Full Publication

Qods Force Operation in Africa

March 7, 2011
Port at Bandar Abbas, the origination point of the seized arms (photo by Sorosh, available at flickr).
 

In October 2010, Nigerian security forces seized an Iranian weapons shipment in the Lagos port of Apapa.  The arms seizure led to the arrest of an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force officer in Nigeria suspected of facilitating the shipment.  The seizure also resulted in a rare exposé of how the Iranian Qods Force, an organization charged with exporting the Islamic Revolution and reporting directly to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i, operates outside of the Middle East.

In October 2010, Nigerian security forces interdicted a shipment of Iranian weapons at the Apapa port in Lagos, Nigeria.  An examination of the details reported since indicates that the shipment may be the first public case in recent years of an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force operation conducted outside of the broader Middle East.[1] 

At some point in 2010 the MV Everest, a Marshall Islands-registered ship operated by French firm CMA CGM, picked up 13 twenty-foot containers at the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas.  The Iranian shipper identified the contents of the cargo as “construction materials,” specifically glass wool and stone pallets.[2]  The MV Everest made a stop at the Jawaharlal Nehru port in Mumbai, India before arriving in Nigeria’s Apapa port in Lagos between early- and mid-July 2010, according to Nigerian customs agents and court documents.[3]  The unloaded cargo remained sealed at Apapa for several months after it arrived there.[4] 

On October 12, 2010, the Iranian shipper and its agents attempted to have the cargo moved from Lagos, Nigeria to Banjul, Gambia after failing to obtain release documents.[5]  Local authorities initially granted clearance for the shipment to leave the port, but customs and security officials intervened before it could be released.[6]  Nigerian State Security Services (SSS) seized and opened the containers on October 26, 2010 to find them filled with 107 mm artillery rockets, 60/81/120 mm mortars, grenades, explosives, and rocket launchers.[7]  The Iranian weapons cargo seizure led to a diplomatic row between the Nigerian and Iranian governments, a UN Security Council investigation, and the public revelation of Iranian hard power activity in Africa.  

THE OPERATION

Nigerian authorities named two Iranians suspected of involvement in the weapons shipment: senior Qods Force officer Azim Aghajani and the Qods Force commander for operations in Africa Ali Akbar Tabatabaei.[8]  Both Aghajani and Tabatabaei were in Nigeria at the time of the seizure.  The two men initially retreated to the Iranian embassy in Abuja to avoid arrest.[9]  Iranian embassy officials there eventually provided the Nigerian government access to Aghajani, but claimed diplomatic immunity for Tabatabaei.[10]  Iranian officials claimed that Aghajani was an Iranian expatriate representing a private company selling “defensive arms” to a West African country.[11]  Nigeria’s Foreign Minister Odein Ajumogobia made a formal request for access to Tabatabaei; however, Iran’s Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki turned down the request and Tabatabaei fled to Iran in mid-November.[12]  On November 25, 2010, Nigerian courts charged Aghajani and three Nigerians for the illegal importation and exportation of weapons.[13] 

It is unclear how long the two Iranian operatives were in Nigeria prior to the weapons seizure.  They were both provided with identities that attempted to disguise the nature of their activities.  Aghajani appears to have entered the country with the help of a Nigerian with ties to the Iranian regime.[14]  Nigerian government reports indicate that Aghajani received permission to enter Nigeria after Sheikh Ali Abbas Usman, alias Abbas Jega, provided a reference for him.[15]  The Nigerian government identified Usman as an “Abuja-based businessman” and charged him, along with two other Nigerians including customs agents, for conspiring with Aghajani.[16]  Tabatabaei, on the other hand, entered Nigeria after Iranian foreign ministry officials received permission to station him there to “provide administrative support” to the Iranian embassy.[17] 

Additional information on Tabatabaei’s role in the case has not emerged after he fled Nigeria following Mottaki’s arrival in Nigeria.  Recent unconfirmed reports note that Tabatabaei has been reassigned to Venezuela to oversee Qods Force operations in Latin America.[18]  Tabatabaei’s role in the Nigeria case and the scope of his activities across Africa remain ambiguous, but the nature of his evacuation and Iranian officials’ refusal to allow him to be interrogated suggest that his role in the operation was worth protecting from exposure.    

