WARRI, Nigeria — First, they attacked the Madison Blu Hotel in Mali’s capital, Bamako, on Nov. 20, killing at least 21 people, most of whom were foreign nationals.
Less than two months later, the same group unleashed another batch of young militants on Burkina Faso’s popular Splendid Hotel and a neighboring café in the capital, Ouagadougou, killing 30 people, including eight Burkinabes, six Canadians, three Ukrainians, three French, and an American.
Then, in March, another batch of Islamist militants killed at least 19 people in a gun attack on a beach resort in southern Ivory Coast. Eleven Ivorians lost their lives, and four French citizens were among the dead, as well as one German, one Nigerian, one Macedonian, and one Lebanese.
In what is coming to look like a global Islamist insurgency, it is more than likely there will be more such atrocities targeting foreigners in this part of the world, and probably soon. The Nigerian government’s announcement Sunday that it has captured Khalid al Barnawi, the operational chief of the organization, is a positive development, to be sure. But if there is one thing these jihadist organizations have shown, it is their ability to regenerate, and, indeed, to metastasize.
The North Africa-based group al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed responsibility for the hotel and resort attacks, including the one in November in Mali, which it said it carried out with its offshoot al-Mourabitoun. But there is growing reason to believe that AQIM’s West African franchise, Ansaru, took part in the operations and that its members are serving as the shock troops for an offensive against foreigners in Africa.
The existence and activities of Ansaru reflect the schisms within schisms that have divided the jihadist movements of the Middle East and Africa, even as they have spread. The overarching split is between the original core al Qaeda, responsible for the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., in 2001, and the spin-off now known as the Islamic State, or ISIS, which grew out of the al Qaeda-affiliated resistance to American occupation of Iraq after 2003.
ISIS rejected the leadership and strategy of core al Qaeda in early 2014, choosing to focus its attacks on Shia “heretics” and the creation of a geographically defined and growing “caliphate.” Both of those strategies were rejected by Ayman Zawahiri, the leading al Qaeda ideologue and the head of the organization since the Americans eliminated Osama bin Laden in 2011.
Over the last two years, ISIS has waged a brilliant campaign to expand its brand and its influence, enlisting many affiliates in the Middle East and Africa, and taking its war most recently, to the heart of Europe, with attacks in Paris and Brussels. But as veteran terrorism expert Brian Jenkins points out in a new report for Rand, there may be less to the global reach of ISIS—with its wilayaat, or governorates in Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Tunisia, the North Caucasus, and elsewhere—than meets the eye.
Those beyond the territory ISIS administers and defends in Iraq and Syria are “aspirational,” says Jenkins. “In some graphics, the emergence of one affiliate puts the entire country under the Islamic State, but this is misleading,” he writes. “These are outposts of like-minded fanatics—advance parties in a few places, not armies of occupation.”
Al Qaeda and its North African affiliate, AQIM, on the other hand, appear to be playing the long game. And Ansaru is part of that.
So, while Ansaru is not a name as widely known as Boko Haram, which is affiliated with the so-called Islamic State, and thus an AQIM competitor in the realm of jihad, terror, and atrocity, Ansaru can be, when it cares to be, just as deadly.
Its full Arabic name, Jama’atu Ansarul Muslimina Fi Biladis Sudan, means: “Vanguards for the Protection of Muslims in Black Africa.”
Ansaru announced that it split from Boko Haram in January 2012, claiming that Boko Haram was “inhuman” for killing innocent Muslims as well as for targeting defectors. The move reflected the developing divisions between al Qaeda and the ISIS trends at the time.
The context, or the politics, if you will, is local. As Jacob Zenn, writing for West Point's CTC Sentinel, notes, Ansaru says it is "fighting to restore the 'lost dignity' of the Sokoto Caliphate, which was founded in 1804 by the Fulani Sheikh Usman dan Fodio in northern Cameroon, northern Nigeria, and southern Niger, and lasted until the United Kingdom and France colonized the region and introduced Western education and Christianity later in the 19th century."
Unlike Boko Haram, which is notorious for its indiscriminate shootings and bombings, Ansaru, which says it eschews the killing of fellow Nigerians, prefers a more calculated approach: kidnapping and killing foreigners.
The group was founded by little-known Abu Usmatul al Ansari (sometimes written Abu Ussamata al-Ansary), believed to have been trained by AQIM in Algeria. But his name is rarely mentioned in connection with Ansaru attacks. It’s the 47-year-old Khalid al Barnawi, another AQIM-trained jihadist, who gets most of the credit.
