John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Evolving Dynamics of Kidnappings in Northern Nigeria

by John Campbell
February 22, 2013

Members of a criminal gang that kidnapped a United Arab Emirate national Mohammed Khamis al Ali, are paraded by the state security service (SSS) in Nigeria's capital Abuja March 29, 2012. (Afolabi Sotunde/Courtesy Reuters)


Kidnapping is not a part of the repertoire of the radical, diffuse Islamist group called Boko Haram. Some of its alleged spokesmen have denounced the practice. However, kidnapping is common in the Sahel and ransoms are an important source of revenue for the rival criminal networks also involved with smuggling, some of which have links to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). AQIM has regularly claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of foreigners. Kidnapping is also a well-established tactic of the criminal groups in the western part of the oil-rich Niger Delta. As in the Sahel, Delta kidnappings are mercenary, with little political content. Most of the Delta kidnappings are of Nigerians, not foreigners–though it tends to be the periodic high-profile foreign kidnappings that make international headlines. In the Sahel, the huge ransoms paid by governments or corporations ensure that most of the victims are foreigners.

This month, there have been two high-profile kidnappings in northern Nigeria. A group called Ansaru claimed responsibility for kidnapping seven foreigners on February 16; on February 19, a French family was kidnapped in northern Cameroon and allegedly taken across the border to Nigeria. No group has claimed responsibility, but reports suggest it may be Ansaru.

Matthew Bey and Sim Tack have published a useful analysis of Ansaru, “The Rise of a New Nigerian Militant Group,” available on the Stratfor website. They see Ansaru as having separated from Boko Haram over the latter’s killing of innocent Muslims. They also argue credibly that Ansaru has links with AQIM and has an international focus. By contrast, Boko Haram has a specifically northern Nigerian focus, not an international one. Such a focus has made it largely immune to the blandishments of the international jihadi groups. Bey and Tack argue that Boko Haram’s use of suicide bombers and ambushes make it the more dangerous of the two with respect to local civilian populations. But, Ansaru’s orientation toward the far, rather than the near, enemy, makes it the greater danger to Western targets. If Bey and Tack’s approach is correct (and I find it credible), Ansaru is a cross-border terrorist operation with tangible links to non-Nigerian criminal and terrorists groups, while Boko Haram is a grassroots insurgency that uses terrorist tactics to further a domestic agenda.

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