The success of Iran’s revolution in 1979 marked the success of a new global Islamist ideology with a key commitment to countering Western influence in the Muslim world. The Iranian constitution reinforces the global exportation of this ideology, citing the aim of representing “the earnest aspiration of the Islamic ummah [universal community of believers]…made explicit by the very nature of the great Islamic Revolution of Iran, as well as the course of the Muslim people’s struggle.”1 This commitment to combatting perceived Western dominance is characteristic of religious fundamentalist movements, which typically “form in reaction to, and in defense against the processes and consequences of secularization and modernization which have penetrated the larger religious community.” 2 Since the late 1970s, Iran’s modus operandi has been to preserve the Shi’a Muslim minority worldwide and disseminate the Islamic revolution’s ideology in response to this perceived Western ideological threat.
This pan-Islamic resolve first succeeded in Lebanon. The Lebanon-based political and militant Shi’a group Hezbollah (“Party of God”) is not a proxy of Iran, but rather its strongest political partner. Birthed from the Israeli military’s seizure of southern Lebanon in 1982, the Shi’a Islamist party aspires to establish an Islamic state within Lebanon, resulting in the movement often being referred to as a “state within a state.” The organization is a hybrid political-militant movement with three legs (social, political, and military). Some 80 to 90% of its income comes from the Iranian government, which donates roughly $200 million annually.3 Hezbollah’s ties to Iran are visible in the party’s founding manifesto from 1985, which declared a pledge of loyalty to Iran’s “Supreme Leader.”
The export of the Iranian apparatus gained traction over the years in Western countries and is seen in the increasing number of Iranian agents apprehended in Europe. Parallels can also be drawn between the Iranian model of exporting Shi’a ideology and the Saudi Arabian infrastructure used to disseminate Wahhabism on a global scale. Key similarities to be discussed include state-sponsored financing mechanisms, da’wa (proselytization) infrastructure, investment in education, and a heavy reliance on pan-Islamism as religious and ideological justification.
A steady shift of these activities has been underway as seen in an increase in the activities of Iranian partners and proxies in West Africa. This is in addition to the critical outreach programs Iran and Hezbollah representatives conduct with the Lebanese Shi’a diaspora in the region. As the focus of the paper is West Africa, Nigeria and Sierra Leone will be analyzed as case studies. This is due to their large Lebanese diasporas and prominent Hezbollah activity, which capitalizes on weak governance as well as pre-existing international organized crime groups and smuggling routes. As this paper will convey, there is an urgent need for African countries and their partners to understand the nature and gravity of the threat posed by Iran-linked militant organizations.
Background: The Lebanese Diaspora and Iran in West Africa
The Lebanese diaspora is spread far and wide, mainly as a result of Lebanese fleeing wars and oppression over the years. While all of Lebanon’s sects and communities are represented among the diaspora, since around 1910, Lebanese Shi’as in West Africa have far outnumbered Lebanese Christians. In just ten years between 1960 and 1970, the Lebanese population in West Africa rose from 17,000 to 75,000, reaching 150,000 by 1985.4
Within West Africa, the diasporic Lebanese often dominate multiple sectors of the economy, from real estate, hospitality, trade, construction, retail and manufacturing to diamond and gold mining industries. These family-owned businesses contributed to West Africa’s economic growth and turned the region’s Lebanese community into a pillar of economic success. In Côte d’Ivoire, for example, the Lebanese diaspora own 80% of distribution activities, 70% of packaging and printing, 60% of the housing stock, and 50% of industry.5
Hezbollah activity in West Africa dates as far back as the early 1980s, when the group fundraised through narcoterrorism and criminal operations. Extensive fundraising operations occurred through specific Lebanese families working in Africa, sometimes conning unwitting Shi’a donors into funding the organization. These communities are able to operate in relatively unregulated economies, providing a permissible environment for Hezbollah to self-finance through activities such as money laundering, the drug trade, and arms dealing.
Hezbollah cells are surreptitiously provided cover by Iranian diplomatic offices as well as Iran’s steady development of social infrastructure which is used to conceal illicit activity through the proffering of financial, ideological, and material support. The crux of the Islamic Revolution is to propagate Shi’a Islam and counter U.S. influence. In this sense, African Shi’a populations, and in particular Shi’a members of the Lebanese diaspora, are crucial to Iran’s activities in Africa. The highest concentrations of Shi’a Muslims in Africa include: Nigeria (four million as of 2009), Tanzania (two million as of 2009), and Niger (approximately 900,000 as of 2015), with smaller numbers found in Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Uganda, Senegal, and elsewhere.
The importance of the African continent to Iran’s strategic plans was revealed during a two-day Iran-Africa summit in Tehran in 2010, which brought together heads of state, diplomats, business leaders, and cultural representatives from over 40 African nations to discuss a plethora of issues. Iran and Hezbollah strategically invest in enriching cultural and religious ties with local Shi’a movements and the Lebanese diaspora in Africa by providing scholarships and erecting Iranian cultural centers in Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Senegal, and South Africa, among other countries. Interestingly, Iran has begun positioning itself in alignment with traditional African anti-colonial politics by championing the cause of African Shi’a minorities as an oppressed class.
