Revealed: How Iran tried to set up terror cells in Central Africa

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From the Sunday Telegraph

The rebel from central Africa touched down on Kish Island, an Iranian resort in the Persian Gulf, and left the following day. His stopover was brief but had opened up a new front in the escalating crisis between Iran and the West.

Ismael Djidah was a well-connected middleman whose associates included some of the most notorious insurgents, mercenaries and arms smugglers from the war-torn borderlands of Chad, Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR).

Now, among Kish Island’s glistening shopping malls and white sand beaches on December 11th 2016, Djidah was embarking on a new mission – helping to spread Iran’s tentacles into Africa.

According to UN investigators, security officials and diplomatic sources — as well as Djidah’s own testimony — he was planning to set up terrorist cells in Africa under the direction of Iran’s elite Quds Force, commanded by Qassem Suleimani . . 

Known as the “Zahraa Brigade” and reportedly financed by hundreds of thousands of dollars, the aim of this shadowy network would be to attack US and other Western targets including military bases, embassies and officials.

In the following years after his first meetings in the Gulf,  Djidah claimed to have recruited between 30 and 40 militants from CAR rebel groups on behalf of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. These men travelled to Lebanon, Iraq and Syria in 2017 and 2018 for rigorous training and firearms instruction at Iranian-run camps. While unable to verify the full amount, UN investigators gathered evidence that confirmed their travels to Lebanon  — the base of the Iran-backed militant group, Hezbollah — and Iraq of 12 members of the Saraya Zahraa group.

The objective was to establish a group comprising between 200 and 300 militants who would coordinate their activities with other Chadian and Sudanese cells. Corroborated by the UN’s diplomatic sources, Djidah confessed to receiving between $12,000 and $20,000 from Quds Force personnel during each trip to Iran, Lebanon and Iraq.

The plot fits into Tehran’s wider strategy of using proxy forces to undercut rival powers. Soleimani’s Quds Force operatives have developed ties with armed groups in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and the Palestinain territories.

Reports of Iran’s new African proxies began to emerge last year after Djidah was arrested by security forces in Chad and a small excerpt of his interrogation was leaked to the media. “We want to create an army to fight against Westerners in Africa,” he said.

Since then, a UN panel of experts has obtained a transcript and longer video of Djidah’s testimony, drawing on diplomatic sources to corroborate his claims before publishing their findings in a new report.

For any Iranian commander wishing to recruit a new asset and extend Tehran’s reach into Africa, Djidah appeared a strong candidate. In the rebel-riven badlands of the Sahel, he had made a name for himself as a shrewd operator who could fix meetings with feared warlords.

He met a Central African official called Michel Djotodia who, following a stint studying in the Soviet Union, was serving as CAR’s consul in the neighbouring Sudanese region of Darfur, then stricken by a catastrophic genocide.

The pair grew close as Djidah helped Djotodia cultivate alliances with violent Chadian and Sudanese militias, including one rebel leader who later furnished Colonel Gaddafi’s regime with mercenary fighters. . .  in 2008, Djotodia would return to Christian-majority CAR, eventually drawing on his network of militants to create a mainly Muslim coalition of rebels known as the “Seleka”.

In 2013, he and his forces seized power in a bloody coup, fulfilling his long-held ambition of becoming CAR’s first Muslim ruler. He appointed Djidah — now a sworn ally and confidante — to the position of presidential adviser, according to former cabinet ministers and other sources. 

Djidah claimed that Djotodia had instructed him to collaborate with Iran and says Djotodia had first met with Quds Force officials on Kish Island in April 2016 — allegations backed by the UN’s diplomatic sources. 

Djotodia denies meeting with Quds Force members and participating in Tehran’s plot. . . Djotodia’s lawyer told the Sunday Telegraph that the UN had found no corroboration that Djotodia accepted financial support from the Quds force.  . . Djidah’s current location is unknown.

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