The Islamist militant group targeting Western interests in and around northern Nigeria is well-trained, highly-coordinated and more than likely getting some kind of help.
Amid a spate of kidnappings targeting foreign nationals in northern Nigeria the past couple of years, a shadowy but well-coordinated Islamist militant group calling itself Jama'atu Ansarul Muslimina Fi Biladis Sudan ('Vanguards for the Protection of Muslims in Black Africa') has emerged.
In its short existence, this organisation - more commonly known as 'Ansaru' - has become the pre-eminent threat to foreign interests operating in northern Nigeria.
The group announced its formation in January 2012 by disseminating a series of pamphlets in the city of Kano, the eponymous capital of Nigeria's northern Kano state.
Although details surrounding the origins, structure and leadership of the group remain anecdotal, there is evidence to suggest that Ansaru developed as an offshoot of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram and that its membership comprises of individuals who were disenchanted with the leadership of Boko Haram under Abubakar Shekau.
However, there is also credible evidence to suggest that Ansaru might be little more than a Nigerian proxy for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a movement which is known to operate across much of the Sahel and North Africa.
Boko Haram vs. Ansaru
While sharing Boko Haram's Salafist ideology, there are several key differences between the two groups.
While Boko Haram's ambitions tend to be focused on toppling the Nigerian government, which it accuses of incompetence, corruption and advancing the interests of the oil-rich south at the expense of the Muslim-majority north, Ansaru's agenda appears to favour a wider regional focus.
During a video released by the group and distributed to Mauritanian news agency, Agence Nouakchott Internationale, on 26 November 2012, Ansaru made explicit that one of its objectives was to create an Islamic Caliphate extending from Niger and incorporating northern Nigeria and Cameroon, in addition to defending African Muslims from alleged persecution by Western-backed governments.
In its discourse, Ansaru has also been highly critical of the modus operandi employed by Boko Haram, which has resulted in significant civilian casualties across northern, eastern and central Nigeria.
Indeed, the formal announcement of the group's creation closely followed the 20 January 2012 Boko Haram attacks in Kano which saw at least 185 people, the majority civilians, killed in seemingly coordinated vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices and gun attacks targeting various state-aligned installations across the city.
Ansaru described the Kano attacks, along with similar Boko Haram assaults, as being un-Islamic and undignified.
In addition to the tactical and ideological differences between the two groups, it should also be noted that Ansaru has made explicit its intention to directly target Western nationals and interests within their areas of operation.
The group has made explicit that foreign nationals belonging to Western governments, who are either directly or tacitly supporting military operations against regional and/or international Islamist militant groups, will be targeted in reprisals.
These threats have already manifested itself in a number of kidnapping incidents targeting expatriate workers within northern Nigeria which have either been claimed or directly attributed to Ansaru-aligned militants.
By contrast, Boko Haram has generally restricted its attacks in Nigeria to domestic targets and, apart from a suicide bombing at the United Nations headquarters in Abuja on the 26 August 2011, has distanced itself from acts of violence perpetrated against foreign interests.
The man at the top
As mentioned, information pertaining to the structure and leadership of Ansaru remains unclear at this time. According to Jacob Zenn, terrorism profiler and analyst of African Affairs for the Jamestown Foundation, Ansaru's leadership may be comprised of Boko Haram commanders who are opposed to current leader Abu Shekau.
Ansaru has, in several video briefings, identified its leader as Abu Usmatul al-Ansari; however, Zenn has asserted that this is likely to be a pseudonym, and that al-Ansari may actually be former Boko Haram commander, Mamaan Nur.
The Cameroonian-born Nur briefly led Boko Haram in July 2009 following the death of the sect's founder, Mohammed Yusuf, and the wounding of Shekau, which occurred during a government crackdown on Boko Haram operations in Maiduguri, commonly referred to as the 2009 Maiduguri uprising.
However, following his recovery, Shekau assumed full control of the movement which allegedly caused discontent among Nur supporters.
Nonetheless, Nur continued to operate as Shekau's second-in command up until the Kano bombings of 2012 when some believe he removed himself from the organisation.
Another postulation is that al-Ansari is a pseudonym for the internationally-oriented operator and Boko Haram affiliate, Khalid al-Barnawi.
Al-Barnawi, who is alleged to have close ties with the Algerian-based AQIM, and its predecessor organisation the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), is alleged to have masterminded a number of kidnapping incidents in North Africa and to have established kidnapping training camps in Algeria. He is rumoured to currently operate in Kano.
It remains unclear as to whether either Nur or al-Barnawi is indeed leading or actively involved in the Ansaru leadership; however, it appears that the organisation's highest command has some discernible connections to Boko Haram and seemingly AQIM.
Like AQIM, Ansaru appears to favour the use of kidnapping as an operational tactic. The first abduction to be claimed by the group occurred on 19 December 2012.
A French engineer, Francis Colump, employed by the French-owned energy company Vergnet, was kidnapped from a secure compound in the town of Rimi, located in Katsina state.
