What is Ansaru, the Other Militant Islamist Group in Nigeria Besides Boko Haram?

Ansaru screenshot
A screenshot from a video posted by the Nigerian militant group Ansaru on YouTube, November 30, 2012. Ansaru has claimed a spate of kidnappings of foreign nationals in Nigeria in recent years. YouTube

Despite hogging the column inches due to its bloodthirsty tactics, Boko Haram is not the only militant Islamist sect causing problems in Nigeria.

The Vanguard for the Protection of Muslims in Black Africa—known by its abbreviated Arabic name of Ansaru—announced its existence in 2012 and has since carried out a spate of kidnappings, particularly of foreign nationals.

Nigerian authorities claimed a success in their counter-extremism operations, when military spokesman Brigadier General Rabe Abubakar said that the purported leader of Ansaru, Khalid Al-Barnawi, had been arrested on Saturday.

What is Ansaru?

Ansaru announced its existence in January 2012 with a statement in which it claimed it would "encourage what is good and see to its spread and… discourage evil and try to eliminate it." On other occasions, the group has said it exists to reclaim the "lost dignity of Muslims of black Africa" and wishes to create an Islamic caliphate in Nigeria.

Though it has been relatively quiet in Nigeria in recent years, the group gained infamy for carrying out several high-profile kidnappings—since 2012, Ansaru is believed by the British government to have been responsible for kidnapping at least eight mainly European hostages and killing several of them.

In its first action in March 2012, Ansaru reportedly killed one British and one Italian hostage in Sokoto, northwestern Nigeria, after kidnapping them in May 2011. In one of its deadliest attacks, Ansaru said it killed seven foreign hostages in March 2013 after kidnapping them from a construction site in the northern state of Bauchi.

What are Ansaru's links to other groups?

The group emerged as a splinter from Boko Haram in 2012 due to ideological differences, according to Bat-el Ohayon, co-founder of sub-Saharan Africa analysts Afrique Consulting Group. "The leaders of Ansaru, among them Khalid Al-Barnawi, did not agree with the operational methods of Boko Haram, which included killing Muslims," says Ohayon.

Despite claiming to want to institute Islamic law in Nigeria, Boko Haram often attacks mosques and many of its victims are Muslim.

Since splitting from Boko Haram, various sources have said that the group's main allegiance is to the global Al-Qaeda jihadi movement. In classifying Ansaru as a terrorist group in November 2012, the British Home Office said that it was "broadly aligned with Al-Qaeda" and an unnamed serving officer in the Nigerian Army described Al-Barnawi as "the backbone of all Al-Qaeda affiliate groups in West Africa," according to German publication DW.

Ohayon says that the working relationship between the two groups consists of Al-Qaeda helping with the training and financing of Ansaru's members and that it has been suggested that Ansaru fighters have waged war alongside Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in northern Mali.

Who is Khalid Al-Barnawi?

A mysterious figure subject to a $5 million U.S. bounty, Al-Barnawi was allegedly a high-ranking member of Boko Haram before Ansaru broke away from its parent group in 2012. Nigerian authorities claimed that Al-Barnawi had been detained in Lokoja, the capital of the central state of Kogi, on Saturday. Defense spokesman Abubakar described the arrest to Reuters as a "giant stride" in Nigeria's fight against militancy.

But the Nigerian authorities are yet to release reliable images or footage of Al-Barnawi in captivity and according to Fulan Nasrullah, an independent conflict analyst in Nigeria, Al-Barnawi remains a free man.

"Khalid's people and I have spoken and they have said that he is free and was not captured in Lokoja or anywhere else," says Nasrullah, who tracks developments in the Boko Haram conflict. "They [the Nigerian military] have killed seven different people at seven different times thinking they were Khalid Al-Barnawi. They have no photos of him nor do they know any concrete information about him."

According to Nasrullah, Al-Barnawi has been based in northern Cameroon of late, where he heads up a separate group that is affiliated to Ansaru.

Why is Ansaru a problem for Nigeria?

One of Ansaru's main achievements has been to broaden the geographical scope of militancy in Nigeria. Boko Haram, led by the better-known Abubakar Shekau—who, along with Al-Barnawi and another militant named Abubakar Adam Kambar, was categorized as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist by the U.S. in June 2012—has focused its activities in northeast Nigeria, with the vast majority of deaths caused by the group coming in Borno state.

Ansaru, meanwhile, has kidnapped foreign nationals in Kebbi, Katsina and Bauchi states, which are in northwestern, northern and northeastern Nigeria respectively. "Much of Ansaru's threat comes from its ability to operate in central areas of the country, areas that are closer to the economic heart of Nigeria," says Ohayon.