How Hezbollah is Winning in West Africa

By Michael Keating 

It seems that both the War on Drugs and the War on Terror are about to accelerate in West Africa. Porous borders and weak state security services create fertile grounds for non-state actors financed by drug money, arms trafficking, and illicit natural resource deals. Last year, in the midst of the turmoil in Mali, Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou expressed hope that the Sahel region would not become “the next Afghanistan.” The reality is that that there is potential for more than one Afghanistan on the African continent and only now do we seem to be awakening to this fact. Last week’s terrorist raid on the shopping mall in Nairobi could have just as likely taken place in Lagos, Niamey, or Nouakchott. Without careful planning and international coordination, such events will certainly repeat themselves—and with depressing predictability.

Nowhere is the new reality of the West African organized crime-terrorism nexus more evident than in what recently transpired in a Nigerian courtroom. There, three Lebanese men, Mustapha Fawaz, Abdallah Thahini, and Talal Ahmad Roda sat uncomfortably in the dock as masked members of the Department of State Services, the country’s primary domestic intelligence service, testified against them.  The three were accused of plotting terrorist attacks against American and Israeli targets in the northern city of Kano, as well as lesser charges of money laundering and illegal importation of goods.  Nigerian police found a significant cache of weapons stashed at one of the accused men’s businesses in the capital Abuja and another cache at a private home in Kano. Although the men, all of whom have long standing commercial interests in Nigeria, pleaded innocent to the charges, they confessed to their affiliation with Hezbollah.

Their trial comes on the heels of a U.S. Treasury Department action in June that sanctioned four other Lebanese nationals for participation in Hezbollah activities in Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, and Gambia.  According to the Treasury Department the four men “organized fund-raising efforts, recruited members and in some cases styled themselves as members of Hezbollah’s Foreign Relations Department.”  The fact that defendants chose these African countries to conduct clandestine fundraising operations in should not come as a surprise.  According to Richard Downie, Deputy Director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International studies, “this is a set of countries that are undergoverned – ill governed in some respects. Their security services are weak. Their police capability is pretty low so there are opportunities there for transnational organized criminals to take advantage.”

The crude security networks in some African states stand in contrast to the highly sophisticated global network of Hezbollah ‘affiliates,’ such as the two money-exchange houses blacklisted by the Treasury Department in April for moving millions in illegal drug dollars through the U.S.  One of the firms, Beirut-based Halawi Exchange Co., was accused of facilitating the shipment of over $200 million of used cars into the West African country of Benin as part of a drug-money laundering scheme, with ties to both Hezbollah and Latin American drug cartels.

In addition to the threat posed by West African-based Lebanese businessmen with ties to Hezbollah, there is also a growing movement of Shia Muslims in Nigeria who owe their allegiance to the staunchly pro-Iranian cleric, Shaykh Ibrahim Zakzaky. While the Sunni- inspired Boko Haram gets most of the attention in the western press, Zakzaky’s Islamic Movement of Nigeria has been quietly building a militant wing, which has clashed with Nigerian security forces while at the same time, trying to aggressively integrate its member into the Nigerian security services and government bureaucracies.

Zakzaky’s views on Israel are tinged with a broad streak of anti-Semitism and align with those of Hezbollah and Hamas. In an interview given to British security analyst Daniel Brett, Adel Assadinia, a former Iranian diplomat who has had direct contact with Zakzaky and his organization, stated, “Zakzaky is a middle-ranking mullah who was given money to create an organized and radical Islamic force in Nigeria. Iran’s objectives are to establish a local power base to exert influence over the national government and to act against Western interests.” In short, Zakzaky’s goal is to create an African Hezbollah affiliate in Nigeria. By all accounts he is meeting with measureable success, posing yet another challenge to the shaky Nigerian security sector.

Unlike local Nigerian actors such as Boko Haram, or even international players like Al Qaeda, the Hezbollah-inspired activities in West Africa can develop much more effectively because of the cover they receive from Iranian diplomatic offices and the network of Gulf and Levantine businesses that have drifted into the Hezbollah orbit. These recent events in West Africa illustrate Hezbollah’s interlocking pattern of influence in West Africa.

The challenge for Western security services, then, is to establish reliable links with their counterparts in West Africa, to share intelligence, and to develop a clearer understanding of the links between international non-state actors like Hezbollah, bankers in Dubai and Beirut, and used-car dealers in Michigan. Efforts also have to be made to strengthen legal and legislative systems throughout West Africa, which have become a haven for such activities precisely because security and prosecutorial agencies lack the tools and intelligence to crack down on these networks. Lastly, West African journalists should also be given all the support they need to uncover links between corrupt local politicians and international drug gangs. Without a more sophisticated, globally coordinated response, it is unlikely that governments in the region can withstand the pressure on their own. Security analysts had better take note.



Michael J.M. Keating is a Lecturer in International Relations at the McCormack Graduate School, University of Massachusetts Boston.  

[Photo courtesy of US Navy]




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