March 07, 2011
Qods Force Operation in Africa
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.
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. 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. The unloaded cargo remained sealed at Apapa for several months after it arrived there.
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. Local authorities initially granted clearance for the shipment to leave the port, but customs and security officials intervened before it could be released. 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. 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.
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. 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. Iranian embassy officials there eventually provided the Nigerian government access to Aghajani, but claimed diplomatic immunity for Tabatabaei. Iranian officials claimed that Aghajani was an Iranian expatriate representing a private company selling “defensive arms” to a West African country. 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. On November 25, 2010, Nigerian courts charged Aghajani and three Nigerians for the illegal importation and exportation of weapons.
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. Nigerian government reports indicate that Aghajani received permission to enter Nigeria after Sheikh Ali Abbas Usman, alias Abbas Jega, provided a reference for him. 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. 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.
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. 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). 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. 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.
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.
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. 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. 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.
Israeli defense officials suggested that the shipment was intended for Islamist militants in the Gaza Strip, home to the Iran-backed terrorist organization Hamas. 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. 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. 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. 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.” 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. 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. Iranian officials have invested significant effort in cultivating relationships with West African countries, increasing diplomatic ties and economic cooperation. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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.