The revelation of this terror plot is a bleak reminder that the mullahs’ malign activities are not limited by the borders of Iran. When the Iranian regime took power in 1979, it started the so-called “export of the Islamic Revolution,” bringing chaos to other parts of the world. The preamble to the Iranian constitution says:
“Given the content of the Islamic Revolution of Iran, which was a movement for the victory of the oppressed over the arrogant, the constitution provides the basis for the continuation of this revolution at home and abroad, especially in expanding international relations with other Islamic and popular movements, to pave the way for the formation of a single world nation and to continue the struggle for the salvation of oppressed and deprived nations throughout the world.”
The Iranian regime has prioritized “exporting revolution” to countries with a Muslim population. African countries with their internal crisis and Muslim populations have been a prime target. The Iranian regime, either directly or through its Hezbollah terrorist proxy group, has expanded its influence across the continent, mainly south of the Sahara. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and Hezbollah have established a strong foothold in Africa, and their activities there accelerated in the early 2010s and reached a new height after 2018.
The regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei met with the IRGC commanders on October 2, 2019, and underlined the regime’s need to increase its presence in Africa. “Do not miss this vast geography of resistance. Do not miss this cross-border look. [We] should not be satisfied [only] with our region,” he said. Other Iranian officials have confirmed their intention of expanding their influence in Africa.
“Iran must make Africa a fundamental issue in its strategy in 2021. Let all the institutions take a leap forward and conduct jihadist and revolutionary management. [We should] take advantage of this existing usable capacity of Africa,” said Hossein Akbari, former Iranian ambassador to Libya, according to Fars News Agency.
The Daily Telegraph on June 24, 2019, wrote: “Iran is setting up a network of terror cells in Africa to attack the US and other Western targets in retaliation for Washington’s decision to impose sanctions against Tehran, according to Western security officials. The aim of the new terror cell is to target the US and other Western military bases on the continent, as well as embassies and officials.”
The Telegraph then quoted an anonymous Western Official as saying that “Iran is setting up new terrorist infrastructure in Africa with the aim of attacking Western targets. It is all part of Tehran’s attempts to expand its terrorist operations across the globe.”
The Iranian regime has long tried to portray itself as the state-sponsor of Shi’ite communities around the globe. So how could the Shi’ite regime in Tehran and Hezbollah pursue their malign goals in African countries where the majority of the Muslims are Sunnis?
The mullahs in Tehran have proven quite adept at working with Sunni radicals when it comes to their common interests. In this piece, we try to shed light on the Iranian regime’s “strategic depth” in Africa and how it uses it to generate income and spread terrorism.
How Hezbollah Established its network in Africa
A profound study conducted by Prof. Carl Anthony Wege from the Institute for Strategic, Political, Security and Economic Consultancy (ISPSW) reveals a great amount of detail about Iran and Hezbollah’s network in Africa.
Hezbollah’s revenue-generating network is located “primarily in two spaces; one is an arc stretching from West Africa along the coast reaching down toward the Congo while the other is a circle encompassing the Horn of Africa,” Wege wrote. He added that the network that Tehran directly controls “can be visualized as a circle encompassing the Horn of Africa seeking to influence the Middle Eastern theater. Iranian arms smuggling infiltrations from that circle reach into Nigeria, Kenya, and the central African spaces.”
The study notes that “Lebanese diaspora communities emerged in West Africa in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These were initially made up primarily of Lebanese Christian immigrants who were historically encouraged by British colonial policy to settle in places like Sierra Leone.”
After the Sierra Leone civil war ended in 2002, Hezbollah improved its position in the Shi’ite community. Eventually, it gained control of much of the illegal diamond trade previously dominated by its rival, Afwaj al Muqawamah al Lubnaniyyah or AMAL movement.
“In other parts of West Africa such as the Congo, other Shi’a traders in illegal diamonds became subjugated to Hizballah men through middlemen, broadening the revenue stream to finance the organization,” reads the ISPSW study. “Hezbollah successfully blended the illegal diamond trade with legitimate business enterprises; this also helped to disguise finances that supported Hizballah activities in Lebanon.”
Hezbollah used the resulting flow of money from Congo in multiple corporate networks. Besides its smuggling, Hezbollah participates in organized crime to generate financial support. According to Prof. Wege’s report, “The two major elements of this type of criminality are Hizballah shakedowns of Lebanese merchants in the African diaspora and its cooperation with narco-trafficking organizations. A less significant factor is Hizballah’s involvement in various fraud schemes.”
Iran’s arms smuggling network stretches across West Africa. Tehran has established strong connections with local governments and insurgent groups in countries like Ghana and Nigeria in the last few years.
The non-Islamic Southern regions are the basis for Nigeria’s oil-based wealth, while the Islamic North is economically much less developed. Thus, the Iranian regime has exploited this situation and influenced Nigeria’s Muslim community. Besides supporting the terrorist groups, the regime has been able to influence the local military officials since various Muslims sects from the Northern portion of the country ultimately came to dominate the Nigerian army.
