Home Op-Eds US Knew and Ignored Hezbollah in Africa For Many Years

US Knew and Ignored Hezbollah in Africa For Many Years

Mahmoud Zayyat / AFP (archive)| Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah has been fighting on behalf of Syrian Dictator Bashar al-Assad
Mahmoud Zayyat / AFP (archive)| Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah has been fighting on behalf of Syrian Dictator Bashar al-Assad

New York – In a recent interview with Fox News, Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita detailed the country’s security cooperation with the United States. This led to the extradition of a Hezbollah financier who was detained by Morocco’s intelligence last year.

The financier, Bourita explained, was at the center of Hezbollah’s financial system in Africa. Although Hezbollah has been active in the continent for a while, until this point, it was not actively taking measures against Morocco. However, since the arrest of the financier, there has been a shift in Hezbollah’s focus, which culminated in the recent incident involving Iran’s cultural attaché in Algeria.

Iran’s Shift on Morocco

The shift, Bourita posited, has to do with Iran’s strategy of destabilizing pro-Western governments around the world and looking to weaken Arab states specifically. To that effect, UAE’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan, acknowledged Iran-backed attacks on Morocco’s national sovereignty, as part of its pattern of attacks on Arab states, in the Middle East, and elsewhere. He reiterated UAE’s support for Morocco’s territorial integrity and severance of relations with the Islamic Republic.

Hezbollah’s activities in Africa is not a new story for Morocco or the Gulf States. The Gulf States responded to Iran’s long-term presence in Africa by increasing their own hard and soft influence throughout the continent via building bases, backing military forces, providing humanitarian aid, and recruiting affiliates to mosques and religious schools.

Recently, Morocco turned heads by presenting evidence of Iran’s intelligence operations in violation of the ceasefire agreement between Polisario and Morocco; there has been little public discussion among those states of Iran’s threat on that front. The United States intelligence services were well aware of Hezbollah’s activity in Africa well before the financier’s arrest. Moroccan cooperation allowed them access to more information in the months that followed.

The discussion of Hezbollah’s threatening actions in Africa and the expansion of its financing network kept away from the public, remained limited to the narrow circles of professionals. There was no hint that the U.S. government considered the network’s nefarious activities in Africa as part of Hezbollah’s global reach or threat to its interests.

Did the United States Know and When Did They Know It?

It was only after Morocco’s announcement that the State Department gave a nod to Iran’s presence in Africa. Iran’s presence included the backing of assorted terrorist and separatist groups, interest in naval bases and domination of waterways, mirrors the Islamic Republic’s alarming strategy in the Middle East.

Why such seeming lack of interest in the terrorist network’s below-the-radar activities in Africa? Could it be that the United States simply underestimated the extent of the involvement? Did U.S. intelligence fail to convey Iran’s noticeably traceable strategy to the policymakers? Or, did the Trump administration turn a blind eye to the continent because it considered Africa a low priority, and sufficiently distant not to present particular interest to its potential involvement?

The last is doubtful given the extent of U.S. participation in various counterterrorist operations in West Africa, and it’s base in Djibouti. Indeed, there has been much discussion about Iran’s access to Yemen through Somalia, and potentially, its use access to a friendly port of call in Eritrea.

The US Record on Hezbollah in Africa

It is not quite that simple. In February 2018, U.S. sanctions targeted a number of Hezbollah affiliated businesses, including some in West Africa.  Furthermore, as far back as October 2017, the U.S. counterterror operations found Hezbollah weapons caches in Kuwait, which has a significant Shi’a population, and Nigeria, where Iran is actively supporting Shi’a militia, a fact well known to locals yet rarely discussed in the media. At the time, the U.S. announced its intentions to go after Hezbollah particularly in South America, yet also pushed its African and Asian allies to sanction Hezbollah members and associated entities. This was noted in some sources but generated little discussion.

Despite Hezbollah’s accusations that Morocco acted under U.S., Saudi, or Israeli pressure, the attack on Morocco’s national sovereignty is what ultimately culminated in the country’s dramatic move. Indeed, the U.S. has not been seen as pressuring any nation to break relations with Iran itself; rather, part of its strategy was to create a viable alliance of states willing to sanction entities linked to Iran’s IRGC, as well as proxies.

Looking back, it becomes clear that despite lack of media attention, Congress was aware of Hezbollah’s activities in Africa. In June 2017, the House produced a document detailing Hezbollah’s financial dealings, noting aggressive funding and partnership with criminal enterprises in South America and Africa.  A discerning reader can learn from an article published in 2012, that Iran has been active in Africa for decades, focusing its attention on exploiting weak, corrupt, or unstable state systems through soft influence such as peddling, arms deals, and easy access to its market.

