Vol. 10, No. 35 April 7, 2011
- Since the Khomeini revolution, Iran has invested heavily in strengthening its diplomatic, economic, and security ties with Western African countries, especially with Senegal, Mauritania, Gambia, and Nigeria.
- Traditionally, Senegal had been a Sunni Muslim nation from the Sufi tradition. But in the wake of Senegal’s openness toward Iran, scores of Shiite clergy from Lebanon entered the country to spread Shiism. President Wade even allowed the establishment of a Persian-language school at Senegal University in 2003 and a Shiite hawza (traditional Islamic seminary) at the University of Dakar.
- In Nigeria, more than half of the population practices Islam. During his last visit to Nigeria in July 2009, Iranian President Ahmadinejad met with Nigerian ulema (Muslim religious scholars), and welcoming crowds in the streets of the capital, Abuja, cheered his convoy.
- A weapons ship departed from the Iranian port of Bandar-Abbas and arrived in the Apapa port of Lagos, Nigeria, in July 2010. On October 26, 2010, the shipping containers were opened and the weapons were discovered.
- Iranian Foreign Minister Mottaki was then sent to Nigeria, where he told authorities there had been a mistake and that the weapons’ destination was actually Gambia. Senegal has accused Gambia of providing arms for anti-government forces, especially for the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance in South Senegal.
- Sayyed Akbar Tabatabaei, the Africa commander of the Quds Force (the branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards charged with exporting the revolution overseas), found refuge on Mottaki’s plane and flew with him to Iran. On February 23, 2011, Senegal cut diplomatic ties with Iran. The whole affair was a failure on the part of Iranian intelligence.
Iran Invests in African Ties
Since the Khomeini revolution, Iran has invested heavily in strengthening its diplomatic, economic, and security ties with Western African countries, especially with Senegal, Mauritania, Gambia, and Nigeria. Iran’s goal is clear: to obtain African support for Tehran’s policies, and most recently for its nuclear program, in international forums.1
While Mauritania has over the years become Iran’s closest ally in the sub-Saharan Sahel region of Africa, its relations with Senegal were the warmest in Western Africa. Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade visited Iran at least six times from 2003 to 2009, while President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad went to Senegal on at least three occasions.
A no-less-important visitor was Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi who visited Senegal in July 2007. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had appointed Shahroudi to head the Iranian legal system for the decade from 1999 to 2009. Given the closeness between the two, Shahroudi’s mission to Senegal reflected the importance of that country in the eyes of decision-makers in Tehran.
On July 22, 2007, after meeting with the president and prime minister of Senegal, Shahroudi stated, “We believe it is our duty to expand relations with Islamic nations and to make use of the ability and potential of these states in order to spread Islam.”2
These political and security ties were also naturally supported by economic projects in Senegal, such as doubling the capacity of the country’s oil refinery and the establishment of an assembly facility for Iranian cars.
Shiite Missionaries in Africa
The Senegalese-Iranian alliance also included a cultural-religious aspect. Traditionally and historically, Senegal had been a Sunni Muslim nation from the Sufi tradition. But in the wake of Senegal’s openness toward Iran, scores of Shiite clergy from Lebanon entered the country to spread Shiism, the most prominent of whom was Sheikh Abdul-Mun’am Az-zain, who had established an Islamic Center in Dakar in 1978 after spending a period as a student of Khomeini when the Ayatollah lived in exile in Najaf.
Despite the opposition of the Senegalese regime to Shiite missionary activities (President Abdou Diof ordered the closure of the Iranian Embassy in 1984), the current leadership did not deal with the issue. President Wade even allowed the establishment of a Persian-language school at Senegal University in 2003 and a Shiite hawza (traditional Islamic seminary) at the University of Dakar, known as the Hawza ul Rasul al Akram.3
As opposed to Senegal, which plays a central role among French-speaking African countries and enjoys significant standing at international forums, the situation in Gambia is different in Iranian eyes. Gambia spreads over 11,000 square kilometers, a tenth of which is covered by the water of the Gambia River, and has 1.7 million inhabitants. Its importance lies in its location and probably in the fact that the Iranians consider the country beneficial for their regional needs. Iranian ties with Gambia developed after the 1994 military coup led by Yahya Jammeh, who has served as president, with an iron fist, ever since. (The Gambian president became known earlier when he claimed he’d found a cure for HIV/AIDS using natural herbs.) Relations with Iran quickly became pivotal for Gambia as a major $2 billion deal was signed for the export of Iranian vehicles. President Ahmadinejad was Jammeh’s guest of honor at the 2006 African Union summit which took place in Gambia.4
At the same time, relations between Gambia and Senegal have been problematic for quite some time because Gambia is suspected of providing funds and weapons for anti-government military groups in Senegal.
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 of 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 visits was Nigeria’s energy shortage. 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.
