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While kidnapping has long been the signature tactic of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the tactic’s introduction into northern Nigeria since 2011 is a new phenomenon. Historically, kidnappings in Nigeria were common only in the Niger Delta where insurgents sought ransoms in order to compensate for what they considered was the government’s and oil companies’ wanton destruction of their lands for profit. In northern Nigeria, the tactic of kidnapping was introduced and facilitated by Boko Haram militants who have experience carrying out kidnappings and training with AQIM. One of the key figures behind the kidnappings in northern Nigeria is Khalid al-Barnawi.
Khalid al-Barnawi is believed to be in his 30s and is reportedly a native of Borno State in northeastern Nigeria, which is Boko Haram’s main hub of operations, although some reports suggest he is actually a Nigerién citizen. He was one of three Boko Haram members to have been designated as a “foreign terrorist” by the United States in July 2012, along with Adam Kambar and Abu Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, which has been responsible for most of the violence in northern Nigeria (This Day, November 24). While Shekau and al-Barnawi are not known to have close operational ties, Kambar, a Borno native, is believed to have trained with al-Barnawi in Algeria at an AQIM training camp in 2009. Kambar fled Nigeria following the clashes between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram in July 2009 that left Boko Haram founder Muhammad Yusuf and 1,000 members dead (Agence Presse-France, June 21, 2012).
Nigeria issued a list of Most Wanted Boko Haram members in November 2012, with al-Barnawi listed as one of the members on Boko Haram’s Shura Council (This Day, November 24). There is suspicion, however, that al-Barnawi has broken away from Shekau’s faction of Boko Haram and is instead closely connected to the leadership of the Boko Haram breakaway faction Jama’atu ansaril muslimina fi biladis Sudan (Vanguards for the Protection of Muslims in Black Africa, a.k.a. Ansaru) (see Terrorism Monitor, January 11; Africa Confidential, November 30, 2012). The split between al-Barnawi and Shekau may have been related to al-Barnawi’s support of using funding, training and weapons from AQIM to Boko Haram for attacking foreign targets, including kidnappings of foreigners in Nigeria, instead of against Nigerian targets.
The first kidnapping Ansaru carried out in Nigeria was in Kebbi State in May 2011, when a group of militants led by a Boko Haram member who trained under al-Barnawi at an AQIM camp in Algeria raided the apartment of a British and an Italian engineer. The two engineers were later killed during a failed rescue attempt by the UK’s Special Boat Squadron in March 2012 (BBC, November 22, 2012). On December 24, 2012, Ansaru also claimed the kidnapping of a French engineer in Katsina, 30 miles from the Nigerien border. Ansaru said it would continue attacking the French government and French citizens until France ends its ban on the Islamic veil and its “major role in the planned attack on the Islamic state in northern Mali” (This Day, December 24, 2012). While al-Barnawi’s role in the latter kidnapping is unknown, he is believed to have planned the first kidnapping in Kebbi despite not having notified AQIM or the main Boko Haram faction led by Abu Shekau (Africa Confidential, November 30, 2012).
Al-Barnawi’s role in the kidnapping of the British and Italian engineers in Kebbi was reportedly to serve as a broker between the hostage-takers and the British and Italian governments. There have been reports that AQIM offered Boko Haram as much as 40 million Naira (roughly $250,000) to kidnap “white” expatriates in Nigeria and that AQIM trained Boko Haram members in hostage-taking and weapons handling (Premium Times [Abuja], May 13, 2012). Al-Barnawi would likely have been one of the intermediaries between AQIM and Boko Haram given his experience training with AQIM in Algeria, carrying out kidnappings in Niger and his relationship with Mokhtar Belmokhtar that dates back to at least 2005, when Belmokhtar led al-Barnawi and other AQIM members in what was then called the Groupe salafiste pour le predication et le combat (GSPC, Salafist Group for Call and Combat) in a raid on a Mauritanian army barracks in Lemgheity (Agence Nouakchott d’Information, March 10, 2012).
Al-Barnawi’s second key role in militant activities in northern Nigeria is in the negotiations between Boko Haram and the Nigerian government, which have taken place through back door channels in Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. Al-Barnawi reportedly favors negotiations with the government, while the main faction of Boko Haram led by Abu Shekau takes a more hardline approach towards negotiations. As a result of these differences, al-Barnawi may have provided the government with critical information that helped the government arrest Boko Haram leaders aligned with Shekau, including Ibn Saleh Ibrahim, a commander in charge of north-western and north-eastern Nigeria (Africa Confidential, November 30, 2012). At the same time, Shekau’s faction has reportedly tipped off Nigerian intelligence about Boko Haram members that have defied him and carried out kidnappings of foreigners instead of attacking the Nigerian government (Leadership [Abuja], March 26, 2012).
If al-Barnawi is like the AQIM militants with whom he trained in Algeria, he may be only marginally committed to Boko Haram’s goal for an Islamic State in northern Nigeria and revenge against the government for killing Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf in 2009. Al-Barnawi may be motivated by the ransoms obtained by kidnapping. This would be consistent with his affiliation to Ansaru, which has spoken out against the killings of Muslims in Nigeria, but is committed to internationalist objectives. As evidenced by the kidnappings of foreigners in Kebbi and Katsina and Ansaru’s January 20 attack on a Nigerian military convoy headed for Mali, Ansaru appears to be carrying out AQIM’s mission in Nigeria (Reuters, January 20). Leaders like al-Barnawi provide the key connections that allow AQIM to expand into the Sahel and will likely play a key role in the expansion of the insurgents’ tactics in northern Nigeria.
Jacob Zenn is a legal advisor and international affairs analyst based in Washington, D.C. He specializes in the analysis of insurgent groups in Southeast Asia, South America, Nigeria and Central Asia.