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Kidnap threat adds to woes in restive northern Nigeria

The vehicle from which 7 members of a French family were kidnapped near the Nigerian border, February 19, 2013
Cameroonian police and soldiers gather February 19, 2013 around the 4x4 vehicle from which seven members of a French family were kidnapped in Dabanga near the Nigerian border.

A string of kidnappings of foreigners blamed on Nigerian Islamists has added a new layer of insecurity in the country's north, further complicating a volatile region where insurgents have killed hundreds.

The latest incident saw seven members of a French family abducted on Tuesday. While it occurred in Cameroon, French officials blamed extremists from neighbouring Nigeria and Cameroon said the victims were taken over the border.

A couple, their children aged five, eight, 10 and 12 and an uncle were the victims of the attack by six gunmen on three motorbikes.

Fifteen foreigners are currently believed held by Nigerian extremists, including seven seized on Saturday night in northern Nigeria's Bauchi state and a French engineer taken in December from Katsina state, also in Nigeria's north.

There have been a total of five kidnappings thought to be connected to Nigerian Islamists since 2011, with suspicions mainly falling on a group known as Ansaru, believed to be a splinter faction of extremist group Boko Haram.

French hostages in Africa
Graphic on abductions of French hostages in Africa.

"You've got 15 expats that are now held hostage, and that is a game changer," said a US official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The mainly Muslim north of Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation and largest oil producer, has been plagued by violence for several years, with Boko Haram carrying out an insurgency with suicide attacks, assassinations and roadside bombings.

However, apart from a 2011 suicide bombing of UN headquarters in Abuja, Boko Haram has mainly set its sights on domestic targets, including Nigerian security forces, churches and Muslim leaders it disagrees with.

Defining the group has been difficult, as it is believed to have a number of factions and its stated aims have often shifted. Imitators and criminal gangs have also carried out violence blamed on Boko Haram.

The group has however never claimed responsibility for kidnappings, unlike splinter faction Ansaru, which has claimed at least two and has been mentioned by analysts as potentially linked to all five abductions blamed on Nigerian Islamists.

The French school, closed for holidays, in the Cameroonian capital Yaounde, February 20, 2013
The French school, closed for holidays, in the Cameroonian capital Yaounde, February 20, 2013. Children from the French family kidnapped and taken to Nigeria used to study at the school. France has urged its citizens to leave northern Cameroon.

Despite that, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian blamed Boko Haram for Tuesday's abductions in Cameroon, but said it was not clear whether it was linked to France's intervention against Islamist rebels in Mali.

It is a familiar conundrum for those who have followed the situation in Nigeria's north, where so much remains unclear and determining the difference between criminal and Islamist activities -- and how often they mix -- is next to impossible.

"There is a danger in attributing everything to Boko Haram," said Elizabeth Donnelly, Africa programme manager for London-based think tank Chatham House.

"Boko Haram has the profile in Nigeria and so it is easy to assume that they are the most active group, but the situation in the north is very fluid."

The US official said that while Ansaru has not claimed the Cameroon kidnapping, the group was a "strong suspect."

He added that while he was not aware of confirmation the kidnappers in that incident were now in Nigeria, "there are strong suspicions."

In analysing the situation in the north, he spoke of "gaps in the information about what is going on exactly with Boko Haram and any of the splinter groups."

A cabin at the Waza natural Park, in northern Cameroon, taken October 2008
A cabin at the Waza natural Park, in northern Cameroon, taken October 2008. Seven French tourists, including four children, were kidnapped on February 19, 2013 in northern Cameroon, near the border with Nigeria.

"Even in painting a picture of where the lines are between these different groups, and how much of the criminal overlaps into it -- all of this stuff is very difficult," he said.

The US official however said he took the claims issued by Ansaru seriously and believed the group to be a Boko Haram offshoot, as others have described it, with more global jihadist rhetoric.

In claims, Ansaru has mentioned France's intervention in Mali and European nations' "atrocities done to the religion of Allah".

The kidnappings would seem to mimic those claimed by Al-Qaeda's north African branch in other nations, though that group's level of contact with Ansaru, as well as Ansaru's connections with other extremists in the region, is also hard to determine.

Marc-Antoine Perouse de Montclos of the Paris-based Research Institute for Development pointed out that the Cameroon kidnappings occurred near northeastern Nigeria, Boko Haram's stronghold. He doubted Ansaru would cross into Boko Haram territory, with some analysts saying the two groups are at odds.

He and others also said the possibility should be considered that one of the criminal gangs which operate in the area was responsible.

Donnelly of Chatham House said criminal groups may be engaging in kidnappings in the region because a market for trading hostages had developed, with the potential to bring in major amounts of cash in ransom money.

"I don't think it was initially at the outset about France being in Mali," she said. "I think it was probably more about revenue generation."

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