MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — The purported spokesman for a radical Islamist sect responsible for hundreds of killings in recent weeks in Nigeria has been arrested, an official with the country's secret police said Wednesday.
The official with Nigeria's State Security Service declined to give many details about the man known by the nom de guerre Abul-Qaqa, simply saying that officers are questioning him. If it is him, the spokesman's arrest could prove to be a boon for Nigeria's weak central government, which has remained unable to stop attacks by the sect known as Boko Haram.
However, the same agency paraded a supposed spokesman only weeks earlier who apparently had only a loose affiliation with a group that has splintered and become even more dangerous. And a national spokeswoman tried to deny the reported arrest without being able to explain the apparent confusion gripping an agency charged with protecting the nation.
Ahmed Abdullahi, the Borno state director for the secret police agency, told The Associated Press on Wednesday night that officers tracked down the man through signals sent out by his mobile phone. The agency later flew him to Nigeria's capital Abuja for further questioning.
Abul-Qaqa served as the spokesman for the radical wing of the sect, often as a go-between between its leaders and trusted members of north Nigeria's media. He issued claims of responsibility typically the same day as attacks to journalists working for either the BBC's Hausa language service or The Daily Trust newspaper, the two most trusted sources of news in Nigeria's Muslim north.
Abdullahi declined to give the man's name, and it wasn't clear whether he faced criminal charges or had legal representation.
Reached Wednesday night, national secret police spokeswoman Marilyn Ogar denied the agency had arrested Abul-Qaqa, but was unable to explain why a top official with the agency would say otherwise.
"We don't have him — at least I do not have information that we have him," Ogar said.
The State Security Service, which has plainclothes investigators across Nigeria, is charged with securing the nation, However, it is an agency long associated with suppressing political dissent, rather than putting down the sectarian violence now being carried out by Boko Haram.
In November, the secret police claimed it made a major breakthrough in stopping the sect by arresting Ali Sanda Umar Konduga, a supposed Boko Haram spokesman who used the name al-Zawahiri. Konduga implicated a Nigerian senator in taking part in the group.
But Konduga, later sentenced to three years in prison, acknowledged he had not made a statement on behalf of Boko Haram for months and that the group had expelled him on suspicion he was a government spy.
Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is sacrilege" in the local Hausa language, is carrying out increasingly sophisticated and bloody attacks in its campaign to implement strict Islamic law and avenge Muslim killings in Nigeria, a multiethnic nation of more than 160 million people.
The sect was blamed for at least 510 killings last year alone, according to an Associated Press count. This year, it is blamed for killing at least 270 people in January alone. On Jan. 20, the sect carried out a coordinated assault on police stations and government agencies in the northern city of Kano that killed 185.
Boko Haram has splintered into three factions, with one wing increasingly willing to kill as it maintains contact with terrorist groups in North Africa and Somalia, diplomats and security sources say.
With that wing viewing a wide variety of people and institutions as potential targets, even politicians with ties to Boko Haram can no longer consider themselves safe.
Violence by Boko Haram has increasingly begun targeting Christians, inflaming longtime tensions in a nation largely divided into a Christian south and a Muslim north. Thousands have died in rioting sparked by ethnic and religious differences in the country since it became a democracy in 1999.
On Wednesday, about 2,000 mourners gathered at a Catholic church near Abuja for a mass burial of victims of a Boko Haram bombing there that killed at least 44 people, church officials said.
Jon Gambrell reported from Lagos, Nigeria and can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.