Iranian Shiite Terror Cell in Nigeria Followed a Familiar Pattern

Vol. 13, No. 6    5 March 2013

  • Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and the fifth largest provider of oil to the U.S. More than half the population practices Islam.
  • On February 20, 2013, Nigeria’s State Secret Service accused a local Shiite cleric, Mallam Abdullahi Mustaphah Berende, 50, of heading a terrorist group backed by Iran that was plotting to assassinate Nigerian officials and attack Israeli and American targets in Nigeria.
  • The Berende case offers a rare look at the work of Iranian intelligence agencies. Berende first visited Iran in 2006 to study at Imam Khomeini University, and was recruited when he returned for further studies in 2011. He was trained in the use of the AK-47 rifle, pistols, and the production of improvised explosive devices.
  • In April 2012 Berende was asked to establish a terrorist cell in Lagos. With two of his followers, he identified and gathered intelligence on public places and places frequented by Americans and Israelis. They also provided specific details on such agencies as USAID and the Peace Corps, as well as the Israeli Zim international shipping company and the Jewish cultural center in Lagos.
  • Sheikh Ibrahim al-Zakzaky, the undisputed leader of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, is another Nigerian Shiite. A protégé of Iran, he is creating a radical socio-economic and military system that resembles that of Hizbullah in Lebanon. He is said to have a supporter base numbering over a million. His organization has been involved in many confrontations with the army and the Christian population. (See photos of a Hizbullah parade in Nigeria in this article.)
  • Similar Iranian-Hizbullah terrorist efforts in Cyprus, Bahrain, Bulgaria, and elsewhere confirm the pattern revealed in the Berende affair. Handlers from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards use local Shiite agents or those with dual nationalities. In the first phases they concentrate on the collection of intelligence, and train in the use of weapons and explosives in Iran. In a later phase they will seek to carry out their terrorist attacks through proxies.

On February 20, 2013, Nigeria’s State Secret Service (SSS) paraded with grand fanfare a local Shiite cleric, Mallam Abdullahi Mustaphah Berende, 50. According to Nigerian authorities, he headed a terrorist group backed by “Iranian handlers” that was plotting to assassinate former Nigerian president Gen. Ibrahim Babangida and the deposed Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Ibrahim Dasuki, father of the current national security adviser, Col. (ret.) Sambo Dasuki, and to attack Israeli and American targets in Nigeria.1

Previous Iranian Operations in Nigeria

This new crisis in Nigerian-Iranian relations comes barely less than three years after an Iranian weapons shipment was discovered in Lagos Apapa Port (on October 26, 2010) concealed in thirteen containers aboard a ship sailing from Bandar Abbas, in clear violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1929 (of June 2009) imposing additional sanctions on Iran. (This episode was followed by the discovery of $10 million worth of heroin hidden in engine parts shipped from Iran that was seized at Lagos Airport that same year.) When Nigerian authorities requested information from Tehran about the identity of the weapons cargo’s recipient, they were rebuffed. Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki was then sent to Nigeria to solve the problem. Mottaki met with Nigerian authorities and explained that there had been a mistake and that the weapons’ destination was actually Gambia. Meanwhile, new shipping documents were produced for the cargo, which listed the private address of Gambian President Jammeh as the destination.2

The Nigerians were not convinced by Mottaki’s explanations and demanded the arrest of the two Iranians responsible for the shipment. One of them, Azim Aghajani, was arrested (and released on $260,000 bail), but his trial was postponed and the location of the trial was moved from the capital Abuja to Lagos “for convenience.” It turned out that Aghajani received his Nigerian visa on the recommendation of Sheikh Ali Abbas Usman, better known as Abbas Jega, who used to work at Radio Tehran’s Hausa-language service and studied in Iran. Abbas Jega was also arrested, along with two customs officers, and they are all awaiting sentencing.

