ABUJA, Nigeria - Nigeria's secret police said Wednesday they broke up a terrorist group backed by "Iranian handlers" who wanted to assassinate a former military ruler and gather intelligence about locations frequented by Americans and Israelis.
The State Security Service, responsible for domestic spying in Africa's most populous nation, offered no details about who actually controlled and bankrolled the group. However, it said it had arrested three suspected terrorists, including the group's leader, before they could launch attacks.
The leader's "lieutenants successfully conducted surveillance and gathering relevant data ... (for) possible attacks," secret police spokeswoman Marilyn Ogar said, reading from a statement. "He personally took photographs of the Israeli culture centre in Ikoyi, Lagos, which he sent to his handlers."
The service identified the leader as Abdullahi Mustaphah Berende, a 50-year-old leader of a local Shiite sect in Ilorin. Ogar said Berende was arrested along with two other suspected members, while another remains at large.
Berende first travelled to Iran in 2006 and studied at an Islamic university, said Ogar. He later returned in 2011 and learned how to use Kalashnikov assault rifles and pistols, as well as making and detonating homemade explosives, she said.
Ogar identified high-level targets of the group as former military ruler Ibrahim Babangida and Ibrahim Dasuki, a former Sultan of Sokoto, a major Islamic leader in the nation. The group also conducted surveillance on USAID, the U.S. Peace Corps and other targets, she said.
Berende also received some $30,000 in cash to fund the group's planned operations.
Ogar did not take questions, nor did she elaborate on the statement. It remains unclear how close the group was to actually making any attack.
Nigeria, home to more than 160 million people, is largely divided into a Christian south and a Muslim north. Nigeria's Muslims are predominantly Sunni, though there is a Shiite community in the country. Iran has backed Shiite groups in Nigeria in the past.
Iran has previously been involved in police actions in Nigeria. In 2010, authorities at Lagos' Apapa Port found a hidden shipment of 107 mm artillery rockets, rifle rounds and other weapons from Iran. The shipment was supposedly bound for Gambia. A Nigerian and an Iranian with alleged ties to the country's Revolutionary Guard face criminal charges over the shipment.