Maiduguri: Nigerian authorities ignored dozens of warnings about a violent Islamist sect until it attacked police stations and government buildings last week in a bloodbath that killed more than 700 people, Muslim clerics and an army official said.
More than 50 Muslim leaders repeatedly called Nigeria`s police, local authorities and state security services to urge them to take action against the Boko Haram sect`s militants, but their pleas were ignored, Imam Ibrahim Ahmed Abdullahi said, speaking Saturday to The Associated Press along with several Muslim scholars in the battle-ravaged city of Maiduguri.
"A lot of imams tried to draw the attention of the government ... more than 50," Abdullahi said, drawing nods from the Muslim scholars sitting with him on the porch in a Maiduguri slum. "We used to call the government and security agents to say that these people must be stopped from what they are doing because it must bring a lot of trouble."
On July 26, militants from the sect attacked a police station in Bauchi state, triggering a wave of militant violence that spread to three other northern states before Nigerian authorities retaliated five days later with an attack on the group`s Maiduguri headquarters. The troops killed about 100 people in the attack, half of them inside the sect`s mosque.
In total, around 700 people were killed in the five days of violence in Maiduguri alone.
Analysts said the Muslim leaders` allegations of authorities dismissing the warnings raise serious questions over the West African nation`s capacity to monitor and defend itself against terrorist groups.
International concern is growing over the ability of al Qaeda affiliates to cross the porous desert borders of north African countries such as Niger, which shares a border with Nigeria.
Abdullahi said he had known Boko Haram`s charismatic leader Mohamed Yusuf for 14 years before Yusuf was killed on Thursday while in police custody. Several human rights groups have urged an investigation into the killing, the details of which remain murky.
Abdullahi and Yusuf were friends but had a falling out four years ago, the imam said, when Yusuf drifted toward extremism, began publicly rejecting Western education and called on followers to commit violence.
Yusuf`s sect, Boko Haram — which means "Western education is sacrilege" — rejected government education and sought the imposition of strict Islamic Shariah law in Nigeria, a country of several religions.
"I tried to show him and many of our Islamic scholars tried to show him that this is totally wrong," Abdullahi said, adding that he had asked friends to tape Yusuf`s sermons to keep tabs on his violent rhetoric.
"They wanted to draw the attention of the world," he said. "Only Allah knows how many lives have been lost."
Abdullahi said he made his final call to security agencies two days before the sect attacked police stations with guns, bows and arrows and homemade bombs.
The imams were not the only ones to raise the alarm. Col. Ben Ahanotu, the military official in charge of an anti-crime operation in the area, said he recommended several times action be taken against the group but received no orders to do so.
"I complained a lot of times," he said. "I was just waiting for orders."