Nonetheless, Ahmadinejad’s visit will be remembered first and foremost for his meeting with Nigerian ulema (Muslim religious scholars), and for the welcoming crowds in the streets of the capital, Abuja, cheering his convoy.
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 Alzakzaky, the undisputed leader of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria. Alzakzaky, 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 they are 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.5
In the new millennium, there are many armed Islamist groups fighting the Nigerian government with the aim of undermining stability and seeking to force the state to adopt an Islamist regime. Twelve out of the 36 states that make up the Nigerian Federation have already introduced Sharia law. Northern Nigerian Muslim states have been turned into a battleground between the army and armed groups, many of whose fighters come from Chad, Algeria, and even Afghanistan.
One of the most deadly organizations calls itself Boko Haram, which in the local Hausa dialect means “non-Islamic education is a sin.” Its leader, Ustaz Mohammad Youssouf, born in 1970 and married to four wives with 12 children, established the organization in Kanamma village in Yobe state, not far from the Niger border. He named his training camp “Afghanistan” and referred to his men as “Taliban.” Youssouf was killed after being taken into custody on July 30, 2009. His financier, Buji Foi, was also executed a few days later.6 After Youssouf’s death, the organization continued to operate under the leadership of Moallem Sanni Umaru,7 and is financed by a Saudi, Al-Muntada al-Islami.
An Iranian Weapons Ship Docks in Nigeria
In April-May 2010, Iran decided to send a weapons ship to Nigeria. Two members of the Revolutionary Guards were selected for the mission, posing as businessmen. The Marshall Islands-based M/V Everest, which belongs to the world’s third largest shipping company, the French CMA CGM owned by Lebanese businessman Jacques R. Saade, transported the cargo, disguised as “packages of glass wool and pallets of stone.” The sender was the Iranian company International Trading and General Construction (ITGC).
The ship departed from the Iranian port of Bandar-Abbas and arrived in the Apapa port of Lagos in July 2010. Those familiar with the port know that unloading the cargo can take three months, sometimes even more. In the meantime, it became known that the original documents listed the “port of Abuja” as the destination, which shows a lack of knowledge of Nigerian geography since the capital, Abuja, is located 500 kilometers from the sea. Because of this mistake, the sender was forced to change the destination on the travel documents, which raised the suspicion of customs officials. It later became known that the Nigerian intelligence services (SSS) had already begun to follow the cargo while it was in Bandar-Abbas.9 The SSS, which answers directly to the president, was convinced that the weapons were to be sent to the address listed in Abuja.10 WikiLeaks documents also revealed that the intelligence services are well aware that Iran supports terrorism in Nigeria.11
On October 26, 2010, the shipping containers were opened and the weapons were discovered. The thirteen containers of weaponry clearly violated UN Security Council Resolution 1929 (of June 9, 2010), imposing additional sanctions on Iran. In addition to Iranian embarrassment over the weapons, $10 million worth of heroin hidden in engine parts shipped from Iran was seized at Lagos Airport as well.12
Iran: Weapons Were for Gambia
When Nigerian authorities requested information from Tehran about the identity of the 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.13
As soon as President Jammeh heard of this, he hastily cut diplomatic relations with Iran, froze all economic projects, and ordered Iranian diplomats to leave Gambia within forty-eight hours. The Gambian president had good reasons for all this:
- He wanted to avoid being seen as someone the Iranians could use as an agent to whitewash their deeds.
- He was well aware of the international significance of breaking the Iranian embargo, especially as far as the United States is concerned.
- Most important, he feared a Senegalese response. Senegal has accused Gambia of providing arms for anti-government forces, especially for the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance in South Senegal. A Senegalese parliamentarian even declared that Jammeh “has been caught red-handed!”14
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 all are awaiting sentencing.15
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 the Quds Force’s recruitment in Latin America.16 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 is a member, where all the known details were disclosed. Nigeria is likely to take practical decisions regarding Iran only after the court rules in the case of Aghajani. Nevertheless, on February 23, 2011, after having been convinced that the weapons were meant for the rebels of Casamance, Senegal cut diplomatic ties with Iran.
An Iranian Intelligence Failure
This is a very strange story with the end not yet in sight. The affair bears witness to Iranian thoughtlessness and most of all to a lack of learning from the experiences of others who were burned by their arrogance and lack of understanding of the realities of contemporary Africa. The failure of Iranian intelligence in Western Africa is also striking, especially of those who are affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards.
No doubt the whole 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 U.S. and other foreign intelligence services regarding their ability to know what is taking place in Iran.
In mid-March 2011, Israeli naval commandos took over the weapons ship Victoria, which was on its way to El-Arish carrying weapons from Iran to Hamas in Gaza. This ship also belonged to CMA CGM, the same shipping company involved in the weapons shipment discovered in Nigeria. This raises some fundamental questions about the possible association of some of its people with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.