Iran’s Battle for Africa
“Northern Africa is turning into a battleground with enormously important prophetic implications,” Trumpet editor in chief Gerald Flurry wrote in our April issue.
This battle has received little media attention. Occasionally a major crisis, like Mali, gets headlines for a short while. But how often do you hear about Sudan, Niger or the Central African Republic?
“Iran has designs on being the strongest power throughout the region,” Mr. Flurry wrote, “and is extending its reach throughout North Africa.” Despite the lack of attention, this is one of the biggest new stories of the moment.
“Iran isn’t the only one interested in Africa,” Mr. Flurry continued. “Germany is making strong inroads as well. Both of these powers are racing to get as much control of North Africa as they can.”
You need to understand Iran’s power grab in Africa and where it is leading.
Fingerprints Throughout the Region
“Iran’s state sponsorship of terrorism and Hezbollah’s terrorist activity have reached a tempo unseen since the 1990s, with attacks plotted in Southeast Asia, Europe and Africa,” wrote the U.S. State Department in its “Country Reports on Terrorism 2012,” published in late May. News sources have noticed the same thing, with articles like “Out of Iran, Into Africa: Hezbollah’s scramble for Africa” appearing in Israel’s left-wing paper Haaretz.
But this goes far beyond Hezbollah. From the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi to rebel forces in central Africa, Iran’s own fingerprints can be found in militias across the continent.
The Iranians are also orchestrating a huge flow of armaments into Africa. Conflict Armament Research last year published the results of a six-year investigation of the trade in ammunition from Iran in nine African countries. The organization noted that “until recently most international observers would have described Iran’s role in this market as negligible to nonexistent.” Not anymore. “Although a recent entrant, Iran’s ammunition ‘footprint’ is widespread,” it concluded.
Although this organization focused mainly on small-caliber ammunition, it also found “clear evidence of Iran’s role in supplying a range of other ordnance to the continent, including mines, explosive light weapons, and larger conventional arms and ammunition.”
Other observers point to Iran’s efforts to woo African governments. In a paper titled “Africa: Iran’s Final Frontier?” Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, wrote, “Tehran sees many of Africa’s 54 countries as easy picking” (April 17).
“This outreach takes many guises and is geared toward specific diplomatic and military purposes that could challenge U.S. aims across Africa,” he wrote. “In comparison with recent American presidents, who made just three visits to Sub-Saharan Africa in the last decade, [former] Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejed travels to Africa at least annually, with key Iranian ministers visiting even more frequently.”
Rubin outlined three main goals in Iran’s outreach to Africa: to win support in multinational institutions like the United Nations; to establish a string of naval bases to expand the nation’s maritime presence; and to find sources for uranium.
He described how Iran has reached out to African nations that are non-permanent members of the UN Security Council or that serve on the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (iaea).
For years, Iran has supplied South Africa with cheap oil. Quid pro quo, when the iaea found in February 2008 that Iran was violating two Security Council resolutions as it continued to enrich uranium, South Africa prevented the Security Council from imposing further sanctions.
When Gabon became a temporary member of the Security Council, Iran courted the nation with a flurry of activity. And Gabon used its Council seat to support Iran’s nuclear program.
But Mr. Flurry has spotlighted a larger goal of Iran’s push: confronting Europe, especially European trade. In his April 2011 article “Libya and Ethiopia Reveal Iran’s Military Strategy,” Mr. Flurry explained how Iran is gaining influence along the Mediterranean and Red seas. Why? These two seas “comprise the most important trade route in the world!” he wrote. He warned that Iran will push at Europe “probably from its trade route power.”
What kind of power does Iran have? Europe gets a great deal of its oil and gas from the Middle East and North Africa. Much of it comes through the Straits of Hormuz, the Suez Canal and through pipelines across Iraq. But pipelines from Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco also carry natural gas into Europe. Several European companies want to support a project to build a gas pipeline from Nigeria to Algeria so Europe can get more of its natural gas from Africa.
To disrupt this trade, Iran doesn’t need to take over the governments of the countries along the route. Pipelines are easy to break. Narrow straits of water can be strewn with mines, making it too expensive to insure ships to cross them. If Iran can gain enough power in these areas—a goal it is working toward—it can hold Europe to ransom.
Russia famously brought Ukraine back to heel during the winter of 2008-09 by cutting off its natural gas supplies. Iran could soon have the same power over Europe. In 2011, nearly 37 percent of the eurozone’s oil imports came from or through Middle Eastern and African nations vulnerable to Iranian disruption. At the same time, a quarter of eurozone gas imports came from or through these areas. With control of these areas, Iran could shut off more of Europe’s natural gas than Russia.
When we examine southern European countries on their own, we see an even more disturbing picture. In Spain, 54 percent of crude oil and 77 percent of gas imports are vulnerable to Iranian disruption. In Italy, it’s 48 percent of oil and 46 percent of gas. (A few years ago, before Libya’s oil and gas output plummeted, this dependency was even greater.)
