The northwestern Nigerian state of Zamfara, has reportedly experienced more than 180 deaths and 300 kidnappings in March 2019 alone (Twitter.com/A_Salkida, March 17). Zamfara has otherwise avoided much of the militancy that has haunted northern Nigeria in the past several years. So, what explains this sudden uptick in violence in Zamfara, and why now?
According to one hypothesis, a driving force behind the rise of militancy in not only Zamfara but also extending to neighbouring parts of Sokoto and potentially elsewhere in northwestern Nigeria is the revival of Jamaatu Ansarul Muslimin fi Biladis Sudan (Vanguards for the Protection of Muslims in Black Africa), better known as “Ansaru.” This article rehashes the history of Ansaru in northwestern Nigeria; its retreat to Libya; assesses whether it is already or can become immersed into the cells of so-called “rural bandits” in Zamfara and environs; take advantage of the leadership crisis in Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) to reassert its influence in Nigeria; and provide the militant forces in Zamfara an insurgent model based on that of the al-Qaeda-aligned jihadists in Ansaroul Islam and Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) in the Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali border axis, whose areas of operations are only around 300 miles from Zamfara itself.
The key contribution of Ansaru to militancy in Zamfara, therefore, may not only be expertise in kidnappings, ambushes, and robbery, but also organizing the armed actors into a more coherent politically oriented jihadist project by learning lessons from their own failure to do that in Nigeria from 2011 to 2013 and some of their al-Qaeda brethren’s successes in doing that in Mali since 2013.
Background: The AQIM Pedigree in Nigeria
From as early August 2009 when al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) provided 200,000 euros and training to Boko Haram, it referred to Boko Haram as its “representative (mumathil)” in Nigeria. However, AQIM later favored the formation of Ansaru over Boko Haram in January 2012 and Ansaru became its primary ally (Al-Andalus, April 28, 2017). Ansaru emerged on the scene in Nigeria with a series of kidnappings of foreign engineers in the style of its AQIM patrons, which had previously been unprecedented in the country’s north and had not been in Boko Haram’s repertoire, including:
- A British and Italian engineer, who were killed in March 2012 in Sokoto after being kidnapped in May 2011 in Kebbi.
- A German engineer, who was killed in Kano in May 2012 after being kidnapped in January 2012 in the same city.
- A group of engineers, including British, Filipino, and Lebanese, who were killed near Shekau’s base in Sambisa Forest, Borno in February 2013 after being kidnapped weeks earlier in Bauchi (Vanguard, February 18, 2013).
Ansaru also kidnapped a French engineer in Katsina in December 2012, but he escaped custody in Kaduna in November 2013 (France 24, November 17, 2013). Aside from kidnappings, Ansaru was involved in a prison break in Abuja in November 2012 and an ambush on Mali-bound Nigerian troops in Kogi State in January 2013 (Vanguard, January 20, 2013). Ansaru’s claims all indicated alignment with al-Qaeda and the Taliban, opposition to Shekau’s killing of innocents and brutality, and a desire to “defend” Muslims from Christians in central Nigeria (jihadology.net, May 14, 2013; Desert Herald, June 2, 2012).
There were various other attacks that Ansaru members did not claim or that it carried out in “cooperation” with Boko Haram despite their “differences” after an AQIM-brokered reconciliation between some Ansaru militants and Boko Haram. For example, in November 2013 when Boko Haram claimed kidnapping a French priest in Cameroon it noted the operation was “coordinated” with Ansaru (France24, November 15, 2013). Meanwhile, other kidnappings, especially in Cameroon in 2013 and 2014, were likely also carried out by Boko Haram and Ansaru militants together but no claim indicated such cooperation any further. Unlike the kidnappings by Ansaru in Nigeria in 2012 that led to the deaths of hostages, in Cameroon hostages were ransomed for millions of dollars four times, vastly boosting Boko Haram’s coffers (lejournalinternational.fr, February 7, 2014).