Aghajani and Tabatabaei identified the sender of the cargo as a company based in Tehran named International Trading and General Construction (ITGC).[19]  Officials at CMA CGM, the French firm that owned the transporting vessel, maintain that their employees had received falsified documents about the containers’ contents and that the shipper, ITGC, “supplied, loaded, and sealed” the cargo.[20]  It is very likely that once the containers arrived in Bandar Abbas the transport vessel owned by CMA CGM liaised with a local Iranian intermediary, Jahan Darya Shipping Agency (JDSA), to load the containers given that JDSA is listed as the exclusive port agent for CMA CGM in Bandar Abbas.[21]       

THE DESTINATION

The final destination of the cargo remains a point of speculation and difficult to determine with certainty.  There are at least three potential scenarios for where the cargo was being sent: to recipients in Gambia, to Iranian proxy groups in Gaza, and to radical militia groups in Nigeria.[22] 

The attempt to move the cargo to Gambia led to speculation that Nigeria was only a trans-shipment point and that the intended recipient may have been in Gambia.  This scenario, however, appears less likely for several reasons.  The shipper had identified the end destination as Nigeria and had the cargo unloaded in Nigeria, despite the presence of a CMA CGM shipping agent in Banjul, Gambia that could have directly received the shipment.[23]  Nigeria’s foreign minister said the paper trail behind the shipment suggested that the arms were destined for an address in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja.[24]  The shipper’s decision to send the weapons to Gambia was made only when the shipper failed to obtain the proper documentation to clear the cargo for release in Nigeria.[25] 

Israeli defense officials suggested that the shipment was intended for Islamist militants in the Gaza Strip, home to the Iran-backed terrorist organization Hamas.[26]  The scenario is plausible considering that Iranian agents have previously smuggled arms to Gaza through Africa.  In January 2009, Israeli jets attacked and destroyed a 23-truck weapons convoy traveling towards Egypt in the Sudanese desert.  The weapons had been initially smuggled into Africa through Port Sudan on the Red Sea.[27]  The Nigeria shipment, detected by Nigerian authorities likely with assistance from intelligence agencies that monitor Iranian shipping in the Middle East, could well have been the first leg of an alternative land route to funnel weapons through Africa into Gaza.

Aghajani initially requested that the weapons be sent to Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, which lies more than 300 miles from Lagos.  This request suggests that a local Nigerian group may have been the intended recipient of the weapons.[28]  Nigeria’s northern region is home to a sizeable Muslim population, including a Shi’a minority.  One group in this community, the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) led by Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky, has established ties with the Iranian regime and has served as a base of support for it in Nigeria.  The IMN’s rhetoric and symbolism mirror the sentiments of Iranian regime officials and its activities are ideologically aligned with the Islamic Republic.[29]  In a 2010 speech, Zakzaky praised Iran’s revolution and its independence from “imperial powers,” adding that “In Nigeria, the establishment of a similar Islamic Republic is quite possible.”[30]  No direct evidence has emerged linking the IMN to the arms shipment.  If the Qods Force intended to deliver weapons to or through Nigeria, however, the IMN, or a similar group, would likely be the intended recipient of the weapons.  This scenario could also involve local Nigerian intermediaries acting as facilitators for the second scenario above, the arming of militants in Gaza.        

Further details about the shipment and a definitive destination may emerge as Nigerian courts prepare to try Aghajani and his co-conspirator in the coming months.[31]  A UN Security Council investigation may also uncover further details.  The information made available thus far has had an impact on the Iranian regime’s relationship with West African leaders.[32]  Iranian officials have invested significant effort in cultivating relationships with West African countries, increasing diplomatic ties and economic cooperation.[33]  The presence of Qods Force operations in the region will likely complicate Iran’s soft power strategy and make it difficult for regime officials to convince local leaders that its intentions are transparent and benign in nature.

