Danny Citrinowicz, senior research fellow at the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy in Israel
For decades, Iran and its proxy group Hezbollah have tried to export their “revolutionary” ideology, in an attempt to establish Iranian hegemony in the Islamic world. Since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran and its Lebanese militant proxy group have built a mechanism which enables them to spread “revolutionary” ideology beyond Iran’s borders. Iran has positioned itself as the ‘defender’ of Shia Muslims around the world, but also its antagonistic relationship with the West — particularly the US, which it views as the “Great Satan” — has made Iran a sort of role model for countries and people who suffered under colonial oppression.
In order to fulfill its “divine” mission, Iran has pursued a two-pronged approach, encompassing hard and soft power strategies in order to spread its brand of Islamic fundamentalist ideology throughout the Middle East and beyond. In terms of hard power, Iran gives financial, ideological, and material support to global terrorist proxies loyal to Iran’s Supreme Leader. Iran’s backing of terrorist movements has helped Iran establish spheres of influence throughout the region, including in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the Palestinian territories.
Most researchers today focus mainly on hard power tactics used by Iran and Hezbollah. However, it is equally important to view their soft power approach, which tries to win hearts and minds over to their ideology and way of thinking. Winning over such followers gives them a solid base of soldiers to carry out their hard power strategy. By utilizing their worldwide network of religious and cultural organizations including universities, charities, and the Lebanese diaspora, Iran and Hezbollah have been able to draw in millions of people around the world — using them for political support, fundraising and even joining terrorist cells. This paper will focus on the “enablers” of Iran and Hezbollah’s activities in the African continent and ways to counter these activities in order to weaken Iran and its presence on the African continent.
African Sheikh Included in Group Portrait
Last year, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei tweeted a picture that illustrates the importance of the African continent for Iran and the spread of the Shia revolution. Among the very important figures that support the revolution, stands one Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky — the leader of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria. Zakzaky was arrested in 2015 on charges that his supporters planned to assassinate the Nigerian chief of staff. Support for Zakzaky’s release across the Shia world does not come as a surprise for those who follow the activities of Hezbollah and Iran on the African continent and the importance of this continent to their cause.
Unfortunately, the discourse currently taking place in Africa mainly focuses on the extreme Sunni Islamist movements (AQIM, al-Shabab, Boko Haram). This focus works to Iran and Hezbollah’s advantage as they continue to deepen their control over Shia Muslims and the Lebanese diaspora living in Africa, and even local non-Muslims who are fascinated by Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution and ideology.
Iran and Hezbollah’s Activity in Africa
Iran views the African continent as an ancillary arena in a zero-sum battle for influence, power, and territory against Saudi Arabia and its brand of Sunni, Salafist Islam — often referred to as Wahhabism. Iran has also sought to counter Western influence (particularly that of the US) within Africa, and find common cause with elements opposed to colonialism who are seeking to chart a more independent course.
Iran’s bid for influence on the African continent since the 1979 Islamic Revolution has been an uphill struggle as the Persian country had no significant historical footprint in Africa due to the predominance of Sunni and Sufi forms of Islam among African Muslims. Nonetheless, Iran has created an infrastructure of mosques, cultural centers, charitable networks, and educational institutions which have served to spread its revolutionary ethos to Africa.
Taking advantage of the fragile political structure in most African states, the freedom of movement between countries, and the support of the Lebanese diaspora, Iran and Hezbollah managed to build criminal and arms smuggling networks and recruit local operatives to their cause. Iran and Hezbollah were also able to infiltrate and take over many businesses and companies in Africa. Activities such as diamond smuggling, transportation businesses run by prominent Lebanese figures, and other financial activities aimed to economically support the organization are well documented.
The Quds Force (via unit 400) trains, finances, and equips numerous separatist groups in Africa such as the Polisario Front in the Western Sahara, as well as provides training to Shia organizations, including the Islamic Movement of Nigeria. Unit 400 conducts special operations in Africa, including intelligence gathering and bankrolling terrorist activities by proxy. Unit 400 has also been revealed to have played a role in recruiting and training the Saraya al-Zahra cell in the Central African Republic, which was commanded by Chadian citizen Ismael Gidah until his arrest in his home country in April 2019. The cell currently has between 200 and 300 members and coordinates with other cells in Chad and Sudan, with the aim of establishing more cells in Cameroon, Ghana, the Congo, and Niger. Investigations have uncovered links between Gidah and warlords in the border regions between Chad, Sudan, and the Central African Republic. The Quds Force is also working with established terrorist organizations — in particular the Somali Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Shabaab group. Somali security agencies have seized Iranian weapons, explosives, and chemical devices manufactured in areas under Al-Shabaab’s control, which are thought to have been used in the group’s attacks in 2019 and 2020.
