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A man holds a picture of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei with Iranian Revolutionary Guards top commander Qasem Soleimani (L) during a demonstration in Tehran on January 3, 2020 against the killing of the top commander in a US strike in…

Africa could emerge as a venue for confrontation between the U.S. and Iran as Tehran threatens to retaliate after the U.S. airstrike that killed the Iranian Quds Force commander, General Qassem Soleimani.

Iran has sought to increase its influence in certain countries in Africa in recent years through activities such as arms sales, training fighters for combat in the Middle East and funding Shia sects. It also has significant trade relations with several countries, including South Africa.

Phillip Smyth, a Soref Fellow at The Washington Institute who studies Shia Islamist militarism, said that he does not necessarily expect the Iranians to strike immediately. He noted that they have historically been cautious and look for what he calls “plausible deniability” to avoid detection when they attack.

When they do strike, he said, it is possible they will look for a soft target in an unexpected location.

“The Iranians are going to want to show that they have influence on a global scale and they may look for low-hanging fruit or easier targets that they can go after,” Smyth said. “And that may very well occur in Africa. And it could very well occur in North America or Europe or in many other places,” he said.

FILE - Military officials stand near ammunitions seized from suspected members of Hezbollah after a raid of a building in Kano, Nigeria, May 30, 2013.

Smyth said Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran, has recruited and trained Nigerians for years. A 2018 report by the Middle East Institute said Iran had instructed Hezbollah to increase its training of Nigerians and hoped to use Nigeria as a base of operations to launch attacks and “thwart Israeli and Western ambitions in the region.”

There have also been West African fighters who, after converting to Shia Islam, traveled and fought alongside Iranians in Syria. Iranians have similarly supported fighters from other parts of the world to join them in various conflicts.

“There are tens of thousands of fighters that the Iranians have mobilized and used for conflicts in Iraq, in Syria and in Yemen. They have a very strong alliance and kind of proxy relationship with Ansar Allah, also known as the Houthis. So they have quite an extensive presence and they have continued to try and grow that presence,” Smyth said.

Terror cells

A June 2019 report by the British newspaper The Telegraph said that Iranians were setting up terror cells in Africa under Soleimani’s direction. The paper reported that Iranian cells may be active in Sudan, Chad, Ghana, Niger, The Gambia and the Central African Republic.

However, Ryan Cummings, director of Signal Risk, an Africa-focused political and security risk management consultancy, said there is no evidence to date that Shia groups in Africa pose a threat to the U.S. or the West.

“Groups which have a distinct Shia theology — and which would place them in the orbit of Iran — have demonstrated no intent to carry out acts of violence against U.S./Western interests on the continent despite suggestions that they have embedded in these countries for several years,” he told VOA in a written statement.

FILE - A woman prays for the victims at the memorial site in Nairobi, Kenya, Aug. 7, 2013, during events marking the 15th anniversary of the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in the city.

Profit motives

Much of Iran’s engagement on the continent is less ideological and more profit-driven. One favored outlet has been weapons smuggling. A 2013 Conflict Armament Research report found Iranian bullets in 14 locations across nine African countries. At the time, the group said Sudan was partnering with Iran to funnel the ammunition to African armed groups.

“There’s actually a whole issue over the past couple of years of Iranian ammunition winding up throughout Africa,” Smyth said. “I mean from east to west. And it was rather interesting how these weapons systems and also the ammunition was arriving there.”

Smyth added that, in some cases, weapons are sent to Somalia, packed in wooden ships known as dhows and then smuggled across the Red Sea to Houthi fighters in Yemen.

Iran has also sought to exert influence on the African continent through religion. One prominent example of this is the Shia sect the Islamic Movement in Nigeria and its controversial leader Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky. The group has been charged with inciting violence and El-Zakzaky has been imprisoned and formally accused by the Nigerian government of trying to form an “Islamic State in Nigeria” with the backing of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Although Africa does not appear to be a focal point of the emerging conflict between Iran and the U.S., that could change. Smyth noted that al-Qaida linked groups historically sought to attack U.S. interests in Africa, viewing it as a more favorable operating environment for terror groups. This occurred in the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and a 2002 attack against an Israeli-owned hotel and a failed attempt to shoot down a passenger jet taking off from Mombassa, Kenya.

