A still image from a video released by the Islamist group Ansaru reportedly shows members speaking
Having split off from Boko Haram — the dominant Nigerian extremist group responsible for weekly shootings and bombings — this new group, Ansaru, says it eschews the killing of fellow Nigerians.
“Too reckless,” said a young member of Ansaru. His group evidently prefers a more calculated approach: kidnapping and killing foreigners.
Just days before, his group had methodically killed seven foreign construction workers deep in Nigeria’s semidesert north. The seven had been helping to build a road; their bodies were shown in a grainy video, lying on the ground.
The West, which has often regarded the Islamist uprising here as a Nigerian domestic issue, has been explicitly put on notice by Ansaru, adding an international dynamic to a conflict that has already cost more than 3,000 lives.
Ansaru is believed to be responsible for the December kidnapping of a French engineer, who is still missing, and for the abduction of an Italian and a Briton, both construction workers, who were later killed by their captors as a rescue attempt began last year.
It is also likely that the group was involved in the February kidnapping of a French family on the Cameroon-Nigeria border — they were released on Friday, under conditions that are unclear — as well as the kidnapping of a German engineer in Kano killed during a rescue effort last year.
“Any white man who is working with them” — meaning “Zionists,” — “we can kidnap them, everywhere,” said the young man from Ansaru, who called himself Mujahid Abu Nasir.
He had slipped into Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, with a bodyguard, traveling hundreds of miles from Ansaru’s secret headquarters in the north, getting past a major military base here. He said he had come under the authorization of Ansaru’s leader, Khalid al-Barnawi, who the United States says has close ties to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and has designated a global terrorist.
For three hours, with chilling precision, Abu Nasir, in a neatly pressed shirt and polished shoes, laid out Ansaru’s philosophy, after reciting a verse from the Koran promising “hellfire” for nonbelievers: opponents would be killed; Qaeda sympathizers were everywhere in Nigeria; and Westerners would be kidnapped.
He said Ansaru had been motivated by Al Qaeda itself, trained by its affiliate in the region — Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — and was now following in both their footsteps.
Before speaking or touching anything, Abu Nasir carefully put on black gloves and examined a reporter’s pen to make sure there was no camera hidden in it. He said he was the son of a Nigerian aristocrat, and he spoke Arabic, which he said he had perfected at a university in Khartoum, Sudan. He understood English perfectly but would not speak it, on principle.
“By taking these hostages, we are sending a message that they should be careful about giving bad advice to our leaders,” he said of Nigeria’s government, which he called a “puppet” of the West.
Veteran observers of Nigeria’s struggle with Islamists say Ansaru has closer ties to Al Qaeda’s regional affiliate, in terms of both training and ideology, than any other extremist group in Nigeria.
“They are as dangerous as Al Qaeda,” said Maikaramba Sadiq of Nigeria’s Civil Liberties Organization. “They have the same training as Al Qaeda. They have the same approach as Al Qaeda.”
Nigeria’s top counterterrorism official, Maj. Gen. Sarkin-Yaki Bello, agreed. “They have the same objective, to Islamize the Sahel,” he said, referring to the belt of African countries immediately south of the Sahara.
In General Bello’s view, Ansaru is a more sophisticated version of Boko Haram, the group that spawned it: “They speak Arabic better, and they have more international connections.”
Analysts at the United Nations and elsewhere have long suggested links between Boko Haram — which fought a particularly bloody battle with Nigerian security forces in recent days — and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Moreover, Boko Haram is not strictly focused on attacking Nigerians: in 2011, it blew up the United Nations headquarters in Abuja, a rare strike by the group on an international target.