Mosques and Madrasas: Iranian Da’wa in Africa
Following the turbulent events of 1979, which saw both the Iranian revolution and the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the 1980s saw the emergence of state support for hardline interpretations of Islam in West Africa from countries like Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Libya. While the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia represented Sunni Wahhabism, monarchism, the Arab world, and alignment with the United States, Iran represented Shi’ism, anti-monarchism, Persian power, and a direct opposition to the United States. Yet between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the extremist Sunni and Shi’a da’wa and educational infrastructures are quite similar in terms of their approach to Muslim solidarity.
The da’wa infrastructures of both Iran and Saudi Arabia utilize large sums of money spread across multiple channels. Da’wa systems are generally untouchable from a counterterrorist financing perspective due to legal and practical issues. The building of Shi’a and Sunni mosques, youth foundations, and local branches of universities throughout Africa therefore create the perfect means to disseminate radical ideologies.
Between 1975 and 2003, Saudi Arabia spent $70 billion on foreign aid worldwide, over two-thirds of which was allocated to Islamic activities.6 This led to the erection of 1,500 mosques, over 200 Islamic Centers, over 200 Islamic colleges, and approximately 2,000 schools in non-Muslim countries alone. By comparison, Iran’s financing model sends funds directly from the state to radical and front organizations. A prime example is seen in the patron-client relationship with Hezbollah, with providing most of the organization’s funding.7 More recently, Iran has lobbied for stronger relations on the African continent in an attempt to counter the overwhelming Sunni influence in the region.
By establishing local branches of Iranian universities in Africa, Iran offers scholarships to study in Iran as a way of further cementing the Iranian Shi’a ideology. Al-Mustafa University was founded in 2007 by Ayatollah Khomeini himself. He oversees the curriculum and activities and represents the university’s highest authority. Ayatollah Khomeini reinforced the missionary objective of the university when addressing students and staff in Qom in 2010:
The first lesson that the Islamic Revolution and the auspicious Islamic Republic taught us was that we should think beyond our borders and turn our attention to the vast arena of the Islamic Ummah… Part of the great work is what you are doing. You have gathered here from nearly one hundred countries in order to become familiar with the pure teachings of Islam.8
Many al-Mustafa graduates are assessed for induction into Hezbollah’s operational units, particularly those with previous combat experience in Syria and Iraq.9 African students are also sent to study theology in Iranian universities, during which time they are recruited and trained as Hezbollah operatives or Iranian intelligence agents. In 2002, Ugandan Police arrested Shafi Ibrahim, the leader of a Ugandan Shi’a cell under the instruction of Iran and likely Hezbollah. Ibrahim and other African students had studied at the Rizavi University in Iran six years prior on a theology scholarship, where they were also trained alongside Hezbollah in 2001 in northern Tehran. This training focused on the use of small arms, the creation of explosive devices, reconnaissance, escape routes, and tips for enduring interrogation. These students were also provided fictitious covers, cash, and lines of communication before being sent to gather intel on Americans and Westerners in Uganda and Africa at large.10
Al-Mustafa trains clerics in different countries to spread “Khomeinism” in their home countries, particularly in Africa, where over 30 countries have local branches of the university. These schools have over 5,000 African students enrolled, including the 2,000 students studying in Iran. The importance of the school’s extensive presence in Africa was reiterated by its President, Alizera Aarafi, in 2015, who emphasized the “strategic depth [for] pure Islam.”11 The school’s vice president strengthened this message a year later by stating how the “export of revolution has always been one of the most important goals for the Islamic Republic. Al-Mustafa plays a role in preparing the ground and attaining this goal.”12 Clerics who study at the university learn Khomeinism with the assumption that upon graduation, they will act on Iran’s instructions and spark an Iranian-Hezbollah influence in mosques and sister schools by disseminating Twelver Shi’a ideology in Africa.
In Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, a similar Iranian footprint is left in the form of the al-Ghadir Center, located in the Marcory neighborhood dubbed “Little Beirut.” The youth center has been framed by U.S. authorities as a base for Hezbollah to recruit youth and carry out operational activity, with a high likelihood of fundraising activity. The Director of al-Ghadir described the center’s inception as a direct response to “the victory of the Iranian Islamic Revolution, after which a strong sense of responsibility carried by an assembly of believers.”13
In 2010, Ivorian security forces planned a targeted search on the sister al-Ghadir Mosque. However, a last-minute intervention from the Ivoirian President prevented any intelligence gathering for fears of sparking resentment from the Lebanese community.14 Côte d’Ivoire is seen as Hezbollah’s primary center for fundraising within Africa, helped greatly by the country’s established Lebanese families. With a Muslim-majority population, Côte d’Ivoire has the largest Lebanese diaspora in West Africa with over 100,000 expatriates; 90% of the Lebanese community live in Abidjan. This presents a ripe setting for Hezbollah’s social and religious offensive. Schools funded by Iran and built by influential Lebanese businessmen serve as educational hubs for the Muslim population of Abidjan, including the Moroccan diaspora. In 2018, for example, Hezbollah led an outreach campaign targeting Moroccans in Côte d’Ivoire to convert them to Shi’a Islam.15
The Iranian Threat Network
The Iranian Threat Network (ITN), a phrase coined by Dr. Eitan Azani et al., is a critical component in understanding Iran’s methods of exporting the Islamic revolution. 16 The ITN is comprised of proxies and partners that Iran leverages to strategically promote its interests abroad. A prime example is again seen in Hezbollah, which focuses its activities on the Middle East yet operates terrorist and criminal networks worldwide, particularly in areas with weak governments and international organized crime groups (namely West Africa and the tri-border area of South America). Hezbollah acts as a power multiplier for the ITN due to its near-global presence.