Less than 24 hours after the abduction, Ansaru released a video claiming responsibility for the kidnapping which the group claimed to have perpetrated in retaliation against the French government's decision to ban the niqab in public places and for its support for military involvement in Mali.
On 18 February 2013, the group claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of seven foreign expatriate workers employed by the Lebanese-owned Setraco construction company in the Jama'are Local Government Area of Bauchi State.
On 9 March, the group released another video claiming that they had executed the hostages as a reprisal against an attempt by the Nigerian government to carry out a security operation to free the hostages.
During both the aforementioned abductions, a group of between 20 and 30 militants attacked highly secured compounds using improvised explosive devices and high calibre rifles.
Although the kidnappings were the only incidents Ansaru have directly claimed responsibility for, US and British intelligence services have stated that Ansaru was also more than likely responsible for the May 2011 kidnapping of a British and Italian national in the city of Birnin Kebbi, Kebbi state, as well as the January 2012 kidnapping of a German engineer in the city of Kano.
During both incidents, the hostages were executed by their captors following failed attempts by local and international security forces to liberate them.
In addition to kidnapping, Ansaru has also demonstrated the intent and acumen to execute attacks targeting state-aligned security installations in Nigeria's major urban centres.
On 26 November 2012, 40 Ansaru militants attacked the headquarters of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), located in Abuja's Apo district.
During the attack, which was eventually repelled by security personnel, scores of prisoners managed to escape. The majority of those freed during the raid included individuals who were suspected of having ties to Boko Haram and other militant Islamist movements.
Another assault claimed by Ansaru occurred on 19 January 2013 when the group attacked a convoy of Nigerian troops in Kogi state who were en route to participate in combat operations in Mali.
The incident was the Ansaru-claimed attack seemingly motivated by a trans-national as opposed to domestic agenda.
As can be seen from the nature of Ansaru's attacks, the group's modus operandi is dissimilar to Boko Haram's.
While Boko Haram generally favours the use of vehicle-borne explosive devices and suicide bombers with the intent of causing mass casualties, Ansaru tends to be more sophisticated in their tactics, preferring to use a well-trained and highly coordinated militant detachment to attack hardened targets such as secured residential compounds and detention facilities.
Ansaru attacks are also typically surgical with the predetermined targets singled out and with an overt emphasis on limiting casualties.
The efficacy and sophistication in the group's operations draws parallels with the modus operandi commonly employed by AQIM during their insurgent operations in the Sahel and Maghreb, further emphasising the possibility of some relationship between the movements.
What next for Ansaru?
Like Boko Haram, Ansaru is likely to remain a key feature of Nigeria's security environment for the short-to-medium term.
The group has demonstrated acumen in its operations which indicate that its constituents are well-trained, highly organised and are more than likely receiving some form of patronage from regional movements.
As such, it is likely that the group maintains operational and/or logistical bases outside Nigeria, possibly in neighbouring countries such as Niger and Cameroon, which could be used as a safe haven during counterinsurgency operations by the Nigerian government.
In terms of their ambitions and operations, it currently appears that Ansaru will continue to focus on their primary goal: targeting foreign personnel in acts of kidnapping, with hostages being used as bargaining chips for political concessions and/or financial reward.
Indeed, if the group is found to be operating as an AQIM proxy, it is likely that kidnapping attempts by Ansaru will continue to proliferate in northern Nigeria given the considerable withdrawal of Westerners from Sahel countries, a move which generally coincided with the foreign military intervention in Mali and which has mitigated kidnapping activities within the region.
While the threat posed by Ansaru will be highest within the country's northern administrative regions of Kano, Katsina, Yobe, Bauchi and Borno, the threat posed by the group will likely extend to Nigeria's eastern states of Adamawa and Taraba from where the group may launch attacks from its purported strongholds in Cameroon.
It is also likely that the group will continue to target government- and security-aligned interests in armed attacks; however, it is improbable that either the frequency or scale of such attacks would mirror those of Boko Haram.
In terms of the group's relations, it is likely that Ansaru and Boko Haram will continue to operate as completely separate entities.
While sharing a similar interpretation of Islamic doctrine, the two sect's goals appear to be divergent at this time, particularly regarding the Boko Haram's targeting of local nationals in its operations.
However, the disparity in their ideology will not negate the possibility of cooperation, particularly if the endgame of such undertakings is mutually beneficial.
Furthermore, there are also concerns that an escalation of Ansaru operations against foreign interests in Nigeria, which is likely to evoke support among hardline militants, may similarly prompt Boko Haram itself to adopt a more hardened anti-Western stance as it strives to remain the most relevant and formidable Islamist movement operating within the country.
Ryan Cummings is Chief Analyst for Africa for red24, a crisis management assistance company providing advice, support and response within crisis management, travel tracking, product recall, kidnap and ransom and travel security. Follow red24 on twitter @red24security. Follow Ryan @Pol_Sec_Analyst