Al Barnawi, captured last Friday, has been regarded by many of Ansaru’s militants as the “active” leader of the group. The jihadist was labeled a “global terrorist” in 2012 by the U.S. government alongside his lieutenant, Abubakar Adam Kambar, another AQIM-trained Ansaru militant who was killed. The U.S. government has offered a $5 million reward for “information that brings to justice” al Barnawi.
Al Barnawi, along with another Algeria-trained protégé known as Abu Muhammed, led the al Qaeda group that kidnapped and later killed British national Chris McManus and an Italian engineer, Franco Lamolinara, in Nigeria’s northwestern state of Kebbi.
In a proof-of-life video showing the two hostages blindfolded and kneeling in front of three masked militants, a previously unknown group, al Qaeda in the Lands Beyond the Sahel, which experts believe evolved into Ansaru, admitted that it was responsible for the abduction.
As Zenn writes in the CTC Sentinel, "The video was sent to the Mauritanian-based Agence Nouakchott d’Information (ANI), which usually receives AQIM videos." The jihadists also employed the same Mauritanian negotiator that AQIM used in a number of previous kidnappings, this time demanding $6 million and the release of prisoners in West Africa in return for the two hostages.
Since AQIM was formed in 2006, the group has sought to expand its operations from southern Algeria southward into Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, and Nigeria with the aim of targeting foreigners in the southern Sahel.
Achieving this objective on its own would have been difficult as its North African militants did not master the region’s human and physical terrain as well as they had ideologies and aspirations of the desert-dwelling Tuaregs. So the jihadists changed their strategy from recruiting sub-Saharan Africans to helping them form their own groups with local ideologies that appealed to people in the region "in a way that AQIM’s ideology did not," Zenn writes. Hence the historical context put forth by Ansaru.
In this vein, AQIM oversaw the formation both of Ansaru and the Mali-based Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which later became part of al Murabitoun, a notorious Islamist group led by AQIM founding member Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
The way these organizations split off and spin off suggests just how difficult it is to identify, target, and disrupt the activities of jihadist groups whose venomous heads multiply more quickly than those of the mythical Hydra.
Ansaru’s al Barnawi, for instance, trained under Belmokhtar and even fought under the militant leader in Mauritania and Algeria in the mid-2000s when the terror kingpin was military commander of AQIM. MUJAO’s military commander, Oumar Ould Hamaha, an Arab from northern Mali and a relative of Belmokhtar’s, had been an AQIM kidnapping mastermind. The two groups also "adopted names that explained their desired areas of operation," Zenn writes. Ansaru’s Biladis Sudan translates to Black Africa while MUJAO’s Gharb Afriqqiya translates to West Africa.
The two terror groups had designated areas of operations at their creation and may have been the elite units AQIM trained for attacking Western interest in the Sahel. Ansaru operated in northern Nigeria and southern Niger, and MUJAO operated in Mali, Senegal, Algeria, and Mauritania. Both groups considered themselves to be the ideological descendants of Usman dan Fodio and other pre-colonial West African Islamic leaders who fought the colonial invaders.
AQIM has always taken responsibility for attacks, especially those carried out by Ansaru. When a German engineer, Edgar Fritz Raupach, was kidnapped in Nigeria’s northwestern city of Kano on Jan. 26, 2012, "the same day Ansaru announced its split from Boko Haram by circulating flyers in Kano," Zenn notes, AQIM’s official media wing, al Andalus, took credit for the abduction. In a video sent to ANI in Mauritania it demanded that Germany release from prison "a Turkish-born female jihadist website administrator whose German husband fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan and was arrested in 2007 while planning to bomb Ramstein Air Base," writes Zenn, referring to a key American installation in Germany.
Nigerian forces then carried out a rescue operation of Raupach in May 2012, but the captors shot the German immediately. AQIM, rather than Ansaru, again warned European nations against using force to resolve kidnappings and specifically warned Germany to stop violating Muslim holy sites.
Ansaru up until this time never took responsibility for attacks it carried out; rather, it always let AQIM take the credit, despite evidence that AQIM did not operate directly in Nigeria.
In the case of Raupach, security sources said the German’s abduction had been masterminded by Ansaru’s Abu Mohammad, whom Nigerian authorities say died in custody of gunshot wounds sustained during his arrest in the northwestern town of Kaduna.