Hezbollah sustains an open international presence through its Foreign Relations Department (FRD). The FRD’s core missions include propaganda, financing, and support, all the while liaising between local sympathizers and Hezbollah leaders in Lebanon. Some FRD personnel are Lebanese members sent abroad, and others are Hezbollah supporters already based in the target countries. FRD personnel are akin to Hezbollah “diplomats,” acting as front men appointed by the organization to build ties between Hezbollah and Iran on the one hand and the Lebanese diaspora and Shi’a communities on the other. Some Lebanese community centers serve as bases for Hezbollah activity, with special FRD representatives coordinating among Shi’a communities on the ground. Most FRD members are closely linked to senior Hezbollah officials, and many have significant military training to abet criminal and terrorist activities.
According to Canadian intelligence, the FRD establishes front companies abroad and disguises members as talent hunters to mobilize local Shi’a backing for Hezbollah and Iran. Per Canadian intelligence, Hezbollah is “one of the most technically capable terrorist groups in the world.” 17 A prime example is seen in 2017, when the group created fake Facebook accounts of attractive women to target Israeli soldiers. IDF soldiers were contacted by these Facebook accounts and were then lured into installing third party messaging applications that secretly installed malware onto the users’ devices. This type of hostile cyber activity granted Hezbollah spyware access to IDF soldiers’ phones, allowing them to retrieve specific intelligence and military content.18
Hezbollah’s FRD is also intricately linked to the group’s Business Affairs Component (BAC), which is leveraged to build terror cells in Africa. In 2015, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned three Hezbollah members and their entities over a West Africa-based support network. The report rejected the FRD’s claims that it merely runs “community relations,” affirming: “the primary goal of the FRD in Nigeria is to scout recruits for Hizballah’s military units, as well as to create and support Hizballah’s terrorist infrastructure for its operational units in Africa and globally.”19
Two years prior, the United States also sanctioned four Lebanese citizens accused of facilitating Hezbollah’s expansion into West Africa, specifically in Sierra Leone, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, and Gambia.20 The large Lebanese communities in these regions are largely Shi’a, making them a ripe Hezbollah target. As the scholar Richard Downie noted, this setting made for a perfect storm. “This is a set of countries that are under-governed – ill-governed in some respects,” Downie remarked. “Their security services are weak. Their police capability is pretty low, so there are opportunities there for transnational organized criminals to take advantage.”21
Iranian influence in West Africa has grown through Hezbollah, with main priorities focused around the smuggling of weapons and recruitment of militants into its network. For instance, FRD operatives Fouzi Fawaz and Abdallah Tahini organized Hezbollah delegations to Nigeria and became members of a Hezbollah cell in the country, with the former accused of possessing “heavy weapons [and]… other terrorism-related activities.”22 It has also been reported that some African Shi’a have fought in Syria, albeit in small numbers.23 Furthermore, Iranian arms have been uncovered throughout Africa, with some intended for Shi’a movements whilst others were sold to local militant groups. In Senegal, for example, the insurgent group Mouvement des Forces Démocratiques de Casamance (MFDC) was found in possession of sophisticated Iranian weapons, resulting in Senegal’s decision to cut diplomatic ties with Iran in 2011.
West Africa in particular is home to an extensive Iranian operational infrastructure that is heavily reliant on Shi’a communities, with the most successful proxy, the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, to be explored further in a case study. The FRD has targeted goals in Nigeria: to scout recruits for Hezbollah’s military units; to create Hezbollah terrorist infrastructure; and to support existing Iranian infrastructure for African and global operations.24
Hezbollah Fundraising in West Africa
With Riyadh financing anti-Shi’a campaigns on a global level, Iran’s geopolitical, ideological, and tactical interests on the African continent have increased. As Iran’s most successful proxy, Hezbollah’s attempts to generate its own financial resources through fundraising is of particular interest given the sizable Lebanese diaspora in West Africa that is sympathetic to the organization’s goals. For those Lebanese who are not Hezbollah sympathizers, taxes are imposed on legitimate Lebanese- or Shi’a-owned businesses, with properties attacked for those who refuse to comply.25 Lebanese merchants are a critical component in Hezbollah fundraising activity as financiers establish strategic ties to key officials, security officers, and businessmen in African states, thereby better positioning the organization to earn millions of dollars from government contracts. More broadly, Hezbollah-linked Lebanese businesses benefit from environments in which corruption is high.