The trend of Ansaru-claimed attacks from 2011 to 2013 demonstrated it primarily operated around northwestern Nigeria, such as in the states of Katsina, Kebbi, Sokoto, Kano, Abuja, Kogi, and only later Bauchi and even Sambisa in Borno, whereas Boko Haram primarily operated in northeastern Nigeria, especially Yobe and Borno. Kano was arguably a point where both groups converged. Ansaru’s public announcement of its founding in Kano after consulting with AQIM on January 26, 2012, also was only days after Shekau ordered what was then Boko Haram’s largest ever attack: a raid of Kano that killed more than 200 people, mostly innocent civilians (Vanguard, February 1, 2012). Not only were some of Ansaru’s claims released through AQIM channels and AQIM intermediaries, but even its first kidnapping in Kano was claimed by AQIM’s Andalus media agency itself. (jihadology.net, January 22, 2013 ; lexpress.fr, March 21, 2013 ; jihadology.net, June 12, 2012). One could conclude Ansaru was an “extension” of AQIM in Nigeria but that it primarily operated in the northwest to remain away from Shekau, who killed Ansaru members for defecting from him, and because the core of Ansaru members were Hausas and Fulanis, and not Kanuris from Borno and Yobe like Shekau.
A number of Ansaru’s leaders had also trained and fought with AQIM in the Sahel, especially Khalid al-Barnawi and Abu Muhammed al-Bauchi: the former eventually cooperated with Shekau before his 2016 arrest in Kogi and the latter was killed by security forces after a “tip” led to his hideout. This tip possibly came from members of Shekau’s faction who wanted him eliminated for defying Shekau (Leadership, March 26, 2012). They were not only receiving advice and consulting AQIM before they announced Ansaru’s founding, but some of their co-fighters were also in northern Mali during the AQIM-allied occupation of that region in 2012 and 2013 (jihadology.net, September 9, 2013). However, after the French-led military intervention alongside Malian, Chadian, and other forces to recapture northern Mali from AQIM and its allies and Shekau’s suppression of Ansaru in Nigeria by 2013, Ansaru faded out and some of its members used their combat skills to accumulate personal wealth instead of fighting for the strategic political aims of jihadists (aymennjawad.org, August 5, 2018). If anything, its legacy consisted of raised threat levels—especially for foreigners in Nigeria—and demonstrating the most visible ties of Nigerian jihadists to AQIM and of opposition to Shekau.
Though Ansaru itself may have had around 300 to 500 members and was essentially dismantled in Nigeria, new signs of an Ansaru revival began to emerge in 2016. However, now Ansaru members were being described by the Nigerian security forces as “Islamic State-affiliated” (Punch, February 10, 2016). Ansaru cells were arrested on their way to Libya apparently to meet or train with the Islamic State (IS), which had held the city of Derna in late 2015, where some Nigerians fought. Some Nigerians then fought in IS-held Sirte where several of them appeared in propaganda videos in 2016 (Vanguard, August 23, 2016). Other Nigerians were also reported in the city on IS documents (Menastream, June 13, 2016).
Before this time, in March 2015, Shekau had pledged his allegiance to IS and Boko Haram became the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), but Shekau was deposed by Abu Musab al-Barnawi in August 2016 with the approval of IS (Jihadology.net, August 3, 2016). Abu Musab al-Barnawi, in turn, mentioned in his 2018 book that Ansaru members had “joined the convoy of the Caliphate”, indicating they joined IS (aymennjawad.org, August 5, 2018).
However, because Abu Musab al-Barnawi was more “moderate” than Shekau, this did not mean those former Ansaru members completely abandoned their opposition to the killing of innocents. In fact, Abu Musab al-Barnawi was notably among the “softest” of IS provincial leaders towards al-Qaeda, having never even criticized the group despite having been the head of the Boko Haram and then ISWAP media team before becoming its leader. On the contrary, Abu Musab al-Barnawi only recalled in his book Boko Haram’s “strong ties” to AQIM after his father and former Boko Haram leader, Muhammed Yusuf, was killed by the security forces in 2009 (Al-Andalus, April 28, 2017). He also claimed to have once attempted to flee to IS in Libya but Shekau restricted his travel; it is certainly possible he would have crossed paths with those Ansaru members who were also traveling to Libya around 2016 had he made it there (aymennjawad.org, August 5, 2018). It should also be highlighted that Abu Musab al-Barnawi’s “soft” side was also reflected in his consistent statements about not killing innocent Muslims and even allowing “guilty” Muslims, such as anti-jihadist vigilantes, to be spared so long as they “repented” (jihadology.net, January 27, 2015).
