Terrorism: Ansaru The Weapons of al Qaeda in Nigeria Resurfaces?
Also Known as the Vanguards for the Protection of Muslims in Black Africa
I have written in detail about the TTPs and Weapons used by ISWA in a multi-part series since January 2019, including their newer subsidiary, the former ISGS, or Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. For comprehensive coverage please read Parts One, Two, Three and Four of this series, which is far from complete.
This faction is known as Ansaru, in lieu of using its full title, which is Jamāʿatu Anṣāril Muslimīna fī Bilādis Sūdān (Vanguards for the Protection of Muslims in Black Africa). It emerged in 2011, formed of a number of JAS personnel, which was by then led by the deputy of Mohammed Yusuf, the infamous Abubakar Shekau. Other individuals were also involved, so, Ansaru should not be regarded as a pure branch of JAS. Ansaru was primarily formed as a reaction to “signs of extremism and deviancy” from Shekau, who by that time was fully engaged in gratuitous violence (Killing of Muslim civilians is most commonly cited), a practice that disturbed figures within and outside JAS; two of these included Khalid al-Barnawi, a veteran Nigerian Jihadist with close links to AQIM (Hence, to the global al Qaeda (AQ) network), and Muhammed Auwal Ibrahim Gombe, a Salafi scholar.
After these and other individuals made contact with AQIM in 2011, they eventually received approval to separate from Shekau’s JAS in November 2011. At this point I must note that Shekau had previously made bay’ah to AQ, a fact confirmed in his last audio recordings, and had previously received funding and training from AQIM, as well as travelling personally to the Sahel, so was not a stranger or opposed to the authority of AQ in general. However, it appears that his overly-murderous policies were discomforting to AQ when made aware of the situation, a situation that had curious parallels with the opinion of Islamic State Central a few short years later that caused him to be replaced as the Emir of ISWA by Abu Musab al-Barnawi when Shekau was effectively disowned by IS Central.
In January-Februrary 2012 Ansaru announced its existence via AQ-affiliated media, having organised throughout 2011. The group was claimed to be led by Gombe, who was later replaced by al-Barnawi after his death; however this is debated and Abu Usama al-Ansari was possibly the first AQ-recognised Emir of the group. Ansaru became the closest to an official AQ affiliate that existed in Nigeria, and demonstrated an operational capability far beyond that of most nascent groups, as it was formed from experienced individuals, some of which had received direct training in the Sahel by AQIM, and had obtained combat experience and weapons during their time with JAS. Hence, Ansaru was able to carry out multiple complex operations, including a November 2012 prison break that freed 37 fighters, a number of kidnappings of European individuals in Northern Nigeria. (Such as an unclaimed May 2011 kidnapping of a a British and Italian national in the city of Birnin Kebbi, Kebbi state, the abduction of Francis Colump from Rimi in December 2012, a mass kidnapping of foreigners in Bauchi state in February 2013, and more). The group also carried out numerous attacks against the Nigerian state, such as a complex ambush of an NA (Nigerian Army) convoy in Kogi state in January 2013.
Ansaru was intimately linked with AQIM, and hence their attacks were sometimes claimed by AQIM and could represent regional goals of AQIM; the convoy attacked in Kogi state was preparing to travel to Mali to fight AQIM. This fledgling branch of AQIM (and by extension, AQ central) was therefore a serious threat to the hegemony of JAS in the regional Jihadi ecosystem. Shekau took actions to deter the rise of Ansaru in (mainly) NW Nigeria through a curious form of non-state hybrid warfare; a combination of direct kinetic attacks, weaponised leaks, and specific outreach. For example, the former is said to have lead to the death of Gombe in 2013 and Shekau is reported to have enabled a Nigerian Army raid against a senior Ansaru Shura Council in Kaduna in March 2012.