Lebanese-owned businesses in sub-Saharan Africa are approached for contributions to Hezbollah-run political and social service organizations. These donations are often extortionate in nature and usually collected in cash by Hezbollah envoys, who transfer the funds via courier to the Middle East. In 2003, a French UTA flight from Lebanon to Benin crashed on takeoff, with Hezbollah officials found on board carrying $2 million in cash raised from Lebanese living in West African countries.26 This amount represented regular contributions to Hezbollah from Lebanese nationals in various West African countries.27 Hezbollah has institutionalized a framework to receive donations from prominent Lebanese businessmen in the West African diaspora. In June 2013, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned four Lebanese nationals in Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, and Gambia, respectively, for Hezbollah-related activities. Per the official notice, these individuals “organized fundraising efforts, recruited members, and in some cases styled themselves as members of Hezbollah’s Foreign Relations Department.”28
Several Hezbollah front companies and activists relocated from South America’s tri-border area to Africa following investigations into Hezbollah’s links to the 1992 and 1994 Buenos Aires bombings (which targeted the Israeli Embassy and AMIA Jewish Community Center). In June 2017, the U.S. House of Representatives examined Hezbollah finances, drawing attention to the funding and partnerships between the group and criminal enterprises in South America and Africa.29 West Africa in particular is used for the storage and transshipment of narcotics, with Hezbollah entering into often ephemeral commercial relationships with transnational criminal networks and local criminal groups alike to move the product.30 West Africa has many well-established drug smuggling routes into Europe, with some considering Guinea-Bissau a narco-state.
To take one example, a Beirut-based firm, Halawai Exchange Co., was caught enabling the shipment of used cars worth over $200 million into Benin through the United States as part of a narco-terror money laundering scheme linked to both Hezbollah and Latin American drug cartels.31 Two Hezbollah associates were arrested in 2015 for allegedly laundering money for drug traffickers, terror organizations, and organized crime groups in Lebanon, Iran, France, Belgium, Bulgaria, Benin, DRC, Ghana, Nigeria, Cyprus, and multiple U.S. cities.32 Hezbollah and Iranian operatives are also directly involved in drug trafficking in some instances. In 2010, a cargo ship from Iran containing 130 kilograms of concentrated heroin valued at $10 million was seized in Nigeria prior to its arrival in Europe.33 Tehran’s clerics find ways to justify collaboration in narcotrafficking, which, typically, would run contrary to the puritanical Islam of the regime. Special fatwas of dispensation have been issued from Shi’a clerics, for instance, enabling direct cooperation with Colombia’s left-wing Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) guerrillas.34
Fundraising activity in West Africa is also directly carried out through Hezbollah agents such as Sheikh Abd al-Menhem Qubaysi, a personal representative of Hassan Nasrallah in Côte d’Ivoire. Qubaysi’s responsibilities included liaising with Hezbollah leaders, hosting senior Hezbollah officials travelling to Côte d’Ivoire for financing purposes, and establishing the official Hezbollah foundation within Côte d’Ivoire, using it to recruit new members for Hezbollah’s military ranks in Lebanon. In May 2009, the U.S. Treasury Department designated Qubaysi as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, leading to his deportation from West Africa.35 Nevertheless, the following year, he was allowed re-entry into Côte d’Ivoire following pressure from the Lebanese government. Hezbollah has, in fact, been active in Côte d’Ivoire since the 1980s. Hezbollah operative Mohammed Adel Taki was arrested in Abidjan in 1988 with 70 kilograms of explosives, different detonators, grenades, portable weapons, and a rocket launcher, all of which were to be sent to France.36 Similarly, Gambia under its former president, Yahya Jammeh, was a known conduit for Hezbollah financing. Jammeh even intervened twice to block U.S.-designated financier Hussain Tajideen from being deported.37 Beyond narcotrafficking, Hezbollah likely engages in various types of illegal trade across the African continent. In Mozambique, for example, Hezbollah is rumored to be involved in ivory trafficking through several dozen Lebanese operatives in the country.38
Iran also gains influence in West Africa through trading in products and services such as automobile assembly, oil and gas production, and weapons. Iran also has military cooperation arrangements with several African countries and purchases African uranium. In the 2017–2018 financial year, trade between Iran and Africa reached a record-breaking high of $1.2 billion.39 This trade helps Iran circumvent U.S. and UN sanctions. More notably, uranium deals struck with Namibia and Zimbabwe help Iran advance its nuclear program. The former Namibian Foreign Minister went so far as to laud “Iran’s resistance in acquiring peaceful nuclear technology despite all pressures.”40 In this sense, Iranian diplomacy in Africa is additionally intended to help build international support for Iran’s nuclear weapons program in the face of Western pressure.41 However, even as it has attempted to secure continental allies, Iran has ruptured diplomatic ties with certain African countries due to its smuggling of arms through their borders.
