The Nigerian Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, and a spokesman for the Nigerian army announced on April 3 the capture and arrest of Khalid al-Barnawi, the leader of Ansaru (“Vanguard for the Protection of Muslims in Black Lands”), a splinter group of Boko Haram. (The confirmation by Lai Mohammed makes the capture claim credible.) Ansaru has carried out a campaign of high-profile targeted assassinations and has kidnapped foreigners, especially Europeans.
Khalid al-Barnawi is one of three Nigerian terrorists identified by the U.S. Department of State in 2012 as “specially designated global terrorists,” with a reward of up to $5 million for their capture or killing. The other two were Abubakar Shekau, the “face” of Boko Haram, and Abubakar Adam Kambar, the founder of Ansaru. Barnawi became the leader of Ansaru after Kambar was killed; Shekau has been silent, and there is speculation that he is dead or in Syria. All three had been followers of Mohammed Yusuf, the founder of Boko Haram who was murdered by the police in 2009. Ansaru split from Shekau’s Boko Haram in 2012, allegedly because it objected to the mass killing of Muslim “apostates” by the latter.
Conventional wisdom is that Ansaru’s operatives are better educated, better trained, and much more international in outlook than those of Boko Haram. According to the media, Ansaru has close ties with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, unlike Boko Haram, which has ties of a sort with the self-proclaimed Islamic State. The media also reports that Barnawi received al-Qaeda training in Afghanistan and from the Algerian jihadi, terrorist, and smuggler Mokhtar Belmoktar. Ansaru’s international links make it potentially a greater threat to the United States than Boko Haram with its domestic Nigeria focus, though the former has never been as large as the latter.
In part because intelligence is bad on Ansaru, Boko Haram, and their internal organization and international connections, the fact that Barnawi has been captured and will (presumably) be carefully interrogated is highly significant. With respect to Ansaru operations, however, it is hard to gauge just how important Barnawi’s capture is. Ansaru of late has been quiet, with no spectacular operations for many months. Some even believe that Ansaru was reabsorbed by Boko Haram. However, If Ansaru is in the process of regrouping, it will likely throw up a replacement for Barnawi, as have other terrorist organizations that have lost their leaders.
Barnawi was born in 1976. He is from Biu in the northeastern Borno state. He was captured in Lokoja, the capital of Kogi state, also in northern Nigeria. The media reports that his real name is Usman Umar Abubakar.
*Due to the primacy of recent developments in Nigeria and South Africa, the Nigeria Security Tracker (NST) will be published on Wednesday this week.