Nigeria’s security services have hailed the arrest of the leader of a Boko Haram splinter group Ansaru, Khalid al-Barnawi, stating that it will lead them to other senior Islamist commanders operating in the northern region of the country.
Barnawi, who has been designated a global terrorist by the United States since 2012, was detained on 1 April along with three others in Kogi state capital, Lokoja. During his arrest, he was found with four Thursday satellite phones, with a source indicating that the phones “provided several leads” to “high-profile Boko Haram and Ansaru elements” in the capital, Abuja, Lokoja and the central city of Jos. According to one security source, “the arrest of Barnawi is a huge success and will have a profound effect on counter-terrorism operations in Nigeria and beyond,” adding, “he is a known transnational terrorist and the backbone of all al-Qaeda affiliate groups in West Africa.” Another source further indicated that “this has been our biggest breakthrough against terrorism in Nigeria ever,” adding, “we still have other high-ranking terrorists on our radar based on the information gathered from the phones of Barnawi and his three comrades. We will rope them in at the right time.”
The capture of Barnawi is definitely a success for Nigerian intelligence, with the Department of State services (DSS) calling him “a trained terrorist commander” who also recruited for al-Qaeda affiliates. He is also accused of masterminding a string of kidnappings of Westerners between 2011 and 2013. In a statement released on 9 April, which accompanied a mug shot of Barnawi, the DSS disclosed that “this arrest is a major milestone in the counter-terrorism fight.”
While security analysts agree that he is the most high-profile capture since the start of the Islamist insurgency in 2009, it remains unclear what effect it will ultimately have on operations on the ground. Boko Haram has been severally affected by an aggressive fight back from the Nigerian military and since January, the militant group has lost territory and its capacity to mount conventional attacks. President Muhammadu Buhari has also gone so far as to say that the militants were “technically” defeated despite suicide and bomb attacks continuing in northeastern Nigeria and in neighbouring Cameroon and Niger. However Barnawi’s arrest, who trained in Sudan, Afghanistan and with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), is only part of a larger organization that continues to operate despite setbacks. Furthermore, Ansaru’s terrorist activities likely will not be affected by his capture.
There was also confusion last month when Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau indicated in a video that his time in charge of the group was running out. The video, however was following a week later but another one, which did not feature Shekau but which maintained that he was still in charge and dismissed any suggestion of surrender.
On Thursday, the French Foreign Ministry confirmed that a French priest had been kidnapped in northern Cameroon, close to the border with Nigeria, nine months after Nigerian Islamists kidnapped a family in the same border region. Reports now indicate that Father Georges Vandenbeusch had time to alert the French embassy prior to being kidnapped by militants overnight on Thursday.
Father Georges Vandenbeusch, 42, was seized near Koza, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the border with Nigeria, during the early morning hours on Thursday. According to Paris-based bishop Monseigneur Gerard Daucourt, who is in charge of the priest, fifteen gunmen burst into the compound in Nguetchewe, where the priest had been working, demanding money. According to the bishop, Mr. Vandenbeusch had time to alert the French embassy by phone before the gunmen stormed his private room. His abductors then marched him barefoot across the village before felling on their motorcycles. Monseigneur Daucourt has also indicated that the priest’s suitcase was found a road that leads into Nigeria with only a checkbook in it. According to a nun who worked with Mr. Vandenbeusch at the compound, the gunmen were speaking in English and had arrived on foot.
Agustine Fonka Awa, governor of the Far North region, has since travelled to Nguetchewe along with security forces in order to investigate the kidnapping however he has stated that the priest has likely already been taken across the border into Nigeria. According to officials in Nigeria, the Far North region of Cameroon has been used by Boko Haram militants in order to transport weapons and to hide from the six-month ongoing military offensive against them. Officials in Aubja last week appealed to Cameroon to tighten security along the border as the porous region has enabled Boko Haram militants to easily launch attacks and to go into hiding.
Mr. Vandenbeusch is likely to have been targeted by militants as he was known to help Nigerians flee attacks carried out by Boko Haram. An official at the Paris prosecutor’s office has confirmed that an investigation has been opened into the “kidnapping and illegal confinement by a group linked to a terrorist organization.” France’s Foreign Ministry has also indicated that so far no group has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping however it is believed that members of either Boko Haram or Ansaru, militant groups known to operate in the region, are likely behind the abduction. France’s Foreign Ministry are currently in the process of establishing the identity of the kidnappers.