A key regional blunder occurred in 2010, when Nigerian officials confiscated 13 shipping containers of weapons originating from Iran that were being smuggled in containers labelled as containing building materials (less than a month later, Nigerian authorities intercepted the aforementioned drug shipment at the same port). A member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and a local “Nigerian Hezbollah” member were suspected of being linked to the arms shipment. The containers were heading for Gambia, which led to the swift expulsion of Iranian diplomats from the country even as they protested that the shipment was part of a confidential agreement with the Gambian government (a claim the Gambian president denied).42
Iranian Partners and Proxies in Africa: Polisario Front, Saraya al-Zahra, and al-Qaeda
Iranian influence in Africa goes beyond trade, infrastructure development, and da’wa, extending into support for militant partners and proxies. It is important to note the variations in the relationships between Iran and its partners and proxies: some are completely dependent on Tehran for support, acting solely on its instructions, whereas others exercise autonomy. This flexible model affords Iran a wider reach while maintaining ideologically strong and well-connected proxies. Aside from the most prominent partners and proxies, like Lebanon’s Hezbollah, certain Iraqi militias, and the Houthis in Yemen, Iran has been steadily building its networks in parts of Africa. This risks exacerbating the Saudi-Iranian rivalry in Africa.
The Polisario Front is a separatist group based in Algeria fighting for the independence of Western Sahara from Morocco. The group has links to Hezbollah and has also likely cooperated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) on smuggling activities. The Algerian government is said to host Polisario members, and the group is known for smuggling arms into Mauritania and neighboring countries.43 In 2020, a UN-mandated ceasefire that had been in place since 1991 collapsed, with Polisario announcing it would resume its armed struggle against Morocco.
Despite not being a Shi’a group, the Polisario Front is supported by Iran. In 2018, Morocco severed diplomatic ties with Iran upon discovery that an Iranian intelligence officer, Amir Mousavi, had used his title of cultural attaché to Algeria as a cover for supporting Polisario along with other nefarious activity. Mousavi managed to recruit thousands of Shi’a youth from disadvantaged areas in Algeria to advance Iran’s goal of destabilizing the region. Hezbollah has also sent weapons to Polisario to use against Moroccan security forces. These weapons have included surface-to-air missiles and shoulder-fired missiles. Hezbollah was also instrumental in training Polisario members in urban warfare at a military base in Algeria.
Iran also established a proxy in the Central African Republic (CAR) under the command of Chadian citizen Ismael Djidah, who was arrested in 2019. The group Saraya al-Zahra was trained by the Special Operations’ Unit (Unit 400) of the IRGC’s Quds Force. Investigations later revealed that the Quds Force had given Djidah between $12,000 and $20,000 on each of his visits to Iran, Lebanon, or Iraq.44 Djidah was well-connected to warlords and politicians across Africa (particularly in neighboring Chad and Sudan) and was an advisor to CAR president-turned-rebel Michel Djotodia.
A UN investigation unveiled that a minimum of 12 Saraya al-Zahra members travelled to Iraq and Lebanon in 2018 and 2018 with the goal of establishing a group of 200 to 300 militants to coordinate with other cells in Chad and Sudan. During this investigation, Djidah claimed that the Quds Force had agreed to support his founding of an armed group (Saraya al-Zahra), “to carry out violent actions against Western, Israeli and Saudi interests in Africa.”45 He personally recruited 30 to 40 militants from various CAR rebel groups, who later underwent military training at Iranian-run camps in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria. It seems the raison d’etre of Saraya al-Zahra was to establish a Quds Force infrastructure in Central Africa through which to carry out attacks on Western interests in the region, something that Iran has vehemently denied.
Despite their sectarian differences, Iran has cooperated with al-Qaeda at various points throughout the latter’s history. The relationship has been bumpy at times, with Iran sometimes detaining al-Qaeda officials and al-Qaeda occasionally targeting Iranian interests. Connections between al-Qaeda and Iran predate the September 11 attacks. Osama bin Laden cultivated ties with Iran during his four-year spell in Sudan between 1992 and 1996. During this consolidation phase of al-Qaeda, the group looked to Iran and Hezbollah for tactical cooperation and knowledge. In 1993, senior al-Qaeda operatives and trainers went to Iran to receive explosives training, with another delegation undergoing similar training in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, a Hezbollah stronghold.46 As early as 1998, al-Qaeda leveraged Hezbollah’s extensive networks in West Africa to launder terrorist funds through Lebanese diamond traders in Sierra Leone and neighbouring countries.47 By the 2000s, Iran served as al-Qaeda’s “facilitation hub,” in the words of General David Petraeus, while Osama bin Laden stated himself in a 2007 letter that, “Iran is our main artery for funds, personnel, and communication.”48
The concrete yet covert ties between al-Qaeda and Iran are becoming more apparent, particularly in the aftermath of the killing of al-Qaeda’s second-in-command in Tehran by Israeli agents. This targeted killing underscored the freedom of movement and operational activity that the al-Qaeda operative, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, enjoyed in Iran, albeit under tense arrangements. The second-highest ranking al-Qaeda terrorist in the world, al-Masri was one of the founding members of the group and was wanted by the FBI for his role in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa.
