Just as Nigeria is winning the battle against the ISIS-aligned Boko Haram terrorist organization, it faces an even greater threat from Iran.
The Iranian-financed and trained Shiite movement, the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), has pledged a “tragedy of monumental proportions” if the fanatic group’s jailed leader, Sheikh Zakzaky, continues to remain in custody.
This week, the radical Shiite movement, estimated at over four million, intends to descend on Abuja to instigate a Khomeinist uprising. It claims it will be peaceful, but the Iranian-backed group resorts to violent confrontation with non-Shiite residents to assert control over the streets. Many fear bloody chaos as Shiite radicals pledge to “storm” the capital.
Imposing ‘Khomeinism’ on Nigeria
Zakzaky has been held in custody since December 2015 following clashes between the army and IMN’s armed Shiite thugs, who blocked and attacked a convoy carrying an army chief. Sunnis living in IMN’s stronghold areas accuse the group of running a parallel government that uses extortion and terror.
A judicial commission of inquiry set up by the Kaduna state government to investigate the clash blamed Zakzaky for the incident which led to the loss of 348 Shiite lives. The inquiry reported that “The IMN is notorious for engaging in hate and dangerous speech that provoke other Muslims ... Members of the IMN owe absolute loyalty to Sheikh Ibraheem El-Zakzaky.
He therefore bears responsibility for all acts of lawlessness committed by the organization and should therefore be held responsible, fully investigated and prosecuted.”
But the incident is minor compared to the capabilities of the four million-strong Shiite extremist group, which plans to emulate the Islamic revolution in Iran. Iran co-opted Zakzaky – an Islamist under the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood – soon after the 1979 Revolution and he has formed a key part of the regime’s strategy to identify recruits and create and expand militant cells.
Iran’s soft power in Africa
The leverage Iran has gained within Nigeria is the result of over three decades of the Islamic Republic’s use of soft power in Africa.
Iran needs diplomatic allies as a counter-weight to Western and Arab states. With 54 states, the continent also carries with it UN votes that can be wooed with sufficient encouragement. Africa accounts for half the members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and has influence within the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Board of Governors, both of which are highly important in Iran's strategic considerations.
Some of Iran’s long-term partnerships in Africa, whether with local radical groups or governments such as Sudan, specifically aim at exporting the Islamic Revolution by exploiting the potential in Muslim countries and communities on the continent.
Support for insurgent or militant groups is driven by Article 154 of the Iranian constitution which states that the government will support “the just struggles of the mustad’afun (oppressed) against the mustakbirun (oppressors) in every corner of the globe.” The notion of “oppression” is defined according to the strategic interests of the Iranian government, which notoriously executes political dissidents for “waging war on Allah”.
By building a bridgehead into Nigerian society, Iran seeks to attack social pressure points in order to weaken the regional role of sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest and most populous economy. Nigeria’s position as a major crude oil supplier, particularly to Canada and Europe, and the importance of its sea ports also give it a pivotal role in the global economy. By creating chaos in Nigeria, Tehran can target Western economic interests.
Iran also seeks to undermine the power of President Muhammadu Buhari, under whom Nigeria has formed closer relations with Saudi Arabia. Nigeria joined the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT), formed in December 2015, and provides pan-Islamic unity behind Saudi efforts to quash the Iranian-backed Houthi insurgency in Yemen. It was at this time that IMN launched its road blockades in Kaduna state and attacked the army chief, putting in motion the campaign for the planned uprising in Abuja.
Arming Nigerian Shiites
With the resources of a government behind it, the IMN would not require clandestine involvement in the kinds of criminality associated with terrorism and insurgency. As such, much of its activities remain under the radar of the civilian police. Iran is able to export large amounts of weapons via its own regional trade networks and can facilitate financing through diplomatic channels and using its banking network as well as the illicit trade in diamonds and gold and exploiting poor levels of governance and corruption.
Iran is keen to militarize its Nigerian proxy. Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, insisted during the P5+1 negotiations that Iran should be able to purchase and ship military hardware at any time and from any place. Araghchi vowed: “Whenever we consider it necessary for our own security, [or] to help our allies ... we will provide weapons. … We don’t feel shy. We will provide weapons to whomever and whenever we consider appropriate. And we will buy weapons from wherever we can.”
Iran has already established terrorist operations in Nigeria in association with local Shiite radicals, overseen by the Hezbollah network in the region’s influential Lebanese community as well as Qods Force commanders in the Iranian Embassy in Abuja. Nigeria has tolerated the presence of Hezbollah operatives, which has given Iran the opportunity to use the country for illicit arms shipments, espionage and the preparation of terrorist attacks.
In 2013, the Nigerian authorities arrested a Hezbollah cell that had been storing an arms cache in a residence owned by the Lebanese consul to Sierra Leone. Although the cell had planned to attack Western targets, a judge declared that Hezbollah was not recognized as a terrorist organization and charges of terrorism were dropped.
In the same year, Nigerian Shiite preacher Abdullahi Berende and his accomplice Shaeed Adewumi were charged with membership of a “high profile terrorist network” that is planning possible attacks on foreign targets on behalf of the Iranian government. The men were accused of travelling to Tehran and Dubai to receive cash and had been spying on foreign cultural and commercial interests.
The Iranian government has also conducted arms smuggling operations through Nigeria using the CMA CCG shipping company, owned by the French Lebanese shipping magnate Jacques Saadé. In 2010, the company breached UN sanctions by shipping 13 containers of illegal Iranian weaponry, including 107 mm artillery rockets (Katyushas), explosives and rifle ammunition, into Lagos’ Apapa Port.
The MV Everest originally picked up the containers from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. Two Nigeria-based members of the Qods Force, an elite unit of the IRGC, were implicated in the arms shipment and fled the country. One was Qods Force commander for operations in Africa Ali Akbar Tabatabaei, who operated under diplomatic immunity and was reassigned to Venezuela to oversee the unit's Latin American operations. It is inconceivable that the Iranian arms smuggling and espionage network has no relationship with the IMN.
Waging instability for Islamic Revolution
While the IMN is a violent organization, it has so far avoided overt terrorist or guerrilla tactics to advance its aims. This is a strategic rather than an ideological position. Zakzaky has made clear his intent to lead an Islamic revolution and the militaristic nature of the IMN’s hierarchical structure with strong loyalty towards its leader means it is capable and willing to wage a guerrilla war when required.
With its uniformed and regimented paramilitary cadre, IMN could unleash Nigeria's greatest existential threat since the Biafra War in the 1960s. A further knock to the federal government’s hold in the Muslim north risks upsetting the fragile peace of Nigeria’s nascent democracy, which is faced with deadly tribal rivalries in the middle belt and resurgent militancy in the overwhelmingly Christian oil-rich Delta region.
Prompted by Iran, a Shiite uprising could potentially destabilize the north of the country in a bloody sectarian clashes, drawing troops away from battle against Boko Haram and leading to a domino effect of instability across Africa's most populous country.
Daniel Brett is a British journalist specializing in the politics and economics of Africa and the Middle East. His LinkedIn profile is: https://uk.linkedin.com/in/dbrett