The second Iranian, Sayyed Akbar Tabatabaei, the Africa commander of the Quds Force (the branch of the Revolutionary Guards charged with exporting the revolution overseas), had received his entry permit to Nigeria to “provide administrative support” to the Iranian Embassy, as per the request of the Iranian Foreign Ministry. Holding diplomatic immunity, Tabatabaei found refuge on Mottaki’s plane and flew with him to Iran. Subsequently, according to reports, he was sent to Venezuela to oversee Quds Force recruitment in Latin America. Mottaki was replaced as foreign minister during a later visit to Senegal, as Tehran was dissatisfied with his failure. Nigeria reported Iran to the UN Security Council, of which it was a member, where all the known details were disclosed. The case of Aghajani and his Nigerian accomplices is still being tried in a Nigerian court.4

The Newest Case – Berende’s Confession

However, unlike the previous cases, the arrest of Berende (on December 17, 2012) and his group directly involves Nigerian national security and sovereignty at a time when Nigeria is struggling against local terrorism and participating in a campaign in Mali against al-Qaeda groups. Indeed, it seems that Iran has chosen to escalate its subversive efforts in Nigeria by taking aim at precise targets defined as pro-American and pro-Israeli. Most important is the fact that the Berende case offers a rare look at the work of Iranian intelligence agencies in Nigeria (and probably in other areas populated with Shiites).

Berende’s confession to the press underlines the pattern followed by his “Iranian handlers.”5

Berende, the leader of a local Shiite group in Llorin (in Kwara state), had come to Iran in 2006 to study in a six-month course on modern Shia Islamic teachings (da’awa) at Imam Khomeini University, and was recruited by “Iranian elements” when he returned for further studies in 2011. He was trained in the use of the AK-47 rifle, pistols, and the production of improvised explosive devices.

Berende flew to Dubai in April 2012 for further briefings by his handlers and was asked to establish a terrorist cell in southwest Nigeria with specific emphasis on Lagos. Accordingly, Berende asked two of his followers to assist him in identifying and gathering intelligence on public places and prominent places frequented by Americans and Israelis in order to facilitate their attack by Iranian terrorists. They also provided specific details on such agencies as USAID and the Peace Corps, as well as the Israeli Zim international shipping company and the Jewish cultural center in Lagos.

Berende received money as well as code names (such as Uncle for Israel and Aunt for the U.S.) by his Iranian handlers in order to facilitate his mission in Nigeria and provide for basic, secure communications between him and his handlers. The financial support was meant also to establish a small business as a decoy. Indeed, Berende relocated to Lagos and set up a small business there as recommended by his handlers.

Berende confessed that Lagos was chosen for attack because the Iranians believed that Israel has an intelligence facility in the area for spying on Iran.

Berende’s confession underlined what was common knowledge to intelligence agencies: Shiite communities around the world represent the infrastructure upon which Iran builds its subversive policies worldwide. This has been the case in most terrorist actions carried out by Iranian agents or proxies such as Hizbullah operatives, and Nigeria is no exception.

Iranian and Islamist Interest in Nigeria

Years before Ahmadinejad’s presidency, Iran became interested in Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa and the fifth largest provider of oil to the U.S., where more than half the population practices Islam. Iran identified Nigeria as a regional power that could serve its interests in Africa and provide support at international forums. Economic ties between the countries were forged in the late 1990s and were accelerated after Iranian President Khatami’s visit there in 2005. The main topic during the Iranian visit was Nigeria’s energy shortage. While Nigeria is an oil exporter, the country suffers from chronic shortages of refined fuel products due to limited refinery capacity and widespread corruption in the energy sector. Iran urged Nigeria to adopt nuclear technology, which greatly worried the United States. During his last visit to Nigeria in July 2009, President Ahmadinejad promoted nuclear energy as a cheap energy source.

Iran has also closely followed the ongoing violent tensions in Nigeria between radical Muslim and Christian groups, and especially between Muslim radicals and the government, which declared an all-out war on them. Islamist activity is not a new phenomenon in Nigeria, but dates back to the 1960s. At the time, Saudi Arabia stood behind the financing and instruction of the different Islamic groups. It is estimated that there were over two hundred organizations involved in activities aimed at strengthening Nigeria’s Islamic character. Sheikh Abubakar Gumi, a student of the Saudi school, established The Society for the Eradication of Evil and the Establishment of the Sunna, better known as Ian Izala, which flourished during the military rule in Nigeria and was committed to supporting Islamic education.

