Kidnapping And Terrorism From Boko Haram, Ansaru And Al-Qaida In Nigeria And West And North Africa

An apparent surge of terrorist activity across northern Africa has focused a spotlight on the dangers facing foreigners in the region, especially the threat of kidnap.

Three recent hostage incidents, the seven construction workers in Nigeria, the French family in Cameroon and the attack on the In Amenas gas plant have prompted governments to advise against all travel to many areas.

As far back as 2008, the US government described Nigeria as "lawless" and the country's president, Goodluck Jonathan, recently felt the need to publicly declare the country is not becoming a failed state.

A burnt car lies among rubble destroyed last year by the military and police at the headquarters of the Islamic sect Boko Haram

It's a description that many don't find helpful.

Mark Harris, director of crisis response services at the Olive Group told the Huffington Post UK: "I don't think it's fair to describe Nigeria as a lawless country.

"That point of view is wrong as there are parts of the country where people are just getting on with their normal day-to-day lives.

"We can't just take a broad brush and say "there be dragons" because that's not correct."

Shehu Idris, a cousin of suspected member of the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram bloodstained from an attack

Nigeria undeniably has a problem with Islamist militancy with a complex set of actors all with their own agendas. All use kidnapping as a tactic, either to raise funds or to effect concessions.

The country has been described as the "global capital of kidnapping" with a quarter of incidents worldwide happening within its borders.

As well as being highly prolific, kidnapping has proved to be highly effective.

Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb are said to have raised over $100m in the last decade from hostage taking.

But it is not just raising money that kidnappers have in mind.

Harris explains the tactic is also used to gain concessions from governments.

A video from Ansaru claiming responsibility for a kidnapping last year

He says: {Terrorist groups} may well kidnap politicians or would-be politicians to try and get elections stopped. They may well be kidnapping to get the release of political prisoners."

The main groups causing concern in Nigeria are Boko Haram and its splinter offshoot, Ansaru.

Founded in 2001, Boko Haram are seeking to establish sharia law across the country, something they have had a degree of success in doing.

Most of the states in the north of the country practice some form of sharia.

In a video posted online last month the group's leader, Abubakar Shekau, promised to continue to bomb schools and kidnap government officials.

David Cameron with President Goodluck Jonathan (left) of Nigeria in the White Drawing room this month

A spokesman told the Guardian: "We will consider negotiation only when we have brought the government to their knees."

Whilst Boko Haram are focused on regional issues, another group, Ansaru, have a wider agenda, vowing to attack Westerners in defence of Muslims worldwide.

Ansura split from Boko Haram last year and have quickly established themselves as a deadly force in the region.

The group claimed responsibility for the kidnap of seven construction workers this week in an attack that resulted in the death of a security guard.

Their attacks are typically heavy handed, using explosives to blast their way into fortified compounds to grab foreigners.

It is this wider agenda that so troubles Western governments. Added to the mix is the influence of al-Qaida.

Algerian army trucks are seen near Ain Amenas, the gas plant where the hostage taking occurred

Ayman al-Zawahiri, the groups worldwide leader released a video last year that said: "We are seeking by the help of god to capture others and incite Muslims to capture the citizens of countries fighting muslims."

Harris says: "The region is in turmoil following the Arab Spring and the vacum that's been left by that.

"Tunisia has problems and Egypt has its issues and the amount of weapons that leaked out of Libya when that went over.

"All of that has contributed to maing that part of the world really quite threatening from a risk point of view."

Las month David Cameron predicted a "generational struggle against terrorism", invoking the kind of language heard after the September 11 attacks on New York.

Harris however, believes that a scenario like that in Afghanistan where the vacum of a failed state provided and Taliban backed al-Qaida to rise is unlikely.

When asked if a terrorist organisation in Nigeria could attack Paris or London he says: "No I don't think so."

"But as you see from the three in the UK (the suicide bombers from London who were found guilty this week), there is this network out there and there are disaffected and marginalised individuals who are prepared to carry out and commit terrorist attacks in the UK in order to further the overall agenda."

Female students stand in a burnt classroom at Maiduguri Experimental School burnt by Boko Haram

Harris believes Nigeria is unlikely to become a failed state.

He says: "I think it is media hyperbole. If you look at the height of the troubles in Ulster back in th 70s when there were bombs and shootings etcetera would people have described that as a failed state?

"No, I don't think they would.

"There is a long term campaign at several levels I think to try and marginalise terrorist groups and make sure that they are seen for what they are and that we then make sure we have other campaigns and responses to negate what the are trying to do.

"Engaging those countries where they are threatening to take over not just militarily but also with development and other things.

"We need a layered response to marginalise and deny them a platform to wage this terrorist war."