Days ahead of September 11 commemoration of the terrorist attacks on the United States by the Al-Qaeda Network, the American Consulate in Lagos has raised alarm over a threat on Western and US interests in Nigeria.
A similar warning in June 2005 led to the closure of embassies in Lagos and Abuja for some days. Then, a US military spokesperson, Major Holly Silkman, speaking from Dakar, Senegal, had confirmed the terrorist threat thus: “There was some kind of threat made and it was through telephone call."
Yesterday, the US mission said it received information that American and other Western interests in the country are at risk of a terrorist attack without giving the name of any group behind the pilot.
A press statement issued by the Consulate said potential targets included diplomatic buildings and businesses in Abuja and Lagos.
“The US Mission in Nigeria has received information that US and other Western interests in Nigeria are currently at risk for terrorist attacks,'' the embassy said in a consular statement sent via e-mail to US citizens in Nigeria.
"Potential targets include official and commercial installations in Abuja and Lagos,'' it said, without elaborating.
An embassy official who spoke to THISDAY last night said he was yet to be briefed on the development.
Following the statement, expatriates were urged to take security steps, including varying routes to and from work and avoiding bottlenecks.Lagos is known for its long traffic jams while traffic is light in Abuja.
The embassy told US citizens to be vigilant and be aware of their surroundings at all times, saying "analysis has shown that individuals who appear to take basic personal security measures are often passed over by terrorist groups as a potential target."
But a US official has played down the embassy warning saying the advisory was based on "very non-specific threat information.”
"I'd steer you away from the idea that this was some major terror plot and I'd kind of point you more in the direction of things associated with Nigerian local kinds of actions," said the US State Department official, who asked not to be identified.
“No one should think that this means that Osama bin Laden is planning a major attack in Nigeria," the official said from Washington.
"That's not the level of what we are talking about. Local organisations, as far as I understand it, is the nature of the threat," he added.
"This was described to me as one of these things where they had some very non-specific threat information."
The cautionary statement followed the arrest September 4 of three men in Germany suspected of planning massive attacks on targets in Germany used by US citizens.
Al-Qaeda has previously indicated its interested in Nigeria. In 2003, its leader, Osama bin Laden, included Nigeria in a list of six countries he said he wanted to see liberated from enslavement by Washington.
A February 2005 United Nations report said Al-Qaeda established "recruiting and training bases in Northern Nigeria, where majority of Muslims live."
Some critics say the warning may not be unrelated to the attempt by US to justify its new idea of an African Command and that with September 11 fast approaching, there is great need for the country to warn its citizens to be more cautious.
But according to Rudy Stewart, a spokesman at the US embassy in Abuja, the statement was issued as a "prudent'" measure.
Nigeria is the largest US trading partner in sub-Saharan Africa, largely because of oil imports. The country accounts for 11 percent of US crude imports and is the fifth biggest source for US oil imports.
Al-Qaeda previously attacked US interests in Africa when it bombed the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya on August 7, 1998.
Foreign Affairs Minister, Chief Ojo Maduekwe, did not respond to THISDAY’s calls to seek his comment on the development.
But a top government official said the Federal Government was ready at all times to contain any external aggression.
Analysts believe while Nigerian Muslims like Kenyan and Tanzanian Muslims are generally peaceful, the conditions exist in parts of Nigeria for foreign Jihadists to use the legendary hospitality of their hosts to plan terrorist attacks.
The US military has created a new African Command, known as Africom, stationed in the Gulf of Guinea, due to begin operations next month to safeguard the region's oil interests against rebel or terrorist attacks.
Africom will not have any permanent units or bases.
Analysts say that a tragic terrorist attack on US installations in Lagos will not affect oil production in the Niger Delta but will raise the overall risk profile of the country and tear apart the political coalition of the new President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua.
Prior to the warning, a former US ambassador to Nigeria, Dr. Princeton Lyman, had said that after the dreaded Middle East terrorist group, Al-Qaeda, was chased out of Afghanistan, it has shifted base to Nigeria where its influence is growing by the day.
Lyman quoted a United Nations investigation which he said uncovered Al-Qaeda's surreptitious training and building bases in Nigeria in support of his conclusion that the country is a natural target for terrorists seeking to expand their operations.