However, it is important to note that cooperation between Iran and al-Qaeda exists purely on a tactical level and that tensions between the Iranian government and the group likely remain. Iran initially harboured al-Qaeda members in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks but placed restrictions on their movements, effectively imprisoning them. Some analysts allege al-Masri was under the protective custody of the IRGC at the time of his death and suggest this underscores Iran’s broader strategy of state sponsorship of terrorism. Others understand al-Masri’s arrangement as part of a 2015 prisoner exchange in which several senior al-Qaeda members (including al-Masri) were granted their freedom in exchange for the release of an Iranian diplomat who had been kidnapped by al-Qaeda in Yemen (a similar prisoner exchange took place in 2011 to secure the release of an Iranian diplomat kidnapped in Pakistan). Al-Masri’s mobility in Iran was thus hard-earned and the result of al-Qaeda exercising leverage over Iran. While Secretary of State Michael Pompeo went as far as declaring Iran the “new Afghanistan” in 2021,49 al-Qaeda’s presence in the country comes at a strategic price for the Iranian regime. The most likely incentive Iran has in harboring al-Qaeda is that doing so prevents the group from attacking Iranian soil.50
The Islamic Movement of Nigeria
Nigeria has proven to be an ideal country for Iranian activity. Nigeria’s population is equal to that of all other countries in West Africa combined, making it a continental giant. It is the continent’s largest oil producing nation with membership in important international organizations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council. It is also one of the most volatile nations within West Africa. Nigeria’s appeal for Hezbollah and Iran is rooted to a large extent in the country’s large Muslim population, economic weight, and its porous borders that facilitate smuggling across the region.
Prior to 1979, Nigeria’s Shi’a community was negligible. It grew to an estimated four million people over the following decades (though some sources say the number is higher), largely through the work of the Iranian-backed Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN). More so than any other group, the trajectory of the IMN underscores Iran’s potential to export its Islamic revolution to countries lacking a Shi’a majority by fomenting Shi’a opposition to established Islamic and governmental authorities.
A prominent Shi’a resistance force against the government, the IMN’s website contains pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iranian regime’s motto of “Death to America,” while IMN members pledge allegiance to Khomeini before pledging allegiance to their own leader, Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, at gatherings.51 Estimates of the size of Nigeria’s Shi’a movement vary greatly. While Nigerian authorities report that there are 60,000 registered IMN members, Zakzaky’s followers estimate their membership lies between five and 10 million people out of an estimated Nigerian Muslim population of 100 million.52
Nigeria’s Shi’a community resides primarily in Kaduna, Sokoto, Katsina, and Kano states, though they are present in other parts of the country. The IMN was founded by Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, who led a frequently rowdy Islamist group on his university campus in the 1970s. After studying in Iran following the Iranian revolution, Zakzaky converted to Shi’ism and adopted a Shi’a crusade, the IMN, which Zakzaky leads to this day. Shi’a Islam saw a considerable growth through Zakzaky, who deftly exploited political crises, such as debates over the introduction of shari’a law in northern Nigeria during the advent of democratic rule in 1999, to his movement’s advantage.
The Iranian revolution of 1979 attracted the attention of many young Nigerian Muslims, with fliers in support of the revolution disseminated across Kaduna, incidentally the stronghold of the Yan Izala (a Salafi movement), around that time. After the revolution, many young Nigerian Muslims travelled to Iran, where they received religious and reportedly military training.53 As a nascent movement, the IMN needed to gain disciples. It did so with Iran’s assistance by poaching followers from rival Nigerian Muslim movements.
Although the full extent of Iran’s financial and military support for the IMN is unknown, in 2017, former U.S. State Department official Matthew Page estimated the group received approximately $120,000 per year from Iran, which would constitute a very efficient investment from Iran’s perspective.54 While Sheikh Zakzaky has denied receiving any funding from Tehran, a Nigerian intelligence officer claimed to have audio recordings of Zakzaky’s communications with Iran, which allegedly proved longstanding state funding.55 The IMN has established a network of Shi’a seminaries, organizations, schools, hospitals, and a “martyrs’ foundation,” all of which have been funded at least in part by Iran.56
Iran and Hezbollah openly refer to Sheikh Zakzaky and the IMN in speeches, underlining how critical they are to Iran’s network and the global Shi’a movement they hope to lead. This is seen in one of Ayatollah Khamenei’s Twitter posts from 2020, which showed an illustration of Sheikh Zakzaky in the midst of prominent Shi’a figures to mark international al-Quds Day (a holiday created by the Iranian regime to oppose Israel’s Jerusalem Day), emphasizing the Supreme Leader’s overt backing of the Nigerian movement.57 In August 2018, Iran officially opened an office for Zakzaky in Mashhad, Iran, with Zakzaky’s family and influential Iranian clerics in attendance. The overt support that IMN has received from Iran has raised alarms within the Nigerian federal government.