CONCLUSION

Iran’s Qods Force funds, trains, and arms terrorist groups; conducts intelligence operations; engages in covert diplomatic efforts; and carries out economic activities under the mission of exporting the Islamic Revolution and cultivating proxies.[34]  Details about the Qods Force’s leadership and operations in the greater Middle East have become widely available in recent years.  Qods Force support to Shi’a militias following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, for example, has been documented.[35]  The U.S. Treasury has identified senior Qods Force officers in Afghanistan and Lebanon for their roles in providing financial and materiel support to local insurgent and terrorist groups.[36] 

The organization has been known to maintain military ties in Africa and Latin America, but public knowledge of its activities in these regions has been limited until now.[37]  The current case before Nigerian authorities demonstrates the tactics Iranian agents use and the intermediaries they operate through.  It appears that two Iranians believed to be Qods Force officials, one a senior officer and the other a commander for the Qods Force in Africa, infiltrated Nigeria with the aid of both Nigerian nationals linked to the Iranian regime and the cover of Iran’s foreign ministry.  Once there they facilitated the shipment of 13 containers of arms using deceptive shipping practices before being discovered. 

The arms shipment—whether destined for local militias or Iranian proxies in Gaza—demonstrates the ongoing efforts of the Qods Force, which was designed to export Iran’s revolution and reports directly to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i, to export instability well beyond Iran’s borders.      

 