The Iranian regime’s main element in Nigeria is Ibrahim Zakzaky and his Islamic Movement of Nigeria. The IRGC has wasted the Iranian people’s wealth to build barracks and training centers for Zakzaky’s militants in two northern Nigerian regions, Kano and Sokoto.
Sheikh Zakzaki has sought to establish a branch of the Iranian regime in Nigeria that functions much like Hizbollah in Lebanon and allows him to pursue his fundamentalist goals. Corruption, money laundering, arms smuggling, and drug trafficking have expanded the mullahs’ strategic lines in Nigeria.
According to Prof. Wege, “In addition to potentially exploiting local Islamist radicals, Iranian assets have also tried to build an arms smuggling network in Nigeria and throughout Africa. In doing so, it was not always successful. Iran’s efforts to use Nigeria for covert arms distribution backfired in October 2010 when the Nigerian State Security Services, probably tipped by Western agencies, intercepted a ship in Lagos port of Apapa.”
Following this incident, Senegal and Gambia, both of whom previously had good relations with Tehran, took umbrage at the Nigerian discovery and broke diplomatic relations with Iran in 2011.
Before 2011, Iran had a very active economic relationship with Senegal. During the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian regime gave Senegal a Samand car production line to expand its influence in that country. But despite a $100 million investment, the line remains inactive due to the country’s inability to supply electricity for it.
“Iran Khodro has invested about $100 million in Senegal, which does not bring any production or profit for this company, even for Iran Khodro. It incurs financial costs, and these costs are distributed over the production cars, increasing prices of cars,” Amir Khojasteh, former MP of Hamedan, told Fars News Agency on October 1, 2019.
Iran in the Horn of Africa
The Iranian regime has been trying to expand its influence in the horn of Africa. Tehran is particularly interested in relations with East African countries, especially those lying along the Red Sea. Having a vast network in East Africa is part of Iran’s strategy to strengthen its foothold in the Middle East.
Tehran exploited its influence in East African countries such as Sudan and Kenya to direct subversive and terrorist activities. Its targets are North Africa in general and Egypt in particular, and pro-Western Arab states as well as Israel.
Dominating the Red Sea is very important for the Iranian regime since it could support its Houthi rebels in Yemen. To dominate the Red Sea, Tehran has been long investing in the crisis in Somalia and Sudan.
“The center of Iran’s efforts in this regard has been Sudan and, to a lesser extent, Somalia. Iran’s efforts began a generation ago following the 1989 Islamist coup by Hassan Turabi’s National Islamic Front in Sudan. Iran traded money for influence in Khartoum, and Sudan became a focal point for Iranian intelligence liaison with networks of Sunni Islamists,” Prof. Wege’s report adds about the Iranian-Somalian relationship.
According to Wege, “In 2008 Sudan’s role in Iran’s arms smuggling networks was enhanced by a mutual defense agreement signed by the Defense Ministries of both countries. This expanded Sudan’s role as a regional center for larger Iranian arms trafficking operations. In these efforts, Hizballah members, acting on Iran’s behalf and often with the cooperation of Sudan’s Abadba tribe, transported weapons north through Egypt and into the Sinai where Bedouin smugglers would move them on into Gaza.”
According to Prof. Wege, the Iranian regime prefers “instability in the Horn of Africa, even under the auspices of Sunni Islamists like al Shabab, to gain and maintain Iranian influence in the region.”
Despite its more developed security services, Kenya offers rich terrorist opportunities for the regime in Tehran. Besides the recently foiled terrorist plot in Kenya, the Iranian regime has a long history of spreading chaos in that country.
Since the US embassy in Kenya acts as a counterpoint to the Iranian regime, by deploying substantial resources to promote stability in Somalia, the regime has tried several times to target the US embassy.
When, in January 2020, one US serviceman and two American private contractors were killed by the Somali militant group al-Shabab, fingers were pointed toward Tehran. This attack was considered to be the Iranian regime’s retaliation after the US killed the IRGC Quds Force Commander, Qassem Soleimani, in a drone strike on January 4.
“Iran’s intent to use the opportunities Kenya presented was demonstrated in 2012. Kenyan police arrested Sayed Mansour Mousavi and Ahmad Abolfathi Mohammed, both Iranian nationals, for smuggling more than one hundred kilograms of cyclonite (RDX) to a warehouse in Mombasa, Kenya,” Prof. Wege wrote about Tehran’s history of terrorist activities in Kenya.
On April 15, 2021, the grey dynamics reported, “In 2015, Kenyan authorities arrested two terror suspects with alleged links to Iran’s Quds Force. A branch in Africa was established by Gen. Qassem Soleimani. One suspect admitted they had been plotting to attack Western targets. Previously in 2012, two Iranians were arrested and charged for planning a terror attack, leading to the discovery of 15 kilograms of RDX explosives.”
The grey dynamics revealed that “Following the signing of the 2015 nuclear deal, through the orders of Soleimani, a terror cell network was set up by the specialized section (Unit 400) of the Quds Force run by Hamed Abdollahi. The cells themselves are allegedly run by Ali Parhoon, another prominent member of the Quds Force. They uncovered this after arrests last April led to the revelation.”
