The suspects were under security surveillance throughout their stay in Saudi Arabia.
Security agents have apprehended an undisclosed number of suspected terrorists, their wives and informants immediately after they returned from Saudi Arabia, where they participated in the just concluded Hajj exercise, PREMIUM TIMES exclusively gathered.
Those arrested were from the Tsafe, Zurmi, Bungudu and Shinkafi areas of Zamfara State.
The alleged terrorists, who went to Saudia Arabia alongside other pilgrims from the state, were arrested at the Sultan Abubakar III International Airport in Sokoto last week.
Intending pilgrims from Zamfara often travel to Saudi Arabia through the Sokoto airport.
Though spokespersons of security agencies in Zamfara State are feigning ignorance of the arrest, multiple sources, including a top Hajj committee member, confirmed the story to PREMIUM TIMES.
Mansur Shafi’i, the Zamfara Pilgrims Welfare Board spokesperson, didn’t answer calls made to his mobile number, neither did he respond to a message sent to him about the arrest.
A member of the Zamfara State Hajj committee, who asked for anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the press on the matter, said there was an official communication between security agencies involved in the operation and officials of the state’s Hajj committee.
“When the first flight came, we were asked to delay the pilgrims from coming down the plane. After that, we were asked to take them to a hall in the airport where we saw security agents, including those in uniform and in plain clothing. Our airport contact person asked us to withdraw and allow the security guys to do their work,” he said.
According to him, the pilgrims were asked to sit on plastic chairs while they were screened again by the security agents.
While the suspects were asked to remain in the hall, those cleared were asked to proceed.
“Initially, I didn’t ask any questions, but when it was repeated when the second flight came, I made some contacts, and I was informed that the security was taking away suspected bandits, their wives and informants for questioning,” he said.
Another source, a staffer of the pilgrims’ welfare board, told PREMIUM TIMES in a series of WhatsApp voice notes that the suspects were placed under surveillance by security agents.
“I can’t call you now… But it’s true (the arrest). We were informed that the Zamfara, Katsina and Sokoto intending pilgrims were placed on serious security surveillance from Nigeria to here (Saudi Arabia). I know that arrests have been made at the airport, but I can’t give you details now since I’m not around too,” he said in one of the WhatsApp voice notes.
In another voice note message, he said another set of suspects was arrested among pilgrims from Tsafe.
Yet, another airport source, a pilgrim who sought anonymity for security reasons, said he saw when some suspects were arrested.
“Immediately the last flight landed on Friday, security agents in number came and started asking for pilgrim’s documents. When we came off the plane, they took many people we were together with and took them to a vehicle. We were asked to proceed and take our handbags. But those taken were not even allowed to take their handbags,” she said.
We raised an alarm
A community leader in the Shinkafi area, who asked not to be named, said a group of respected “personalities” in the local government raised the alarm when they heard the rumour that notorious banditry kingpin, Bello Turji, would be going to Saudia Arabia for his pilgrimage.
“We went to both the police and the brigade commander in Gusau, and they promised that they would take care of the situation. I’m personally happy with this development because, if anything, it means the security agents are serious about tackling this situation,” he said.
The community leader said they later learnt that Mr Turji didn’t go, but “several of his boys” and informants went to perform their pilgrimage.
The police spokesperson in the state, Yazid Abubakar, didn’t give further information when contacted.
“Since you said it’s a joint issue, I think you should talk to the Brigade. Our officers attached to the joint task force don’t report to us because they have their own leader, so please reach out to them,” Mr Abubakar said.
The spokesperson for 1 Brigade Nigerian Army, Ibrahim Yahaya, also said he was unaware of such operations.
“If you said it’s in Sokoto airport, then it’s not our officers. They are soldiers in Sokoto that can do that. To be honest with you, I’m not aware of what you’re saying,” he said.
When reminded that the pilgrims were from Zamfara and were only in Sokoto because there is no airport in the state, Mr Yahaya said he would not comment since he was unaware of the arrests.
Zamfara, like other states in the North-west sub-region, has been witnessing terrorist activities, including kidnap for ransom, banditry, cattle rustling and other crimes for over a decade.