The kidnapping of the Roman Catholic priest occurred near the area where another French family had been abducted earlier this year. Seven members, four of them children under the age of twelve, of the Moulin-Fournier family were kidnapped by Islamist militants near Cameroon’s northern Waza National Park, which likes just a few kilometers from the Nigerian border, in February of this year. They were taken over the border into neighboring Nigeria and held hostage for two months. Despite officials from France and Cameroon denying that a ransom payment was made, a confidential report from the Nigerian government indicated that Boko Haram, who was responsible for the kidnapping, had received a ransom payment of US $3.15 million (£2 million) before releasing the family. Similarly last month, the French media reported that a €20 million ransom payment had been paid in order to secure the release of four French hostages who were abducted in Niger in 2010. This allegation has strongly been denied by the French government.
Mr. Vandenbeusch’s abduction is the latest in a series of attacks on French targets in West Africa ever since the country launched a military intervention in January to remove al-Qaeda-linked militants from the northern region of Mali. The latest kidnapping of a French national also comes at a time when France has over the pat month both celebrated the release of four hostages and mourned the killing of two journalists. On 29 October, President Francois Hollande confirmed the release of four French hostages who were kidnapped in Niger in 2010. The hostages had been held in northern Mali by Islamist militants. While their return to France was seen as a victory, their release was marred when just days later on 2 November two French journalists working for Radio France Internationale (RFI) were killed in Mali by militants claiming to represent al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). According to the militants, the killings were in retaliation for France’s ongoing operation in Mali however security experts have since stated that the killings were the result of a failed kidnapping attempt when the militants‘ vehicle broke down, forcing them to kill the hostages amidst fears that they would be tracked down by French forces. The recent incidents have also sparked an urgent call French President Francois Hollande, asking all French citizens not to put themselves in harm’s way. While France’s Foreign Ministry had previously categorized the northern region of Cameroon as a high risk for kidnapping, warning any citizens in the area to leave immediately, reports have now indicated that Mr. Vandenbeusch had repeatedly ignored those warnings. According to French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, “he had been told several times that the area is dangerous….We had expressly advised him not to stay on but he though he should remain there.” Mr. Vandenbeusch arrived in Cameroon in 2011, having previously been a priest in the Paris suburb of Sceaux.
French Hostage Escapes After Nearly One Year in Captivity
Meanwhile another French hostage, Francis Collomp, who was held by Islamist militants in northern Nigeria for nearly a year, is free after reportedly escaping during a shoot-out.
Reports have indicated that Mr. Collomp had managed to escape from his cell during an army operation that was carried out against the militants. A source close to the case has indicated that Mr. Collomp fled after his cell door was left open. He then hailed a taxi which took him to the police, from where he was brought to Kaduna. According to Femi Adenaike Adeleye, the police commissioner in the regional capital of Kaduna, Mr. Collomp escaped in the northern city of Zaria on Saturday while his captors were praying,” adding that “he watched his captors’ prayer time. They always prayed for 15 minutes. And yesterday they did not lock the door to his cell.” The commissioner further added that Mr. Collomp had been held in the city of Kano after his abduction and that he had been brought to Zaria about two months ago.
On Sunday, French President Francois Hollande has thanked Nigeria’s authorities for helping secure the release of Francis Collomp, 63, in the northern city of Zaria. Mr. Collomp left Abuja on a flight to Paris late on Sunday. He was accompanied by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. Didier Le Bret, the head of the French foreign ministry’s crisis centre, indicated that Mr. Collomp was “weakened” but in good enough health to travel.” He is expected to arrive in Paris around 6:00AM (0500 GMT) on Monday, where he will be met by French Prime Minsiter Jean-Marc Ayrault.
Mr. Collomp was kidnapped on 19 December 2012 by about thirty armed men who attacked the residence of his employer, French wind turbine manufacturer Vergnet, in the northern Nigerian state of Katsina. The kidnapping, which left two bodyguards and a bystander dead, was claimed by Ansaru, a militant group linked to Boko Haram.
At Least Seven Remain
With the release of Mr. Collomp, and four other French hostages earlier this month, at least seven French hostages are still being held captive abroad.
- On 24 November 2011, Frenchmen Serge Lazarevic and Philippe Verdon are kidnapped from their hotel in Hombori, northeastern Mali, while on a business trip. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed responsibility on December 9. Mr. Verdon was killed earlier this year. His death was confirmed by French officials.
- On 20 November 2012 – Gilberto Rodriguez Leal, a Portuguese-born French citizen, is abducted by at least six armed men in Diema, western Mali, while travelling by car from Mauritania. On 22 November, al-Qaeda-linked Islamist rebel group the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) claimed responsibility for the kidnapping.
