“Terrorists are almost everywhere anytime,” said Peter Aboki, the smiling leader of the Gbagyi ethnic group. He was speaking of the eight Gbagyi villages on the Kaduna River flowing west from the packed metropolis of Kaduna in Kaduna State, Nigeria.
The area known as Birnin Gwari Local Government Area is home to the terrorist group Ansaru and large bandit gangs, some of whom claim links with Boko Haram. This dangerous cocktail of men with guns has led what was once a sleepy backwater to become the de facto “kidnap capital” of Nigeria.
These bandits may in fact be impersonating sectarian terrorists, but either way, their raids are devastating Gbagyi Christian settlements a stone’s throw from the state capital, Kaduna.
“On the evening of May 6, residents of Kabrasha village [44 kilometers southwest of the city of Kaduna] heard bombs exploding in the forest nearby. Several hours later they saw more than a hundred armed men walk or ride motorcycles through the village, and some chanted slogans in Arabic.”
“In a nearby neighborhood, my people saw these men carrying a strange flag, which led some to believe they were insurgents,” Aboki said. “All the villagers ran out of the village at 2 p.m. when a bomb exploded in the church. They thought they were under attack.”
Yet, the truth was different.
An army spokesman explained later that an army helicopter chasing bandits had mistakenly fired a missile into the church. Were the invaders of the village a criminal gang, or soldiers in one of Nigeria’s deadly insurgencies? No one seems to know. But, as we have learned, the terrorist group Ansaru (or those claiming to represent them) appears to be using the dense Kamuku Forest in Kaduna State.
The “More Humane” Alternative
Ansaru, or Jama’atu Ansaru al-Muslimina fi Bilad al-Sudan, which roughly translates as “Companions of the Muslims in the Land of Sudan”, emerged in 2012 as a splinter group of Boko Haram. It calls itself a “more humane” alternative to Boko Haram. Ansaru propaganda leaflets posted early in 2012 promised it would be a “humane” alternative to Boko Haram, and that it would not target innocent Muslim or Christian civilians, except in self-defense, and only focus its attacks against government forces and foreigners. In fact, the splinter group was created to repudiate the abhorrent practices of Boko Haram, which killed indiscriminately. In practice, Ansaru seems to have drifted more into criminal activity, steered by profit, than by any ideological rudder.
From 2015 to 2019, the group appeared to be dormant. Then, on May 10, Nigerian media reported that the Intelligence Response Team, the country’s top anti-kidnapping unit, led by Deputy Commissioner of Police Abba Kyari, had arrested nine Ansaru bandits.
“Unlike Boko Haram, they only kidnap Christians and foreign workers.”
“The Ansaru terrorists established themselves as specialists in kidnapping,” according to David Otto, a counter-terrorism expert and director of Global Risk International in London. “Unlike Boko Haram, they only kidnap Christians and foreign workers,” he said.
Ansaru’s bandits ride out on motorbikes from the densely forested Birnin Gwari government area on the extreme western border of Kaduna State. “Alongside the Ansaru gangs are criminal kidnappers who simply claim to be Ansaru, according to Otto. “The foremost leader of Ansaru, the late Mamman Nur, had given permission to organized criminal cells to kidnap for ransom in the name of Ansaru.”
A Mysterious Brutal Kidnapping in January
The leader of a group of several hundred bandits in Chikun Local Government Area in January called himself a Boko Haram commander, according to some of the fifty-seven kidnapping victims who survived twenty-one days in the forest, without shelter, as his prisoners. The bandit leader said his name was “Kachalla”.
“It is possible that the bandit leader called himself Boko Haram simply to terrorize his victims,” Otto said.
The villages of Rumana and Badna, just 45 kilometers west of Kaduna and home to Gbagyi Christian communities, have yet to recover from the trauma of the murders and mass kidnapping, says Jonathan Asake, leader of the Southern Kaduna Peoples Union, a humanitarian group that brought relief supplies to the victims on May 6.
“They were forced to spend three weeks together shackled in the open air, with almost no food rations. The bandit leader told the group he was a soldier of Boko Haram and that he was originally from Borno State,” Asake says. Since the attack, all the residents of Rumana have abandoned their houses.
The Police Track Criminals, Not Terrorists
Recent arrests of Ansaru agents and Nigerian TV reports in February about police operations against Ansaru raise questions about the resurgence of Ansaru as a terrorist threat. Are the increasingly brutal ethnic-cleansing campaigns by so-called bandits in western Kaduna actually campaigns by Ansaru?
“The police in Nigeria track local criminal networks, groups, and gangs, not terrorist groups by name,” says Tanwa Ashiru, CEO of Bulwark Intelligence, a security consulting company in Lagos.
“Terrorists with Ansaru are still in Nigeria, and some of my colleagues say they are regrouping in the states of Sokoto, Zamfara, and Kaduna. Some are seen as affiliated with Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb,” Ashiru says. “They are not a major threat now, but they could be in the future if they are not tracked. The nine Ansaru suspects arrested recently were picked up by a kidnapping unit of the federal police because it combats kidnapping, not Ansaru.”
The arrest of Ansaru-affiliated kidnappers took place against a backdrop of vicious, escalating attacks against Nigerian Christian villages southwest and southeast of Kaduna city.
Major General John Enenche, defense information spokesman for the Nigerian army, told us in a text message that the group that attacked the village Badna in Chikun Local Government Area was not linked to Ansaru.
Douglas Burton is a former U.S. State Department official in Kirkuk, Iraq and writes news and commentary from Washington, D.C.
Reuben Buhari is a writer and analyst focused on terrorism based in Kaduna City, Nigeria.