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Why Africa is at Risk of the US -Iran Confrontation
Why Africa is at Risk of the US -Iran Confrontation

By - Adedoyin Shittu

Posted - 20-01-2020

On the assassination of Iran’s General Qassem Soleimani by the US drone missiles on January 2, the world was brought to the brink of war as Africa and the rest of the world awaits the “Hateful Revenge” of the Iranians as “Death to the US” echoed around the Middle East and beyond. It was no coincidence that Iran planned a reprisal attack on the US at the same hour of the assassination of Soleimani.

But what was shocking was that Iran informed the Iraqi government about the attacks before it took place, explaining that they would be hitting Ain Al-Assad and Erbil Air Bases. The Iraqi Prime Minister in turn told the Americans, so all US personnel were evacuated from the bases.

As a result, no casualties were recorded from the attack. Alongside the missile strike, Iran simultaneously released a statement that it did not seek to escalate further unless the United States struck back—and U.S. President Donald Trump agreed to give up a military response, as well.

Peace At last! It now seems that the United State and the Islamic Republic of Iran have shielded their sword for peace to reign, but that relief might be a little too premature.

The accidental downing of an Ukrainian aircraft by Iranian military, who mistook the plane for US reprisal attack, led to the death of 176 innocent people, people who had nothing to do with the geopolitical game being played around them. 

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Iran’s symbolic missile strike on January 8 may have appeared to satisfy Tehran urge for revenge for the U.S. assassination of Qassem Soleimani but the big question is whether proxy groups close to Tehran are satisfied as well—or whether they will continue to seek vengeance for Soleimani’s death by launching further attacks on U.S. interests or those of its allies.

In a speech on January 5, Hassan Nasrallah, the current Secretary General of Hezbollah in Lebanon said this in an interview. “It is the American military who killed him (Qassem Soleimani), and it is they who will pay the price.” Nasrallah added that future targets would include “U.S. military bases, soldiers, officers, and warships.” In a recent interview with Foreign Policy, Hassan Nasrallah had this to say on Iran “revenge” attack; “The January 8 Iran missile attack was not enough.”  “More attacks are coming, and more bases are going to be hit. Iran will not stop attacking until America is out of the Middle East completely.”

Another risk that is overlooked is that Soleimani was not the only culprit killed in the attack by the U.S. drone strike but also Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the military commander of Kataib Hezbollah and part of the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF), the group responsible for the December 31 storming of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. So even if Iran was satisfied to forego retribution for the death of Soleimani, PMF militias will want to draw American blood to retaliate the death of their leader.

How Did we get here

After Donald Trump reimposed all of the economic sanctions that were lifted under the 2015 JCPOA deal, Iran began to throw punches at the US. Iran activities went as far as attacking tankers in the Gulf of Oman, shooting down a US drone, bombing Saudi oil facilities, and finally the recent attack on the US Embassy premises in Baghdad. These acts of provocations were enough for the “thin skinned Trump” and he decided to hit Iran below the belt and do what other Presidents before him have dread to do – he ordered the elimination of the world’s top terrorist, Major General Qassem Soleimani damning the consequences in the Middle East. 

Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi PMF commander, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, along with at least 10 other people were killed in a US airstrike in Baghdad on Thursday, January 2, 2020.

Who was Soleimani 

Late Major General Qassem Soleimani was no ordinary Iranian, in fact he was the second most important man in Iran after the Ayatollah Ali Khamein. He was the face that represented the Ayatollah among Iran allies in the Middle East. Many said that he was groomed to replace the Ayatollah, something he debunked throughout his lifetime, he claimed that he was called to be a soldier. Many who have faced him and his forces on battlefield describe Soleimani as a mass murderer, a war criminal and a demon and he was particularly a thorn in the flesh of United State.

Soleimani was the symbol of the Islamic Revolution, Power and Reach, and according to the  former CIA director, Army Gen. David Petraeus, Soleimani was the “architect and operational commander” of Iran’s efforts to establish control over the region. He specialized in unconventional warfare and military intelligence and he reports directly to the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. 

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The Iranian concept of expansionism is based on instigating and enabling non-state actors to advance Tehran’s agenda in the region and the Quds Force is the government arm that carries out this agenda. The Quds Force help to arm, train and otherwise support numerous insurgent and rebel groups in the Middle East and beyond, this is why many countries, including the US, Canada, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, have designated the Quds Force as a terrorist organization. The United States also has long labeled Iran the “world’s leading sponsor of terrorism” because supporting militant groups is a way Iran weaken governments it  opposes, undermine the position of regional rivals, and expand its influence. 

The Quds Force gave birth to many designated terrorist groups, including the Lebanon Hezbollah, Iran’s most prominent and powerful proxy. Soleimani was considered a “Living Martyr” by the movement. According to Brother Mosleh, the commander of the Iranian Revolution Quds Guard in Lebanon, “The Muslims of Lebanon, especially the Shiites of Lebanese Hezbollah, consider themselves the offspring of the Islamic revolution and therefore know that they have a duty to imitate the Islamic revolution.” This mindset has made Hezbollah one of Iran success stories and the movement has successfully been exported into Asia, South America, Europe and Africa.

