Al Qaeda-linked group claims attack in northwestern Nigeria

Screenshot from al-Qaeda’s Thabat News Telegram channel claiming a recent attack in Nigeria on behalf of Ansaru.

Jamaat al-Ansar al-Muslimeen fi Bilad al-Sudan, better known as Ansaru, reported yesterday that its men were behind a recent attack in Nigeria’s northwestern Kaduna State.

The statement was published by al-Qaeda’s Thabat News, an outlet that carries statements and propaganda from al-Qaeda groups around the world and operates much like the Islamic State’s Amaq News.

Published yesterday afternoon, Ansaru’s statement said that “more than 25 apostates were killed and 10 wounded in an attack by the mujahideen of Jamaat al-Ansar al-Muslimeen fi Bilad al-Sudan.” It adds that the assault was carried out “on a position of the Nigerian army in Kaduna State in central Nigeria.”

No photo evidence or other information was provided with the claim. Given the recent spate of attacks in Kaduna since late July, it is thus hard to pinpoint Ansaru’s exact claimed operation.

For instance, on July 20, at least 19 people were killed by gunmen in the village of Kukim Daji. Local officials have also indicated another nearby village was also attacked at the same time.

A day later, another 11 people were killed by militants in the village of Gora Gan. On July 22, at least 38 people were killed during raids on two other villages in Kaduna. And on Aug. 6, 33 civilians were killed in the town of Zango Kataf.

These massacres represent just the latest in a series of battles between ethnic Fulani herders and Christian farmers in northwestern Nigeria during the past few years.

Not one of the recent raids were conducted against Nigerian security services, making Ansaru’s claim more perplexing. While it is unclear which specific strike Ansaru is referring to, it is clear that the group is continuing to indicate its role in the rising ethnic violence in Kaduna State.

The al-Qaeda-linked outfit has advertised its role in the Kaduna violence since its revival late last year. In its first claimed operation since 2013, Ansaru said it was responsible for a Jan. 2020 ambush on the convoy of the Emir of Potiskum of Nigeria’s Yobe State as he was traveling through Kaduna.

As ethnic violence and banditry continues to expand in northwestern Nigeria, it is likely that Ansaru is attempting to exploit the chaos for its attempted resurgence. Much like how al-Qaeda has embedded itself in communal conflict in Mali, it is likely Ansaru could do the same by siding with Fulani herders or Fulani militias in northwestern Nigeria.

Additionally, as the conflict in the Sahel also spreads, it is possible this could act as a boon for the jihadi franchise as Ansaru could utilize al-Qaeda’s men in the region, the Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), to leverage its own expansion in Nigeria.

Background on Ansaru’s revival

Yesterday’s attack claim was just the second such statement after Ansaru announced its return in October by releasing a new photo of its men inside Nigeria.

While the photo itself offered little information, the release was meant to demonstrate Ansaru’s continued existence and presence inside Nigeria. This attempted resurgence has been hinted at in al Qaeda’s propaganda in the past.

For instance, in 2017, Al Risalah Magazine, a former publication released by al Qaeda-linked jihadists in Syria, published an article penned by Usama al Ansari. Ansari, who was described as Ansaru’s emir, heavily criticized Abubakar Shekau, offered a detailed history of the group, and spoke highly of al Qaeda’s men around the world in the piece.

That article was the first sign of life for the group in almost two years at the time.

Prior to the magazine article, the last Ansaru publications were in early 2015. In January and February of that year, two videos were released by the jihadist group with the aim of distancing itself from the actions of Abubakar Shekau and his Boko Haram.

In the videos and aforementioned magazine article, Ansaru’s leaders closely stuck to al Qaeda’s guidelines for jihad. This was not surprising as the history of the group is closely tied to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Two of Ansaru’s founders and leaders were trained by AQIM’s men in Mali. In some instances, Ansaru’s men even took part in al Qaeda’s operations in the Sahel and further claimed attacks inside Nigeria in defense of AQIM in Mali.

And in 2013, Khalid al Barnawi, the former leader of Ansaru, referred to Ayman al Zawahiri as “our good emir” and praised al Qaeda’s branches around the world.

After Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in March 2015, Ansaru has widely been regarded as al Qaeda’s franchise in Nigeria.

However, following fierce competition with Boko Haram, and later the Islamic State West Africa, and the arrest of Barnawi in 2016, Ansaru was severely weakened and largely relegated to a state of dormancy.

These sporadic claims are thus meant to demonstrate that Ansaru has finally become operational after a long hiatus of dormancy and that it can be an alternative jihadist entity to join.

If true, this would allow al-Qaeda to attempt to posit itself as a challenger to both the Islamic State and Abubakar Shekau’s Jamaat Ahl al-Sunnah in Nigeria.

Caleb Weiss is a contributor to FDD's Long War Journal.

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