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.