ABUJA - Nigeria’s secret service arrested the spokesman for violent Islamist sect Boko Haram on Wednesday, a man going by the name of ‘Abu Qaqa’ who frequently made statements to the press after its attacks, a security source told Reuters.
He was arrested in the northern city of Kaduna in the early hours of the morning, said the source, who asked not to be named.
“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.
Abu Qaqa, or someone claiming to be him, often popped up in the local media after deadly bomb and gun attacks to claim them for the group and justify the choice of target.
President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration has been criticised for failing to curb the sect’s increasingly violent activities in the north, which have spread to the capital a handful of times since last year.
Abu Qaqa’s arrest could therefore be a major coup.
The spokesman claimed a Christmas Day bomb attack on a Catholic church on the edge of the capital Abuja that killed 37 people and a coordinated series of gun and bomb attacks two weeks ago in the second city of Kano that killed 186.
Nigeria conducted a mass burial on Wednesday of 17 of the victims from the Christmas bomb on St Theresa church in Madalla, an Abuja satelite town. The other 20 had already been buried.
For a long time Abu Qaqa was the closest thing the sect had to a public face, before its purported leader Abubakar Shekau posted a video of himself last month in a first YouTube appearance.
The past three months have seen a surge in violence by Boko Haram, which says it is fighting to install sharia law across Nigeria. The group has become a major security headache for Jonathan.
Bishops in golden robes to signify the resurrection of souls conducted a sombre service for the Christmas bomb victims, while pall bearers in red polo shirts carried the 17 caskets.
The service was guarded by a heavy security presence and metal detectors at the doors.
“We shall overcome. We shall see the end of these evil people,” said a speech from Jonathan read out by Reverend Bala Msheila.
The church was one of three that were attacked last Christmas Day — the other two were in the north and caused no casualties. Gunmen also raided churches in the north in a spate of attacks around New Year, spraying congregations with bullets.
The targeting of Christians raised fears the group is trying to ignite sectarian conflict, although Abu Qaqa said at the time they were revenge for attacks on Muslims in Nigeria’s volatile religiously mixed middle belt during a Muslim holiday in November.
“We pray that those in charge of our security and safety will have the wisdom to know how best to tackle the problem on our hands and the courage to do what needs to be done,” Abuja’s Catholic Archbishop John Onayeikan said.
Attacks by the shadowy sect continue, but in recent weeks it has renewed its focus on traditional targets in the security forces, such as the Kano attack, which mostly hit police stations.