This is a guest post by Jacob Zenn, an analyst of African Affairs for the Washington D.C.-based think tank, The Jamestown Foundation, and a contributor for the West Point CTC Sentinel.
Ansaru is not a grassroots organization like Boko Haram, the more prominent Islamist militant group in Nigeria. Nonetheless, Ansaru has been more of a threat to Western interests than Boko Haram. Recent evidence also shows that the two groups may be merging.
Boko Haram members are mostly Nigerians from Borno state, or Cameroonians, Nigeriens, and Chadians from the border region. They include many from the almajiri schools, or madrassas, of northern Nigeria. Ansaru members appear to be mostly foreign-trained Nigerian militants. They include founders Khalid al-Barnawi and Abu Muhammed, who operated and trained in Algeria with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Nigerian militants have roots in Algeria dating back to at least 2007, and in Mauritania as far back as 2003. Al-Barnawi fought with AQIM kidnapping mastermind Mokhtar Belmokhtar in Mauritania in 2005. Other AQIM members reportedly trained Nigerians who later became Ansaru militants.
Ansaru imported AQIM’s kidnapping operations to Nigeria, taking foreigners hostage in Kebbi, Kano (which was claimed by AQIM), Katsina, and Bauchi. They may also have coordinated the kidnapping of a French family of seven in northern Cameroon in February 2013, although it was claimed by Boko Haram.
As Ansaru is not a grassroots group, it would not be surprising if many Nigerians did not know about them. However, according to Navanti, a strategic communications group in Washington, DC, a survey showed that a fairly large number of people in Kano, Kaduna, and Maiduguri–more than 80 percent–have heard of Ansaru (although some may have mistook the group for Ansar Dine of Mali). Articles about Ansaru operations also recently appeared in mainstream Nigerian newspapers, so Nigerians may have read about the group.
Certainly, the United Kingdom took notice of Ansaru when, in November 2012, it proscribed Ansaru as a terrorist organization that is “anti-Nigerian government, anti-Western, and broadly aligned with al-Qaeda.” Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan also so proscribed Ansaru and Boko Haram in June 2013. The U.S. government has designated al-Barnawi a “global terrorist” along with Abubakar Adam Kambar, who trained under al-Barnawi at an AQIM camp in Algeria.
Ansaru’s amorphous nature is likely related to its lack of a geographical base beyond the "Lands of Black Africa." Some even question its existence. But if Ansaru does not exist, who can explain the spate of kidnappings of foreigners in Nigeria; Ansaru’s claims via jihadist forums (which have administrators to filter out fake messages); the British and Nigerian terrorist designations of Ansaru; and the Ansaru propaganda found at Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s base in Gao after he fled the city in February 2013?
If the above analysis is correct, Ansaru took root in the Sahel a decade ago when few people in Nigeria were focused on events in that region, and AQIM’s ability to establish a presence as far south as Nigeria appeared remote. It highlights the importance of monitoring transnational linkages and regional events that seem relatively benign now, but years later can come home to roost. In addition, one reason for the difficulty in understanding Ansaru may be that it is unlike any group in Nigeria in the past because of its distinctly foreign element, which Maitatsine, MEND, and even Boko Haram never demonstrated to the same extent.