Analysis: Abduction underlines risks to Israelis abroad

Hizbullah is believed to maintain a strong presence in West Africa within Shi'ite Muslim communities.

nigeria hizbullah 88 (photo credit: )
nigeria hizbullah 88
(photo credit: )
While the kidnapping of an Israeli businessman in Nigeria late Tuesday night appears to have been of a criminal nature, the incident served as an opportunity for the defense establishment to prepare itself for the inevitable - a Hizbullah kidnapping attack abroad. The possibility that the 60-year-old businessman had been kidnapped by Hizbullah - in retaliation for the February assassination of the group's military commander Imad Mughniyeh - has yet to be ruled out, although it is considered of low probability. Firstly, Hizbullah would have issued a statement saying it had kidnapped the businessman. Second, the area where he was kidnapped - Port Harcourt - is infamous for the high number of abductions of foreigners, mainly for costly ransoms. While this is likely the case, defense officials stressed the importance Wednesday of heeding the travel advisory issued last week by the Israel Counter-Terrorism Bureau, according to which all Israelis around the world are at risk of being kidnapped by Hizbullah. While last week's travel advisory was vague and did not focus on a specific country, an earlier advisory had been issued against western Africa, including Nigeria. Israeli security officials had even traveled to different countries in Africa in recent months to personally meet with different businessmen and Israelis living there to warn them of the growing threat. "Hizbullah maintains a strong presence in Nigeria and has infrastructure there," said Col. (res.) Eitan Azani, deputy director of the Institute for Counter-Terrorism and a world-renowned expert on Hizbullah. "Nigeria is one of 50 countries where Hizbullah has operations." Hizbullah is believed to maintain a strong presence in West Africa within Shi'ite Muslim communities, whose members have significant control over the import of basic commodities and the local diamond trade. Pictures featured on several Web sites show hundreds of Nigerian Muslims marching while waving Hizbullah flags with pictures of the group's leader, Hassan Nasrallah. The kidnapping of one Israeli businessman, Azani said, was not Hizbullah's modus operandi, although it could be if the group were to kidnap five-to-ten businessmen in the span of several weeks. "This would definitely be a sufficient retaliatory attack," he said. It is also important to remember that Israelis have been targeted in Africa before. In 2002, suicide bombers killed 13 people and injured over 80 in an attack on the Paradise Hotel, a popular Israeli vacation spot in Mombasa, Kenya. At the same time, two shoulder-to-air missiles were launched at an Israeli charter jet that had taken off from a nearby airport. The missiles missed their target. "Hizbullah looks for a country with a weak regime, weak intelligence, weak security services and relatively easy escape routes," a defense official explained. "This is exactly what Africa is like."