The Nigerian government, meanwhile, took the same ruthless stance towards Ansaru that they had with JAS- regardless of the slightly more “moderate” outlook proclaimed by the groups’ media, killing much of Ansaru’s leadership cadre throughout 2013. These actions to a large part may have been enabled by Shekau using the military power of the Nigerian state to “mow the grass” and critically hobble his ideological opponents that represented a threat to his legitimacy. That said, Ansaru and the by then well known JAS did co-operate on occasion and an uneasily alliance enabled the group to avoid total destruction, mainly claimed to be through operating under the name of JAS in Northeast Nigeria and Northern Cameroon, passing funds obtained via kidnapping to Shekau.
Ansaru also suffered after their patrons in AQIM retreated or went into hiding after the French military intervention in Mali (Initially named Operation Serval, then Barkhane) started in January 2013, which disrupted Ansaru’s Sahelian support networks. Very little media was released; the most notable being two videos released in February 2015 criticising both Shekau and the Nigerian state. However, these were far from the hard-hitting productions made most famous by the Islamic State and physical activity was minimal as the group was under pressure from all sides (including continued Nigerian Security Forces interest) and their patrons facing a serious western military threat. Individuals associated with Ansaru either ceased activity or joined other factions; JAS or ISWA. Therefore, from 2013-2014 until 2020 Ansaru operated covertly in a manner that could be best described as “survival mode”.
The group wasn’t gone, however. According to local researchers, Ansaru took advantage of its presence in the increasingly uncontrolled NW Nigeria to provide manpower and weapons in collaboration with local armed groups (Known as “Bandits”) which operate for non-ideological reasons but can, as has been seen in the Sahel, be co-opted by Jihadist organisations. Once again in this regard, Ansaru’s approach has been somewhat similar to the group’s much more successful patrons further North, which have recovered and expanded since the intervention. This takes us to October 2019, where the first image of Ansaru fighters for many years was released via AQ-affilated media channels on Telegram.
Whilst the image itself wasn’t particularly notable, and merely showed three fighters from behind with common infantry weapons, this was a precursor to the first claim in approximately 7 years. This was a claim of a complex attack against a Nigerian Army convoy on the Kaduna-Zair highway. This ambush was claimed to have killed “more than 22” NA personnel, whilst local media reports varied from 6-30 men. The attack itself appears to be been carried out using small arms fire against a large convoy carrying the Emir of Potiskum, who may have been the intended target for the attack. Regardless, this signalled the return of Ansaru to public operational capability. Multiple events followed this, such as a Nigerian Army attack against a large Ansaru camp in Kaduna, which the group itself claimed to repel, downing a “war plane” than in reality was a military helicopter that was damaged. Of course, Helicopters can be damaged by simple small arms fire, but it is possible that the group has access to more significant firepower, as I will detail below. Multiple other claims of attacks, often attributed to “Bandits” by local media or to communal violence more generally, came through 2020, finishing in August. The NA and NAF have sporadically claimed targeting Ansaru camps, showing that they are aware of the threat even if eradication is unlikely.
The group appears to have firmly positioned itself in the local ecosystem of “Bandit” power structures to such a degree that attacks cannot be reliably attributed to Ansaru apart from through often vague claims. Numerous local media reports of “Boko Haram” or “Ansaru” “hoisting their flag” in locales across NW Nigeria may be indicative of Ansaru presence, but these are similarly unreliable.
Unfortunately, information on the weapons used by Ansaru is extremely limited. One resource that does exist is a recent video “released” by the group on November 29th, 2021. The video appears to have leaked, and is marked with an incorrect date corresponding to Eid al-Fitr in May 2022. However, the end of the video has a year of 2021, indicating that it was possibly intended for release in May 2021 and for some reason never appeared on official Ansaru or AQ channels, such as the groups’ own “Al-Yaqut Media Center” or AQ-associated outlets such as GIMF (Global Islamic Media Front). Either way, it appears to be genuine and offers a valuable glimpse into Ansaru weapons, training, and personnel. Two previously unknown commanders, “Abu Omar al Muhajir” and “Abu Musab al-Nayjiri” are seen speaking; the former of which has a kunya that may indicate that he is foreign fighter who has relocated to Nigeria (Made hijrah) in order to fight.
