Foundation for Defense of Democracies has published an article originally in The Jerusalem Post of July 11, 2013, by Foundation fellow Benjamin Weinthal on the rise of Lebanese Hezbollah in Africa. With the admission by three Lebanese men in Nigeria that they had been trained by Hezbollah and accumulated enough military hardware to wage a war, the entrenchment of the Shi’ite terrorist organization in Africa has fueled renewed interest in counter-terrorism strategies. Excerpts below:
According to Nigeria’s PM News, public prosecutor Simon Egede said the dual Lebanese-Nigerian nationals had amassed enough weapons, ranging from land mines and AK 47 rifles to anti-tank rocket launchers, “to sustain a civil war.” After the three suspected operatives ¬ Mustapha Fawaz, 49, Abdullahi Thahini, 48, and Tahal Roda, 51 ¬were arrested in May, the country’s security forces said the men had planned to attack local Israeli and American institutions.
The scramble to counter the Hezbollah threat prompted charges of terrorism.
Even more tellingly, Nigerian authorities have publicly labeled Hezbollah’s military wing a terrorist organization – ¬ an unprecedented move.
It is worth recalling that not one African country lists Hezbollah as a terrorist entity.
The stakes are clearly high for Nigeria. The reach of Hezbollah into the continent has prompted US and African counter-terrorism authorities to sharpen their focus and impose penalties.
The Shi’ite group’s use of West Africa as a launching pad for its narcotics trade into Europe might have consequences for the EU process to clamp down on Hezbollah fundraising. EU foreign ministers are slated in late July to issue a decision on whether its military wing should be listed as a terrorist entity.
Dawit Giorgis, a visiting fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an expert on activities by Hezbollah and Iran in Africa, told The Jerusalem Post that African governments are aware that “dealing with Iran and Hezbollah is trouble. Iran’s exports to sub-Saharan Africa peaked at $3.9 billion in 2011 ¬only to slump last year to $1.8 b.” Iran spawned Hezbollah and remains it chief financial and ideological sponsor across the globe. In short, its regime is inseparable from Hezbollah.
Giorgis added that in some parts of Africa the Islamic Republic is perceived as a security threat because of its “support and connections to terrorists and illegal drug and firearms trafficking. Those countries that continue to welcome Hezbollah or Iran are those who either have been corrupted or owe [them] their survival because of military support.”
Iran’s lame duck President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has invested time in Africa, including visits to Niger, Benin and Ghana in April. His visit to Niger raised eyebrows, largely because the country is the world¹s fourth-biggest producer of uranium, which Iran seeks in order to advance its illicit nuclear enrichment program.
However, the visit did not strike a chord with all African countries. After Nigeria confiscated Iranian arms in the port city of Lagos in 2010, Gambia pulled the plug on diplomatic relations with Iran. The ostensible reason was that it had been the destination for the weapons shipment.
Nigeria will continue to be a hub of pro-Hezbollah and pro-Iranian activity, mainly because the country is home to Sheikh Zakzaky, an advocate of the revolutionary Iranian Shi¹ite ideology who serves as a key Muslim leader in Nigeria. His office contains a photo of the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini.
The open question is, will African nations follow the growing list of countries that have either banned Hezbollah or cracked down on the organization¹s financial transactions? Nigeria might very well be the litmus test for a modernized counter-terrorism posture toward the Shi’ite group.