Lagos, Nigeria - Nigeria released known terror suspects, including some affiliated with al-Qaida's north Africa branch, as part of a program known as "Perception Management" to placate elders in the country's Muslim north, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable released by the antisecrecy website WikiLeaks.
The release of the suspects in early 2008 coincides with the period when Nigerian authorities released a man now suspected of helping organize the Aug. 26 car bombing of the United Nations headquarters in the oil-rich nation that killed 23 people. U.S. diplomats at the time characterized the releases as a face-saving move for Islamic leaders and the Nigerian government, which remains very sensitive even today to the idea that radical terrorists operate in the country.
The diplomatic cable, dated March 20, 2008, outlines how 18 terror suspects being held by the government were released in early 2008. Of them, 12 suspects became part of a program known as "Perception Management" run by Nigeria's State Security Service, the nation's domestic secret police, the cable claims.
Secret police spokeswoman Marilyn Ogar declined to talk on Tuesday about the cable specifically, but said that much had changed in the way Nigeria handles terrorism in the last few years.
Under the program, imams and traditional leaders in north Nigeria served largely as parole officers for the suspects whom they were supposed to try to reform, the cable reads. However, the cable suggests pressures to save Nigeria's international image may have been involved in the decision to release the suspects.
"The court ostensibly remains under political pressure to expedite, even throw out terrorism cases to ensure Nigeria is not given the distasteful reputation of a 'terrorist safe haven,'" said the cable signed by then-U.S. Ambassador Robin Renee Sanders.
Deb MacLean, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy, declined to comment.
The cable also said Nigeria's top Muslim leader, the sultan of Sokoto, told officials in January 2008 that he was working "quietly" to sway the nation's Islamic leaders to stop extremism.
The cable, first reported Tuesday by Nigerian newspaper The Punch, shows Nigeria's struggle to contain radical Muslim terror attacks. A radical sect known as Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is sacrilege" in the local Hausa language, has carried out increasingly bloody sectarian attacks against Nigeria's weak central government in the last year.
The group claimed responsibility for the car bombing of the U.N. headquarters that wounded 81 people. A high-ranking Nigerian government official told The Associated Press last week that Babagana Ismail Kwaljima, a suspected Boko Haram member now being held over the bombing, was released in 2007 to placate Muslim leaders.