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Out of Iran, into Africa: Hezbollah’s scramble for Africa

First published by Haaretz

The slew of recent court cases convicting Iranian and Lebanese nationals on terrorism charges are just the tip of the iceberg of Hezbollah’s expanding network in both East and West Africa. Iran has successfully intimidated a number of countries outside Africa not to pursue or publicize Iranian and Hezbollah operatives involved in terrorist operations in their territories; will Nigeria buck the trend and refuse to be cowed into appeasement?

The Kenya connection

Iran has stepped up its attempts to build a sphere of influence in Africa. Alongside its interest in greater involvement in the economic, political and cultural fields is a parallel and far less benign strategy: To develop bases within certain states in Africa for wider terrorist and subversion activities throughout the continent, focusing on Israeli and Jewish targets.

On June 20, 2012, two Iranian nationals, Ahmad Abolfathi Mohammad and Sayed Mansour Mousavi, were arrested in Nairobi, Kenya. In their possession was 15 kilos of explosives; 85 kilos more the two had shipped into Kenya have not been found.

Despite the statements from Tehran at the time that the two Iranians were being falsely accused by “certain circles and foreign media [who are] trying to undermine” the good relations between Iran and Kenya, they were sentenced by a Kenyan court last month to life in prison for possessing explosives allegedly for use in bomb attacks in Nairobi and Mombasa; local officials suggested that they were planning attacks on Israeli, U.S., British or Saudi Arabian interests in Kenya.

Nigeria – the new Hezbollah operations center?

More recently it became clear that Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, has become a hotbed for Iranian/Hezbollah terrorist activities. There were signs of Nigeria emerging as a potential site of interest back in 2004 when, according to Israeli sources, an Iranian diplomat was arrested on suspicion of spying on the Israeli embassy in Nigeria’s capital Abuja.

This February, Nigeria’s State Security Service (SSS) arrested, Abdullahi Mustapha Berende and two other Nigerians accusing them of being members of a terrorist cell, trained in Iran, who planned to attack U.S. and Israeli targets.

The Iranians had invested significant time and effort in cultivating the cell members. Berende first traveled to Iran in 2006 where he studied at an Islamic university, and returned to Iran in 2011 for weapons and explosives training. His Iranian handlers requested that he gather intelligence on public places and hotels frequented by Americans and Israelis to facilitate attacks, said SSS spokeswoman Marilyn Ogar in a statement. Berende admitted to reporters he had spied for Iran and that he had received $30,000 to carry out his operations. He sent his Iranian partners photos of the Chabad House in Lagos as well as the USAID offices, and told them that they should attack former military ruler Ibrahim Babangida as well as Islamic spiritual leader the Sultan of Sokoto to “unsettle the West”.

As usual, Iran denied organizing a spy cell targeting Israeli and U.S. targets in Nigeria.

Only months later on May 13, 2013, Azim Aghajani, an Iranian, and his Nigerian accomplice were sentenced to five years in prison for their involvement in a plot to smuggle a shipment of weapons into West Africa, the judge in the case having declined to order the maximum sentence of life in prison. This case began when security forces opened 13 containers at Lagos’ Apapa Port in October 2010 and found a stash of weapons, including 107 mm artillery rockets, rifle rounds and other weapons. The shipment was bound for Gambia. The UN and the U.S. government have linked Aghajani to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force, an elite and secretive unit that acts against foreign interests, through Behineh Trading Co., which organized the arms shipment found in Nigeria.

The tempo of arrests continued to accelerate. Barely weeks later, in the second half of May 2013, Nigerian authorities arrested four Lebanese men in the northern city of Kano on suspicion of being members of the Lebanese Hezbollah. Soldiers uncovered a hidden arms cache containing 11,433 rounds of 7.6 mm ammunition, 76 military grenades, one SMG rifle, nine pistols, 17 AK-47 rifles, 44 magazines, 103 packs of slap TNT, 50mm anti-tank grenades, 123mm artillery guns, four anti-tank landmines, 21 rocket-propelled grenades, an RPG, 16 RPG chargers and one RPG tube. The arms and ammunition were concealed under several layers of concrete and placed in coolers, drums and bags, neatly wrapped. The arms and ammunition were intended to target Israeli and Western facilities in Nigeria.

