By Adam Nossiter
Nearly four years into Nigeria’s bloody struggle with Islamists in its impoverished north, a new threat has emerged with deadly implications, this time for Westerners as well as Nigerians: local militants who openly claim to be inspired and trained by Al Qaeda and its affiliate in the region.
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 semi desert 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, travelling 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.
Ansaru began to distance itself from Boko Haram early in 2012, after a Boko Haram attack left dozens dead. A local newspaper reported that Ansaru, in a statement announcing its formation, had expressed displeasure with the death toll.
The clash between Boko Haram and Nigerian security forces last week was even deadlier. Much of a fishing town was destroyed, with more than 180 people killed and almost 2,000 homes burned, the governor there said. Some residents were killed in the fierce gun battle and others died in a fire when their homes were set alight, underscoring the ruthlessness of Boko Haram and the Nigerian security forces alike.
Still, the two militant groups, Ansaru and Boko Haram, retain ties. “They are with us now,” Abu Nasir said. “Whenever we hear of oppression, we do operations together.”
At the slightest hint of rescue, mistaken or otherwise, Ansaru appears ready to kill its hostages. The seven construction workers — a Briton, a Greek, an Italian and four from Lebanon and Syria — had been building roads and bridges in northern Nigeria for Setraco, a Lebanese construction company, helping to develop the country’s poorest region. The British contractor who was killed, Brendan Vaughan, a burly man in his mid-50s described by his family as a “lovable rogue,” was expecting his first grandchild.
Late on the night of Feb. 16, Ansaru gunmen stormed the compound where Mr. Vaughan and the others were living. They first attacked the local police station and prison in Jama ‘are to clear the way. Then they blew up the Setraco compound’s wall to gain access to the foreigners’ housing, killing a security guard.
“We were terrified by the blast,” said a Setraco construction worker who gave his name as Hussain. “We heard gunshots everywhere.”
In the morning, when it was all over, Hussain’s supervisor assembled the Nigerian workers. “Our bosses are no longer at work,” he recalled the supervisor’s telling them. Ansaru had taken them away in a coordinated, well-planned assault.
Three weeks later the hostages were dead, shot by their Ansaru captors, who mistakenly believed after reading erroneous Nigerian newspaper reports that they themselves were about to be raided.
To Abu Nasir, Mr. Vaughan was not an earthy, fun-loving, construction worker, but a dangerous spy.
“Among the hostages, the British man had something on his body that would lead the drone to them,” he said. “That is why the group was given orders to eliminate them.”
Abu Nasir said he considered Abu Zeid, a top commander of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, to be a personal mentor and “a wise somebody.” Abu Zeid, whose death France says it has confirmed, is said to have been killed by Chadian or French forces in the campaign to uproot Islamist militants in northern Mali.
Abu Nasir spoke of his early recruitment by Al Qaeda, rigorous training in Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s desert camps, his leaders’ contacts with Osama bin Laden and the current leader of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahri, and disagreements with Boko Haram’s indiscriminate methods.
Underlying Abu Nasir’s words was a Robin Hood version of ant capitalism — “We just hate oppression,” he said — that helped explain the penetration of radical Islamist groups like his in the impoverished cities of Nigeria’s north.
He said he had attended an Islamic college in the northern metropolis of Kano, which has since become a hotbed of Boko Haram radicalism. Then, “for the zeal of seeking knowledge,” he went to Khartoum, he said, where it was “Al Qaeda propagators who initiated me into the clique.”
The recruiters took him to the southern deserts of Algeria and then to Mauritania for a rigorous training course by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. For six months, he said, he trained directly under Abu Zeid. Of five who came with him from Sudan, he said, two died during training. “Everything the security forces get, we get double that,” he said of Ansaru’s training regimen.
Returning to Nigeria in 2008, Abu Nasir said, he went underground in Lagos. “Thousands” are like him, he said, “some who work in government, some businessmen, some teachers.”
“Any leader who does not listen to the warnings of his people, he is going to pay a heavy price,” Abu Nasir said. “We are not going to take one step back.”
Muhammad Awwal Musa contributed reporting.