Nigeria’s Hezbollah problem
June 14th, 2013
07:30 AM ET

Nigeria’s Hezbollah problem

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.

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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.

Topics: Africa • Nigeria

soundoff (32 Responses)
  1. 100 % ETHIO

    Well, when did they started operating in Nigeria?
    They supposed to be aprehended before they extended their power.

    June 14, 2013 at 7:36 am | Reply
  2. Benedict

    Trust a radical to up a spread a gospel wherever he or she feels like. Same thing could be said about Boko Haram

    June 14, 2013 at 9:02 am | Reply
  3. It's

    It's an Islam problem.

    June 14, 2013 at 9:16 am | Reply
  4. Lyndsie Graham

    Now I suppose that the right-wing thugs in Washington are going to try to find an excuse to drag us into Nigeria's civil war next! Since we have a President who was bought and paid for along with the vast majority in Congress, this is bound to happen. The M.I.C. has to line it's pockets somehow!

    June 14, 2013 at 10:19 am | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Unfortunately Lyndsie, I'm afraid you're quite right! This country will be at war for the foreseeable future and there is nothing we can do about it!

      June 14, 2013 at 5:08 pm | Reply
  5. Kingsley

    The nigerian government should be sincere in its dealings and should release the names of those sponsoring insurgency and terrorism in the country and subsequently prosecute them. They should also tackle corruption at levels of government that has increase poverty and frustration in the country.

    June 14, 2013 at 3:13 pm | Reply
  6. Sonny Chux

    Good, d chicken has come home to roost. Whatever goes round comes around. All those who betrayed Republic of Biafra (including Western countries) for material interests will henceforth know NO PEACE. They will continue to struggle with Islamic terrorists all over d world including Nigeria. As for us Biafrans, we have nothing to lose. The West should go and read d history of how d mighty Roman empire died. Simply put, it was killed from d inside. U.S and d West will end like d Roman empire!!!

    June 15, 2013 at 8:28 am | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Well posted, Sonny Chux. Yes, Biafra should have won it's independence from Nigeria some 40 years ago, but thanks to the West, that didn't happen! Another tragedy similar to what happened to the Tamils in Sri Lanka in 2009!

      June 17, 2013 at 5:19 am | Reply
      • Test


        June 18, 2013 at 8:30 am |
    • Test


      June 18, 2013 at 8:31 am | Reply
  7. j. von hettlingen

    The clerics in Iran support the Huthi rebels in Yemen and have good relations with Sudan's Omar al-Bashir.

    June 17, 2013 at 8:36 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      The Lebanese Hezbollah are active abroad on behalf of Iran's Revolutionary Guards.

      June 17, 2013 at 8:40 am | Reply
  8. Abiku Omolangidi

    Nigeria is overdue an own initiated Jerry Rawlings Cleansing. An end is needed for this generational corruption fuelled by greed, sectionalism, nepotism and religious intolerance.

    June 17, 2013 at 10:16 am | Reply
  9. larry

    This is exactly what will happen in many more place if we don't stop Hezbollah in Syria. They are supporting Assad there and we must support the rebels to overthrow Assad and defeat Hezbollah or Iran will see that our "Lines in the sand" mean nothing. If ever we faced a defining moment this is it. Who wants an emboldened Iran? A nuclear race in the Middle East with Iran supporting terrorists groups that can bring a dirty bomb to the USA? Fighting them (Supporting the rebels) now on their soil is better than fighting them on our soil.

    June 17, 2013 at 10:20 am | Reply
  10. ucocam

    The battle/war in Nigeria is already on the way,just a matter of time before it becomes a global issue,thaks to islamists.

    June 18, 2013 at 8:46 am | Reply
  11. Rick McDaniel

    The Islamic problem, is a problem in so many parts of the world, and there is no indication it has any probability of being contained. The entire world is under attack, and will remain so, into the foreseeable future.

    June 18, 2013 at 10:50 am | Reply
  12. JTBurton

    If it is true: Hezbollah training to fight Israel in Nigeria, it exceedingly tragic; they should understand that peace between Palestine and Israel is key and paramount to the stability of the entire region. It is the closest to a reality it has ever been. Peace and Prosperity are needed. Not terror and violence. Hamas showed the world Islamic peoples can renounce terror and violence. It is time Hezbollah did the same. Muslim secular rule, is too strict in edicts, which leads to unhappiness of its people and worse. Islam has its place, but so does Democratic Capitalism, which may truly be the only system of Government that truly works. Indeed likely. Peace and Prosperity. God Bless. J.T. Burton

    June 18, 2013 at 4:13 pm | Reply
    • JTBurton

      Additionally, Nigeria or any nation, country, etc. should be free of extremism. Best Wishes for a good, peaceful, and prosperous Nigeria. J.T. Burton

      June 18, 2013 at 4:25 pm | Reply
  13. Pablo Schwartz

    "Foundation for Defense of Democracies" continues to advocate for *Final Solution* for Islam's Shia minority ..

    August 2, 2013 at 7:20 am | Reply

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