A little-known Nigerian armed group, allegedly linked to al-Qaeda, has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of seven foreigners in a deadly weekend raid on a construction site in the country’s north.
The attack in Bauchi state late on Saturday was one of the worst incidents targeting foreigners in northern Nigeria, a region that has seen waves of violence by armed groups, but relatively few kidnappings.
Ansaru, also known as Jamaatul Ansarul Muslimina fi Biladin Sudan, which means, “The group that dedicates itself to helping Muslims in Africa”, is considered a group with a rising profile after it claimed the abduction of a French national in December.
Some view it as being directly linked to Boko Haram, the group blamed for killing hundreds of people in northern Nigeria since 2009.
“…the transgressions and atrocities done to the religion of Allah… by the European countries in many places such as Afghanistan and Mali“
– Ansaru statement explaining its actions
In an email statement sent to journalists, Ansaru said it has “the custody of seven persons, which include Lebanese and their European counterparts working with Setraco”, the Lebanese-owned company targeted in the attack.
Police in Bauchi said four Lebanese, one Briton, a Greek citizen and an Italian were among those taken hostage by gunmen who stormed the site in the town of Jama’are in Bauchi state. The assailants shot dead a security guard.
Ansaru’s two-paragraph statement cited “the transgressions and atrocities done to the religion of Allah… by the European countries in many places such as Afghanistan and Mali”.
The group previously listed French support for the military offensive against rebels in Mali as a justification for the December kidnapping.
The document was written in English, like some past statements, but others have been written in Hausa, a language used widely across West Africa.
The governments of Greece and Italy have confirmed that their citizens were among those taken hostage. Beirut has acknowledged that two Lebanese nationals were seized, but has not matched the police figure of four.
William Hague, the British foreign secretary, said Monday that London was in touch with Nigerian authorities but did not confirm reports that a Briton was among the hostages.
Aside from the French national kidnapped in December whose whereabouts remain unknown, the three other Westerners kidnapped in the north since 2011 have all been killed.
They include a German engineer abducted last year as well as a Briton and an Italian seized in 2011, in an attack the British government linked to Ansaru.
In November, Britain declared the group a “terrorist organisation”.
Some experts say that Ansaru’s leader who goes under the pseudonym of Abu Usamatul Ansar may be Khalid al-Barnawi – one of three Nigerian fighters labelled a “global terrorist” by the United States last year.
The US state department described Barnawi as tied to Boko Haram, “with close links to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb“, al-Qaeda’s North Africa branch.