General Esmail Ghaani’s appointment as commander of Iran’s Quds Force, following the assassination of its former leader General Qasem Soleimani, has provided an opportunity for the organization to expand its role in Africa, where Ghaani has managed its operations for years. Rising US–Iranian tensions as a result of continued US sanctions and Iran’s desire for revenge for Soleimani’s death has prompted questions about the future of the Quds Force in Africa under Ghaani’s leadership.

Catalysts for expansion in Africa

  • To target US interests and to seek revenge for Soleimani’s assassination in January 2020:[1] Although Quds Force attacks in Africa have been relatively few and far between in comparison with other regions, its operations on the continent are not necessarily limited.[2] The Quds Force has been working with agents and allies, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Somalia’s Al-Shabaab, which are thought to have recently established relations with the Quds Force.
  • To evade US sanctions: The Quds Force maintains links with criminal networks and terrorist organizations such as Al-Shabaab, through which Iran smuggles low-priced oil into Africa.[3]
  • To undermine the strategic interests of Gulf States in Africa, especially Saudi Arabia, in particular as Saudi influence is growing in East Africa. Iran sees this as a threat to its own interests, especially those in Yemen and Africa.[4]

The Quds Force’s activities and its network of contacts in Africa

  • The Quds Force trains, finances, and equips numerous separatist groups in Africa, such as the Polisario Front in the Western Sahara, as well as providing training to Shia organizations, including the Islamic Movement of Nigeria. Unit 400 of the Quds Force conducts special operations in Africa, including intelligence gathering and bankrolling terrorist activities by proxy. The unit is led by Hamed Abdallahi and works with Hezbollah elements in Africa in pursuit of its goals.
  • Unit 400 has been revealed to have played a role in recruiting and training the Saraya al-Zahra cell in the Central African Republic, which was commanded by Chadian citizen Ismael Gidah until his arrest in his home country in April 2019. The cell currently has between 200 and 300 members and coordinates with other cells in Chad and Sudan, including with the aim of establishing further cells in Cameroon, Ghana, the Congo, and Niger. Investigations have uncovered links between Gidah and warlords in the border regions between Chad, Sudan, and the Central African Republic. The Quds Force has also been revealed to have given Gidah between $12,000 and $20,000 on each of his visits to Iran, Lebanon, and Iraq.[5]
  • The Quds Force is working with terrorist organizations, in particular Al-Shabaab. Somali security agencies have seized Iranian weapons, explosives, and chemical devices manufactured in areas under Al-Shabaab’s control, which are thought to have been used in the group’s attacks in 2019 and 2020. Sources indicate that Iran has bankrolled Al-Shabaab’s attacks against US interests in Somalia and the wider region, in particular those conducted against US military bases in Kenya in 2020. In exchange for weapons and logistical support, Al-Shabaab provides Tehran with uranium from mines under its control. Al-Shabaab also smuggles illicit exports of Somali coal through Iran.[6]

Opportunities and challenges for the Quds Force in Africa

1. Opportunities:

  • The Quds Force could spread throughout Africa, in particular Sudan, Chad, Ghana, Niger, Gambia, and the Central African Republic, from which the Force could conduct retaliatory attacks against US interests in the continent. For example, US reports published in September 2020 warned that the Iranian government was planning to assassinate the US ambassador in South Africa, Lana Marks, and that the Quds Force had secret networks in the country.[7]
  • General Esmail Ghaani, who has commanded the Quds Force since Soleimani’s assassination, has years of experience of running the Force’s African operations and has been included on the US sanctions list for his involvement in financing terrorist organizations and Quds Force elements in Africa. He is clearly capable of continuing Soleimani’s work on the continent.[8]
  • Hezbollah could lay down firm roots in Africa by cooperating with the Quds Force in its operations. Hezbollah has already expanded its operations into countries in eastern and southern Africa, such as Uganda and South Africa,[9] and is exploiting the Lebanese communities in western and eastern Africa to recruit and build clandestine cells.[10]

2. Challenges:

  • Western, Israeli, and African intelligence and security agencies are dedicating increasing resources to identifying Quds Force operations in Africa. For example, US and Israeli agencies are working with African governments to pursue Quds Force and Hezbollah members in Africa; Mossad played an important role in the arrest of Hezbollah agent Hussein Mahmoud Yassin in Uganda in July 2019[11] and in tracking the Quds Force’s Saraya al-Zahra cell in the Central African Republic.