For a majority of the time, Iran’s focus on illicit activity resided through West Africa spanning to Congo, looking to influence the Middle East through the Horn of Africa. Furthermore, Hezbollah’s activity in Africa goes back for just as long. In both parts of the continent, Hezbollah was active in weapons smuggling and various criminal enterprises.

The History of Hezbollah’s Activities in Africa

It eventually spread throughout central African states, even reaching Djibouti, the base for U.S. AFRICOM. Its expansion to North Africa, in alliance with Algeria and Polisario, illustrates the successful evasion of international scrutiny. Its uninhibited trek through the continent was met with little resistance from local governments and less so by unaffiliated groups who were eager to make easy money.

One of the most successful organized crime ventures for the Lebanon-based movement was the control of the illegal diamond trade in West Africa. Illegal diamonds, which profited the “Lebanese Resistance Attachments,” also known as AMAL, facilitated large-scale diamond smuggling, which financed Hezbollah’s terrorist activities. The diamonds often ended up in Antwerp, Belgium.  AMAL also had connections to Sierra Leone, Congo, and other places in Africa. In addition to these sophisticated networks, Hezbollah was also active in food-related smuggling rings, shakedowns of Lebanese merchants in West Africa, narco-trafficking, and various fraudulent schemes.

By the early 2000s, other groups started taking advantage of the diamond trade, causing Hezbollah to lose its edge and therefore shift to other sources of revenue. Drug trade, with narco-states such as Guinea-Bissau, became a more significant part of Hezbollah’s financial portfolio, even earning it special fatwas of dispensation from Shi’a clerics. This cooperation stretched via Lebanon to South America, in close collaboration with Colombia’s FARC.

The drug route from Guinea-Bissau followed Mauritania (a state also well familiar to Polisario’s light arms trafficking), Mali, and Niger, and then went onwards to Europe through North Africa’s Mediterranean coast. This activity laid a foundation for Hezbollah’s later shift to North Africa and saw the potential for intelligence and military activity. They saw a possibility of destabilizing the region and distracting countries like Morocco, from playing a constructive role in educating African imams; thus countering Iranian influence in West and Central Africa and elsewhere.

Hezbollah Expands Its Reach; Challenges Rivals

Likewise, Hezbollah was able to co-opt local Sunni groups scattered throughout the continent, to play a supportive role. Some states, such as South Africa, openly backed Iran. Iran and Hezbollah, in addition to Al Qaeda and Boko Haram, were able to take advantage of local hardships, human rights abuses, and economic issues in Nigeria in order to co-opt local institutions and appeal to the broader population.

In addition to exploiting Islamists, Iran worked to establish arms smuggling through Nigeria to other parts of the continent.  Western security services, however, kept track of its activities, and in one instance, helped Nigerian Security Services intercept a ship loaded with weapons. However, Iran was not deterred and continued to persist in countries, such as Kenya, while also working to destabilize the Horn of Africa, where it focused much of its activity.

It looked to expand its influence to the Saudi-backed Sudan and Somalia, which provided it easy access to Yemen. Sudan, a solidly Sunni state, which is part of the Arab Coalition in Yemen, has recently been diversifying its portfolio of backers by cutting deals with Turkey and Qatar. Tehran, however, has not given up on peddling influence and has established a Somali Revolutionary Guard in Sudan, trained by both Iranians and Hezbollah contingent, much like the Houthis in Yemen. Iran was also active on a government level. Hezbollah’s influence peddling in Khartoum is detailed in the U.S. State Department’s profile of Sudan as a hub for assorted terrorist groups, going back to 1989.

Despite Extensive Troublemaking, Hezbollah Was Never Challenged in Africa by the West

Hezbollah eventually ran into a confrontation with Egypt when it looked to smuggle weapons into Gaza during the war with Israel. Egypt eventually ended up arresting a group of Hezbollah operatives. The extent of Iranian and Hezbollah’s influence in Africa is immediately observable, and the U.S. both publicly and privately, kept record of these activities. With the exception of occasionally tipping off local intelligence services, the U.S. appeared perfectly content with not making Hezbollah’s troublemaking a top priority, much less a front-page item.

The extent of Hezbollah’s African financing and criminality is noted years prior to the extensive study referenced above. In 2004, the Washington Institute for Near East Studies complained that Hezbollah’s activities remained uninterrupted. The article notes that in 2003 a Lebanese aircraft crashed in Benin with two Hezbollah operatives on board. What were they doing there?

