The way these organisations split off and spin off suggests just how difficult it is to identify, target, and disrupt the activities of jihadist groups.
Ansaru’s al Barnawi, for instance, trained under Belmokhtar and even fought under the militant leader in Mauritania and Algeria in the mid-2000s when the terror kingpin was military commander of AQIM. MUJAO’s military commander, Oumar Ould Hamaha, an Arab from northern Mali and a relative of Belmokhtar’s, had been an AQIM kidnapping mastermind.
The two terror groups had designated areas of operations at their creation and may have been the elite units AQIM trained for attacking Western interest in the Sahel. Ansaru operated in northern Nigeria and southern Niger, and MUJAO operated in Mali, Senegal, Algeria, and Mauritania.
AQIM has always taken responsibility for attacks, especially those carried out by Ansaru. When a German engineer, Edgar Fritz Raupach, was kidnapped in Kano on Jan. 26, 2012, Ansaru Andalus took credit for the abduction. In a video sent to ANI in Mauritania it demanded that Germany release from prison a Turkish-born female jihadist.
Nigerian forces then carried out a rescue operation of Raupach in May 2012, but the captors shot the German immediately. AQIM, rather than Ansaru, again warned European nations against using force to resolve kidnappings.
Ansaru up until this time never took responsibility for attacks it carried out; rather, it always let AQIM take the credit.
In the case of Raupach, security sources said the German’s abduction had been masterminded by Ansaru’s Abu Mohammad, whom Nigerian authorities say died in custody of gunshot wounds.
After the death of Abu Mohammad, and the disappearance of his mentor, Khalid al Barnawi, Ansaru became loosely organised. Its militants began to travel up north into Mali to realign with the parent group, AQIM.
The report in 2012 that dozens of Nigerian militants attacked the Algerian consulate in northern Mali and in 2013 appear to confirm that Ansaru’s operation was now coordinated from Mali.
“Many of Ansaru’s militants are well trained, well educated, and have huge respect for al Qaeda’s leadership in Algeria,” said Mohammed Yusuf, an Arabic scholar based in Maiduguri.
In a New York Times dispatch from 2013, an Ansaru militant, Mujahid Abu Nasir, said he considered notorious AQIM commander Abu Zeid to be a personal mentor and “a wise somebody.”
The jihadist, who attended an Islamic college in Kano before moving to Sudan, said Ansaru had been motivated by al Qaeda itself, trained by its North African affiliate, AQIM, and was following in both their footsteps.
It is this background that has led some analysts to conclude Ansaru is providing the shock troops for AQIM’s attacks on tourists and other foreigners in sub-Saharan Africa.
In the attack in Mali for instance, famous Guinean singer Sekouba “Bambino” Diabate, who was staying in the hotel when the incident occured, said he heard attackers speaking in English “with a Nigerian accent”.
Nigerians speak with a very unique accent different from the rest of Africa, and so it’s relatively easy for anyone who has regularly interacted with a home-grown Nigerian to recognise where he or she comes from.
A clearer picture is seen in the Burkina Faso attacks. Not long after the operation, AQIM published photographs of three adolescent men said to have carried out the Ouagadougou hits. The militants were given the names Battar al Ansari, Abu Muhammad al Buqali al Ansari, and Ahmed al Fulani al Ansari.
AQIM typically renames its fighters, usually according to the area or unit the militant comes from.
Last year, a 15-year-old boy who was recruited by a militant group in northern Mali, AQIM, told The Daily Beast that he was given a new name by the jihadists just as he arrived camp. He was named “Abu Bakr Konana.”
When I asked him if he came in contact with anyone from Nigeria during his time with the militants, Seydou said his colleagues often mocked Abu al Ansari because the Nigerian couldn’t communicate in French or the local Songhay language.
Some evidence of Ansaru’s involvement also exists in the most recent Ivory Coast attacks. A number of witnesses said the killers didn’t speak a word of French, which they mostly likely would have done if they had come from Mali.. The gunmen, witnesses said, communicated to their hostages in English and Arabic.
“They don’t like to talk about what they’ve done,” says Ushie Michael, noting that the group has taken direct responsibility for only a handful of gun attacks and kidnappings in Nigeria. “They prefer to work, while AQIM does the talking. It is AQIM that pays, not the other way round.”
Together, they are playing the long game.
Philip Obaji Jr. is the founder of 1 GAME, an advocacy and campaigning organization.