[1] “In 1992 the former head of the Iranian Pasdaran in Lebanon, Hassan Azada, was posted to Khartoum, and training camps were reportedly established in Abu Rakim (Eastern State), Souyaa, and Um Barbita (South Kordofan… In 1993 the Pasdaran sent infantry, artillery, and logistics specialists to Sudan under the
command of Rafic Doust of the ‘Foundation of the Oppressed’.” See: Jago Salmon, “A Paramilitary Revolution: The Popular Defense Forces,” The Small Arms Survey, December 2007.  Available at http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/pdfs/HSBA-SWP-10-Paramilitary-Revolution.pdf.     
[2] “Iran and Nigeria Discuss Seized Weapons,” Reuters, November 11, 2010, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/12/world/africa/12nigeria.html; Jon Gambrell, “Nigeria links Iran to arms shipment,” Associated Press, November 11, 2010, available at http://www.deseretnews.com/article/700080761/APNewsBreak-Nigeria-links-Iran-to-arms-shipment.html. In 2009, an Iranian weapons shipment originating from Bandar Abbas seized aboard the MV Francop by Israeli naval forces was also hidden under the labels of “construction equipment” and “bulldozer parts.”  For background and details on that seizure, see http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/The+Iranian+Threat/Support+of+terror/Proof_Iranian_arms_smuggling_to_terrorists_Nov+2009.htm.
[3] Ian Deitch and John Gambrell, “Israel says Nigeria weapons were headed for Gaza Strip,” Associated Press, October 28, 2010, available at http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2010/oct/28/israel-says-nigeria-weapons-were-headed-gaza-strip/;  Camilius Eboh, “Nigerian court charges Iranian over arms shipment,” Reuters, November 25, 2010, available at http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE6AO3PM20101125.   
[4] Jon Gambrell, “Nigeria: Shipper confirms weapons came from Iran,” Associated Press, October 30, 2010, available at http://www.boston.com/news/world/africa/articles/2010/10/30/nigeria_shipper_confirms_weapons_came_from_iran/.
[5] Ibid; Reuters, November 25, 2010.  
[6] “Nigerian Illegal Arms Shipment Was Loaded In Iran,” AFP, October 29, 2010, available at http://www.defensenews.com/story.php?i=4995951.  The same weapons discovered on the MV Everest were found on the MV Francop after Israeli authorities seized that vessel, which also originated in Bandar Abbas.  For background and details on that seizure, see http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/The+Iranian+Threat/Support+of+terror/Proof_Iranian_arms_smuggling_to_terrorists_Nov+2009.htm.  
[7] “Iran arms-smuggling case roils Nigeria,” Vanguard, November 13, 2010, available at http://www.vanguardngr.com/2010/11/iran-arms-smuggling-case-roils-nigeria/; Jon Gambrell, “Nigeria links Iran to arms shipment,” Associated Press, November 11, 2010, available at http://www.deseretnews.com/article/700080761/APNewsBreak-Nigeria-links-Iran-to-arms-shipment.html; Ikechukwu Nnochiri and Caleb Ayansina, “Arms shipment: Iranian suspect discharged by court,” Vanguard, February 1, 2011, available at http://www.vanguardngr.com/2011/02/arms-shipment-iranian-suspect-discharged-by-court/; Nick Tattersall, "Weapons seized in Nigeria came from Iran: shipping company," Reuters, October 30, 2010, available at http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/10/30/us-nigeria-weapons-idUSTRE69T1YT20101030; Borzou Daragahi, "Arms cache seized in Nigeria was shipped from Iran," Los Angeles Times, November 16, 2010, available at http://articles.latimes.com/2010/nov/16/world/la-fg-iran-weapons-20101116.
[8] “Arms shipment: Nigeria trial ‘ll expose Iran gun-running,” January 19, 2011, available at http://www.vanguardngr.com/2011/01/arms-shipment-nigeria-trial-ll-expose-iran-gun-running/.  
[9] Reuters, November 25, 2010.  
[10] “Nigeria to question Iranian over arms seized in Lagos,” BBC News, November 12, 2010, available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-11743454.  
[11]“Nigeria’s misunderstanding about cargo has been cleared up: Iran FM,” November 16, 2010, available at http://www.tehrantimes.com/index_View.asp?code=230549.  
[12]“Seized arms: Suspect flees to Iran,” Nigerian News Service, November 18, 2010, available at http://www.nigeriannewsservice.com/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=1566:seized-arms-suspect-flees-to-iran&Itemid=231&tmpl=component&print=1.  
[13] Vanguard, January 19, 2011.  
[14] Usman lived in Iran during the early 1990s and worked for the “Hausa Service of Radio Tehran,” an Iranian-state owned media outlet whose target audience is the Hausa-speaking community of Muslims in northern Nigeria. See http://www.aminiya.com/kano/SUNDAY/211110%20SUNDAY/cover/7.pdf
[15] Vanguard, November 13, 2010.  
[16] Reuters, November 25, 2010. Nigerian authorities dropped charges against the two other Nigerians on January 31, 2011.  See http://www.vanguardngr.com/2011/02/arms-shipment-iranian-suspect-discharged-by-court/
[17]“Arms seizure: Iran behind shipment – security agents,” Vanguard, November 12, 2010, available at http://www.vanguardngr.com/2010/11/arms-seizure-iran-behind-shipment-security-agents/.  
[18] Vanguard, January 19, 2011 (also available at http://allafrica.com/stories/201101190260.html). 
[19] “Nigeria confronts Iran in arms row,” The Nation, November 12, 2010, available at http://thenationonlineng.net/web3/news/18679.html.  
[20] The officials noted that they their firm had been cleared of any wrongdoing. See: Associated Press, October 30 and “Nigeria will report Iran if arms broke UN sanctions,” November 12, 2010, available at http://www.sabcnews.co.za/portal/site/ChannelAfrica/menuitem.0440eb803775db47ee41ee41674daeb9/?vgnextoid=329c636cdcf3c210VgnVCM10000077d4ea9bRCRD&vgnextfmt=default.
