Such attacks have taken place before in northern Nigeria. In December 2012, some 30 gunmen attacked a compound and kidnapped a French engineer. Ansaru also claimed responsibility for this attack, but so far it has not demanded anything for his release. In May 2011, an Italian citizen and a British citizen were kidnapped in northwestern Nigeria and were later killed during a British rescue attempt. At the time, British intelligence said that those responsible were part of an al Qaeda-linked group within Boko Haram — a description that befits Ansaru.
Ansaru first publically split from Boko Haram in January 2012, citing ideological differences, including Boko Haram's killing of innocent non-Muslims. However, the group appears to have stronger ties with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and, unlike Boko Haram, has stated its intention to move its struggle beyond Nigeria's borders. Boko Haram's operational capabilities over the last year have been largely confined to the country's northeast and it has not conducted any attacks on Western targets. Kidnappings have been an integral part of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's operations, and the emergence of this tactic in northern Nigeria has become more frequent. Ansaru typically does not demand money for its hostages — it prefers political demands — so it will likely issue political demands that prevent easily negotiated solutions.
Pressure in Northern Mali
Given that Ansaru actively targeted a French citizen in the December 2012 attack, the Feb. 16 incident could be framed in the context of al Qaeda-related activity in the wider region as a result of the conflict in northern Mali. The fact that Ansaru also attacked Nigerian troops about to be deployed to Mali likewise supports this possibility. While Ansaru has not made clear demands for the release of the French engineer, it cited French efforts to assemble an intervention in Mali as justification for his abduction.
With so many hostages held by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its regional affiliate groups, Western powers will be even more challenged in resolving the situation in the northern Sahel. Several botched rescue attempts over the last year, most notably the British attempt in March 2012 as well as the recent French attempt to free a hostage in Somalia, show that such rescue operations have become extremely difficult and do not offer a clear exit from these situations.
Kidnappings in northern Nigeria probably will become more frequent. As al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb comes under more pressure in northern Mali, it will use all available means, including its affiliate groups, to continue its insurgency. Ansaru has established itself as one of these groups and will likely ramp up its attacks in northern Nigeria; it may even conduct attacks in neighboring Niger and Benin. Ansaru has already shown its willingness to target Westerners, and as the group develops we could see even more attacks on Western targets.