According to the grey dynamics and some intelligence reports, “there are around 300 highly trained militants within the network throughout Africa. The primary aim is to target Western assets and interests in the region. These cells are reportedly spread across Sudan, Chad, Ghana, Niger, Gambia, and the Central African Republic. Hezbollah has also been training Nigerians for years. The 2018 Middle East Institute report stated that Iran had instructed Hezbollah to increase Nigerian training activities, as it seeks to facilitate a base of operations to launch attacks.”
Again the Iranian regime is designated "the world’s worst state sponsor of terrorism" for being, "directly involved in plotting terrorism through its IRGC & Ministry of Intelligence and Security including plots in recent years in North & South America, Europe, ME, Asia & Africa." https://t.co/ZhiRU499Bk
— Alireza Jafarzadeh (@A_Jafarzadeh) June 24, 2020
IRGC Quds Force’s Unit 400
The IRGC has been exporting terrorism across the globe by using its elite Quds Force. For the past two decades, the IRGC has sought to shift the political structure of African countries in favor of the regime, using the deep rifts caused by political crises and economic problems in African countries, using the capacity of opposition forces, and insurgents. The Quds Force unit 400, which has been tasked with implementing these policies in Africa, has often operated purposefully, investing in capacities resulting from ethnic, religious, and economic inefficiencies in East and West African nations.
According to an article by the Euro-Gulf Information Centre (EGIC), “This newly established Unit was specifically created to attack Iranian enemies’ interests around the world aiming to protect the regime and advance its interests. The leadership of the IRGC-QF and the Unit 400 is directly responsible to the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.”
“Since 2011, the IRGC-QF operatives, through Unit 400, have been more active in the direct execution of the attacks rather than limiting themselves only to ordering and providing the means to carry out the attack,” EGIC adds. “It seems that since then Hezbollah and the IRGC have divided their responsibilities: Hezbollah operatives focus on tourists, while the IRGC-QF focuses on diplomatic staff, embassies and more high-profile targets.”
According to EGIC, “In some cases, they use inconspicuous locals that can operate under the radar of intelligence services, dual nationals with European, Canadian or US passports, diplomatic cover and sometimes criminals for the preparation and execution of the attacks.”
Unit 400 is an elite unit that maintains maximum secrecy to its sensitive tasks. The IRGC Major General Hamed Abdollahi is the head of this unit. Abdollahi has held several top military positions, including:
– Commander of the Quds Force intelligence branch
– Commander of the IRGC in Zahedan and Zabol in southeast Iran
– Qassem Soleimani’s deputy at the IRGC’s 41st Division
Majid Alawi is another senior commander of Unit 400. He joined Unit 400 in 2011 and has been using his knowledge to contribute to operational activities and attack plans, mainly in distant countries.
Unit 400 has a network of facilitators and proxies, including elements in organized crime syndicates. These individuals collect information, make preliminary logistical preparations, and carry out operations if necessary. These individuals sometimes are trained inside Iran and sometimes in the Quds Force’s training camps across the globe.
Unit 400 has various front companies that both provide cover and money for this terrorist entity to operate. Two companies, Arash Zoobin, and Aria Navid, are used to secretly transfer weapons for Unit 400. Besides, the IRGC uses its vast network of front companies, religious or charitable organizations around the world to recruit facilitators.
In December 2020, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned Al-Mustafa International University, which acts as a front organization for facilitating Revolutionary Guards-Quds Force recruitment efforts.
According to the Treasury’s statement: “Al-Mustafa International University, which has branches around the world, is used as a recruitment platform by the IRGC-QF for intelligence collection and operations, including recruitment for the IRGC-QF-led foreign militias fighting on behalf of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria.”
“The IRGC-QF uses Al-Mustafa University to develop student exchanges with foreign universities for the purposes of indoctrinating and recruiting foreign sources. Al-Mustafa has facilitated unwitting tourists from western countries to come to Iran, from whom IRGC-QF members sought to collect intelligence. The statement adds that recruits from Al-Mustafa International University have been sent to Syria to fight on behalf of IRGC-QF-led militias.
Export of terrorism and chaos across the world followed the Iranian regime’s ascent to power in 1979. The Iranian regime prolonged a deadly war with Iraq for eight years, and when it ended, the regime did not stop its regional adventurism.
Every now and then, Tehran’s terrorists are arrested in different parts of the world. The recent arrest of Iranian spies in Africa, Europe, and the US and the trial of Tehran’s diplomat-terrorist Assadollah Assadi in 2020 indicate that mullahs use every opportunity to pursue their malign activities. The information above about the regime’s network of terrorism in Africa is just the tip of an iceberg.
The regime has been using terrorism as leverage to force the international community to accept its demands. Western powers should not allow that. By allowing Tehran to continue its malign activities in the region and maintain its network of terrorism and espionage, no one would be safe.
The heart of terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism beats in Tehran. To increase global security, world leaders should increase pressure on the Iranian regime, expel its agents from their countries, close their embassies and so-called cultural centers, and cut off any financial transaction with the Iranian regime.