Possible future roles for the Quds Force in Africa

1. The Quds Force carries out terrorist operations against US interests in Africa through its cells on the continent: International monitoring reports indicate that the Quds Force has around 300 highly trained militants in its African network.[12] Meanwhile, thousands of US humanitarian workers are working in Africa, primarily in remote, unsafe areas. The USA also has various embassies and military bases throughout the continent.[13] In pursuing this course, the Quds Force will hope to challenge the role of the US and Israeli intelligence agencies that are working with their African counterparts to thwart the Force’s operations in Africa.

2. The Quds Force works with Iranian proxies, in particular Al-Shabaab in Somalia and Kenya, to conduct terrorist operations: The USA has a military and security presence in East Africa, in particular through its military bases in Kenya, against which Al-Shabaab carried out terrorist attacks in January 2020. Iran cannot count on the support of terrorist organizations, however, as they frequently waver in their position on Iran policy.

Conclusion

The Iranian regime is likely to pursue several courses in Africa, exploiting the fragile security situation in various African States to carry out terrorist attacks against US interests through Quds Force elements and its clandestine network of militants and operatives throughout the continent. Tehran may also focus its efforts on providing terrorist organizations with the support and funding required to conduct attacks against the interests of the USA and its allies, such as Israel.

Given Iran’s determination in this regard, it has become all the more important to combat Iranian attempts to use the Quds Force — the wing of its security services specializing in overseas operations — and its allies in Africa to undermine security and stability on the continent. The powers active in Africa, including international powers with important interests there such as the USA, the UK, and France, need to enhance their cooperation if they are to prevent Iran from expanding its destructive activities in Africa.

References

[1] Nakissa Jahanbani, “Reviewing Iran’s Proxies by Region: A Look Toward the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa”, CTC SENTINEL, Volume 13, Issue 5, May 2020, p. 46.

[2] Albin Szakola and Jack Losh, “From Beirut to Bangui: inside Iran’s plan to take proxy wars to Africa”, The National, May 21, 2020, available at: https://www.thenational.ae/world/africa/from-beirut-to-bangui-inside-iran-s-plan-to-take-proxy-wars-to-africa-1.1022078.

[3] Shaul Shay, “The Somali Al Shabaab and Iran's Al Quds connection”, International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, 30 August 2020, available at: http://www.ict.org.il/Article/2589/The_Somali_Al%20_habaab_and_Iran's_Al_Quds_connection#gsc.tab=0.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Szakola and Losh, “From Beirut to Bangui”.

[6] Shaul Shay, “The Somali Al Shabaab”.

[7] Nahal Toosi and Natasha Bertrand, “Officials: Iran weighing plot to kill U.S. ambassador to South Africa”, Politico, September 13, 2020, available at: https://www.politico.com/news/2020/09/13/iran-south-africa-ambassador-assassination-plot-413831.

[8] Joshua Meservey, “Where Will Iran Strike Back Against the U.S.?”, The Heritage Foundation, January 27, 2020, available at: https://www.heritage.org/defense/commentary/where-will-iran-strike-back-against-the-us.

[9] Eitan Azani et al, “The Iranian Threat Network and the Export of the Islamic Revolution”, International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, July 2020, available at: http://www.ict.org.il/images/Iranian%20Threat%20Network.pdf.

[10] Jahanbani, “Reviewing Iran’s Proxies by Region”, p. 46.

[11] “اعتقال عميل لـ"حزب الله" في أوغندا”, Asharq Al-Awsat, July 24, 2019.

[12] Grey Dynamics, “’The Game has Changed’: Iranian Terror Network in Africa”, SOFREP, September 23, 2020, available at: https://sofrep.com/news/the-game-has-changed-iranian-terror-network-in-africa/.

[13] Meservey, “Where Will Iran Strike Back Against the U.S.?”.

 

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