On Thursday, two European engineers were kidnapped in the Northern Nigerian city of Kebbi. As AFP comments, “Kidnappings for ransom have occurred frequently in and around the oil-producing Niger Delta region in the predominately Christian south, but have been rare in the mainly Muslim north.” The last reported kidnapping of a Westerner in the North was in 2009, when a Canadian researcher was seized in Kaduna and held for two weeks before being released.
The location of the kidnapping (see map of Kebbi below) and the limited description available of the attack suggest to me – though this is only speculation – that the kidnappers are members of neither Boko Haram, North Eastern Nigeria’s Islamist rebel sect, nor of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has kidnapped a number of foreigners in Mauritania, Mali, and Niger, as well as in parts of North Africa.
Here is the description given by AFP in the link above:
Gunmen have kidnapped a Briton and an Italian working for a construction firm in northern Nigeria after storming their apartment, police said on Friday, but a ransom had not been demanded.
A German colleague managed to escape by scaling a fence, police said, while a Nigerian engineer was shot and wounded in the incident on Thursday in the city of Birnin Kebbi, said state police commissioner Adamu Hassan.
“Two construction engineers, a Briton and an Italian working for a foreign construction company, B. Stabilini, were kidnapped from their lodge in Birnin Kebbi last night by unknown men,” said Hassan.
“The kidnappers have not established any contact with us and have so far not demanded for any ransom.”
Describing the incident, he said “a horde of gunmen stormed the apartment where the construction workers were staying.”
According to the commissioner, a large amount of cash in the lodge where the two expatriates working for the firm were staying was not taken. The firm, B. Stabilini, was founded by Italians but is located in Nigeria.
I would rule out Boko Haram because of location – Kebbi is in Nigeria’s far North West, while Boko Haram’s stronghold is in the far North East – and because of the style of the attack. Boko Haram has not, to my knowledge, conducted kidnappings, but has rather focused on either assassinating individuals (such as policemen and imams) or staging mass uprisings.
I would rule out AQIM because of location – Kebbi is located near the borders with Benin and Niger, but is south and east of where AQIM usually operates. I would also rule out AQIM because this kind of hot invasion of an urban home seems unlike AQIM’s most frequent method of preying on drivers or lone tourists in remote areas. True, AQIM kidnapped two Frenchmen right out of a restaurant in Niamey, the capital of Niger, in January, but that attack was a departure from their normal style. AQIM has also, to my knowledge, made no inroads into Nigerian territory. This incident in Kebbi could be a brazen AQIM foray into a new land, but if so it seems AQIM would have already boasted about it.
The most likely identity for the kidnappers, it seems to me, is a group of freelancers motivated not by ideology but by money. From the description they sound numerous and well-armed, but they also sound somewhat amateur: they left cash and they allowed victims to escape. Possibly they are also local, though Kebbi’s proximity to other countries may suggest the involvement of some foreigners, and may mean that the hostages will be held outside of Nigeria. The kidnapping in Kebbi resembles the 2009 kidnapping in Kaduna, but again because of geography (Kebbi and Kaduna are a fair distance apart), it seems unlikely that this is the same group.
Hopefully, like the Kaduna incident, this incident will be resolved relatively quickly, and without loss of life. I also hope that the kidnapping in Kebbi will not signal a growth in hostage-taking in Northern Nigeria. My sympathies go out to the victims and their families.
Via email, a reader cautions me not to rule out AQIM so quickly, especially the possibility of their involvement by proxy. Even if the kidnappers were not AQIM members, in other words, it is possible that the hostages will end up in AQIM hands. AQIM, the reader continues, would certainly like to expand into Nigeria and other areas. These are good points. Hopefully we will learn more – and be able to discuss the kidnapping with more certainty – in the days ahead. To reiterate, if this does turn out to involve AQIM, that will be a major turning point for AQIM and for Northern Nigeria.
In other, potentially related news, this is significant:
Air Chief Marshal Oluseyi Petinrin, the Chief of Defence Staff, says the Nigerian military will partner with the Republic of Niger military in evolving strategies to fight terrorism.
He made the announcement on Monday when the Chief of Defence Staff of the Republic of Niger, Brig.-Gen. Salou Souleymane, paid him a courtesy visit at the Defence Headquarters, Abuja.
Petinrin said Nigeria was ready to work with the Republic of Niger to fight criminal elements, noting that the unrest in Libya, Egypt and Cote’d Ivoire might directly or indirectly have a spill-over effect on both countries.
Petinrin is emphasizing unrest in North Africa and in Cote d’Ivoire, but closer Nigerian-Nigerien military cooperation could affect Sahelian efforts against AQIM as well.