Iran is expanding the reach of its terrorist activities and creating goodwill with African nations to further spread its ability to strike at Europe. It’s a murky game that’s run, in part, by Iran’s secret service. Not all the facts are readily available. But Iran clearly has an extensive network—including rebel groups, rogue states and Islamists—throughout Africa. They are certainly capable of pushing back against Europe’s expansion in the continent and threatening the West’s access to Africa’s wealth of raw materials.
Hezbollah is one of Iran’s most important tools in this battle. The Shiite terrorist group is active throughout the world, but especially in northwest Africa. Over a century ago, a large number of Shia Muslims from Lebanon migrated to the area. Hundreds of thousands now live there, providing an excellent recruiting ground for Hezbollah.
Today, northwest Africa is a vital fundraising hub. Hezbollah collects donations from its Shia supporters, and also makes money through the drug and “blood diamond” trades, extortion and, in some cases, legitimate businesses.
Iran also appears to be building up weapons caches throughout the area for Hezbollah to use, should Tehran want the organization to become more active. Nigerian authorities arrested four Hezbollah agents in northern Nigeria’s biggest city, Kano, between May 16 and 28. The operatives had thousands of rounds of ammunition and a small arsenal of weapons.
Just days earlier, on May 13, two men were sentenced to five years in prison for their involvement in a 2010 plot to ship 240 metric tonnes of heavy weapons and ammunition to Gambia. One of the men, Azim Aghajani, is believed to be a member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ infamous Quds Force. Conflict Armament Research reports that this could have been the third such shipment.
In February, Nigerian authorities arrested three men they accused of being members of an Iranian-trained terrorist cell that planned to attack U.S. and Israeli targets.
It has become clear, Haaretz concluded, “that Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, has become a hotbed for Iranian/Hezbollah terrorist activities” (June 17).
But Nigeria isn’t Hezbollah’s only base of operations in Africa. In June, the U.S. Treasury Department identified four men—one in Sierra Leone, one in Senegal and two in the Ivory Coast—as Hezbollah leaders in their respective areas, responsible for transferring funds to the organization.
We have yet to see Hezbollah’s full capabilities in Africa. The terrorists have been caught smuggling and hoarding weapons, but not using them. These individuals remain an asset that Iran can call upon at will. Working in conjunction with other terrorist groups or rebel armies, Hezbollah could do more than carry out terrorist attacks. It has the potential to destabilize nations.
Al Qaeda Affiliate Groups
The relationship between Iran and al Qaeda is dangerously misunderstood. Too many take false comfort in the Sunni/Shia divide, arguing that these two could never work together because they come from different branches of Islam. The war in Syria, at first glance, supports this view. Al Qaeda sends its men and resources to support the rebels, while Iran and Hezbollah prop up Syrian President Bashar Assad. But the truth is that the al Qaeda/Iran relationship is much more complicated.
The Sunni-Shia divide is real and significant. But Iran and al Qaeda’s hatred for the West is even more powerful. The two groups have fought in the past—but they have also patched things up and fought the West together. Moreover, al Qaeda is not a unified bloc, but rather a loose coalition of militants fighting under the same brand name. A local commander in North Africa doesn’t care who Iran is fighting in Syria, provided he gets the weapons he wants.
Al Qaeda and Iran maintain a cozy relationship, according to U.S. Treasury Department reports. In the summer of 2011, the Treasury announced that the U.S. had uncovered an al Qaeda network operating inside Iran under an agreement with the Iranian government. “Iran is a critical transit point for funding to support al Qaeda’s activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” it wrote.
“Al Qaeda’s core financial pipeline—which runs from Kuwait and Qatar, through Iran, to Pakistan—depends upon an agreement between al Qaeda and the Iranian government to allow this network to operate within its borders,” Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen said in his October 2011 written testimony (emphasis added throughout).
The next February, the Treasury reported that Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security “has facilitated the movement of al Qaeda operatives in Iran and provided them with documents, identification cards, and passports.” The Treasury said that Iran had “also provided money and weapons to al Qaeda in Iraq (aqi) … and negotiated prisoner releases of aqi operatives.”
Then again in October 2012, Cohen unveiled new material that highlighted “Iran’s ongoing complicity in this network’s operation.” At this point, the Syrian conflict was well underway. Yet Iran and al Qaeda were still working together.
“Under the terms of the agreement between al Qaeda and Iran, al Qaeda must refrain from conducting any operations within Iranian territory and recruiting operatives inside Iran while keeping Iranian authorities informed of their activities,” wrote the Treasury Department. “In return, the government of Iran gave the Iran-based al Qaeda network freedom of operation and uninhibited ability to travel for extremists and their families.”
What will be the fruits of this relationship? These kinds of links can often take years to fully uncover. Last November, a Washington District Court heard that Iran trained the al Qaeda operatives behind the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya. Have more recent attacks in Africa been carried out as a joint venture between al Qaeda and Iran? It took 14 years for Iran’s involvement in the Kenya bombings to become public. It may take time before all the facts are known, but already there’s some good evidence that Iran had a hand in the Benghazi attack.
