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 to urge them to take action against Boko Haram sect militants but their pleas were ignored, Imam Ibrahim Ahmed Abdullahi said.
He spoke Saturday to The Associated Press along with several other Muslim scholars in the battle-ravaged city of Maiduguri.
"A lot of imams tried to draw the attention of the government," Abdullahi said, drawing nods from other scholars sitting with him 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."
Government officials did not respond Sunday to repeated requests for comment.
Hundreds killed in violence
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. Nigerian authorities retaliated five days later by storming the group's sprawling Maiduguri headquarters, killing at least 100 people in the attack, half of them inside the sect's mosque.
About 700 people were killed in days of violence last week in Maiduguri alone, according to Col. Ben Ahanotu, the military official in charge of a local anti-crime operation. A relief official said thousands fled the city.
The death toll in other northern areas from the violence was not known and authorities did not say how many suspected militants have been arrested. Rights groups have claimed that innocent civilians were being slain during the government hunt for sect members.
The imams were not the only ones to raise the alarm. Ahanotu said he recommended several times that 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."
The allegations of authorities dismissing the warnings raise serious questions about the West African nation's capacity to monitor and defend itself against terrorist groups.
International concern is growing over the ability of al-Qaida affiliates to cross the porous desert borders of north African countries such as Niger, which shares a border with Nigeria.
Details of death are murky
Abdullahi said he had known Boko Haram's charismatic leader Mohamed Yusuf for 14 years before the 39-year-old was killed 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 for 14 years but had a falling out four years ago, the imam said, when Yusuf drifted toward extremism, rejecting Western education and urging followers to commit violence.
Yusuf's sect, Boko Haram — which means "Western education is sacrilege" — seeks the imposition of strict Islamic Shariah law in Nigeria, a multi-religious country that is a major oil producer and Africa's most populous nation.
Most sect members are young, unemployed and angry that the introduction of moderate Shariah law in 12 northern states 10 years ago has not halted the corruption that keeps most Nigerians in desperate poverty.
In the meantime, Yusuf, a Western-educated member of the country's elite, encouraged his followers to rid themselves of all material wealth while he was chauffeured around in a Mercedes.
Abdullahi said calls to violence were not the way to end poverty in Nigeria.
"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."
Unclear why authorities didn't act sooner
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.
It was not clear why authorities didn't act sooner. Yusuf had been arrested several times before, most recently in 2008 after his followers attacked a police station. Nine days ago, two sect members were killed when the homemade bomb they were making went off prematurely.
Borno state's governor, Ali Modu Sheriff, said he wasn't sure he could bring enough evidence to court against the sect.
"It's not that people did not hear or that our government did not know that these followers of Mohamed Yusuf did exist. They did exist, but we don't know what they stand for," he said.
Ahanotu, the military official, blamed Nigeria's notoriously inefficient bureaucracy, while Abdullahi said the fact that many sons from prominent families had joined the sect may have helped slow the government response.
Recent government attention has focused on the country's cash lifeline: the oil-rich Niger Delta, plagued by a series of militant attacks. Little heed has been paid to the tens of millions living in the impoverished, mainly Muslim north.
"These attacks show the danger of that neglect," said Tom Cargill, an Africa analyst at London-based think-tank Chatham House.