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, graduates of this movement established additional radical movements like the Muslim Brothers and the Movement for Islamic Revival, whose leader, Abubakar Mujahid, proclaimed after 9/11 that the destruction of the Twin Towers was an appropriate and just response to American provocation. Mujahid was earlier a student of Sheikh Ibrahim al-Zakzaky, the undisputed leader of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria. Zakzaky, born in 1953, is a Nigerian Shiite from Kaduna state. A protégé of Iran, he is involved in disseminating Shiite theology and creating a radical socio-economic and military system that resembles that of Hizbullah in Lebanon. According to estimates, the sheikh has a supporter base numbering over a million people. His organization has been involved in many confrontations with the army and the Christian population. Reports claim that his group is responsible for thousands of deaths in northern Nigeria in the last decade. The sheikh himself ended up in almost every prison in Nigeria in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but he has kept up his activities. (See photos of a Hizbullah parade in Nigeria at the end of this article.)6

No doubt the whole Berende affair hurt Iran’s standing in Western Africa and its efforts to build a front against the United States and the international community. It is indeed a failure on the part of Iranian intelligence and someone will have to pay the price for the lack of understanding of inter-African realities, for the disrespect of leaders, who were perceived as obvious supporters because of their corruption, and for the erroneous evaluation of the ability of U.S. and other foreign intelligence services to know what is taking place in Iran. The Nigerian authorities are well aware of this phenomenon and follow the ties between local Shiites and Iran very closely. However, it seems that despite all its failures, Iran continues to intensify its efforts in order to destabilize Jonathan Ebele Goodluck’s presidency in Nigeria.

Part of a Wider Iranian-Hizbullah Terror Offensive

Finally, the Berende affair occurred at a time when a trial is being held in Cyprus against a Lebanese (with a Swedish passport) who was also involved in monitoring Israeli tourist targets on behalf of his Hizbullah handlers,7 weeks after the Bulgarian authorities confirmed the involvement of Hizbullah operatives in the Burgas terrorist attack (July 2012).

Furthermore, on the same day the Nigerians exposed Berende’s group, the Bahraini authorities accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guard of setting up a militant cell to assassinate public figures in the Gulf Arab kingdom and to attack its airport and government buildings. Bahraini authorities said they had arrested eight Bahrainis in the group, with links to Iran, Iraq and Lebanon. In a statement published by the official Bahrain News Agency, Bahrain’s head of public security said the cell was part of a group called the “Imam Army,” which included Bahrainis at home and abroad and members of other nationalities. The agency quoted public security chief Maj.-Gen. Tariq Hassan al-Hassan as saying: “Investigation has also revealed that a member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard codenamed ‘Abu Nasser’ masterminded the whole terror operation.” Abu Nasser supplied the group with $80,000 and instructed it to gather information, recruit and obtain weapons storage capability in Bahrain. The cell’s planned targets included the Ministry of Interior and Bahrain International Airport.

The group attended training camps run by the Revolutionary Guard inside Iran, as well as some operated by Iraq’s Hizbullah in Baghdad and Kerbala. Five of the detainees were arrested in Bahrain and three in Oman, with another four Bahrainis still being sought by the authorities. Al-Hassan said authorities had collected evidence in the form of papers and electronic documents, flashcards, phones, computers, cash, and records of bank transactions.8

These events follow the same pattern and mode of action, with handlers from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards using local Shiite agents (dormant or active) or those with dual nationalities who carry foreign, especially European or American, passports. In the first phases they concentrate primarily on the collection of intelligence, and train in the use of weapons and explosives in Iran or other “friendly” territory. In a later phase (as in Burgas) they will seek to carry out their terrorist attacks through proxies.

All these events provide a rare view of the covert war conducted by Israel, the U.S., and its allies against Iran and Hizbullah. In a majority of cases, preventive measures have unmasked deadly attacks planned against Jewish, Israeli, or American targets. Unfortunately, in a few of them, the attacks have resulted in deaths and casualties.

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1. The information on the Berende case is compiled from the following Nigerian newspapers: The Vanguard, PM News, Leadership, Daily Independent, Punch, and This Day, all published on February 21, 2013 (Compilation hereinafter).
2. Jacques Neriah, “An Iranian Intelligence Failure: Arms Ship in Nigeria Reveals Iran’s Penetration of West Africa,” Jerusalem Issue Brief, Vol. 10, No. 35, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, April 7, 2011.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Compilation.
6. “An Iranian Intelligence Failure.” Hassane Soulay, “Hassan Nasrallah, Superstar in Nigeria,” France 24, June 23, 2008.
7. Nicholas Kulish, “Trial Offers Rare Look at Work of Hezbollah in Europe,” New York Times, February 20, 2013.
8. Raissa Kasolowsky, “Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Behind ‘Terror’ Cell,” Reuters, February 20, 2013.

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August 30, 2007 – Hizbullah followers of Nigerian Shiite Sheikh Zakzaky in Zaria (Northwest Abuja)

 

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About Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.