During the 2014 al-Quds Day, the IMN held a massive rally in Zaria in Kaduna state. The Nigerian Army opened fire on peaceful protestors in a two-day massacre, killing 34 people, three of whom were El-Zakzaky’s biological sons, and leaving over 100 injured. This massacre gained the attention of international human rights organizations as well as Iran-linked organizations, the latter of which tied the massacre to the ostensibly global persecution of Shi’a Muslims. The following year, in December 2015, the Nigerian security forces killed over 300 IMN members (IMN supporters say it was 1,000), also in Zaria. Sheikh Zakzaky and his wife were both injured and unlawfully arrested during the multi-day massacre. The massacre prompted international outcry, with the U.K.-based NGO Islamic Human Rights Commission petitioning to have The International Criminal Court at The Hague hear the case. For its part, the Nigerian military conducted its own investigation of the massacre and claimed to have uncovered hard evidence of communication between the IMN and Iran, though this evidence was never made public.58 The Nigerian Army’s narrative of the massacre purports that the IMN was attempting to carry out an assassination attempt on Chief of Army Staff Major General Tukur Buratai, a claim staunchly denied by the group. Rather, the massacre seems to have occurred as a result of the IMN’s efforts to block the convoy of General Buratai, more as a show of force and protest than as part of any assassination attempt. In the ensuing massacre, the Nigerian Army burnt the group’s mosque as well as Zakzaky’s house and demolished the group’s cemetery, with Kaduna state government officials admitting four months later that approximately 350 bodies had been disposed in a nearby mass grave, with no heavy weapons discovered among the victims.59
Since the 1980s, Zakzaky has been imprisoned by successive military regimes as a political prisoner for civil disobedience, especially as IMN followers do not recognize the Nigerian government and see Sheikh Zakzaky as the only legitimate authority in Nigeria. However, the recent acquittal of the Sheikh and his wife in July 2021 (following their detention in 2015), has sparked fears from the IMN of his re-arrest. Unsurprisingly, the Kaduna state government instantly sought to appeal the acquittal and revive the eight-count charge against El-Zakzaky and his wife.60
President Buhari’s banning of the group has helped fuel global support for the IMN from other Shi’a. Sheikh Zakzaky has proven that being a prominent Shi’a cleric without local allies and being caught in the cross hairs of the state and Muslim establishment results in suppression. Yet this has been his greatest contribution to Iran as his group becomes a central part of Iranian propaganda. In other words, Zakzaky arguably accomplished more for Iran during his imprisonment than when he has been freed.
Additionally, the fact that many of Nigeria’s leading Salafis (who are closer to the Nigerian Muslim establishment than the IMN) have links to Saudi Arabia provides incentives for Iran to continue support for the IMN as both a Shi’a dissident group and counterweight to Saudi influence in West Africa. Should the government crack down on the IMN further and in an even more violent manner, it will likely prompt IMN members to develop a more revolutionary and violent modus operandi, much as the Nigerian state’s bloody crackdown on Boko Haram in 2009 transformed the group from a dissident movement into a violent insurgency. In such a situation, Iran’s Threat Network in West Africa will enter a more dangerous phase.
Iran in Sierra Leone
Sierra Leone provides a critical hub for Iranian activity in West Africa due to its geography, ineffective law enforcement, diamond deposits, and Muslim-majority population. Interestingly, there are few signs of Islamist radicalization or associated violent extremism among Sierra Leone’s Muslim population even though Sierra Leone’s youths are restless as a result of poor socioeconomic prospects. Yet significant divisions between the four major Muslim strains in the country (Shi’a, non-Sufi Sunni, Sufi, and Ahmadiyya) have fragmented Sierra Leone’s Muslim population. There are an estimated 125 Islamic groups in existence in the country. 61
Around 1969, the Supreme Islamic Council of Sierra Leone (SICSL) was founded by scholars returning from study in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Libya in a bid to standardize the country’s various Islamic organizations, which were formed around ethnic or generational lines rather than doctrine.62 The SICSL developed multiple branches in Sierra Leone. It built schools and mosques and recruited foreign teachers to staff the schools, and it sent Sierra Leoneans abroad to study in foreign madrasas. Meanwhile, the Hezbollah mission in Sierra Leone serves as one of the group’s extensive fundraising operations in Africa through the local and expatriate Shi’a community.
Iran and later Hezbollah began a Shi’a missionary effort in Sierra Leone following Tehran’s opening of an embassy in the country in 1981. Iran soon established a major cultural center and created the International Institute for Islamic Studies, while supporting the construction of the Freetown Central Mosque.63 The International Institute was initially a faith-based secondary school before it grew into a technical-vocational institution, granting government-certified higher national diplomas in religious education and vocational skills. To this day, it is regarded as the leading tertiary Islamic educational institute in Sierra Leone, with many of its teachers educated in Iranian universities. The school’s Sierra Leonean graduates learn about Iranian Shi’ism and the country’s political culture. Iran has also funded the construction of multiple mosques, secondary schools, and scholarships to study in Iran, among other donations to Islamic programs in Sierra Leone.64
Iran’s modus operandi in the country is to project the benefits of its 1979 revolution, disseminate its brand of Shi’ism, and undermine international support for Western sanctions through outreach to local Muslims and Christians alike. The Ahlul Bayt Islamic mission—a U.K.-based Shi’a NGO—is another key channel used to transmit Iranian Shi’ism through its Sierra Leonean branch, which encourages participation in global Muslim causes.65 This is reinforced in meetings organized by certain Islamic organizations linked to Iran, with officials from the Iranian embassy and cultural center conveying messages of Pan-Islamic solidarity. One such meeting took place in February 2009 on the 30th anniversary of the Iranian revolution. The theme of the one-day seminar was “Religious Development and Democracy,” which reflected on how the Islamic revolution ostensibly served the Iranian people’s best interests.
