Nigeria said it arrested a group of men it alleges have ties to Al Qaeda and who were in possession of bomb making materials in three northern states, though some analysts are questioning the extent of Al Qaeda's presence in Nigeria and other sub-Saharan African nations.
Reuters reports that the Nigerian government announced the arrests on Monday.
The U.S. embassy warned in September that Nigeria, Africa's top oil producer, was at risk of "terrorist attack", and Osama bin Laden once named the country as ripe for jihad, but Nigeria has yet to see any major attack in the style of al Qaeda.
Nigerian police and the secretive (State Security Service) have made sporadic arrests of suspected jihadists for some years and trials have been launched, but there has been no conviction and no conclusive evidence of al Qaeda's presence in Nigeria has been made public.
Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, is divided about equally between Christians and Muslims. The two communities usually live side by side peacefully but there are occasional outbreaks of religious violence.
Tensions worsened in the northern part of the country after 12 state governments introduced a stricter enforcement of sharia law in 2000, alienating sizeable Christian minorities. Thousands were killed in sporadic riots.
The British Broadcasting Corp. reports that there has been little corroboration of past claims of Al Qaeda activity in the country, adding that the US and Britain have been particularly concerned about the potential of terrorist cells establishing themselves there.
… Over the last few years the Nigerian authorities have detained many suspected militants yet have failed to produce any substantive evidence of an al-Qaeda presence or terrorist plot in the country and there's never been a terrorist attack here.
There are some radical Islamic sects who exist in the effectively borderless arid areas where northern Nigeria meets Chad and Niger.
Given that Nigeria is a major oil producer yet its population is poor and equally split between Muslims and Christians, British and American officials have long been obsessed that Nigeria was ripe for al-Qaeda-style groups.
Though there is little evidence of widespread Al Qaeda activity, chaos and lawlessness prevail in many corners of Africa's largest country, and such conditions have worked to the benefit of Al Qaeda operatives in the past in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.
There has also been a move toward the more austere and exclusivist Islam practiced by Al Qaeda in Nigeria and other parts of the continent in recent years, a trend that some scholars argue makes radicalization more likely in the area.
Writing earlier this year, Israeli scholar Moshe Terdman argued that while radicalization is proceeding, that it's unlikely that major Al Qaeda influence will be exerted in Nigeria and its West African neighbors with significant Muslim populations.
A radicalization has taken place with the introduction of Shari'ah in twelve Nigerian states… In the case of Nigeria, it appears that aggressive missionary work in the North by Saudi Wahhabis has played a decisive role in escalating the conflict between Christians and Muslims.
The social conflicts in the coastal states of West Africa are increasingly developing along a North-South divide that is largely congruent with the geographical division between Christians and Muslims. This is particularly noticeable in Nigeria, Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire.
In the short term, however, it is unlikely that extremist Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa will become an important and integral part of al-Qaeda's network … Al-Qaeda's call on African Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa after the Mombassa (Kenya) attacks in 2002 on African Muslims to join their cause was met with decidedly more indignation than approval.
Yet the possibility of the development of a genuine African variant of terrorism can not be decisively ruled out. The necessary ingredients – lack of economic perspectives, social deprivation, a loss of cultural identity political repression and a dysfunctional state – are virtually omnipresent in sub-Saharan Africa.
Whatever the real risks, since Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has been enhancing its military ties with West Africa, both as part of its counterterrorism efforts and to protect oil production in states such as Nigeria.
Last month, the US created a new military command, called Africom, "to build regional security and crisis-response capacity in support of US government efforts in Africa."
Nigeria has been a major beneficiary of US military aid in the past five years. The Bush administration is requesting $5.35 million for "peace and security" funding for the country in its 2008 budget request, and $1.4 million in military financing for the country. Both numbers are up from 2006, though comparable 2007 numbers were not provided.