In the following stills, an AK-103 rifle can be seen. These rifles are common in the Sahel and more widely across Africa after the fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya. In particular the AK-103-2 version, in particular, is distinct as it has a burst fire setting, rare for the AK world, and secondly because has never exported to anywhere but Gaddafi’s Libya in a contract signed in late 2003-early 2004. In fact, the AK-103-2 was specifically developed for Libya by the Izhmash factory. After the 2011 war these weapons infamously spread to terrorist groups in the Sahel and to “Bandits”/Criminals in Nigeria; I have viewed images of the AK-103-2 with the distinctive burst function in the hands of Nigerian Police in NW Nigeria after capture from local criminal networks. These rifles are popular as they represent an improvement in almost every way from older AKM rifles, and can be an expensive status weapon for Jihadist leaders. However, standard AK-103 with only Semi-Auto selectors are also found in the Sahel, where the Malian Army has purchased at least 3,000, likely many more. These have been captured and have hence entered the local weapons trading ecosystems, and conceivably could have made their way to Nigeria; although the AK-103-2 is typically much more common.
As well as this, Serbian Zastava M05E1 and E3 rifles and a Zastava M70B1 rifle (With stock removed, usually for portability) can be seen. The M05 series of rifles are modern and uncommonly seen in Nigeria; however the M05E1 is used by the army of Cameroon and has previously served as a status weapon with JAS. It is also available in the Sahel.
The Zastava M05E3 is rather more interesting, as neither Nigeria or countries immediately nearby are known to use this type. However, the rifle has made an appearance in the Sahel, captured by ISGS in Burkina Faso from Burkinabe Police, is used by the Burkinabe military and has been documented in open source imagery documented by the author for Amnesty International, alongside the M05E1 and other Zastava types. This may indicate that Ansaru has retained links to JNIM/AQIM in the Sahel, including weapons supply; Zastava M05 variants are very rarely seen even with Bandits in NW Nigeria, which have uninterrupted access to local black markets up to and including heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. The M70B1 has a much less clear origin, as the type is far older and is in wider use across the region.
The use of Zastava & AK-103 rifles is a curious choice; whilst the use of “Gucci Guns” as status weapons for commanders is popular among all Jihadi groups, these present a particular stylistic link back to groups in the Sahel. I am of the opinion that their selection is no accident, and is designed to intrinsically link Ansaru media with that of AQIM/JNIM, who value these rifles and regularly capture from from their opponents. It is of note that local sources interviewed by the International Crisis Group in 2020 claimed that [Ansaru] “is also wooing some of the armed groups to its ranks, including by offering or selling them AK-47 rifles supplied by its allies in the al-Qaeda-linked Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), at lower than the prevailing market price.”, indicating that transfers from the Sahel directly to Ansaru or subgroups is very likely. (JNIM was formed by the merger of Ansar Dine, the Macina Liberation Front, Al-Mourabitoun and the Saharan branch of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in March 2017)
Very interestingly, the video also pauses on a stack of at least 10 AK magazines, which appear to mostly be classic steel examples that are wrapped in plastic. Usually, this is done when magazines are buried for preservation or occasionally for transport during long-distance smuggling. This detail may indicate access to AQIM-facilitated smuggling networks or access to arms dumps from the previous heyday of the group, during which it is claimed that considerable stocks of small arms and ammunition were (literally) buried for later use when the group was suppressed.
The video also covers small arms training and the construction of rudimentary IEDs. The weapons seen during these sections are pedestrian Type 56 and AK variants, which are trivially available in the area as they widely have leaked from state arsenals.
Later sections in the video show a variety of speakers somewhere in the Bush. The appearance of these fighters is somewhat reminiscent of groups in the Sahel, and to some degree ISWA. They appear to be well equipped in terms of uniform, tactical kit, etc.
