The Economist this week mentions the recent excrescence of a group called Ansaru from the broader ranks of Nigeria’s Boko Haram. Already more than a year old, Ansaru broke from Boko Haram over what its leadership referred to as “inhuman” behavior toward Nigeria’s Muslim umma. In the year-and-a-half since its creation, Ansaru has abducted a French national, taken and killed hostages, attacked Nigerian soldiers, and staged an audacious prison break.
Ansaru has, in public communications, drawn a comparison between its relationship with Boko Haram and Al Qaeda’s relationship with the Taliban. This was perhaps a strategic PR decision– the group is now allied with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, as well as the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa.
While Ansaru does seem to have been formed as a reaction to Boko Haram’s haphazard killing of Muslim civilians, it’s probably best not to view them as principled devotees of a less explosive, more goal-oriented brand of Islamist insurgency (see above misbehavior). Where Boko Haram dedicates itself to the expulsion of un-Islamic elements from Nigeria, Ansaru has branded itself with AQIM’s jihadist cred and taken a more global tack. To the extent that a global jihad movement does exist, Ansaru is part of it.
There is something redolent here of the appearance of Syria’s Al-Nusra Front in the same month and year as Ansaru. Al-Nusra claims 5,000 full members, Sunni jihadists all, and maintains allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri and al-Qaeda. Before Al-Nusra appeared, we in the West were hearing reports of Sunni jihadists amidst the ranks of the Free Syrian Army. The group’s public debut verified those rumors. Since that debut, it has taken part in operations with the FSA, conducted suicide bombings, and imposed its very own no-fly zone over Aleppo. Al-Nusra fighters have gained a reputation on the ground in Syria as aggressive, disciplined warriors– and, oddly, as a fairly polite and conscientious group.
What’s interesting here is the way that more strictly Islamist organizations have emerged from a hodgepodge of violent grievances with vaguely Islamic themes. This is a pretty predictable process, and it’s one that we’ll probably see again as Islamic insurgencies continue to pop up in the unstable developing world. Consider the ongoing debate about the “roots” of extremism: do young men frustrated with their circumstances simply channel their violent impulses into Islamism as a convenient outlet? Or is it jihadism that finds these people and contaminates them with a savage ideology?
Al-Nusra and Ansaru offer a clue: while supposedly jihadist groups may spring up in unstable environments as a convenient mode of cohesion among men who share both religion and grievance, the truly fanatical are wont to form their own, yet more stringently dogmatic groups.