The decision by the United States government to withdraw its non-emergency staff from its diplomatic missions in the country as a result of what it called “elevated risk of terror attacks in Nigeria, specifically in Abuja” was triggered by recent security breaches around US infrastructure assets in the country, BusinessDay has learnt.
An informed source told BusinessDay that the decision by the US government to issue the alert came after “a series of disturbing security threats and activities targeted against US interests in Abuja”.
In an emergency security alert to American citizens in the country on October 23, the US Embassy warned its citizens about the presence of “an elevated risk of terror attacks in Nigeria, specifically in Abuja”. The targets, it said, “may include, but are not limited to, government buildings, places of worship, schools, markets, shopping malls, hotels, bars, restaurants, athletic gatherings, transport terminals, law enforcement facilities, and international organisations”. The US Embassy said it would offer reduced services until further notice.
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“I can tell you that a short time before the alert was issued, a bomb was found at the entrance of one of the US compounds,” the source said.
The source added that security officials at the US mission in Abuja had noticed increased surveillance of the diplomatic mission’s facilities by suspicious persons.
“They detected these suspicious individuals casing their compounds as very unusual. The profile of the individuals observing and monitoring the facilities piqued the interest of the US security officials. They found that their surveillance methods as well as certain actions differed remarkably from that carried out by Nigeria’s counterespionage officers who usually place many of the foreign missions and their officials of interest under varied levels of observation,” the source said.
Another source told BusinessDay that the US embassy in Abuja obviously shared the information they had about threats to their citizens and facilities with the Nigerian government. “I can tell you that the Nigerian government’s response in public has been very different from the response and assistance provided to the US mission in Nigeria in private.”
He added that security had been beefed up around US assets in the country and both countries have engaged in information sharing and risk management.
While Nigeria’s security authorities have called for calm, the government has blamed the media and the commentators for the decision by the US and some western embassies to issue the security alert.
Lai Mohammed, minister of information and culture, said: “Some media outlets and social media personalities are usually caught spreading unverified information on their platforms just for click bait and the attendant monetary gain.
“Talking of click bait, this may be what informed the spread of the supposed security alert issued recently by some foreign embassies in Nigeria.”
“It is understandable that Nigeria’s government responded as it did. The US security alert is meant for US citizens and not for Nigerians. But of course, such alerts will always get to Nigerians who are right in view of the dire security situation in the country to be apprehensive,” the source who craved anonymity said.
“No government likes to put the general populace in a panic,” a retired Nigerian intelligence officer told BusinessDay. The default move of every government is not to put its general population in a panic but to show that all is well and the government is on top of the situation. It is in very urgent and extreme cases that a government would have by necessity inform its citizens to take certain security actions to protect themselves. So, the Nigerian government’s public response isn’t surprising.”
The recent offensive carried out by Nigeria’s military and security services against the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) and other terrorist groups in the country has also led to large-scale dispersal of fighters of the terrorist groups fleeing from the military’s onslaught.
In September, Nigeria’s military claimed to have killed hundreds of Islamic terrorist fighters in the North-East.
“Our ground troops have killed at least 420 Boko Haram and ISWAP terrorists in many of our operations in Borno State within August,” said Maj. Gen Christopher Musa, commander of the Counter-terrorism Joint Task Force Northeast.
Security sources say many of the fleeing fighters as well as some of the terrorist combatants freed by ISWAP in the July attack on Kuje prison may have found refuge in cities across Nigeria and pose a threat to Nigerians.
“These are highly trained and religiously incentivised fighters who have the capacity and the motivation to launch attacks against innocent Nigerians,” a senior police officer noted.
In August 26, 2011, Boko Haram conducted its first attack against a Western interest — a vehicle-bomb attack on UN headquarters in Abuja — killing at least 23 people and injuring more than 80. A purported Boko Haram spokesman claimed responsibility for the attack and promised future targeting of US and Nigerian government interests.
The US has faced numerous terrorist attacks across the world over the past 30 years.