Nigeria’s domestic intelligence service announced on Wednesday the arrest of an Iran-backed terrorist cell plotting to launch attacks on Israeli and American targets in the African state.
Nigeria’s State Security Service (SSS) named Abdullahi Mustapha Berende and two other Nigerians as the suspects, adding that the arrests had occurred in December, after Berende made several suspicious trips to Iran and interacted with Iranians in a “high profile terrorist network” there.
“His Iranian sponsors requested that he identify and gather intelligence on public places and prominent hotels frequented by Americans and Israelis to facilitate attacks,” SSS spokeswoman Marilyn Ogar said in a statement. “There is conclusive evidence that Berende, in collaboration with his Iranian handlers, was involved in grievous crimes against the national security of this country.”
Iran has yet to respond to the allegations.
Berende, who will now be charged in court, admitted to reporters on Wednesday that he had spied for Iranian counterparts.
“As for surveillance, that one is true.... It is a regrettable phenomenon. I shouldn’t be proud of it,” he said as he was paraded by the SSS at its offices in the capital, Abuja.
He received $30,000 to carry out operations, the SSS said.
Dr. Ely Karmon, a senior research scholar at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, said Iran had been setting up terrorist sleeper cells in Africa, including in Nigeria, since at least the 1990s.
“This isn’t surprising,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “We saw that in Kenya last year, Iranian agents plotted terrorist attacks against Israeli and American targets.”
In Nigeria, there is a group called the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, led by Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky, which serves as an Iranian terrorism and subversion arm, Karmon continued.
Zakzaky traveled to the Iranian city of Qom in the late 1980s, where he was recruited as an agent, the scholar said, explaining that “the group identifies with the doctrine of [former Iranian supreme leader Ruhollah] Khomeini.”
The group looks to Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah as a role model.
It remains unclear whether the Islamic Movement of Nigeria is linked to the latest plot, he added.
In 2010, Nigerian security officials intercepted an Iranian arms shipment containing 13 containers of weapons, including artillery rockets and rifle rounds. An investigation found that the shipment had originally come from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. Those arrested in connection with the incident included an alleged Iranian Revolutionary Guards member and three Nigerian suspects.
And in 2004, an Iranian diplomat was arrested on suspicion of carrying out espionage against the Israeli Embassy in Abuja.
Iran has also promoted its influence in Africa to search for uranium sources in countries such as Zimbabwe and Namibia, Karmon noted.
“Iran’s activities in Africa are large in scale,” he said. “In the Ivory Coast, an imam was ejected after being found to be linked to Hezbollah. And Senegal cut relations with Iran in 2011, after it was found to be shipping arms to separatist rebels. Sudan serves as a platform for Iranian activities.”
Reuters contributed to this report.