By Dawit Giorgis, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Dawit Giorgis is a visiting fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. The views expressed are his own.
Nigerian authorities last month arrested four Lebanese nationals in northern Nigeria on suspicion of having ties with Hezbollah. After a raid on one of their residences yielded a stash of weapons, including anti-tank weapons, rocket propelled grenades, and anti-personnel mines, the Nigerian State Security Services (SSS) announced that the compound was hosting a terrorist cell tied to the Lebanese Shia movement. The four accused have denied the charges, and are suing the government for wrongful detention. But even if they are found guilty, other Hezbollah nodes may well remain in Nigeria. The truth is that despite the thousands of miles that separate Nigeria from Lebanon, the country is faced with a growing threat from a Hezbollah doppelganger.
The Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) is a jihadist organization with strong support among the 5 million Shia Muslims, by some estimates, living in Nigeria. Founded in the early 1980s, it has flourished with cash, training and support from Iran. Indeed, the roots of the IMN can be traced to the immediate aftermath of the 1979 Iranian revolution, when Nigerian students belonging to the Muslim Student Society traveled to the Islamic Republic and were trained with the goal of establishing an Iranian-style revolution in Nigeria.
The leader of the student group was Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky, a firebrand Sunni turned Shia religious extremist who was first influenced by the works of Sayyd Qutb, the intellectual force behind Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and whose ideas form the basis of al Qaeda’s ideology today. Remarkably, Zakzaky switched sides and became an adherent of Shia Islam, encouraged by Iranian funding and training, both religious and military.
Since becoming the leader of the IMN in the mid-1980s, Zakzaky has had numerous confrontations with the government, including being imprisoned for nine years. From 1981 to 1984, for example, he was jailed for sedition and for declaring he would recognize no governmental laws or authority except those of Islam.
Fast forward three decades, and Zakzaky is the patriarchal spiritual leader of Shiites in Nigeria, much like Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was in Iran. When he addresses his followers, Zakzaky typically sits under a big portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini and wields rhetoric akin to that of Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah. The subject of his speeches are what you might expect – heated vitriol aimed at Jews and Israel, in which he portrays Jews as infidels who should be wiped off the map by Allah. In 1998, for example, the Shiites of Nigeria, under Zakzaky’s leadership, observed Jerusalem Day, mirroring Khomeini’s introduction of a day for expressing solidarity with the Palestinians. He also talks about social justice in Nigeria and building support for Iran’s policies in Africa.
“Iran’s objectives are to establish a local power base to exert influence over the national government and to act against Western interests,” argues Abel Assadina, a senior Iranian diplomat who defected in 2003.
Certainly, under Zakzaky’s leadership, the IMN has provided Hezbollah-style military training to hundreds of Nigerians in camps throughout Northern Nigeria. And although the group has yet to launch an attack, it is surely not unreasonable to expect an attempt at some point. As Muhammad Kabir Isa, a senior researcher at Nigeria’s Ahmadu Bello University, told the BBC: “when you embark on military drills, you are drilling with some sort of anticipation. Some sort of expectation.”
And the IMN’s propaganda effort also bears a striking resemblance to that of Hezbollah. The movement has had a thriving newspaper, al-Mizan, for more than two decades. In addition, it has also begun broadcasting its own internet-based Hausa radio station, Shuhada, on the country's main air waves, similar to Hezbollah’s radio station, Al-Nour. IMN also has plans to start a new TV channel, a move reminiscent of Hezbollah’s al-Manar.
Isa has described the movement as “a state within a state.” But this does not mean that IMN is isolated from Nigeria. Indeed, Zakzaky has reportedly worked to ensure that his members are recruited into the army, the police force and the state security establishment.
Of course it is true that however much inspiration he likes to draw from images of Nasrallah, he lacks the Hezbollah leader’s battlefield experience. And he also does not have Nasrallah’s resources – Hezbollah has recently dispatched thousands of fighters to back the al-Assad regime in Syria.
Yet the recent arrest of alleged Hezbollah operatives, and a stash of weapons, so far from home raises troubling questions about what Zakzaky’s network might be capable of – and what exactly he has planned.