On Feb. 20, the Nigerian State Security Service announced it had arrested three men that it claims are linked to an Iranian-funded cell that was planning attacks in Nigeria. A search for a fourth suspect is under way. According to a State Security Service spokeswoman, the cell was capable of carrying out operations and had conducted pre-operational surveillance on a number of targets. These included organizations such as the U.S. Peace Corps, the U.S. Agency for International Development and an Israeli cultural center in Lagos. The group also targeted individuals, such as former Nigerian leader Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida and the former sultan of Sokoto, Ibrahim Dasuki.
The leader of the cell was identified as Abdullahi Mustapha Berende, a Shiite from Kwara state. Security officials said Berende attended a course at the Imam Khomeini International University in Iran in 2006 and returned to Iran in 2011 to receive training in terrorism tradecraft — specifically, the use of small arms and the manufacture of improvised explosive devices. His Iranian handlers reportedly provided Berende with $24,000 to begin a small business in Lagos that could be used as a cover for his activities. Berende and his two alleged accomplices were arrested in December and reportedly confessed during interrogation.
In addition to announcing the arrests, the Nigerian government also summoned Iran's ambassador to the Foreign Ministry to respond to charges that his government was conducting clandestine activities in Nigeria.
That the Iranians were carrying out covert operations in Nigeria should come as no surprise. In 2010, Tehran was linked to a high-profile case involving a weapons smuggling operation in Lagos. Indeed, some media reports suggest that the Berende cell was tasked with targeting Israeli interests in Lagos specifically because Israelis operating in Lagos helped uncover the arms smuggling operation.
Iran has a track record of conducting covert operations throughout Africa, where it is typically easy to operate due to weak security forces. In June 2012, an Iranian terror plot was thwarted in Kenya when authorities discovered military-grade high explosives being smuggled into the country.
The events in Africa are part of a long-standing covert war that pits Israel and the United States on one side against Iran and its militant proxies on the other. This covert war is connected to the larger struggle between Iran and the West — a struggle epitomized by the crisis in Syria, fears about the Strait of Hormuz, rhetoric concerning Iran’s nuclear program and competing efforts at diplomatic positioning.
Beyond the thwarted plots in Nigeria and Kenya, Iran's covert operations have included botched efforts in Cyprus and Azerbaijan in early 2012 as well as failed attacks in Tbilisi, New Delhi and Bangkok in February 2012. They also include the July 2012 bombing that killed five Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian bus driver in Burgas, Bulgaria.
Iran’s covert war is clearly continuing, and the arrests in Nigeria are a timely reminder that jihadists are not the only force capable of undermining stability in Africa.
Editor's Note: Abdullahi Mustapha Berende was misspelled in an earlier version of this analysis.