By using every possible means to achieve its illegitimate and illegal goals in Africa, Iran has not been reluctant to support outlawed groups and militias in countries suffering from political and social instability. It has done this either with the aim of taking revenge on its opponents by striking their domestic interests or threatening their national security.
It has not stopped tempting or even forcing the governments of unstable countries to ally themselves with it and distance themselves from hostile countries, as well as trying to exploit their natural resources, sell industrial products in their markets and open them up to Iranian companies.
The latest example has taken the form of American and Israeli sources reporting that Iran has been activating sleeper cells in Africa in order to achieve its goal of revenge for the killing of Iranian Revolutionary Guard foreign operations official Qassem Al-Suleimani in an American strike and the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a former official of the Amad programme for producing nuclear weapons in Iran.
The report, published by the New York Times in mid-February, reveals that the Ethiopian intelligence service thwarted a major attack in the capital Addis Ababa at the beginning of the month by arresting a cell of 15 individuals targeting the United Arab Emirates Embassy in the city in addition to finding a cache of weapons and explosives.
US and Israeli officials said that Iran had orchestrated the operation and that its intelligence apparatus had activated a terrorist sleeper cell in Addis Ababa since last autumn, giving it orders to collect intelligence information about the US and Israel embassies there.
Israeli officials explained that at least three of the detained cell members might be real Iranian agents and that the remaining 12 are linked to the aforementioned network.
To find out who was behind the plot, according to The New York Times, the 16th element in the cell, named Ahmed Ismail and accused of being its leader, was arrested in Sweden in cooperation between African, Asian and European intelligence services, according to the Ethiopian authorities.
Director of African Intelligence at the Pentagon in the US Heidi Berg said that Iran was behind the 15 elements and that the so-called “Ahmed Ismail” was the mastermind of the failed plot, adding that the Ethiopian and Swedish authorities had cooperated in thwarting it.
American and Israeli sources interpreted the failed Iranian operation in Ethiopia as being part of an expanded campaign to search for easy targets in African countries in order to inflict heavy and painful losses in retaliation for the killing of Al-Suleimani and the assassination of Fakhrizadeh.
The National Intelligence and Security Service in Ethiopia also revealed that a second group of conspirators had been preparing to attack the Emirati Embassy in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, then confirmed by a Sudanese official.
A high-ranking US defence official linked the arrests in Addis Ababa and the failed Iranian plan to assassinate the US Ambassador to South Africa Lana Marks. The matter was published by the American magazine Politico last September.
Israeli officials said that the Iranian apparatus responsible for the failed attack on the Iranian opposition conference in France in June 2018 and for another conspiracy during the same year in Denmark was also responsible for orchestrating the failed operation in the Ethiopian capital.
Farzin Nadimi, an expert on Iranian military affairs at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank, said that Iran “may wish to send a message to the new [American] administration that if it does not succeed in reaching a speedy agreement with the Iranian government on the Iranian nuclear programme, this is what they will face.”
OTHER ATTEMPTS: The Ethiopian operation was not the only Iranian attempt of its kind, as the US Foreign Policy magazine reported in July last year, that Somalia had become a new arena for Iran to play a subversive role in the region.
It quoted senior Somali government officials to the effect that Tehran’s interests in the Horn of Africa included establishing secret relations with the militant Al-Shabaab (Youth) group. It added that this relationship extended to targets outside Somalia, such as using such extremist groups to transfer weapons to the Houthi rebels in Yemen and to groups in other countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, South Sudan, Mozambique, and the Central African Republic.
The magazine referred to attacks in 2019 and 2020 on US military bases in Somalia and northern Kenya and on a European Union military convoy in Mogadishu. Al-Shabaab carried out an attack in January 2020 on the Simba camp in northern Kenya, killing three Americans two days after the American raid in which Al-Suleimani and other leaders were killed.
It explained that Tehran had been able to attract extremist networks to work alongside it by providing money to recruit Somalis and expand its network of clients in the region. It quoted Somali officials as saying that the Iranian operations were led by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and enhanced by relations established by its affiliate the Al-Quds Force with extremist groups and criminal networks in Somalia.
The magazine added that Tehran was using its influence in Somalia to smuggle Iranian oil and sell it cheaply in Africa to avoid US sanctions. Somalia severed diplomatic relations with Iran in 2016 after it accused Tehran of interfering in its internal affairs and threatening its national security.
In June 2019, the British newspaper the Daily Telegraph quoted Western officials as saying that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard had formed networks of sleeper cells to attack American and European targets such as embassies, foreign military bases and foreign employees in Africa under the supervision of the 400th Unit of the Al-Quds Force.
It quoted research reports saying that the Revolutionary Guard had sleeper cells in a number of Sub-Saharan African countries and that it could use them against Western interests and turn these countries into a battlefield against Iran’s regional and international enemies.
In April 2019, one such network was exposed in Chad and the Central African Republic, whose members had received training in camps run by Iran, according to British officials. Four years before, a network of two Iranians and others who had plotted bombings in Nairobi, Kenya, was also exposed.
Research-centre papers have reported that Iran is spending billions of dollars in Africa in the form of free social services such as hospitals, orphanages and religious schools in a bid to extend its control over an area thousands of kilometres away from it.
The means of pressure and blackmail used by Tehran have included spreading the Shiite doctrine in Islamic societies known for their adherence to the Sunni sect, such as Sudan and Nigeria. Some five years ago, Khartoum nearly had to close Iranian cultural centres in the country for this reason, and Abuja decided to ban the Shiite Islamic Movement loyal to Tehran in August 2019 after accusing it of being “an enemy” amid fears that Nigeria could become an arena of conflict between Sunnis and Shiites.
The office of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari declared that the reason for banning the movement was “the control of militants who do not believe in peaceful protest but are inclined to violence” to achieve their goals.
The Shiite Movement in Nigeria, founded nearly four decades ago, calls for the establishment of an Islamic state based on the Iranian model in Nigeria, and it has taken former Iranian leader Ruhollah Khomeini as a role model, swearing allegiance to him at the beginning of meetings and before its leader sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky.
The movement does not recognise the authority of the Nigerian government and considers that government officials, whether Christians or Muslims, are corrupt and illegal. It runs a network of schools and hospitals in the north of the country, where most Nigerian Muslims live, and many of its members hold important positions in the country’s army, police and intelligence.
Jacob Zen, an analyst at the Jamestown Research Foundation in the US, said that the Shiite Movement in Nigeria had lightly armed military brigades similar to those of the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah in Lebanon and a newspaper that provided photographs of Khomeini and others at its headquarters and in its demonstrations.
The movement can mobilise tens of thousands of supporters at its rallies. The number of Shiites in Nigeria was negligible before the Iranian Islamic Revolution, when they constituted between five and 17 per cent of the total.
What confirmed Tehran’s link with the Nigerian Movement was the outbreak of protests in Iran and elsewhere to demand the release of Zakzaky when he was arrested in Nigeria and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s contact with his Nigerian counterpart following deaths in the 2015 protests.
Interventions by countries from outside Africa such as Iran to support extremist groups that create unrest and pursue violence and terrorism on the continent have prompted Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to demand that we “deal decisively and collectively with states that sponsor terrorism”.
He said at the Aswan Forum for Sustainable Peace and Development in Africa in December 2019 that “we will only be able to confront terrorism with collective action, and we must deal decisively with countries that support and sponsor terrorism. Terrorist groups will not have the ability to spread terror unless they are provided with material, military and moral support.”
He also stressed that achieving sustainable development in Africa was required, as well as efforts to confront armed groups in Egypt and the Sub-Saharan African countries.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 February, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly