Nigeria’s army said it has arrested Khalid al-Barnawi, leader of an al-Qaeda linked militant group Ansaru which is a splinter faction of Boko Haram that has been accused of kidnapping and killing Westerners, a military spokesman said on Monday.
Military spokesman Brigadier General Rabe Abubakar Barnawi was captured in Lokoja, capital of the central state of Kogi on Friday.
“He is among those on top of the list of our wanted terrorists,” he added.
Al-Barnawi, who is thought to be in his late 30s, has been one of the three Nigerians listed by the US in 2012 as “specially designated global terrorists.” The US had offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his location.
The US State Department says Al-Barnawi has “ties to Boko Haram” and “close links to al-Qaeda.”
“He has been arrested. We have made that giant stride,” said Abubakar, adding that some Boko Haram fighters had surrendered to Nigerian troops.
In a separate statement on Monday, the army said troops killed 15 members of Boko Haram and rescued 275 hostages during operations against the militants in the northeast on Sunday. Late Sunday, army spokesman Colonel Sani Usman also said troops arrested six insurgents in the northeastern villages of Kadawu and Garna and recovered explosive devices.
Muhammadu Buhari, who took office last May, has made it a priority of his presidency to defeat jihad militancy in Africa’s most populace nation.
The arrest of al-Barnawi, if independently confirmed, would be significant as jihadists have been pushed out of northeastern areas they once controlled and conflicting messages on social media suggest internal rifts.
But Nigerian security analyst Fulan Nasrullah expressed doubts that he had indeed been captured.
“Khalid’s people and I have spoken and they have said that he is free and was not captured, whether in Lokoja or anywhere else,” he said.
“They have killed seven different people at seven different times thinking they were Khalid al-Barnawi. They have no photos of him, nor do they know any concrete information about him,” he added.
The defense spokesman could not immediately be reached to respond to Nasrullah’s comments.
Besides the U.S., Britain also put Ansaru on its official “terrorist group” list, saying the group was aligned with al-Qaeda and was behind the kidnapping of a British national and an Italian who were killed in 2012 during a failed rescue attempt. In 2012 Ansaru claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of French engineer Francis Collomp for almost a year before he was freed in November 2013.
The group also killed seven foreigners working for Setraco Nigeria Ltd. when they were seized in a February 2013 attack at their residential compound in the northern state of Bauchi. Ansaru said it carried out the attack in response to “the transgressions and atrocities done to the religion of Allah” by European nations in countries such as Mali and Afghanistan.
Reports of the Ansaru leader’s arrest come amid developments that suggest the militant movement in Nigeria may be losing momentum.
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau appeared in a video circulated last month in which he seemed to suggest he was ailing and Boko Haram was losing its effectiveness. But another video emerged last week saying there would be no surrender.
Boko Haram controlled a swathe of land in northeast Nigeria around the size of Belgium at the start of last year but was pushed out by Nigerian troops, aided by soldiers from neighboring countries.
It has since resorted to attacks on public places, such as markets and places of worship.