MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) - Members of a radical Islamic sect in northern Nigeria were caught with bomb-making equipment weeks before an uprising in which close to 800 people were killed, a senior state government official said.
Borno state deputy governor Alhaji Adamu Dibal said Mohammed Yusuf, a charismatic preacher and leader of the militant Boko Haram sect, had been well-known to intelligence agencies for several years and had been planning bomb attacks targeting the local authorities.
“Mohammed Yusuf was preparing to launch an attack in the month of Ramadan, which is in about two weeks time,” Dibal told Reuters in an interview late on Tuesday at his residence in the state capital Maiduguri.
“That is why most of the equipment they used in preparing bombs was all at the preparatory stage,” he said, opening photographs on his laptop computer of barrels of chemicals seized during police raids.
Yusuf, who was shot dead in police detention last Thursday, was vehemently anti-establishment. Boko Haram, which means “Western education is sinful”, is loosely modelled on the Taliban in Afghanistan and wants a stricter implementation of sharia (Islamic law) across Nigeria.
Yusuf’s followers staged a five-day uprising in several northern cities last week, attacking buildings seen as symbols of authority from prisons and police stations to primary schools and local government offices.
Dibal said tensions in Maiduguri had surfaced around six weeks ago, triggered by a dispute over a new law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets — which sect members refused to respect — in which police shot and injured several Boko Haram followers to prevent a riot.
Yusuf wrote to President Umaru Yar’Adua, the vice president, defence minister and other officials including the Borno state governor vowing revenge for what he saw as an attack on his followers.
Dibal played a video on his mobile phone of Yusuf reading the letter apparently at a prayer meeting.
Three weeks ago the security forces discovered what Dibal described as a training camp in Biu, 220 km (140 miles) south of Maiduguri, arresting several suspected Boko Haram followers and seizing bomb-making equipment. A week later, a man was killed and another blew his leg off trying to make a home-made bomb at a house in Maiduguri, he said.
Some Maiduguri residents have accused the security forces of failing to act on the intelligence but Dibal said the authorities had prevented a much more serious campaign of violence.
“They wanted to dislodge the entire system of democratic laws. They wanted to install their own Islamic law,” Dibal said.
“They wanted to dislodge the police, prisons, the army, the paramilitary, everything that belongs to the government.”
Dibal said he first met Yusuf in Saudi Arabia where he had fled, via Sudan, after being declared wanted by the authorities in neighbouring Yobe state in 2004 for attacks on the police. Dibal was leading a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia at the time and Yusuf came to him seeking help.
Yusuf, who was born in 1970, insisted he was not a violent man and had nothing to do with the Yobe attacks. He said he wanted to return to his family in Nigeria and Dibal thought he might be useful to the intelligence agencies.
“Through my discussions with him ... and through my contacts with the security agencies, he was allowed back in,” Dibal said, adding he had met Yusuf several times since then.
“It is true he was brilliant. He had this kind of monopoly in convincing the youth about the Holy Koran and Islam.”
But Yusuf’s name kept recurring in intelligence reports and it became clear that he was developing a cult-like status among his followers, who included not only youths but some professionals who quit their jobs in the name of strict adherence to his ideology.
Among those shot dead by the security forces last week was Alhaji Buji Fai, who twice served as a local government chairman and was a former state commissioner for religious affairs. Fai was believed to have become a major Boko Haram financier after leaving politics.
Some analysts have said Yusuf’s killing — condemned as an extra-judicial execution by rights groups — deprived intelligence agencies of the ability to interrogate him. But he had been arrested and released at least three times before and Dibal said his demise was a death blow to the sect.
“The entire story was Mohammed Yusuf, Mohammed Yusuf, Mohammed Yusuf,” Dibal said. “Without this kingpin ... it will be difficult for them to regroup.”