Sierra Leone’s Lebanese population, which began emigrating in the late-Ottoman era, have been central to the trade of the country’s diamonds, both through licit and illicit means. Around the time of Sierra Leone’s independence in 1961, the country’s diamond market grew, with a significant surge in the trafficking of blood diamonds in the early 1990s as a result of the Liberian and Sierra Leonean civil wars. With the advent of civil wars, Hezbollah became involved in the blood diamond trade.
The lack of any serial number tied to individual diamonds makes them virtually untraceable, forming a mobile exchange unit Hezbollah has leveraged as both investment and a product for liquidation in emerging markets. Additionally, smuggling diamonds, as opposed to money, makes for easier transportation and provides an added layer of security in case of police raids. Hezbollah operatives and other Lebanese in Sierra Leone were suspected to have provided support to al-Qaeda operatives during Sierra Leone’s civil war.
A 2002 European investigation into al-Qaeda’s financing exposed $20 million that the group spent on diamonds in West Africa, allowing the terrorists to conceal important assets through diamonds.66 Those purchasing the illicit diamonds had also attempted to acquire sophisticated weapons, including missiles capable of shooting down airplanes. Two key Lebanese diamond merchants soon found themselves at the center of the post-9/11 investigations: Aziz Nassour and Samih Osailly, with a third person of interest being the Senegalese soldier of fortune, Ibrahim Bah, a prominent arms and diamonds trafficker who fought for Hezbollah in Lebanon and later with Sierra Leonean rebels in the country’s civil war. The relationship between these parties began in 1998, when Osama Bin Laden sent high ranking al-Qaeda members to Liberia and Sierra Leone to forge new business relationships and build channels for investment and money laundering. Bah played a critical role in connecting the al-Qaeda operatives to local diamonds traffickers and Hezbollah financiers.67 Bah even hosted Bin Laden’s African representative, Fazul Mohammed, in 1999, taking him on a tour of the diamond fields under rebel control in Sierra Leone. Osailly’s involvement stems from his links to a diamond import company allegedly used by al-Qaeda. Investigators linked around $20 million in withdrawals from the company to al-Qaeda purchasing activities, most likely linked to a diamond-for-weapons scheme.68
Iranian activity in Africa is part of a strategy for the Islamic Republic to overcome its pariah status in the West. By leveraging the poor governance, weak economies, porous borders, and instability in West Africa, Iran successfully lengthens its reach through the cultivation of partners, proxies, and Hezbollah networks while also advancing its commercial interests. The continent provides other opportunities for Iran, such as the acquisition of uranium, although Iran’s support for militant groups on the continent has, on more than one occasion, impeded its diplomatic relations. Iran’s ability to establish networks and operate in a destabilizing manner outside of its borders despite sanctions and embargos from the West is a serious cause for concern.
There is an urgent need for African countries and their Western partners to understand the nature and gravity of the Iranian Threat Network. A collaborative effort is needed to dismantle the infrastructure enabling Iran and Hezbollah to use African countries to further their agendas, including under the guise of innocuous social outreach such as scholarship provision.
The severity of the ITN has become more apparent after the targeted killing of IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani by U.S. forces in January 2020. Soleimani had reportedly been involved in establishing clandestine terror cells in Africa.69 Following his death, Nasrallah called for the unification of all ITN elements under the Quds Force to avenge the killing and expel Americans from the region: “Whoever thinks that this dear martyrdom will be forgotten is mistaken, and we are approaching a new era70… suicide attackers who forced the Americans to leave from our region in the past are still here and their numbers have increased.”71 Evidence has since emerged that the IRGC is activating Soleimani’s cells in Africa to target American and partner interests. For example, in February 2021 Ethiopian and European intelligence services foiled an Iranian plot on the U.A.E. embassy in Addis Ababa. A stash of weapons and explosives were seized during the counterterrorism raids in Ethiopia, while authorities in Sweden arrested the leader of the terror cell, who was reportedly acting at the behest of Iran.72
African states would do well to unite and increase intelligence cooperation with Israel, the United States, and E.U. countries that similarly have reason to monitor Hezbollah. Improved intelligence sharing can facilitate countering terrorist financing with the goal of curbing FRD activity in African countries. Investment in identifying the economic and financial assets of Hezbollah and Iran in Africa will significantly weaken their respective operational capacities. This is critical as Iranian- and Hezbollah-linked operatives travel on varied passports, specifically non-Lebanese and non-Iranian ones, allowing them to fly under the radar of law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the absence of targeted intelligence collection.
Until these actions are put in place, Iran is free to use a plethora of African actors, resources, territories, and organizations to hide its tracks in any future attack on U.S. interests, whether at home or abroad. One should not underestimate this threat. As Hassan Nasrallah has said, “Death to America was, is, and will stay our slogan!”73