What 'hostage video' reveals about Nigeria's Boko Haram

The captors of a French family have outlined their grievances in a video

In the three-and-a-half minute video, one of the hostages, reading from a piece of paper, states that his captors are Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad. This is the official name for the Nigerian Islamist militant group popularly known as Boko Haram, which has waged an insurgency for more than a decade.

It is impossible to independently verify that this is the group holding the seven French tourists. It is also not clear if the masked militants in the video are speaking on behalf of the entire group or its leader, Imam Abubakar Shekau, or whether they are a faction.

If the video is genuinely from Boko Haram then it shows us how this organisation is metamorphosing from being a local group with a mainly Nigerian agenda into a more international jihadist outfit.

Securing a ransom payment could be an objective of the kidnappings but it seems just as likely that the overall aim of the Islamist militants is more political - to use hostages as a bargaining chip to pressure the West to end its military involvement in countries like Mali and Somalia.

Start Quote

Let the French president know that he has launched war against Islam and we are fighting him everywhere”

End Quote Militant Islamist spokesman

Up to now, Boko Haram had never said it had taken hostages.

Its grievances have mainly been within Nigeria - especially with what it sees as the corrupt political elite and Islamic establishment.

The car bombing of the UN building in the capital, Abuja. in August 2011 was the only clear evidence of an attack on an international target.

France is clearly the focus of this latest video which was posted on YouTube.

A militant criticises the French President Francois Hollande for sending troops to fight Islamist militants in northern Mali.

"Let the French president know that he has launched war against Islam and we are fighting him everywhere. Let him know that we are spread everywhere to save our brothers," the man reads as the French hostages, including four children, sit behind him.

'Factionalised'

He speaks in Arabic whereas previous Boko Haram videos have been in the local Hausa language - an indication of a shift in the group's agenda.

A burnt police patrol pick-up truck remains abandoned on the side of a deserted road in Damaturu in Nigeria  on 7 November 2011 after having been struck by a bomb Boko Haram has carried out many bombings in north and central Nigeria

Although in the recording there were calls for colleagues to be released from detention in Nigeria and Cameroon, Nigeria's President Jonathan Goodluck was not criticised for sending troops to Mali.

It seems Boko Haram - or a faction of the group - is expanding its focus beyond Nigeria's borders.

"People have had the impression that this organisation was Nigeria based," says Abubakar Kari, a political scientist at the University of Abuja.

Boko Haram at a glance

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau
  • Founded in 2002
  • Official Arabic name, Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad, means "People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad"
  • Initially focused on opposing Western education
  • Nicknamed Boko Haram, a phrase in the local Hausa language meaning, "Western education is forbidden"
  • Launches military operations in 2009 to create an Islamic state across Nigeria
  • Founding leader Mohammed Yusuf killed in same year in police custody
  • Succeeded by Abubakar Shekau, who is said to be well-versed in theology
  • Suspected to have split into rival factions in 2012

" If it now makes demands which are not Nigeria related then finally it has become an international organisation."

The situation in Mali seems to have played a key role in the change of direction. There have been unconfirmed reports in recent months of Boko Haram members linking up in Mali with Islamist militants from the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao) - a group which has used multi-million dollar ransom payments to help fund its operations in Mali.

Malian officials say prior to the French military action, hundreds of Boko Haram recruits were training at a camp outside the city of Gao in northern Mali.

"There is evidence that the group has been factionalised - there is the classic al-Qaeda type of group with an international jihadist agenda whilst the other faction is responding more to local issues," says Jibrin Ibrahim, director of the Nigeria-based Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD).

It is widely suspected that Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau has not been well for months - possibly after being injured. Analysts believe this could be contributing to splits within the Islamist militants.

'Grand fiction'

The day before the YouTube video was released a man who said he was speaking on behalf of the Boko Haram leadership denied the group had been responsible for the kidnapping of the French family.

"We have nothing to do with the French people or their abductors," said Sheikh Abu Muhammad Ibn Abdulazeez.

However, some people question his credibility. The fact that he made this statement during a 30-minute press conference at a television station in Maiduguri in north-east Nigeria makes some people doubt whether he has anything to do with Boko Haram.

The Nigerian military may at times have been criticised for its response to the insurgency, but you have to wonder how the army which has a very heavy presence in Maiduguri would not have noticed a Boko Haram press conference taking place.

French soldiers fight while clashes erupted in the Malian city of Gao on 21 February 2013 France's military intervention in Mali has led to retaliatory attacks

"I know enough about the leadership of the sect and its protocols to know that the so-called Abdulazeez is a grand fiction created by those who want to feather their personal nests," journalist and Boko Haram-watcher Ahmad Salkida wrote earlier this month in Nigeria's Premium Times.

Last month, the man, who gave his name as Sheikh Abu Muhammad Ibn Abdulazeez, announced that Boko Haram had declared a ceasefire.

Start Quote

There is a theory that Boko Haram became a franchise adopted by all sorts of organisations and groups in order to mask their true identity”

End Quote Abubakar Kari Political scientist

The attacks did not stop leading one newspaper to print the headline: "Ceasefire or ceaseless fire?"

There are also many Nigerians who believe some politicians are fuelling the insurgency for their own personal gain.

The group popularly known as Boko Haram used to own up to attacks via email. It has even posted videos of its bombings, including the April 2012 car bombing of This Day newspaper in Abuja.

But after its spokesman, known as Abu Qaqa, was reportedly killed by Nigerian troops during a gun battle in Kano last September, the emails have dried up.

Even when those emails were sent to local newsrooms, it was never possible to verify that they were the views of the group's leadership.

Boko Haram vehemently denied having anything to do with the first kidnappings in northern Nigeria in May 2011 when Christopher McManus, a British national identified as a quantity surveyor, and his Italian colleague Franco Lamolinara, were seized by the Islamist group called, "al-Qaeda in the land beyond the Sahel".

The two hostages were killed, apparently by their captors, as British and Nigerian troops attempted a rescue mission in March 2012.

The UK later said the hostage-takers were from a group known as Ansaru.

Also known as Jama'atu Ansarul Musilimina Fi Biladis Sudan (Vanguards for the Protection of Muslims in Black Africa), Ansaru emailed newsrooms to say it was behind the kidnapping earlier this month of seven foreigners in northern Nigeria.

Opinion differs on possible links between all these groups.

Some analysts believe they simply share a similar Islamist ideology whilst others believe they are products of Boko Haram splits.

With so much violence in northern Nigeria it is increasingly difficult to know who is behind it all.

"There is a theory that Boko Haram became a franchise adopted by all sorts of organisations and groups in order to mask their true identity," says Mr Kari, adding that the kidnapping of the French family may not have been done by Boko Haram but by another organisation with a separate objective.

But it is clear that kidnapping is now a major strategy of the Islamist militants in northern Nigeria.

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