. Ansaru’s emblem has two Avtomat Kalashnikov (AK) style assault rifles and a black flag inscribed with the Islamic declaration of faith. The group is a breakaway faction of Jama’atAhl Sunnah li Da’wahwa’l Jihad (Group of the People of Sunnah for Preaching and Jihad), also known as Boko Haram. Ansaru declared jihad in 2010 and continues to wage a violent insurgency, and terror campaign against Nigeria and the neighbouring Lake Chad basin states.

Unlike Boko Haram, which has a dominant Kanuri ethnic composition and a localized Jihad view, Ansaru is more diverse in terms of its interests, the ethnic composition of its members, and the geographical spread of its activities across Nigeria. The group operates in the North West and North Central regions of Nigeria and also in the West African Sahel.

Ansaru first came to prominence on 27 January 2012, days after a deadly Boko Haram attack in Kano killed at least 178 people in Kano. To distance itself from the violence perpetrated by Boko Haram against Muslims, Ansaru circulated propaganda leaflets and videos. Although both Ansaru and Boko Haram share the same ideology and founder, the groups have expressed different views on conducting jihad and who constitutes a legitimate target. For instance, Ansaru is opposed to attacks on Muslims except in situations of self-defense, while Boko Haram believes all Muslims outside the group can be legitimate targets.

Ansaru Poses More of a Threat to the West than Boko Haram.

Ansaru’s modus operandi has been to target Westerners. In May 2011, a cell linked to the group abducted a British construction worker and his Italian colleague while the two were working on a central bank building project in the northwestern town of Birnin Kebbi. The hostages were held for months in neighbouring Sokoto. Ten months later, they were killed by their captives during a failed rescue attempt by Nigerian Special Forces and the British Special Boat Service in February 2012.

In January 2012, a German contractor was abducted in Kano. While Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed responsibility for the abduction, analysts believe that the local cell responsible for the abduction was Ansaru. The hostage was also killed along with four other captives, during a failed rescue mission by Nigerian troops. In December 2012, a French engineer working on a wind power project in Rimi, Katsina, was abducted and held for eleven months but managed to escape as his captors prayed. In February 2013, Ansaru abducted seven foreign nationals from a housing compound owned by the Lebanese construction company, Setraco, in Bauchi. 

Other foreign entities have also recognized the peculiar threat Ansaru poses. In June 2012, the US Department of State listed the founder of Ansaru, Abubakar Adam Kambar, on its terrorist watchlist. In November 2013, the Department of State went further to declare Ansaru, alongside Boko Haram, as foreign terrorist organizations. The United Nations Security Council, the United Kingdom and the New Zealand government have also identified the threat posed by the group and have gone ahead to list Ansaru as a terrorist organization.

While Ansaru’s terror attacks have focused on targets and individuals linked to the West, there is no doubt that the group has always posed a domestic threat. For instance, Ansaru claimed responsibility for a number of local attacks, including the 2012 attack on the Nigerian Police Special Anti-robbery Squad facility in Abuja. In January 2013, in one of its most brazen attacks, Ansaru ambushed a Nigerian Army convoy. The convoy was heading for deployment as part of Nigeria’s contribution to the African-led International Support Mission to Mali, AFISMA, which aimed to provide support against rebels and jihadi groups in northern Mali.

The Resurgence of Ansaru?

Ansaru has been inactive for years following a series of security raids and the arrest of the group’s leader and members in January, April, and August 2016. The group was also decimated by a vicious and violent campaign against it by its rival, Boko Haram. Although, until this year, there had been no known attacks by the group since 2016, Ansaru periodically communicated to show that it was still in existence, and ostensibly to also show that it remained a threat. For instance, the group’s emir, Sheikh Abu Usama Ansari, published an article in 2017 in Al Risalah magazine, a pro-Al Qaeda news medium in Syria.

In recent months, however, Ansaru has been more active. In May 2019, Ansaru released its first message in Fulfulde, a language widely spoken across Nigeria and the Sahel. Later in 2019, the International Center for Investigative Reporting published its findings on a renascent Ansaru contributing to the growing insecurity in north-west Nigeria. Ansaru announced its return on 27 October 2019. The announcement was made through the Al Qaeda propaganda channel, the Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF), which released a photo of Ansaru fighters and unveiled a new media outlet for the group, Al Yaqut Media Center. 

Ansaru this Year

Ansaru claimed responsibility for the 17 January attack on a convoy in Kaduna State. This was the group’s first attack since 2013. Through Al Qaeda’s Al Hijrah Media, Ansaru stated that it targeted a military convoy and destroyed several vehicles along the Kaduna-Zaria road. It was later revealed that the military contingent attacked was escorting the convoy of the Emir of Potiskum, the northeastern town. In response, the Nigerian Police Force conducted a raid that supposedly killed 250 Ansaru members in the group’s Birnin Gwari camp in Kaduna.

The 17 January attack is a disturbing signal that Ansaru is resuming its activities. Furthermore, the group is currently exploiting ungoverned spaces, vulnerable rural communities, and the existing climate of insecurity in the North, a region that has been plagued by kidnappings, armed rural banditry, and violence. The attack is also an uncomfortable reminder of the latent capacity of the group to carry out domestic attacks. Ansaru’s resurgence, if left unchecked, will exacerbate the already dire security situation in northern Nigeria. 

The historic peace deal between the Taliban, the United States government, and the Afghan government, after more than 18 years of war, should serve as a reminder that a military strategy that seeks to decimate the enemy entirely is unlikely to be unsuccessful. The re-emergence of Ansaru, after some years of inactivity, is perhaps an opportunity for the Nigerian state to reassess its strategy towards the war on terror. More importantly, Ansaru’s reappearance presents an opportunity for the Nigerian state to ask critical questions about the religious, social-economic, and environmental factors that give rise to and sustain violent extremist groups like Ansaru

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