KANO, Nigeria — The assault bore the hallmarks of long-term planning: Cars loaded down with heavy explosives and driven by those willing to die, men wearing security uniforms and ready to shoot any official who believed they belonged to the government they despise.
The coordinated attack in Nigeria's second largest city by the radical Islamist sect known as Boko Haram has shown its metamorphosis from a group that sent out lone motorcycle-riding gunmen to one that deployed scores of killers who moved with military precision. Nigeria's ill-equipped police and military have been unable to confront this growing threat to peace in Africa's most populous nation.
"Nigeria has never seen anything like this before," said Elizabeth Donnelly, an analyst at the London-based think tank Chatham House. "It's something so diffuse, so amorphous. It's very nimble and really hard to understand and pin down."
Boko Haram killed at least 185 people during its attack Friday on Kano, a city of more than 9 million that has political and religious importance in Nigeria's Muslim north. Suicide bombers targeted police stations and men wearing police or other uniforms gunned down officials, witnesses said.
Police said they discovered 10 vehicles in the city wired with explosives before they detonated. Officers also recovered about 300 explosives packed into aluminum cans, as well as eight drums each containing 770 pounds (350 kilograms) of explosive each, local police commissioner Ibrahim Idris said.
The large amount of explosives and the attacks on multiple locations including police stations, a secret police headquarters and immigration offices shows the attack was well planned. It also shows that Boko Haram wants to make the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian, appear unable to control the country, analysts said.
It "signaled an escalation of the Boko Haram threat not only for its sophistication, lethality and coordination but for the brazenness of the attack on a city considered sacred ground by millions of Muslims," said Philippe de Pontet, an analyst for the Eurasia Group. The "near-simultaneous bombs in Kano (are) focused on more traditional adversaries — the government, the police and local supporters of the Jonathan administration. Boko Haram is seeking to delegitimize the administration."
But government itself remains unable to stop Boko Haram. Nigeria's federal police force lacks the forensic capability to investigate massive crimes like the Kano bombing. More than a fourth of its manpower is relegated to serving as drivers and personal assistants to the country's elite, Human Rights Watch says. Many of those who remain man checkpoints and roadblocks designed to collect bribes from passing motorists.
A study published in February 2011 by the U.S. Air Force's Air War College suggests the country's military strength of 76,000 suffers from mismanagement and a lack of funding.
The military is also stretched, with soldiers deployed to the east of here in the spiritual home of the sect; in the country's restive middle belt, where communal violence has killed thousands in recent years; in the oil-rich southern delta, where militants and criminal gangs run rampant; and in Nigeria's commercial capital, Lagos, to quell unrest against the government.
"I think being overstretched is a real worry at the moment," Donnelly said. "I think that's why a plan needs to be got together. There needs to be some sort of strategy because clearly this is not sustainable.
"I think the question in everybody's mind is as well, you know: 'After Kano, where's next?'"
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.