Nigerian police believe they may have arrested the man who acted as spokesman for the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, which has launched a killing spree across northern Nigeria, killing nearly 1,000 people in the past two years.
The capture of the man who called himself Abu Qa Qa reportedly came after an intense surveillance of the man’s cellphone calls. Sources within the Nigerian police say he was traced to a house in Kaduna, where he was hiding under his bed. The man is now undergoing interrogation, according to a Nigerian State Security Services source, who spoke with Reuters news agency.
"We are still talking to him. Since 'Abu Qaqa' is a pseudonym for the Boko Haram spokesman, we want to be sure of who we have with us. But we have been on his trail for months now. He's been changing locations and contacts," the State Security Services (SSS) source said.
Capturing a spokesman would be a psychological victory for the Nigerian government, which has found its battle with Boko Haram to have only intensified, rather than diminished, after the government arrested and then killed in custody Boko Haram’s leader, Muhammad Yusuf, in 2009. It is unclear how much of an operational role a spokesman would have in the militant group’s activities, but capturing a man who may be in contact with senior Boko Haram leadership could put all those leaders at risk as well.
The spokesman's arrest – if it turns out to be real – could also turn up clues as to whether the Nigerian militant group has established links with Al Qaeda-affiliated groups, such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which has been kidnapping foreigners and launching attacks on governments from Mauritania and Algeria to Mali and Niger. The US military's Africa Command, based in Frankfurt, Germany, has been conducting ongoing training missions with Malian and Nigerian troops in counterinsurgency techniques.
Boko Haram, like the Afghan Taliban, is a radical militia that purports to abolish Nigeria’s secular system of government, and wants to purify Islamic society from the forbidden, or haram, elements of Western culture that have trickled into everyday life in Nigeria. The name Boko Haram, or “Western education is a sin,” is more common than the group’s full name, which in English is People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad. Late last year, Boko Haram urged good Muslims to return to northern Nigeria, and warned Christian Nigerians to leave the north or face the risk of attack.
The group’s tactics have grown more sophisticated in the past two years, from mere use of Kalashnikovs to the complex planning and carrying out of suicide truck bombings. A suicide car bombing of UN headquarters in the Nigerian capital of Abuja last year killed 24 people. At least 44 people were killed by a bomb as they left Christmas mass in the town of Madalla late last year.
Two weeks ago, a coordinated series of gun and bombing attacks killed 168 in the city of Kano. In a taped message, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau took credit for the attacks.
"We were responsible for the attack in Kano, I gave the order and I will do it again and again. Allah gives us victory," the voice said.
"In America, from former President George Bush to Obama, the Americans have always been fighting and destroying Islam," he said. "They have tagged us terrorists and they are paying for it. It is the same in Nigeria, and we will resist."
Monitoring cellphones has become a major way to round up top militants, as has targeting them with remote-controlled US military drones. The Navy SEAL team that killed Osama bin Laden was reportedly tipped off to his presence in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad by tracing the cellphone of a known associate of the Al Qaeda leader. After Bin Laden’s killing, CBS News reported that senior Taliban leaders had abandoned the use of cellphones and were sending messages through couriers.
"There is a widespread belief that Osama bin Laden could not have been traced had it not been the fact that someone close to him used a cellphone, and was found," a Pakistani intelligence official tells CBS News on condition of anonymity. "This revelation has brought about a behavioral change."
Last November, newspapers had reported the capture of Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahed as well – again, by tracing his phone calls -- but Mr. Mujahed later called up reporters to deny his capture, and he continues to speak for the Taliban.