Iran and Terrorism Activities in Africa

In the wake of Soleimani death, many analysts have zeroed in on Iran’s proxies ability to retaliate in the Middle East. But Iran’s area of influence is not limited to the Middle East alone. Iran, in the last decade has used its relationships in Africa to organize and advance its ambitious aims and terrorist networks, all in a bid to rise as a superpower in the Islamic world, given the large number of Muslims in the continent. This makes it unfortunately clear that Iran has the ability to strike at American interests even outside the region as it has done in the past. Over the past decade, Iran Hezbollah, founded in the early 1980s, has been responsible for many attacks against American and Israeli targets around the world—including the United States itself. But Hezbollah is not the only proxy that would be willing to avenge Soleimani death against US and Israeli interests in and outside the Middle East.

Hezbollah and al Qaeda are without a doubt, the two most powerful terrorist groups operating in Africa and these two groups have Iran fingerprints written all over. If the US and Iran proxies are to engage in war, these two groups are ready to attack US interest in Africa and unfortunately, they have capable of destabilizing countries on the continent.

Coincidentally after the announcement of Soleimani death, there was a spike of terrorist attacks on the continent, though many might argue that the attacks were connected to al-qaeda. 

In Kenya, 3 Americans were killed in an attack carried out by al-Qaeda al-Shabaab, some persons were arrested trying to break in British Embassy and many more deaths have followed afterwards. Many familiar with the al-Qaeda will take comfort in the Sunni/Shia divide and argue that Iran and al-Qaeda will never work together. This is a lie because the US intelligence have uncovered a synergy in many instances between Iran and al-Qaeda. This could be because the hatred for the West is more powerful than the Sunni and Shia divide between them or the Iranian authorities are using the divide as a cover to divert attention from itself. 

In November 2012, a Washington District Court heard that Iran trained the al Qaeda operatives behind the 1998 twin bombing of US embassies bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Iran was also fingered in the Benghazi attack in Libya that killed 4 Americans, in fact Soleimani was accused to be the mastermind of the attack. To the east, in Somalia, al Shabaab maintains strong links to Iran though it is affiliated with al Qaeda.

In September 2011, the Nigerien military captured weapons and ammunition from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). It included ammunition identified to originate from Iran. In May 2012, the Nigerien authorities intercepted another shipment of weapons that also contained Iranian-manufactured ammunition.

On May 11, 2013, Egyptian authorities arrested three militants armed with 22 pounds of explosives and bomb-making equipment planning to bomb the US embassy in Cairo. Egyptian Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim told journalists that, one of the three terrorists had received military training in Iran as well as Pakistan.

In July 2013, the United Nations Monitors reported that Iran could be using illegal fishing boats to ship weapons to al Shabaab.

These incidents shows the level of cooperation between al Qaeda and Iran and also paints how they can work together when the common enemy is the West. The al Qaeda al Shabaab have succeeded in fermenting troubles and leaving casualties behind including the Westgate shopping complex attack that shook the whole world in 2013. Only time will tell the level of Iran’s involvement in these attacks.

Lebanon Hezbollah is another important battle tool of Iran and it has been successfully exported by into Africa.

Today, Africa serve as a vital fundraising hub for Hezbollah. Donation from its Shia supporters, drugs and “blood diamond” trades, extortion and, in some cases, legitimate businesses are used to finance terrorism though Hezbollah’s activities in Africa extend beyond fundraising. 

In 2010, Nigerian authorities seized 13 containers of weapons, including rocket launchers and grenades, that an IRGC front company had tried to ship to rebel groups in Gambia allied with Iran. Nigeria also arrested a Quds Force operative involved in the scheme.

In 2012, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), a financial intelligence and enforcement agency of the U.S. Treasury Department, announced sanctions on three Quds Force officials, two Iranian corporations, and a Nigerian shipping company for conspiring to move weapons on behalf of the Iranian Revolution Guard. 

Also in 2012, Kenyan authorities arrested two Quds Force operatives who had hidden a cache of explosives in a golf course in preparation for an attack on British, Saudi, Israeli, or U.S. interests in that country. The government accused the men of plotting the attack with Al-Shabaab.

On February, 2013 Nigerian authorities arrested three men while the fourth escaped, they were accused of being members of an Iranian-trained terrorist cell that planned to attack U.S. and Israeli targets in  the city of Lagos.

In November 2013, 3 Lebanese national were arrested in Nigeria for plotting attacks on Western and Israeli targets in the country on behalf of Hezbollah. The arrest was prompted by the discovery of a cache of weapons that the Nigerian government believed would be used by the conspirators in their attacks. 

Nigerian authorities arrested four Hezbollah agents in northern Nigeria’s biggest city, Kano, between May 16 and 28. The operatives had thousands of rounds of ammunition and a small arsenal of weapons.

In February 2018, two Lebanese citizens were arrested in South Africa and charged with illegally buying digital components used in drones and sending them to Hezbollah. Similarly, in late 2017, American media reported how Hezbollah operatives used their network in West African countries to launder drug money. 

Though the official emotion in the wake of Soleimani death on the continent has been non existent because African countries want to distance themselves from the US Iran brouhaha, yet Africa should be on a high alert because Iran has successfully infiltrated the continent and spread its ideologies like a cult throughout the region. 

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It is however no surprise that Soleimani death invoked emotions in some quarters in Nigeria and South Africa, the giants of Africa. In the case of Nigeria, the country has become a hotbed for Hezbollah activities and it is Iran plan to develop operational base for the rest of Africa in the country. As a result of this, the US government has asked its citizens to be cautious when in Nigeria 

It is suffice to say that Iran may have declared that it has concluded its official retaliation for the death of former Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani with a largely symbolic missile strike on Iraqi bases hosting U.S. forces but the revenge is far from over and we have not heard the last of the US-Iran war. The fear however is, how many of these battles will be fought on African soil.

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