In June, an Abuja Chief Magistrates Court gave the Federal Government approval to keep in custody the four Lebanese men arrested in the case: Mustapha Reda Darwish Fawaz, Talal Roda, Abdulla Tahini and Hussain Nurudeen Kossdi, on charges of alleged involvement in the illegal importation of weapons into Nigeria.

Fawaz used his own business premises to create an unlikely storage area for other weapons. The co-owner of the Amigo Supermarket and the Wonderland Amusement Park in Abuja, Fawaz had hidden more arms caches in the supermarket and in the amusement park. The SSS, who discovered these arms, sought the country’s president’s permission to demolish the supermarket, worth an estimated 5 billion Nigerian naira (or around $31 million) in order to search the ground more thoroughly for other concealed weapons. The SSS believes the place was used serially for stockpiling weapons and has evidence that proceeds from the multimillion-dollar retail enterprise have been used to fund terrorism.

President Goodluck Jonathan met with security service chiefs on June 10, 2013 to consider the consequences of a diplomatic crisis with Lebanon provoked by the arrest of the Lebanese businessmen and their accomplices.

The pressure on the Nigerian government is already apparent. It appears that “countries sympathetic to Hezbollah” are seeking the extradition of the Lebanese suspects from Nigeria to prevent them from going on trial in the country. Hezbollah, through its sponsors in Iran and Syria, tried to persuade the Lebanese government to intervene; Lebanon decided against direct intervention, and rather solicited the assistance of Jordan to lobby for the extradition of the suspects.

Widening Hezbollah’s West African web

Four other countries in West Africa are home to Hezbollah operatives who are heavily involved in funding and logistics for Hezbollah. The U.S. Treasury Department, charged with following the money trail of terrorist organizations, identified four Lebanese men, Hezbollah operatives in West Africa, as ‘Specially Designated Nationals’, on June 11, 2013.

Ali Ibrahim al Watfa was described as “the permanent Hezbollah liaison to Sierra Leone” and responsible for a Hezbollah cell in the Freetown area, coordinating the transfer of funds from Sierra Leone to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Abbas Loutfe Fawaz, “Hezbollah’s leader in Senegal”, built his activities in Senegal since 2006 using supermarkets in Dakar that he owned and operated in Dakar, to raise funds for Hezbollah and attract supporters. He had discussed with Hezbollah officials in Lebanon the possibility of sending Lebanese nationals from Senegal to Lebanon, possibly for training.

Ali Ahmed Chehade is the “Hezbollah Foreign Relations Department official for Cote d’Ivoire,” responsible for coordinating the travel of Hezbollah members between Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire. He is tied to Specially Designated Global Terrorist Abd Al Menhem Qubaysi, a “personal representative” of Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s Secretary General.

How long will Iran and Hezbollah enjoy their relative impunity?

Iran and Hezbollah continue to plan and stage terrorist attacks worldwide, showing a marked preference to build networks in countries with little experience about their modus operandi . Iran and Hezbollah calculate that these states are likely to act leniently against their operatives and agents, when forceful diplomatic pressure is applied as well as possibly threats of retaliation.

In the event of an acute diplomatic or military crisis in the Gulf arising from tensions relating to Iran’s nuclear efforts, Iran and Hezbollah, its proxy, could easily use the African continent for attacks against American and European targets there or as a platform for operations in Europe itself.

At a time when the European Union appears so hesitant in designating Hezbollah, or even its “military branch”, as a terrorist organization, it is no wonder that countries such as India, Thailand, Bulgaria or Cyprus do not dare compel Iran, and Hezbollah, to pay the diplomatic and political price for their deadly activities. Europe is setting a poor example not only to its members but to the international community as a whole.

As evidence mounts up regarding Iran and Hezbollah’s capabilities and intentions in East and West Africa, all eyes are on Nigeria, and its political and juridical authorities, to see whether they will resist the shameful pressure that Iran, through Lebanon, is trying to exert on them to hush up the terrorist activities that are being planned, funded and activated in its territory.