In May, Egyptian authorities arrested three militants armed with 22 pounds of explosives and bomb-making equipment. Egyptian Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim told journalists that the group had received instructions from an al Qaeda leader called Dawoud al Asadi—an alias for the leader of al Qaeda in Iran. To cement the connection even further, Ibrahim said that one of the three terrorists had received military training in Iran.
Ibrahim said that Asadi (aka Fadhli) told the terrorists to get in touch with a group known as “the Nasr City Cell”—an Egyptian-based group, which has now been rounded up, with strong connections to both al Qaeda and the Benghazi attack.
Al Qaeda in Iran was working with some of the planners of the Benghazi attack.
Under its agreement with Iran, al Qaeda had to keep the Iranian government up to date with its activities. Did Iran merely know about the Benghazi attack, or was it a key part of it? As with the attack on the embassies in Kenya, the proof might not emerge for years.
But in another part of Africa, there is, almost literally, a smoking gun. In September 2011, the Nigerien military captured weapons and ammunition from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (aqim). It included ammunition that Conflict Armament Research identified as originating in Iran. In May 2012, the Nigeriens intercepted a shipment of weapons that also contained Iranian-manufactured ammunition.
To the east, in Somalia, al Shabaab also maintains strong links to Iran and is affiliated with al Qaeda.
Iran’s patronage of al Shabaab’s predecessor, the Islamic Courts Union (icu), is clear. The United Nations monitoring group in Somalia discovered several instances of Iran supplying it with weapons, including surface-to-air missiles.
Around the same time, the icu sent 720 of its best fighters to Lebanon to fight alongside Hezbollah. Some of the fighters stayed after the fighting for advanced training. In return, Hezbollah arranged for Iran and Syria to give the icu some extra support.
Since then, the icu has changed its name to al Shabaab and became the official Somalian wing of al Qaeda. But Iran’s support has continued. In July, un monitors reported that Iran could be using illegal fishing boats to ship weapons to al Shabaab.
It also reported that the African Union’s mission in Somalia had captured several “nearly new” rocket-propelled grenade (rpg) launchers that “closely resemble Iranian-manufactured” launchers. Monitors are also investigating a ship seized in January in Yemen that was packed with weapons and fuel. The UN believes some of that cargo could have been bound for Somalia.
On their own, each of these incidents of cooperation between al Qaeda and Iran would be interesting, though not conclusive. Together they paint a pattern of broad cooperation across Africa and the Middle East.
Hezbollah and al Qaeda are undoubtedly the two most powerful terrorist groups in the world. By working together with Iran’s support, they have nation-destroying potential.
The New Great Game
One hundred years ago, Britain and Russia fought what became known as “the Great Game” over control of Central Asia. The prizes included a land route to India, lucrative trade deals and access to any resources that could be discovered.
Today, some people speak of a new colonization of Africa. But that’s not accurate. As Europe gets more involved, it isn’t sending thousands of settlers to rule the continent. Instead, we are seeing a new “Great Game.”
Europe needs access to Africa’s resources. Iran wants to be able to cut off those resources, even for just a short time. So Germany arms friendly governments to fight Islamists. France, Germany’s ally, stays closely involved in the politics of its former colonies, maintaining military bases and even backing coups.
Germany is also looking for allies as it prepares to confront Iran, and bases it can use to push Iran back.
Meanwhile, Iran looks for friends among nations the West has rejected or ignored. It funnels weapons to its terrorist allies as it tries to exploit weaknesses in the nations Europe supports.
In Mali, the “game” turned into war. How involved Iran was is unknown. The fall of Qadhafi in Libya sent a torrent of weapons into the area. The rise of al Qaeda in Mali suited Iran’s agenda, but its assistance wasn’t really needed.
Algeria could be the next flash point. There, 76-year-old President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika is Algeria’s longest ever serving president. He suffered a mini-stroke in April and may not live much longer. His death could give the Islamists a chance to take over.
That is why Germany has been hugely supportive of Algeria’s military. It plans to sell Algeria $10 billion of weapons over the next decade.
The last part of Daniel 11:40 describes a clash between the “king of the north” and the “king of the south” that begins the chain of events that leads to Christ’s return. Right now, in Africa, both of these powers are preparing for that clash. In fact, they’re already clashing in Mali and Algeria. The Great Game is played primarily by individuals out of the public eye. In how many other countries are Iranian and European agents vying for control?
In his article in April, Mr. Flurry called these clashes a “prelude to the fulfillment of this prophecy.” This is what the “game” in North Africa is all about. These two powers are preparing to fight—they are jockeying for position. Once the situation comes to blows, Iran wants to be able to cut off the resources Europe desperately needs, strangling its economy. Meanwhile, Germany wants to be able to quickly take control of the region.
“A great prophecy of your Bible is about to be fulfilled!” wrote Mr. Flurry in April. “You need to watch what is happening in the Middle East and Africa!” Nowhere can you see the buildup to World War iii more clearly than in North Africa. The media may ignore it, but the events in this region give a powerful warning to the world. In the silent war in Africa, we see a preview of the conflict that is about to ignite world war.