However, what’s not shown is what is more curious; throughout the entire 20 minute release no weapon larger than AK variants can be identified. There is no RPG-7 type launchers and no HMG (Types such as the Type 54, DSHkM, W85 and Type 85 are used by the Nigerian Military and regional states, and are found in the inventory of powerful local Bandit groups), let alone larger anti-armour systems such as the SPG-9. This is unusual; clearly Ansaru has the operational capability to target large NA convoys and appears to be well equipped otherwise. This suggests that the lack of heavy weapons is a distinct choice to conceal capability from regional rivals or local authorities. However, it is possible that the funding of the group only allows for very limited weapon procurement. Similar observations can also be made about the lack of vehicles (beyond motorbikes) seen in the footage; although this may be a conscious replication of Ansaru’s brethren far North or a strategy to avoid air power, it seems unusual.
It does seem that some fighters may have access to PBIED (Suicide Belts) or hand grenades, and the video makes clear that the group has or is re-developing an IED capability. The latter is notable; ISWA has greatly improved their IED capabilities in recent years, and are used to cause serious damage to attempted NA probes and to badly disrupt NA convoys in “daisy-chain” attacks of 5+ devices. It would be unsurprising if experienced Ansaru strategists have not taken notice.
Below, in another gathering of Ansaru fighters, it appears that a sole Child fighter can be seen with an early Type 2 AK. This variant is the first of the milled AK-47s, with the Type 3 being much more common. It can be distinguished by the light-coloured wood and sling loop on buttstock. This type of AK was only produced from 1949-1954, so this rifle is much, much older than the user, who is likely 14 years of age or less. However, with upkeep these old platforms can still be used, and the Type 2 has infrequently been seen with other regional armed groups.
The below frame reveals another interesting AK variant; a Chinese Type 84-4 rifle. These are essentially Type 56 rifles chambered in 5.56×45, and are uncommon in Nigeria. However, they are in service with the Nigerian Police and have previously fallen into the hands of ISWA, so are in circulation locally. It is possible that this rifle was captured from the Nigerian Police by Ansaru at some point, but is also likely to be available for purchase locally.
Whilst Ansaru is little-known compared to other, much larger Jihadist groups in Nigeria, it appears to be making somewhat of a tentative operational comeback in North West Nigeria, where the group has apparently succeeded in embedding itself in the lawless conditions. Apparently strongly aware of their physical and stylistic links to AQ-affiliated groups in the Sahel, any recent media released has been rifle with visual references to these groups, as well as following local “fashion” that is similar to JAS and ISWA. The weapons seen are a curious mix of common and inexpensive, with rare status weapons likely designed to signal both to internal audiences (Within AQ, most notably) their coherence to the AQ/Sahelian brand, and to be coherent externally.
However, Ansaru appears to have made a deliberate choice to withhold a true look at their weaponry and therefore capability; although this is not at all inconsistent with the broader strategy in recent years or with other factions in Nigeria. ISWA, for example, has chosen to withhold much imagery of their battlefield capture and heavy weapons, such as artillery, until recently. The death of Abubakar Shekau at the hands of ISWA may have opened up some operational breathing room for Ansaru, given his previous efforts to extinguish the group; but ISWA also has no regard for another competitor and even though IS has a very limited presence in the NW may take steps to disrupt Ansaru.
Ansaru has not formally claimed an attack since August 2020 and the reason for this is unclear; it is possible that Nigerian Military attention has dented the resurgence of the group in a manner that has led local planners to revert to a convert operational style, but recent video showing multiple fighters training seems to make their ambitions clear, mentioning hijrah and glorifying AQ figures such as Osama Bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki, Abdullah Azzam and many others. Ansaru seems to prefer operating in obscurity for now; how long will that last?
My thanks to Caleb Weiss for reviewing this piece at short notice!