- 14 November 2013 Roman Catholic priest Georges Vandenbeusch abducted from his home near the town of Koza in northern Cameroon, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the border with Nigeria.
- 6 June 2013 two French journalists, Didier Francois from Europe 1 Radio and Edouard Elias, an independent photographer working for the same station, are reported missing in Syria. The office of French President Francois Hollande indicated that the pair were intercepted by unknown kidnappers at a checkpoint while travelling towards Aleppo.
- 9 October 2013 – The capture of reporter Nicolas Henin and Photographer Pierre Torres is announced by their families and the French Foreign Ministry. The two men were kidnapped on June 22 while working in the northern city of Raqqa. None of the armed groups fighting for control of the town have claimed responsibility, nor have any demands been made.
Two American sailors, who were kidnapped off a vessel in the Gulf of Guinea last month, have been freed. A spokeswoman for the US State Department has confirmed that the two men, a captain and chief engineer of the US-flagged C-Retriever oil supply ship, were freed over the weekend, adding that the men are safe and healthy and currently on their way home. Although Jen Psaki provided no further details pertaining to the release of the two hostages, reports have indicated that the two men were freed after negotiations successfully yielded a ransom payment. Details of the ransom payment are unknown.
The C-Retriever was stormed by armed men on 23 October near the coastal town of Brass, in Nigeria’s Bayelsa State. The captain and chief engineer, whose names have been withheld for privacy reasons, were then kidnapped by the attackers. Last week, the 222-foot oil supply ship, which is owned by a Louisiana firm, was tracked near the outskirts of the Port of Onne, where it sat in the water apparently abandoned. So far, no group has claimed responsibility for the attack.
Meanwhile the US State Department has designated Nigeria’s Boko Haram and Ansaru militant groups as foreign terrorist organizations, a move that is likely to be welcomed by the Nigerian government who has been battling Boko Haram for years. Officials at the State Department have described the move as “an important” step in helping Nigeria “root out violent extremism.” Up to now, the Obama administration had refused to designate the militant group as a terrorist organization, fearing that the title would provide Boko Haram greater legitimacy within global jihadi circles. While the State Department designated three alleged Boko Haram leaders as terrorists, it did not declare the militant group a terrorist organization. With terrorist splinter groups threatening the Sahel region, one of the reasons behind the US decision to designate Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organization is the fact that US officials have cited links to al-Qaeda’s affiliates in West Africa and to extremist groups in Mali. In turn, while Boko Haram was initially viewed as an organization which only posed a domestic threat, another reason why the US had not previously designated it as a terrorist organization, over the last three years, as its attacks have intensified, there have been signs that Boko Haram is now focusing on a more international agenda.
The move to designate Boko Haram and Ansaru as foreign terrorist organizations is significant as it effectively means that US regulatory agencies will be instructed to block all business and financial transactions with Boko Haram. It will also become a crime under US law to provide material support to the group. However it is unlikely that the US will attempt to identify Boko Haram’s financial backers, an undertaking which the Nigerian government has up to now failed to achieve.
Boko Haram, which began its insurgency in 2009, desires to impose Islamic law in northern Nigeria. Since the beginning of its insurgency, the militant group has been blamed for thousands of deaths, targeting both the military and civilians. The Islamist group is responsible for the 2011 bombing of the United Nation headquarters in Abuja. The militant group, and other splinter terrorist groups, are seen as being the largest security threat in Nigeria. Despite an ongoing military campaign, which was launched by President Goodluck Jonathan in May of this year, and which was recently extended for an additional six months, the militant group has continued to carry out its attacks throughout northern Nigeria. In one of the most recent incidents, fighters dressed in military uniform killed nineteen motorists after blocking a highway in the northeast of the country.
Ansaru was formed in January 2012 however it only rose to prominence about six months later after a video was released in which the militant group vowed to attack Westerners in defense of Muslims worldwide. While the group, which is based in Nigeria and seen as an off-shoot of Boko Haram, has had a short existence, it has nevertheless proved to be a threat, using dynamite to penetrate heavily-fortified compounds and taking foreigners hostage.
Two months after being formed, officials in the UK indicated that Ansaru’s militants had killed a Briton and an Italian hostage who had been kidnapped in the northwestern state of Sokoto. In December 2012, following an attack on a well-guarded compound in the northern town of Rimi, Ansaru claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of a French national, Francis Colump. It carried out a similar attack in February 2013 when seven foreign nationals were captured from a housing compound owned by a Lebanese construction company.