IS was eventually booted from Libya by a combination of government, military, and al-Qaeda forces by the end of 2016. At this point, it appears the Ansaru members would have been stranded there or been able to return to Nigeria to join ISWAP. What is certain, however, is some Ansaru members remained in Libya but with staunch loyalty to al-Qaeda.  They may have fought with IS but once it lost they returned to their al-Qaeda foundations. By the end of 2016, there was a mix of Ansaru militants in Libya, most likely with divided IS and al-Qaeda loyalties; a history of moving between ideologically-oriented attacks and criminality; and roots in fighting Mali and the Sahel and northwestern Nigeria. At the same time, in 2018, Abu Musab al-Barnawi’s longtime ally, Mamman Nur, who was also relatively “soft” and had ties historically to al-Qaeda— reportedly AQIM and al-Shabab from the 2009-2010 period—was purged from ISWAP and eventually killed on orders from IS (Sahara Reporters, September 14, 2018). In early 2019, Abu Musab al-Barnawi himself was purged from ISWAP in favor of the apparently more hardline Ba Idrisa but also because he was suspected of speaking with “militants in Mali”, who would have presumably been aligned with al-Qaeda (Vanguard, March 16). All of this occurred on orders of or in consultation with IS (Twitter.com/ScholarAkassi1, March 11).
As a result of this hardline turn, ISWAP’s main areas of operations around Lake Chad are not going to be a friendly place for former Ansaru members to return if they wanted to operate in Nigeria. There would also be a reasonable concern on their part that ISWAP would realign with their longtime nemesis, Shekau, whose fighters are primarily based around Sambisa, especially if the IS commanders who had once seen Shekau as their ally in Nigeria reconsider dethroning him in 2016 so as to expand IS influence in northeastern Nigeria. With Abu Musab al-Barnawi now sidelined in ISWAP, it could make sense that Ansaru and he would realign, especially if he could flee the Lake Chad region and exploit his pedigree as Muhammed Yusuf’s son as a safety net to prevent his own assassination.
A Mali Model?
The banditry and abductions in Zamfara have the signature of Ansaru tactics in terms of exploiting their militant skill to steal money, rob banks and kidnap dozens of civilians, including a Lebanese in Kano, who was kidnapped and killed in March in an operation that had the scent of Ansaru’s first kidnapping of a British and Italian engineer in Kebbi in May 2011 (Sahara Reporters, March 2015). At the time that was suspected to be a “criminal” hostage-taking until Ansaru proved it was clearly behind their kidnapping and subsequent killing (Vanguard, March 8, 2012). The journalist Ahmed Salkida also reports that an Ansaru commander Mairakumi has been active in cattle-rustling in Zamfara (Twitter.com/A_Salkida, March 11). The area of operations in Zamfara would also be conducive to Ansaru because the group has a history in northwestern Nigerian and called for the defense of Muslims, specifically Fulanis, in 2012 and presumably would try to link up with Fulani bandits that operate locally but also move transnationally in the southern Sahel (Desert Herald, June 11, 2012). Moreover, if Lake Chad was precarious for Ansaru members it would make sense for them to keep its distance from ISWAP just as it kept distance from Shekau in 2012.
In Burkina Faso and Mali, Ansoural Islam and JNIM exploited various criminal and ethnic fault lines and anti-government animus to build jihadist networks in the Burkina Faso-Mali-Niger border axis. More recently, those two groups have appeared to align with the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) of Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahraoui, even though the group has contradictorily reaffirmed its loyalty to IS since December 2018 (Twitter.com/menastream, March 9). Ansaru would fit in well with both those al-Qaeda-and-IS-aligned groups—Ansaroul Islam, JNIM and ISGS—and could implement their model of jihadism in Zamfara. Considering this, ISWAP’s announcement of a brigade in Burkina Faso on March 23, 2019, and IS’ orchestration of pledges in the works to Ba Idris from fighters in Western and Central Africa suggests IS is going to challenge al-Qaeda supremacy in the Zamfara-Niger-Burkina Faso-Mali axis (Twitter.com/A_Salkida, March 4).
With Nigerian security forces focused on ISWAP and Shekau’s faction in Lake Chad and Sambisa, is anyone watching Zamfara, let alone Burkina Faso? Indeed, those two locations are where precautionary kinetic and intelligence measures and “preventing violent extremism” should be taking place.
 Ansaru members on Telegram and Facebook claim to be in Sabha, Libya, according to the author’s observations.