BEIRUT: A militant Islamist group in Nigeria claimed responsibility Monday for the abduction of seven foreigners, including at least two Lebanese, following Saturday’s raid on a residential compound belonging to the Lebanese-Nigerian construction firm Setraco.
In an email statement circulated to journalists, the group, known as Ansaru, said it was holding “Lebanese and their European counterparts” captive, but did not issue any demands for their release. The statement claimed the attack was in retaliation for the “transgression and atrocities done to the religion of Allah by the European countries in many places such as Afghanistan and Mali.”
Initial reports claimed four Lebanese, a Briton, a Greek and an Italian were among the kidnapped, but Lebanese authorities have so far only confirmed the identity of two Lebanese nationals.
According to the National News Agency Sunday, the Lebanese Embassy in Nigeria identified the two Lebanese as Imad al-Indari and Carlos Abu Aziz. Setraco CEO Said Khalaf told The Daily Star Monday that two of the hostages were Syrian, but he was unable to provide their names.
The Syrian embassies in Beirut and Lagos could not immediately be reached for comment.
“Our main concern is the safety of these seven people,” Khalaf said in a phone interview from Nigeria.
A spokesman for President Goodluck Jonathan issued a statement on behalf of the president ordering security forces to “take all necessary action to locate and rescue” the hostages.
As of Monday morning, Khalaf said his company had not been in contact with the kidnappers since the raid took place, but was confident the seven were still alive.
The company has been working in Nigeria for over five years, and the compound that was raided was home to about 18 employees, he added. He declined to discuss the compound’s security system, based on the advice of the Nigerian authorities who are investigating the case.
“This is the worst attack on foreign companies yet,” said Khalaf.
Armed gunmen attacked the company’s compound, in Jama’re in northeastern Nigeria Saturday night, killing a security guard and taking the seven employees hostage. Eyewitnesses told Reuters the compound was attacked from the north and south, with attackers blowing holes in the security gates using explosives.
“There was pandemonium after the gunmen opened fire on the four policemen attached to the camp,” Musa Alhamdu, Setraco’s compound security manager, was quoted as saying by the agency. “The policemen ran away as they were overpowered.”
Ansaru is short for Jamaatu Ansarul Muslimina Fi Biladissudan, which translates roughly to “Vanguards for the Protection of Muslims in the Land of the Blacks.” According to multiple media reports, the group was relatively unknown until recently.
In December, it claimed responsibility for kidnapping a French national who is still missing. The group has also been implicated in the kidnapping of a German engineer, as well as a Briton and an Italian, all of whom were killed by their captors during attempted rescues.
The United Kingdom designated the organization a terrorist group in November, citing its alleged ties to AlQaeda and its role in the deaths of the Briton and the Italian.
Militant Islamist activity in the area has been on the rise for the past several years as northeast Nigeria finds itself left behind despite a soaring national economy. According to a 2011 Morgan Stanley report, Nigeria’s economy is expected to overtake that of South Africa to become the biggest on the continent by 2025.
This growth has been fueled by increased consumer spending in urban centers, as well as a steady rise in oil prices. Nigeria’s cities and oil wells are concentrated in the south, which has seen its fair share of conflict between foreign petroleum corporations and locals. The Niger Delta in particular has been a flashpoint for conflict over the distribution of oil wealth, the displacement of local minority groups and the pollution of the environment.
The violence peaked in the 1990s when government security forces unleashed a brutal crackdown on local tribes and activists. As the country transitioned to democracy, eventually granting amnesty to militants operating in the delta region, tensions in the south eased dramatically, but kidnappings of foreigners for ransom remained fairly common.
The underlying problems of wealth distribution that led to the bloodshed in the south continue to fuel unrest throughout the country, especially in the economically depressed northeast, said Oladiran Bello, head of the Governance of Africa’s Resources Program at the South African Institute of International Affairs.
“The people in that part of the country [the northeast] have been failed by local and federal politicians, so I think they [militant groups] are riding the wave of the upsurge in militant Islamist activities,” Bello told The Daily Star.
“They have claimed alliance with Al-Qaeda, but in reality they may not have contacts with the group.”
Most large contractors operating in Nigeria today hire mobile military police units known as “MoPol,” in addition to private security firms to guard their personnel and operations.
This mobilization of state security forces on behalf of foreign business interests in impoverished areas feeds resentment among the local population, Bello added, creating fertile ground for reactionary movements.
“Increasingly and because of inadequate security provided by the state, many companies now work actively with the government to fund specialist units within the state apparatus to protect their investments and their staff and their business operations,” he said.
Shell Oil pioneered this approach to protect their work in the Delta, where local leaders were killed by security forces and paramilitary organizations, some of whom were financed by Shell, Bello explained.
“We’ve seen an abuse of these units over many years. In a context where the government seems to be absent ... these companies are often seen as complicit with a dysfunctional government and at the same time they are seen as an easy target.” – With Agencies