[21] See CMA CGM’s website at http://www.cma-cgm.com/WorldwideNetwork/Agencies/AgencyList.aspx?PageMethod=InitializeParameters&Country=42&CountryName=Iran. In January 2010, an Iranian port authority manager in Bushehr also identified Jahan Darya as the “exclusive agent” of CMA CGM in Iran; see http://bushehrport.pmo.ir/newsdetail-2307-en.html.
[22] There is also a fourth potential destination of the arms: Senegal. Senegal's foreign ministry announced on February 23 that it had severed ties with Iran after discovering that the regime had delivered weapons to separatist rebels in southern Senegal. "Senegal is outraged to see that Iranian bullets caused the death of Senegalese soldiers," a statement from the ministry read. The separatist group has been identified as the Casamance Movement of Democratic Forces. There has been no indication, however, that the arms seized by Nigeria are linked to the Senegalese separatist group. See Malick Rokhy Ba, “Senegal cuts diplomatic ties with Iran,” AFP, February 23, 2011, available at http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5i9oJgTL6jUueF9T3dvELOnBGQYQQ?docId=CNG.97fd7d31409a22b937a0af220188ab56.61.
[23] According to its website, CMA CGM operates in Gambia’s Banjul port through the Gambia Shipping Agencies Ltd. agent.  See http://www.cma-cgm.com/WorldwideNetwork/Agencies/AgencyList.aspx?PageMethod=InitializeParameters&Country=153&CountryName=Gambia.
[24] Joe Brock and Felix Onuah, “Nigeria will report Iran if arms broke UN sanctions,” International Business Times, November 13, 2010, available at http://www.ibtimes.com/articles/81654/20101114/nigeria-will-report-iran-if-arms-broke-un-sanctions.htm.  
[25] “The Arms Imports: The Men Who Did It,” Daily Trust, November 1, 2010, available at http://allafrica.com/stories/201011010384.html; “Iran and Nigeria Discuss Seized Weapons,” Reuters, November 11, 2010, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/12/world/africa/12nigeria.html.  
[26] Yaakov Katz, “Nigerian arms seizure may indicate new Iran-Hamas route,” The Jerusalem Post, October 29, 2010.  Available at http://www.jpost.com/International/Article.aspx?id=193201
[27] “How Israel Foiled an Arms Convoy Bound for Hamas,” TIME, March 30, 2009.  Available at http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1888352,00.html.
[28] Reuters, November 11, 2010. This reported noted that Nigerian intelligence officials claimed “there was no question that Nigeria had been the intended destination.
[29] The group has developed a military unit identified as the “Guards” which is led by Malam Abubakr Maina, who lived in Iran in the 1990s; units of the IMN Guards share names with Iranian-backed militant groups in Iraq, including Jaysh al Mahdi; IMN Guards can be seen hoisting large portraits of Islamic Republic of Iran founder Ayatollah Khomeini, current Iranian leader Khamene’i, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah; the IMN website publishes material mirroring Iranian propaganda (for instance “The Shameful Acts of the Illegal State of Israel”); Zakzaky and his followers regularly send students for religious training in Qom.  See the IMN website at http://www.islamicmovement.org/index.htm. For pictures of IMN militia units and religious processions, see http://www.jafariyanews.com/2k7_news/sep/3nigeria_15shaban.htm and http://www.jafariyanews.com/2k8_news/aug/22nigera_15shaban.htm.  
[31] In mid-February, a Nigerian court in Lagos suspended the trial until early March in order to discuss a bail application filed by Aghajani. See “Nigerian court adjourns Iranian arms trial,” AFP, February 18, 2011, available at http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20110218/wl_africa_afp/nigeriaweaponsirancourtun_20110218142026.
[32] Both Nigeria and The Gambia ordered the Iranian ambassadors in their countries to leave the country following the weapons seizure.  Gambian officials cancelled existing Iranian projects in their country and announced that it would sever diplomatic, political, and economic ties with the Iranian regime. “Gambia says severs all ties with Iran,” Reuters, November 22, 2010, available at http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSLDE6AL2AS20101122. See footnote 22 regarding Senegal’s recent severing of ties with Iran.
[33] For background, see Charlie Szrom, “Ahmadinejad in West Africa: What Iranian Outreach to the Region Reveals about Tehran’s Foreign Policy,” AEI Critical Threats Project, August 3, 2010, available at http://www.irantracker.org/analysis/ahmadinejad-west-africa-iranian-outreach-reveals-tehran-foreign-policy-aug-3-2010-3242.
[34] Lieutenant General Ronald L. Burgess, Jr., Statement before the United States Senate Committee on Armed Services, April 14, 2010, available at http://www.dia.mil/public-affairs/testimonies/2010-04-13.html.
[35] Kimberly Kagan, “Iran’s Proxy War Against the United States and Iraq,” The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), August 29, 2007, available at http://www.understandingwar.org/report/irans-proxy-war-against-united-states-and-iraqi-government.
[36] Fact Sheet: U.S. Treasury Department Target’s Iran’s Support for Terrorism, U.S. Department of the Treasury, August 3, 2010, available at http://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/tg810.aspx.  
[37] Burgess, April 13, 2010; Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, U.S. Department of State, April 2009, available at http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/crt/2008/122411.htm.