LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Personnel records of former and current members of Nigeria's top domestic spy agency, including home addresses and names of immediate family members, leaked onto the Internet in a threatening message that claimed to come from a radical Islamist sect that's killed hundreds of people this year alone, The Associated Press has learned.
The leak of personal data of more than 60 past and current employees of Nigeria's State Security Service remained easily accessible on the Internet for days and had details about the agency's director-general, including his mobile phone number, bank account particulars and contact information for his son. Many of agents listed who could be reached by the AP said they received no official warning from the spy agency that their information had been posted online nor been otherwise alerted. The material has been deleted from the comment section of a website, but the security breach astonished veterans and calls into question whether Nigeria's intelligence community, whose agents already have released suspected terrorists out of religious and ethnic sympathies, are too compromised from within to stop the violence now plaguing Africa's most populous nation.
"This is a national embarrassment," said one Nigerian intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity as information about the leak was not to have been made public.
Marilyn Ogar, a spokeswoman for the State Security Service, did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday about the leak.
The State Security Service, created in 1986 by then-military ruler Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, monitors domestic dissent in Nigeria, an oil-rich nation of more than 160 million people. Though geared toward stopping terrorism and destabilizing coups, the agency routinely faces criticism for targeting government critics. In Abuja, Nigeria's capital, the agency operates out of cars made to look like the many green taxis that roam the streets. Plain-clothed agents of the service routinely question foreign journalists at airports, border crossings and on city streets if they see reporters conducting interviews. Agents carrying assault rifles often guard major events in the country.
Many agents for the typically secretive agency are preoccupied with concealing their identities, as most try to blend unnoticed into society.
The information leak came in two postings earlier this month on a website that provides rewritten news on Nigeria. The first posting threatened to kill agents of the State Security Service on behalf of Boko Haram, a radical Islamist sect responsible for more than 660 killings this year alone in Nigeria. The second posting simply offered a block of text containing biographical and other details about the agents.
Though the comments have been removed, the AP is not identifying the website involved as cached versions of the comments remain online and intelligence service agents have been killed by Boko Haram members in the past.
The list includes former and current agents across the country, including Director-General Ekpeyong Ita. Those reached by the AP who were willing to talk expressed disbelief that sensitive information like that could make its way to the Internet.
"I was shocked to see my details posted on the Internet," said one former agent, who declined to be named out of safety concerns. "I've not heard anything from anybody. I was surprised that such information could be leaked."
Another man on the list said he simply once served as a doctor to help the agency on an on-call basis only. The list appeared to include lower-ranking agents, as well as one-time state directors for the agency.
Some of those contacted suggested that the list appeared to come from the agency's pension department, as it mostly included retirees and listed bank account information for nearly all those named.
The release of the information comes as Nigeria's intelligence agencies have made a series of blunders in trying to fight Boko Haram in Africa's most populous country, with some likely influenced by ethnic or religious sentiments. Intelligence agencies allegedly released a suspected Islamic radical in 2007 who later masterminded Boko Haram's suicide car bombing of the U.N. headquarters in August 2011 that killed at least 25 people and wounded more than 100 others, officials previously told the AP. A leaked U.S. diplomatic cable also show U.S. officials complained in 2008 about Nigeria's government quietly releasing other suspects into the custody of Islamic leaders as part of a program it called "Perception Management."
Another U.S. diplomatic cable complains that State Security Service agents nearly let a suspected bomb maker trained by the Somali terror group al-Shabab onto an international flight, despite an Interpol notice for his arrest. The agents who allegedly tried to release Mohamed Ibrahim Ahmed "not only knew about the Interpol notice, but simply said they did not want to hold him any longer," the February 2010 cable read.
Ahmed, an Eritrean, pleaded guilty to charges in June in a U.S. federal court that he supported terrorism by associating with al-Shabab, a terror group with links to al-Qaida. He faces up to 10 years in prison.
Most of those on the leaked list of agents reached by the AP said no one from the federal government or the spy agency warned them that their personnel information had appeared on the Internet. Instead, colleagues and other former agents called each other to spread the news and later contacted the State Security Service themselves to report the breach.
It is unclear if the person who posted the information online really does have ties to Boko Haram, which has targeted security officials in the past. Violence has been centered mostly in the country's Muslim north. One retired agent who spoke to AP said he was grateful he lives in the largely Christian south, away from the sect's attacks.
"It's worrying that they have access to that," the agent said. "Those living in Abuja (and the north) are the ones who should living in fear."
Bashir Adigun reported from Abuja, Nigeria. Associated Press writer Yinka Ibukun contributed to this report.