“This group [Ansaru] doesn’t always take responsibility for its attacks,” said Ushie Michael, a prominent Nigerian security analyst. “They just want to do what AQIM wants them to do.”
After the death of Abu Mohammad, and the disappearance of his mentor, Khalid al Barnawi, Ansaru became loosely organized. Its militants began to travel up north into Mali to realign with the parent group, AQIM.
The report in 2012 that dozens of Nigerian militants attacked the Algerian consulate in northern Mali and in 2013 that Ansaru literature was found in Belmokhtar’s compound in Gao the day after he fled the city did appear to confirm that Ansaru’s operation was now coordinated from Mali.
“Many of Ansaru’s militants are well trained, well educated, and have huge respect for al Qaeda’s leadership in Algeria,” said Mohammed Yusuf, an Arabic scholar based in Nigeria’s northeastern Maiduguri. “They see their mentors as lords and will do anything for them.”
In a New York Times dispatch from 2013, an Ansaru militant, Mujahid Abu Nasir, said he considered notorious AQIM commander Abu Zeid to be a personal mentor and “a wise somebody.”
Al Qaeda recruited this same Abu Nasir while he was in Khartoum for studies. His recruiters took him to the southern deserts of Algeria and later to Mauritania for a rigorous training course by AQIM. For six months, Abu Nasir said, he trained directly under Abu Zeid, who was later killed by Chadian or French forces in the campaign to uproot Islamist militants in northern Mali. He said of five people who came with him from Sudan, two died during training. “Everything the security forces get, we get double that,” he said of Ansaru’s training system.
The jihadist, who attended an Islamic college in Kano before moving to Sudan, said Ansaru had been motivated by al Qaeda itself, trained by its North African affiliate, AQIM, and was following in both their footsteps.
It is this background that has led some analysts to conclude Ansaru is providing the shock troops for AQIM’s attacks on tourists and other foreigners in sub-Saharan Africa.
In the attack in Mali for instance, famous Guinean singer Sekouba “Bambino” Diabate, who was staying in the hotel when the incident occured, said he heard attackers speaking in English “with a Nigerian accent” about their weapons being loaded.
Nigerians speak with a very unique accent different from the rest of Africa, and so it’s relatively easy for anyone who has regularly interacted with a home-grown Nigerian to recognize where he or she comes from, more so for a talented singer like Diabete, who has interacted with a number of Nigerian singers.
A clearer picture is seen in the Burkina Faso attacks. Not long after the operation, AQIM published photographs of three adolescent men said to have carried out the Ouagadougou hits. The militants were given the names Battar al Ansari, Abu Muhammad al Buqali al Ansari, and Ahmed al Fulani al Ansari.
“Al-Ansari” (which originates from the Arabic word, “Ansar,” meaning “supporters”), is the surname of Ansaru’s founder, Abu Usmatul al-Ansari. The name “Ansaru” equally originated from Ansar.
AQIM typically renames its fighters, usually according to the area or unit the militant comes from. Analysts who study AQIM’s operations closely say, predictably, that the group uses al Ansari for fighters from Ansaru to indicate the origins of the “brigade.”
Last year, a 15-year-old boy who was recruited by a militant group in northern Mali, believed to be AQIM, told The Daily Beast that he was given a new name by the jihadists just as he arrived camp. He was named “Abu Bakr Konana.” Some of his colleagues who joined the group at the same time also got the surname “Konana,” which may be the name designated to young men from Mali’s Timbuktu region where the young boys were recruited.
When I asked him if he came in contact with anyone from Nigeria during his time with the militants, Seydou said his colleagues often mocked Abu al Ansari because the Nigerian couldn’t communicate in French or the local Songhay language.
Some evidence of Ansaru’s involvement also exists in the most recent Ivory Coast attacks. A number of witnesses said the killers didn’t speak a word of French, which they mostly likely would have done if they had come from Mali or from the French-speaking countries surrounding it. The gunmen, witnesses said, communicated to their hostages in English and Arabic, languages spoken comfortably by Ansaru militants.
“They don’t like to talk about what they’ve done,” says Ushie Michael, noting that the group has taken direct responsibility for only a handful of gun attacks and kidnappings in Nigeria. “They prefer to work, while AQIM does the talking. It is AQIM that pays, not the other way round.”
Together, they are playing the long game.
UPDATE 4/22/16: This story has been updated throughout to properly credit the work of Jacob Zenn at the CTC Sentinel.