Enablers of Iranian and Hezbollah Activities
An analysis of Hezbollah and Iran’s activities in Africa highlights several centers of gravity in charge of building the platform needed for their activity on the continent.
Foreign Relations Department (FRD)
Alongside its clandestine foreign operatives, Hezbollah also maintains a more public international presence through its Foreign Relations Department, which has representatives around the world. The FRD functions overtly in Lebanon and in a semi-public fashion abroad. Some FRD personnel are Lebanese members sent abroad, while others are Hezbollah supporters who already live in the countries in question. Most have close ties to senior Hezbollah officials, and many have significant military training. In terms of overt diplomatic activities, FRD personnel serve several functions abroad. They build “community centers’’ to encourage local Shia support for Hezbollah and serve as a base for the group’s activities. They also raise funds, spot potential recruits, and serve as liaisons, maintaining communication between local supporters and Hezbollah leaders in Lebanon, as well as between Hezbollah operatives in various countries. The FRD has special representatives that have a strong connection to the Shia religious centers on the African continent and it is also in charge of synchronizing the organization’s activities in these countries. A 2015 US Treasury Department assessment stated that “the FRD claims to be in charge of ‘community relations,’ but the primary goal of the FRD in Nigeria is to scout recruits for Hezbollah’s military units, as well as create and support Hezbollah’s terrorist infrastructure for its operational units in Africa and globally.”
Raed Berro (pictured above) was considered to oversee the African file of Hezbollah by some western intelligence organizations. In depth analysis of his social media activities reveals FRD activities — mainly working with prominent Shia figures and religious centers in Africa and connecting their activities with other relevant FRD departments in Europe.
One of the most important and influential institutions for Shia indoctrination is Al-Mustafa University. Al-Mustafa was founded in 2007 by Khamenei, who directs its activities and is the school’s highest authority. In 2016, Iran allocated $74 million to Al-Mustafa. Apart from state funding, the university gets direct funding from the Office of the Supreme Leader and from his vast business and charitable networks. Al-Mustafa trains clerics around the world to spread “Khomeinism” in their home countries. Since 2007, more than 45,000 clerics and Islamic scholars have graduated from Al-Mustafa, of which 5,000 were from Africa and a good portion of them have been hired by the university as teaching staff or missionaries and sent to different countries around the globe. In early 2019, more than 40,000 students were enrolled — half of whom study at campuses across Iran. Of the 5,000 African students, nearly 2,000 study in Iran — 1,200 of which are part of the Mashhad campus. The university has 17 main branches in sub-Saharan Africa and runs some one hundred schools, mosques, and seminaries in 30 African countries. Al-Mustafa’s most important African center is in Nigeria — a country with several million Shias — where the university operates five schools and seminaries with nearly 1,000 students from Nigeria and neighboring states. The university also has significant presence in West African countries like Ghana, Cameroon and the Ivory Coast, and in East African countries like Tanzania (the main Hub) Congo, Madagascar, Malawi and South Africa.
In return for this education, Africans are indoctrinated, radicalized, and encouraged to promote Iran’s “revolutionary” doctrine and to engage in religious wars — both locally and abroad. In this context, Al-Mustafa works to organize al-Quds rallies in African countries such as Burkina Faso, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Uganda. It is important to note that Al-Mustafa university was designated by the US administration for facilitating IRGC-QF recruitment efforts.
The Ahl El-Beit World Assembly (ABWA) is an internationally active Iranian NGO which functions as an umbrella organization under which a network of Iranian-backed religious, cultural, and educational institutions, tasked with disseminating Ayatollah Ali Khomeini’s “revolutionary” Islamist ideology around the world, operate. The ABWA serves as the functional link between the Iranian Shia clerical establishment and foreign Shia clerics, and also links Shia communities around the world to each other. The ABWA plays an administrative role, facilitating relationships with local branches and affiliated religious and cultural organizations around the globe. Many of the Ahl El-Beit-affiliated organizations also play leading roles in staging annual Quds Day celebrations in their respective localities. There are many Ahl El-Beit centers all over Africa that are closely connected to the Hezbollah FRD unit and Al-Mustafa University.
