Ansaru's murder of seven hostages over the weekend shows why it could become the most powerful jihadist group in the region.
Through its murder of seven European and Middle Eastern hostages over the weekend in northern Nigeria, Ansaru has trumped Boko Haram through the propaganda of horror, at least for the time being. Ansaru also probably holds the French family of seven kidnapped in Cameroon last month, with the potential of more horror to come. Those kidnappers have made no public ransom demands; instead they are demanding that the Abuja government release Islamist prisoners, a demand that will be all but impossible for Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan's government to meet. Ansaru has become a direct threat to Westerners working in northern Nigeria in a way Boko Haram in the past was not. There is not much Western-funded economic activity left in northern Nigeria, but what there is will likely diminish. Foreign companies working on infrastructure projects are likely to pull back. The same is true of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working on development and other projects.
The Abuja government has labeled the general insurgency in northern Nigeria as "Boko Haram" -- not just the followers of the movement's founder, Mohammed Yusuf, whom Nigerian police killed in 2009. Its base has been in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, on the edge of the Sahara. Its leadership is associated with the Kanuri ethnic group. It is now led by Abubakar Shekau. He is a shadowy figure who communicates mostly through videos and whose location is unknown. Violence associated with his part of the insurgency has been almost entirely directed against agencies of the Abuja government, especially the police and the military, and Muslims who are seen as having sold out to the Jonathan administration. Over the past year, attacks on Christians have also increased, though it is usually unclear what group has actually carried them out.
The Shekau-led part of the insurgency has especially targeted members of the traditional Islamic establishment, with nearly-successful attempts to murder the Shehu of Borno (the primate of Kanuri traditional rulers) and the Emir of Kano. They successfully assassinated the brother of the Shehu, and an attack on the octenagerian emir killed his bodyguards and apparently wounded him and two of his sons. That part of the insurgency has showed little or no interest in Western targets, and Shekau has specifically denounced kidnapping. Instead, the successors to Mohammed Yusuf appeared to be at war with the Nigerian state and with the fellow Muslims who participate in it. Its victims cross the traditional ethnic divides; the Shehu is a Kanuri, the Emir is a Fulani, and speaks Hausa. The international dimension of the jihad has been essentially irrelevant to their Nigeria focus.
Ansaru is different. In January 2012, in the aftermath of an especially bloody action In Kano attributed to Boko Haram that left many Muslims dead, a distinctive group emerged from the insurgency called Ansaru. Its proper name is the Arabic for Vanguard for the Protection of Muslims in Black Africa. Its leader, Abu Ussamata al-Ansary, is even more shadowy than Abubakar Shekau. Its likely base is Kano, by far the largest city in northern Nigeria and a major West African Islamic center.
It is likely that its ethnic makeup is predominately Fulani. It is opposed to spilling the blood of innocent Muslims and uses tactics associated with al-Qaeda, including kidnappings and beheadings. The most important distinction is that its orientation appears to be international, rather than domestic. That makes it likely that it is in contact with other jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The relationship between Ansaru and Shekau's followers, and other factions of Boko Haram is unclear, though it is likely to be highly fluid. Nor is it clear whether Ansaru's supposed Fulani character and Shekau's Kanuri ethnicity plays a significant role.
Ansaru predates the French intervention in Mali and the subsequent deployment of a West African force organized by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Nevertheless, that event and the close ties between Britain, France and the United States to the government in Abuja probably contributes to its anti-Western stance. All three western states are assisting the ECOWAS force, and the largest contingent is the contribution from Abuja. The United States is establishing a drone base in Niamey as part of that effort. From a radical Islamist perspective, Abuja, Paris, and London are joined in a war with Islam.
It should be anticipated that Ansaru kidnappings of foreigners will continue, and the group is likely to try to strengthen whatever ties already exist with other radical Islamists in Mali and elsewhere in the Maghreb. It may come to supersede Shekau's followers as the predominate radical Islamist group operating in the north. Alternatively, the two may cooperate, as seems already to have been the case, on killings and bombings credited to "Boko Haram." Ansaru's new salience represents another, serious challenge to Nigeria's stability and a deadly threat to those Western interests it can reach in northern Nigeria.