“People will look at the continent and say, ‘Can we smuggle weapons in, are there populations there that we can target, do they have lower security, how is the connection that goes back to, let’s say, the Israeli, or back to the Americans,’“ Smyth said.

He added that Iran will not want to damage its own trade and diplomatic relations in Africa but it will look for ways to make a loud and, possibly violent, statement.

“They don’t want to harm their other interests in the continent. However, I believe, if push came to shove, and if they really thought it would be a good place to get their revenge, they may actually pick the continent to do it on,” he said.

People leave a mosque at the conclusion of a mourning ceremony in a predominantly Iraqi neighborhood, south of Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, July 30, 2019. A poster of chief of the elite Quds Force of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani is…

The killing of Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. airstrike Friday is a devastating blow to pro-Iranian militias across the Middle East, some experts said, warning that the militia groups could turn the region into further chaos through retaliation violence.

The powerful Iranian general, along with Iraqi Shiite militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and several other aides, was struck at the Iraqi Baghdad airport in a U.S. operation directed by President Donald Trump. The killing has been received with rage among the Shiite groups, with the Iranian government vowing “a crushing revenge” against the U.S.

“Iran’s web of patron-client relationships and proxies was largely Soleimani’s creation, and it was he who brilliantly developed and managed these relationships to Tehran’s advantage,” said Jonathan Spyer, a research fellow at Philadelphia-based think tank the Middle East Forum.

Spyer said that Soleimani used informal relations developed over a long period of time with Shiite militia leaders across the Middle East. Such relationships, he added, cannot easily be bequeathed to a successor.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei Friday appointed Brigadier-General Esmail Ghaani to replace Soleimani as the new commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force. Khamenei said in a statement that Ghaani was among “the most prominent” IRGC commanders and will continue Soleimani’s path in directing the Quds Force.

FILE - Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, center, attends a meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Revolutionary Guard commanders in Tehran, Iran, Sept. 18, 2016.

Influence on Shiite Crescent

The Quds Force is an IRGC unit responsible for undertaking Iran’s external operations to advance the Islamic regime’s revolutionary values. Under Soleimani’s command, the unit has succeeded in expanding Iran’s influence in the so-called Shiite Crescent, a term referring to a crescent-shaped region in the Middle East where Shiite communities reside.

Max Abrahms, a nonresident fellow at the Quincy Institute, a Washington-based think tank, told VOA that Soleimani had made sure militant actions by Shiite groups were carefully assessed.

“Although it is very understandable that Soleimani would be associated with violence, what people don’t understand is that the IRGC could have produced over the years much more violence in many more places against a variety of different targets, but chose not to, and the reason is because the leader did not give a green light,” Abrahms said.

“What concerns me is now that we’ve taken out Soleimani, we are going to see an uptick in violence that will be more indiscriminate than in the past,” he added.

FILE - Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah

‘Master of resistance’

In Lebanon, where Iran has empowered Shiite Hezbollah group since its founding in 1985, the group’s head, Hassan Nasrallah, Friday mourned Soleimani as a “master of resistance.”

“To continue on General Soleimani’s path, we’ll raise his flag in all battlefields,” Hezbollah-linked al-Manar website quoted him as saying.

According to the Atlantic Council’s senior fellow Nicholas Blanfold, Hezbollah’s extensive networks across the Middle East, Latin America, Europe and Africa make it indispensable for Iran’s global outreach.

The Iranian regime “through the networks, particularly Hezbollah, which has a global reach, could affect a kind of retaliatory operation almost anywhere around the world,” Blanfold told VOA.

