During the afternoon of 16 May 2023, a US consular team travelling in Anambra State was attacked and 4 personnel were killed. No US citizens were involved in the incident, but the significance of the event should not be understated. It is clear that this is a key escalation in the violence that is affecting the region, and Anambra State in particular, and the response from the Nigerian Security Forces is likely to be substantial.
The impact of this event will be significant on most organisations operating in the area, or that will potentially operate in the area, and all concerned parties should look to review their risk assessments and security risk mitigation strategies for the area.
What Do We Know So Far?
At approximately 15:30 hrs local time on Tuesday 16 May 2023, a convoy of vehicles from the US Consulate was attacked on Osamale Road in the Atani area of the Ogbaru Local Government Area. The location is south of the main urban centre of Onitsha and close to the Niger River.
The gunmen killed 2 x local nationals who were employed as the vehicle driver and co-driver, and 2 x Nigerian nationals employed by USAID were also killed. The gunmen then set the vehicle containing the bodies on fire. No US citizens were involved in the incident.
The vehicle carrying the USAID personnel was reportedly marked accordingly and would have been identifiable from the outside as being associated with the US consular mission.
On identifying the security forces team in the second vehicle, the attackers then abducted the driver and 2 police officers, escaping with them and the vehicle.
The reason for the journey being undertaken is not clear at this time, and we await clarification as to which specific consular elements were involved, however, Tobechukwu Ikenga, the spokesperson for the Anambra State Police Command, issued a statement in which he said that neither the Anambra State Police Command nor any other security agency in the State had been aware of the entry into the State by the US team. Ikenga went on to add that security forces were mounting a follow up operation to rescue the abducted personnel.
Further details will likely emerge in the coming hours / days.
The Risk Environment
The security environment in Anambra State has been steadily deteriorating over the past 3 months. This trend has accelerated in the last 2 weeks, with an emerging pattern of attacks on members of the security forces, some political actors, notable community members as well as on infrastructure.
Anambra generally is known to present a high risk to travellers and the specific area where the attack took place is assessed to present a high to extreme level of risk.
Given that members of the security forces are frequently attacked on sight, the presence of a police escort team might have actually drawn attention to the movement and elevated the risk of the convoy being targeted.
Who Were the Perpetrators?
In the second part of our recent Deep Dive Analysis of terrorism in Nigeria here, we examined the characteristics and capabilities of extremist elements and groups operating in the South-East geopolitical zone.
The area where the attack took place is a known operating area for the Indigenous People Of Biafra (IPOB) and its associated paramilitary wing, the Eastern Security Network (ESN). It is most likely that elements of the ESN were responsible for the attack.
The above notwithstanding, this is the second attack in recent days in which the victims have been shot dead and the bodies burned in the vehicles. It begs the question as to whether this is just coincidence or an emerging modus operandi that is the signature of a specific and highly lethal group.
The Biafran Government in Exile, an extra-territorial group that exists among the Igbo diaspora, was quick to dissociate itself from the attack. In a rambling statement in which he referred to Islamic State and Boko Haram, Simon Ekpa, the group’s Prime Minister, stated that the movement condemned the attack on the convoy.
Was This a Statement Attack against the US?
It has been speculated that the attack was a retaliation for the US imposing visa restrictions on a list of Nigerian political and electoral actors believed to be responsible for undermining the democratic processes in the recent federal and state level elections in the country.
Our analysis indicates that the links between this list and any named individual close to or within the Biafran separatist movements is tenuous to non-existent. Therefore, this is not believed to be the motive for the attack.
Similarly, the US has not designated IPOB as a terrorist group – unlike the UK and the Nigerian governments.
Given the above it is highly unlikely that this was an attack specifically being made against a US target.
Given the levels of violence employed and the location, the attackers are most likely members of an element of the ESN.
At this time it is also assessed that the convoy possibly entered the area without any pre-emptive liaison with local security forces commanders. This would have limited the security mitigation measures being employed to the small security detachment that was organic to the US team, which would have been (and evidently was) quickly overwhelmed once the attack commenced. There would not have been a quick reaction force in the area, or even a second escort vehicle to protect the convoy.
It is also assessed that the convoy was a target of opportunity and was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. There is no evidence or indication that the team was attacked because of its association with the US Government. It is notable that the attackers were not deterred by the reported markings on the US vehicle and this also indicates that they either didn’t know who or what the vehicle represented, or that they were not concerned by the fact that they were attacking a US government asset. If the latter is the case, it indicates a level of confidence and boldness that represents a significant elevation of the threat in the area.
Looking ahead, the area will become extremely challenging for movement in the immediate future as the Nigerian security forces respond aggressively to this event. This will be characterised by the deployment of large numbers of uniformed personnel, the establishment of multiple roadblocks and an aggressive posture being adopted by security forces personnel. The general targeting of uniformed personnel means the security forces will be on high levels of alert which could increase tensions yet further as the boldness of this attack, and the significance of its target, will only serve to heighten their nervousness. This increase in tension and nervousness among personnel might present an elevated threat to travellers approaching roadblocks and checkpoints if they are not extremely cautious and completely compliant.
Arete is a private risk management company providing turnkey risk management solutions to clients throughout the complex and often challenging environment of West and East Africa.
We provide a variety of secure journey management services to enable safe movement throughout the high-risk environments found in Africa. This includes services such as the provision of Personal Security Details (PSDs) for secure transportation and movement as well as risk and threat assessments prior to any such travel. Arete’s journey management specialists are highly trained in all aspects of protective movement and are practised in undertaking dynamic and detailed threat analysis and route assessment to ensure all movements are undertaken securely.