Among the targets of an ostensible breakaway faction – labeled Jama’atu Ansarul Muslimina Fi Biladis-Sudan (“Vanguards for the Protection of Muslims in Black Africa,” abbreviated to Ansaru) are French tourists abducted last Tuesday in northern Cameroon, near that country’s border with Nigeria’s far north-eastern Borno state.
Two days earlier, seven European and other foreign construction workers were kidnapped in another northern Nigerian state, Bauchi, with Ansaru claiming responsibility and linking that abduction to Western military involvement in Afghanistan and Mali.
The French government accused Boko Haram of responsibility for the kidnappings in Cameroon, but on Saturday a senior Boko Haram figure named as Abu Mohammed Abdulaziz called a press conference in the Borno state’s capital, Maiduguri, and denied this.
Abdulaziz insisted that a ceasefire Boko Haram supposedly announced in January remains in place, and said the group was not responsible for violence that has occurred in the area since then.
Abdulaziz claimed to be speaking on the authority of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau, but there is confusion over exactly what is happening inside the opaque group.
Nigeria’s national daily Leadership reported on February 21 that posters have appeared around mosques in Maiduguri quoting Shekau as denying having delegated anyone to announce a ceasefire. The newspaper said posters were a common medium for Boko Haram messages in the past.
Shekau was one of three Boko Haram figures designated by the State Department last summer under an executive order designed to disrupt funding to terrorists. The administration has so far resisted Republican lawmakers’ calls to designate the group as a whole as a “foreign terrorist organization.”
More than 700 Christians were killed last year in attacks attributed to Boko Haram, which has described its violent campaign as a “jihad” against Nigeria’s Christians.
Claims of a Boko Haram “ceasefire” have drawn skepticism, particularly as it reportedly is demanding in return the unconditional release of its detained members as well as “compensation.”
Adding to concerns are signs that the federal government may be open to a deal. Nigeria’s Daily Trust reported on February 19 that the government is prepared to offer amnesty to the group’s leaders if Shekau publicly renounces violence.
A Nigerian campaign called Muslims Against Terror said in a statement a mere renunciation of violence would be insufficient.
“Abubakar Shekau must submit himself to Islamic Shari’a courts and accept the judgment of the deen [the Islamic faith] for the crimes he has committed,” it said.
“We implore on the Nigerian government to pursue this course for all leaders of the movement who have been directly implicated in the orchestration and promotion of the killing of innocent Muslims, Christians and others,” Muslims Against Violence said. “This is the only fair judgment and it is in the better interest of peace, truth and justice as preached by our noble prophet and as is beneficial to society.”
Barnabas Fund, an international aid organization supporting Christians in Islamic societies, said that while peace should be pursued it should not happen at any price.
“For lasting peace to be achieved, there must be a willingness on all sides to practice both justice and mercy,” it said in an editorial. “The terms of Boko Haram’s ceasefire are a denial of the justice owed to the victims of its bloody campaign.”
“Given the group’s ruthless campaign to date, it seems highly unlikely that it is going to settle for anything less than the establishment of an Islamic state in northern Nigeria.”
Barnabas Fund warned that the government should be careful not to agree to anything that would advance Boko Haram’s agenda.
“Boko Haram cannot be trusted to keep the terms of a peace agreement and, the release of its imprisoned members could prove disastrous if the Islamists betray the deal – as they have past accords.”
According to the independent intelligence analysis firm, Stratfor, al-Qaeda’s North African franchise, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, had long sought links with Boko Haram. It appeared AQIM had now established ties with the Ansaru faction and would likely try to direct its activities.
“Ansaru offers the al-Qaeda branch further reach into northern Nigeria, which it has long sought,” Stratfor said in an analysis.
“Boko Haram’s use of suicide bombs, car bombs and other attacks means that it remains the more dangerous group overall. However, Ansaru’s more transnational scope of attacks means that the group could pose a greater danger to Western targets and could have the ability to coordinate with other groups operating in West Africa.”
Africa’s most populous country has long been identified as a key target for al-Qaeda. In 2003, Osama bin Laden called Nigeria one of the six “most qualified regions for liberation” by Islamic fighters. The others he listed were Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Morocco, Pakistan and Jordan.