$700 Million

U.S. officials say that Iran for years has funded Hezbollah with an estimated $700 million annually. The funds and arms support have helped the group sustain years of violence against Israel, they said.

In Iraq, experts say Soleimani played a decisive role in organizing Shiite militias following the U.S. invasion in 2003 and the rise of the Islamic State in 2014.

“What you’ve lost basically is the brain, he is the brain of Shia militias in Iraq,” said Boston-based Iraq military expert Michael Knights of the Washington Institute. He added that Soleimani played a role as a centralizing force to unify some 50 militias that would have been otherwise divided under the umbrella of Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces.

“It’s going to open up a lot of opportunity, rivalry and competition. If Muhandis died on his own, they would have turned to Soleimani to tell them who is the next leader. Losing them both is really a time of fracture for them,” he told VOA.

FILE - Members of Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces take part in a military parade in the town of Taza, south of the northern oil city of Kirkuk, Iraq, June 28, 2019.

Repercussions in Iraq

Babak Taghvaei, a Malta-based military analyst, told VOA that some Iraqi Shiite militias with nationalist sentiments in the past have shown their willingness to drift away from Iran. Soleimani’s death provides Iraqi leaders an opportunity to encourage those to join the democratic system in the future, Taghvaei argued.

“Many of the PMF commanders will decide to stop militant activity and will join the world of politics while the radicals will follow orders of new commander of IRGC-Quds Force and will pursue more extremist tactics to confront U.S. troops that will include bombings,” he told VOA.

According to Sam Bazzi, the director of Washington-based Islamic Counterterrorism Institute, Iran also will likely attempt to leverage its influence in Yemen’s conflict to pressure the U.S. and its Arab Gulf allies in the wake of recent escalations.

Iran’s regime since 2015 has increased its support of Houthi rebels against the Saudi-backed government. The Shiite rebels in the past have fired several missiles into Saudi Arabia, which, according to Saudi officials, are supplied to them directly by Iran.

“The Houthis could storm Najran [a city in southwest] in Saudi Arabia, and/or attack commercial vessels or military ships in Bab al-Mandab Strait, and/or launch missiles or attack drones deep into the Saudi territory, targeting critical infrastructure in the kingdom,” Bazzi said, adding, “Khamenei won’t rest before he delivers his publicly pledged revenge.”

FILE - Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, center, speaks to journalists after voting in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sept. 28, 2019.

Afghanistan

Should the tensions between Iran and the U.S. escalate, violence could expand to also include countries like Afghanistan, warned the former Afghan general Ateequllah Amerkhail.

“America and Iran need to keep Afghanistan out of it! They [Iran] will pressure America by supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Iran will intensify the conflict by supporting the Taliban,” Amerkhail told VOA.

Following a telephone conversation with the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Friday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani posted in Dari from his official Twitter account that “Afghan soil would not be used against a third country.”

Iran has been accused of supporting Shiite militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan in recent years. Some experts warn that the country could encourage the Taliban group to end peace talks that intensified in late 2018.

“It may pose an obstacle if Tehran seeks to use the Taliban as a proxy to attack U.S. forces,” said Michael Kugelman, the director for the Asia Program at the Wilson Center. “Let’s not forget — there are still 12,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and there is a precedent for Iran providing some levels of support to the Taliban,” he told VOA.

According to Fatemeh Aman, a senior fellow at the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, while a full-scale war between Iran and the U.S. is possible, it is likely that the Iranian leadership will limit its retaliation and avoid classical warfare with the U.S. and its allies.

“Definitely without a doubt there is going to be more violence but we don’t know the extent of Iran’s response. Iranians will likely wait and see because they know they cannot compete with the military strength of the United States. But violence towards the U.S. or wherever the U.S. has a base will definitely increase,” she told VOA.

VOA’s Rikar Hussein, Ezel Sahinkaya, Mehdi Jedinia, Niala Mohammad, Sirwan Kajjo, Kasim Abdurehim contributed to this report from Washington.

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