Clerics and Religious Centers
All over Africa, Shia centers and clerics are closely connected to FRD elements and Al-Mustafa University. These clerics use targeted messaging to recruit supporters to the cause, and the centers are a hub for Hezbollah activity — from fundraising, incitement against Israel and the US, to serving as a safe place to stockpile and hide weapons and recruit people to the organization. Additionally, clerics based in Iran that speak languages commonly used in Africa (like French), spread radical messages to their Shia followers, in an effort to entice them to join the Iranian and Hezbollah cause. The Al-Ghadir Association in the Ivory Coast — widely believed to serve as Hezbollah’s representative in the country — is a good example of Hezbollah’s influence on the continent. In August 2009, then-leader of Al-Ghadir Imam Kobeissi was deported from the country after he was sanctioned by the US government for raising money for Hezbollah. Kobeissi has also hosted senior Hezbollah officials visiting the Ivory Coast and elsewhere in Africa. His activities are largely overt, publicly speaking at the group’s local events and opening an official Hezbollah foundation in the Ivory Coast. (The Treasury Department has noted that this foundation is used to recruit new members to Hezbollah military ranks in Lebanon.)
Lebanese migrants first arrived in West Africa as the result of a colonial fluke. As early as the 1880s, and especially during the 1920s, emigrants left Lebanon due to economic hardship for the French Mediterranean city of Marseilles — the transportation hub of the time. They planned to continue to the United States or South America, where there had been previous Lebanese immigration. However, many decided to settle in West Africa, where the cost of living was low, health requirements were lax, and French reports were favorable.
Since the 19th century, Lebanese have fled their country due to wars, massacres and famines. In fact, Lebanon has one of the largest diaspora communities in the world — around 12 million people, which is four times its population. Out of this group, a few hundred thousand people — many of whom hail from southern Lebanon — have moved to Africa, especially the Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Senegal.
Hezbollah receives significant financial support from the contributions of Hezbollah supporters living abroad — particularly from Lebanese nationals living in Africa, South America, and other places with large Lebanese Shia expatriate communities. Various credible sources have reported that several Lebanese clans abroad have ties with Hezbollah. Some of these clans have so-called legitimate businesses (like car trading) throughout Africa and globally (Congo, Germany and South America included), while other clans engage in illegal activities, such as money laundering and diamond smuggling. Some family members are directly connected to Hezbollah or fully participate as members and militants in the terrorist organization.
Three Lebanese clans — Ahmad, Nassour and Khanafer — are well-known international diamond smugglers. Another famous example, hailing from the Tajideen clan, is Kassim Tajideen — a Lebanese businessman designated by the US as a Hezbollah financier. He was arrested on US soil in March 2017 on terror-related charges. Tajideen operated multiple Hezbollah front companies across Africa and the Middle East alongside his brothers Hussain and Ali Tajideen, according to the US Treasury. The Tajideens’ African business network extends across multiple industries including real estate, food processing, and the diamond industry. With the funds procured from one of their businesses, “Tajco Company LLC,” the Tajideen brothers reportedly purchased and developed properties in Lebanon for use by Hezbollah. According to the US Treasury, companies owned or operated by the Tajideen brothers include Tajco, Kairaba Supermarket, Congo Futur, Ovlas Trading, Golfrate Holdings, and Grupo Arosfran. Kassim’s brother Hussain was expelled from The Gambia in early June 2015 for alleged ties to Hezbollah.
Turning a blind eye to Iran and Hezbollah’s activities in Africa will only harm the security and stability of the continent. Cooperation between Iran/Hezbollah and non-Shia elements in Africa, like Somalia’s Al-Shabaab, or the Polisario front in the Sahara, highlights their growing influence and the danger they pose in Africa.
International sanctions placed on Iran in recent years have significantly impacted its ability to fund its proxy militias across the region. Therefore, Hezbollah has tried to bring in more funding from Lebanese Shia communities around the world, including Africa. Several religious centers which funded humanitarian causes, such as helping victims of war in Syria and Yemen, have now been hijacked to fundraise for Hezbollah activities.
Due to the complex and sophisticated structure of Hezbollah’s networks — which are designed to protect the organization’s assets even in the event that one of them is exposed — it is imperative to operate in a unified way on the basis of a calculated action plan which aims to undermine the organization’s infrastructure. Hence, African countries should unite to weaken Hezbollah’s presence on the continent and work to dismantle the conceptual/ideological infrastructure that enables the group to operate on its soil. Increased monitoring of Hezbollah-affiliated clerics is a crucial first step to combating the problem. A joint intelligence task force made up of representatives from various African countries should be set up to exchange intelligence and help isolate and disrupt these networks. Joint action is the only realistic way to tackle the problem.
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