In dangerous cat-and-mouse game, Iran aims for new targets in Africa
NAIROBI, Kenya – When the Ethiopian intelligence agency recently uncovered a 15-person cell it said was locking up the UAE embassy, along with a cache of weapons and explosives, it claimed to have foiled a major attack likely to wreak havoc in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
But the Ethiopians left out a key detail about the alleged plot: who was behind.
The only clue was the arrest of a 16th person: accused of being the ringleader, Ahmed Ismail had been arrested in Sweden with the cooperation of friends “African, Asian and European intelligence services,” the Ethiopians said.
Now US and Israeli officials claim the operation was the work of Iran, whose intelligence services activated a sleeper cell in Addis Ababa last fall with orders to gather intelligence also on the embassies of the United States and Israel.
They say the Ethiopian operation was part of a larger campaign to seek easy targets in African countries where Iran could avenge painful and high-profile losses such as the death of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the world’s top nuclear scientist. Iranian, who was reportedly killed by Israel in November. , and Major General Qassim Suleimani, the Iranian spy master killed by the United States in Iraq a little over a year ago.
Citing Western intelligence sources, counter-friend Heidi K. Berg, director of intelligence at the Pentagon Command for Africa, said Iran was behind the 15 people arrested in Ethiopia and that “the mastermind of this plot foiled ”, Mr. Ismail, had been arrested in Sweden.
“Ethiopia and Sweden have collaborated to disrupt the plot,” Admiral Berg said in a statement.
Iran has denied the charges. “These are baseless allegations only provoked by the Zionist regime’s malicious media,” said a spokeswoman for the Iranian embassy in Addis Ababa. “Neither Ethiopia nor the Emirates have said anything about Iranian interference in these matters. “
The UAE angered Iran when it normalized relations with Israel in September as part of a series of deals brokered by the Trump administration in its final months and known as of Abraham’s Accord.
An Ethiopian police spokesperson, who only named two of the 15 people arrested, declined to say why Ethiopia did not accuse Iran of conspiring. Several diplomats have said Ethiopia, as the diplomatic capital of Africa and the seat of the African Union’s headquarters, tries to avoid becoming publicly involved in sensitive issues involving major powers.
Despite this, Ethiopia’s National Intelligence and Security Service said a second group of conspirators prepared to strike the UAE embassy in Khartoum, Sudan. A Sudanese official confirmed this account.
A senior US defense official linked the arrests in Ethiopia to a failed Iranian plan to kill the US ambassador to South Africa, which was reported by Politico in September. US and Sudanese officials have agreed to discuss the issue on condition of anonymity due to his diplomatic and intelligence sensitivity.
Yet much of the Ethiopian arrests and Iran’s alleged role have remained obscure. Ethiopian police have yet to formally indict the 15 suspects in the plot, only two of whom have been identified. Israeli officials say barely three of them could be actual Iranian agents, with the rest having been caught in the Ethiopian net.
And the arrests in Ethiopia come at a time of heightened political sensitivity in Iran and the United States, as the Biden administration reflects on its stance towards Tehran and whether to revive the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran that President Donald J. Trump canceled in 2018.
Adding to the pressure on President Biden, Iran’s intelligence minister suggested last week that his country could seek nuclear weapons if US sanctions were not lifted soon.
While Admiral Berg confirmed several details about Iran’s role in the Ethiopian arrests, other military and diplomatic officials in Washington declined to discuss them.
In contrast, Israeli officials, whose government is openly hostile to any thaw between Washington and Tehran, have pointed to the alleged plot as further proof that Iran cannot be trusted.
Despite its best efforts, Iran has yet to deliver on its vengeance pledges for its high-profile losses, beyond a missile attack on US forces in Iraq in January 2020, days after the general’s death. Suleimani.
Any plan to strike the UAE, as the arrests in Ethiopia suggest, would be a curious choice, given its potential to undermine Mr. Biden’s putative nuclear diplomacy with Iran, said Aaron David Miller, an expert on Iran. foreign policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International. Peace.
Other analysts, however, have said the UAE is high on Iran’s enemy list and that the embassy in Ethiopia could be an insurmountable target at a time when Ethiopia is distracted by a war that has been raging in his region of northern Tigray since November.
“Africa is a relatively easy place to operate, and Ethiopia is concerned about other issues,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer now at the Brookings Institution.
The murky episode seemed destined to become the latest in a string of cat-and-mouse episodes between Iranian and Israeli agents on African soil in recent years.
During the 1990s, Iran had close ties with Sudan under autocratic Omar Hassan al-Bashir, and over the next decade, it was able to moor its warships in Eritrea.
Israel retaliated in 2009 with airstrikes against a convoy of contraband trucks in Sudan that aimed to prevent Iranian-supplied weapons from reaching the Gaza Strip, US officials said.
But Iran’s ties to the Horn of Africa have withered in recent years, and Israeli and UAE involvement has increased.
The Emirates helped negotiate a landmark peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2018, and now it is the Emirati warships that are docked in Eritrean ports.
In November, following a call between Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, a team of Israeli drone pilots arrived in Ethiopia to help eliminate the locusts that have infested the country’s farmers. .
A few weeks later, Yossi Cohen, the head of Mossad, Israel’s secret intelligence service, met with his Ethiopian counterpart to discuss what they called “counterterrorism operations”.
Elsewhere in Africa, Israeli intelligence officials say they frequently inform friendly countries of suspected Iranian activity.
In Kenya, two Iranians arrested in 2012 and charged with possession of 15 kilograms of explosives are now serving 15 years in prison. Kenyan officials said the men were members of the Quds force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Their lawyers said they were questioned by Israeli intelligence services while in detention in Kenya.
Four years later, in 2016, Kenya expelled two Iranians who had been arrested outside the Israeli embassy with video footage of the installation. Iran said the men, who were traveling in an Iranian diplomatic car, were university professors.
Iranian agents have been suspected of terrorist attacks or foiled attacks in countries such as Georgia, Thailand and India. On February 4, a Belgian court stripped an Iranian envoy of his diplomatic status and sentenced him to 20 years in prison for organizing a foiled bombing targeting an Iranian opposition rally in France in 2018.
This failed plot and another in Denmark prompted the European Union in 2019 to impose sanctions on Iran’s external spy service, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. Israeli officials say the same agency orchestrated the operation in Ethiopia.
Swedish police spokeswoman Sofia Hellqvist referred questions to the Ethiopian authorities about the arrest of Mr Ismail, the alleged leader.
A spokesperson for the United Arab Emirates did not respond to a request for comment.
Given the stakes, it was not clear why the Iranians could risk a rapprochement with the Biden administration by mounting an operation now.
Farzin Nadimi, an Iranian armed forces specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Iran may wish to send a message to officials in the Biden administration that “unless they quickly come to an agreement with Iran, this is what they get: a neighborhood. “
Declan Walsh reported from Nairobi; Eric Schmitt from Washington; Simon Marks from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; and Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv. Rick Gladstone contributed reporting from New York.