Even as early on as the beginning of the decade, U.S. and Israeli officials duly noted that Africa presented a lucrative opportunity for terrorist financing for Hezbollah, as well as its Iranian backer. Shakedowns, illicit diamond trade, front companies, influence peddling, and even recruitment of students from Uganda to Iran-backed universities were noted even then. Israeli intelligence noted terrorist plots to abduct Israeli businessmen and diplomats in Africa.

The article notes the proactive measures Western and African intelligence agencies have taken to counter Al Qaeda’s influence, as well as the spread of other Sunni groups; yet Hezbollah somehow, remained uninhibited. The article describes Hezbollah as operating “financial, logistical, and operational” branch in Africa, essentially milking the continent with a great deal of output in return for very little trouble or international reaction. It seems that this pattern of activity has continued unabated to this day – until Iran tried to interfere directly in Morocco’s ongoing conflict with Polisario and overplayed its hand, finally forcing the world to acknowledge out loud, the extent of its success in the continent.

Still, in light of obvious and overwhelming evidence about the extent of Iran’s involvement in Africa, noted both by the public and intelligence agencies for decades, in conjunction with Morocco’s strained relation with Iran regarding Polisario, the U.S. reaction has been minimal, relatively speaking. Its sanctions of determined there were seven Hezbollah affiliated business in February though undoubtedly many more such entities deal with Iran and Hezbollah throughout the continent.

To date, little to no action has been taken, despite various regular reports on Hezbollah’s financial activity in Africa. Morocco’s significant measures to protect itself remains the talk of the Middle East even weeks later. Despite the U.S. JCPOA withdrawal and Bourita’s dramatic account to Fox News, the U.S. administration has yet to take strategic steps in response to these revelations.

What the U.S. Can and Should Do After Morocco’s Break Up with Iran

Much can be done now that Iran’s presence has been outed and denounced. Increasingly, it seems that rather than reacting to U.S. pressure, Morocco hoped to finally draw attention to Iran’s scheming in its neighborhood with taking very public steps in defense of its national security interests. The United States in conjunction with Moroccan intelligence, should strengthen its relationship and devote a specialized, small and flexible taskforce devoted to tracing Iran’s and Hezbollah’s financing and other activities in the region. This would result in creating viable coalitions to counter these movements, and responding to the spread of extremism and terrorist activity by Hezbollah in the region.

The U.S. should also be taking a harder look at Polisario’s violations of the ceasefire activities, as its partnership with Hezbollah is now making it complicit in international terrorism. Further, the U.S. should publicize additional studies and information about Hezbollah’s and Iranian activity in North Africa, and other parts of the continent and focus on targeting individuals, entities, and governments for severe and consistent sanctions for any involvement with this organization or other illegal Iranian proxies and forces.

Countering Iran in Africa on All Fronts is Vital for International Security

It should also strengthen its economic and educational partnerships with Morocco, and work closely with Rabat, as well as other moderate allies in the region to counter Iran’s soft influence peddling which includes ideological outreach, recruitment, and spread of extremist ideology throughout the economy.  Prophylactic operations, as well as preventative measures, such as investments in entrepreneurship and displaying Western influence in local populations, can go a long way for offering alternatives to Iran’s aggressive interventionism.

Iran’s interest in Africa is geopolitical as well as tactical. Iran seeks control of strategic waterways, the building of additional naval bases, control of strategic infrastructures, including ports, for smuggling weapons and terrorists, and monopolizing trade routes and encouraging piracy.

It also seeks to create destabilization, as that is both easier and cheaper for a country with a weak economy and dissatisfied population than investing a flow of funds into building up viable economies and networks. In addition to sowing chaos wherever possible, and facilitating criminal activity, Iran seeks to undermine pro-Western governments.

This is done via aligning with and arming local terrorist groups, providing weapons to existing terrorist groups, even those with contrasting religious and ideological proclivities, coopting governments and recruiting followers. If left unattended, Iran can easily create flexible armies of followers, following the model of Iran-backed Hamas, Hezbollah, and Houthis, to stage terrorist attacks, engage in espionage, abduct foreigners, travel around the world on terrorist missions, or for the sake of facilitating warfare.

The United States can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to the obvious. It must heed the warnings of Morocco, take advantage of this brief window of opportunity, and crank up the pressure on Iran and its proxies in Africa, in defense of its allies and the U.S. own interests in preventing the spread of terrorism and financing of Iran’s hegemonic adventures.

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