ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — Nigeria detained and released several radical Muslims suspected of being terrorists in 2007 — including a man who officials now say helped organize last week's deadly car bombing at the United Nations headquarters in the nation's capital, a high-ranking official told The Associated Press.
The men arrested four years ago had allegedly been caught with explosives. Their rapid release from detention was apparently aimed at placating Muslim groups, but it has now come back to haunt security officials who fear a growing wave of al-Qaida-linked terror attacks in Nigeria, a main supplier of oil to the United States.
Some of those arrested in October 2007 were even plotting to carry out attacks in the United States and to attack American targets here, in Africa's most populous country, said the official, who claimed direct knowledge of the arrests. He spoke on condition of anonymity due to the political sensitivity of the case and because he is not authorized to discuss the matter with journalists.
Nigeria remains very sensitive to any suggestion it is a haven for terrorists, and the information released at the time of the arrests was fairly vague. It was not immediately clear if Nigeria shared information about the purported anti-U.S. plots with U.S. officials. The U.S. embassy had no immediate comment Thursday.
However, in a report on global terror threats, the State Department said diplomats issued a warning to U.S. citizens in 2007 about possible attacks on U.S. and Western interests in Nigeria. It also noted that Nigerian authorities said they arrested at least 10 suspected terrorists in northern Nigeria late that year with alleged ties to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
A former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell, who left the country several months before the 2007 arrests, said Pakistanis would have stood out in northern Nigeria. Campbell, who is now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said he had no information about arrests of any Pakistanis.
Top security officials in the administration of then-President Umaru Yar'Adua, a Muslim, released the rounded-up men shortly after their arrests, with some facing a few hasty sham trials, the Nigerian official said.
One of those men was Babagana Ismail Kwaljima, also known as Abu Summaya, who was arrested again days before the Aug. 26 bombing at the U.N. compound in Abuja that killed at least 23 people, the Nigerian official said. Kwaljima is accused of helping mastermind the U.N. bombing. A second man was also arrested and police are looking for a third with "al-Qaida links" who recently traveled in Somalia, where an al-Qaida-linked group called al-Shabab is battling the beleaguered U.N.-backed government.
Kwaljima is being held at a military base in Nigeria, according to Nigeria's secret police. The agency previously arrested him in October 2007 in the northern city of Kano during a roundup of suspected members of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb operating in the country, the official who spoke to AP said. AQIM, as the group is known, generally operates in Saharan nations north of Nigeria.
Secret police spokeswoman Marilyn Ogar declined to comment on Thursday.
Suspected Pakistani members of al-Qaida were arrested in October 2007 along with members of AQIM, the official said. He did not provide numbers of people arrested. News reports that emerged in November 2007 about arrests in the area also did not specify numbers, but identified the men as Nigerians. No foreigners were mentioned.
The official told AP that AQIM was planning to carry out terror attacks against targets in the United States and the Pakistanis were plotting terror attacks against U.S. citizens working in Nigeria, which is divided into a mainly Christian south and Muslim north.
"They were caught with explosive devices and other ammunitions. Some of them were also caught with large amount of cash," the Nigerian official said.
Responsibility for the Aug. 26 attack on the U.N., in which 81 people were wounded, was claimed by a sect known as Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is sacrilege" in the local Hausa language. The sect, which wants to implement a strict version of Shariah law in the nation, operates in the north and reportedly has links to AQIM and al-Shabab.
The car used in the U.N. bombing was registered in the same area of Kano state where the terror suspects had been arrested only four years earlier, the official who spoke to the AP said.
In 2003, Osama bin Laden issued an audio tape calling on Muslims in Nigeria to rise up against one of the "regimes who are slaves of America." It wasn't until four years later that strategic links were made between AQIM and Boko Haram, according to Noman Benotman, a former jihadist with links to al-Qaida and an analyst at the London-based Quilliam Foundation. Meanwhile, ties with the Somali militant group seem to have grown stronger.
Some 50 al-Shabab members were arrested in Nigeria recently for plotting attacks on western targets, Benotman said, citing postings made to jihadist websites. Those arrests were not reported by Nigerian media or announced by security agencies.
Last month, the commander for U.S. military operations in Africa told the AP that Boko Haram may be trying to coordinate attacks with al-Shabab and AQIM
Nigeria's military, police and secretive State Security Service have been unable to stop Boko Haram from waging an increasing bloody sectarian fight against this oil-rich nation's weak central government.
Other problems for Nigeria's intelligence agencies came as it abandoned a U.S.-assisted anti-terrorism program in late 2007 known as "Focal Point," which saw the Nigerian government set up units in major cities to monitor suspected terrorists, the Nigerian official said. The units fell apart as agencies stocked them with friends who took advantage of trips, leaving the job of tracking suspects to local police authorities who knew nothing about the cases, the official said.
"Many saw the centers as opportunity for 'their boys' to go on overseas trips and make money," the official said.
Deb MacLean, a spokeswoman for the U.S. embassy in Abuja, declined to immediately comment.
Associated Press writers Paisley Dodds in London and Michelle Faul in Johannesburg contributed to this report.
Jon Gambrell reported from Lagos, Nigeria. He can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.