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Iran Analysis: Taking Apart the "Iranian Terror Cell in Nigeria" Story

Last night, the story emerged --- initially for us, via the Israeli daily Haaretz --- that "Nigerian security forces uncovered an Iranian terror cell that was allegedly planning to launch attacks against Israeli and American targets in the city of Lagos".

A spokeswoman for the Nigerian police said three men had been detained, while one had escaped, after six months of surveillance. They were preparing for strikes on the offices of the US Agency for International Development, the offices of the Israeli container shipping company ZIM, and the Chabad house, a Jewish organisation, in the city of Lagos.

The authorities claimed that one of the men, Abdullahi Berende, had been trained in Iran "in assembling explosive devices" and had received $30,000 from unnamed "Iranian handlers" to carry out the attacks.

An EA correspondent, specialising in security matters, gave me this feedback:

The reporting is weird, slightly, because Haaretz's correspondent Barak Ravid, who is based in Israel, does not say where he got his information. "Nigerian authorities" is vague.

The level of detail in the report suggests to me that this is from an indictment, not from a police report.

I don't think the plot is implausible, but this amount of information is way beyond what I would expect from a police report on someone who had just been arrested and not formally charged. This includes  specific information from covert surveillance, which would be submitted as evidence after someone was formally charged, not revealed in a police briefing after an interrogation.

Consider this declaration, "Berende stated that the Iranians wanted to conduct an attack on Israeli targets in Lagos because they thought that the city was home to an Israeli intelligence base being used to collect information on Iran." I have never heard of anyone in a public briefing giving the details of an interrogation ---  this sounds like it should be testimony given in court.

So it seems this element of the story is a PR exercise by the Nigerians.

So I did a check of the Nigerian press --- and it appears Haaretz left out key details.

The story was not a statement from a "spokeswoman" from the police. Instead, it was the State Security Service that announced the arrests in a press conference, featuring the three suspects "on parade" before the media. The main suspect, Berende, gave a confession:

[He] told journalists that he was employed by “people who were ready to capitalise on my weakness", though he denied being part of a terrorist network....He regretted “betraying my country”, adding that his [Iranian] handler whom he referred to as Amir, preyed on his weakness.

He denied working for any international or local terror network, adding that his handler only requested him to get information on American and Israeli targets in Lagos.

Then there is the headline in the Nigerian Tribune which --- in contrast to the Haaretz summary --- features local, high-profile targets: "The arrested persons were said to have placed the former military President-General Ibrahim Babangida; the deposed Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Ibrahim Dasuki; and other prominent Nigerians on their hit list.

So why would an international terrorist cell working for Tehran be aiming at Nigerian figures? The State Security Service declared, "The suspect was....tasked to provide names of prominent Nigerians, who, if attacked, could unsettle the West."

Nor do we have any insight into the identity of the Iranians --- the reports only note, "Attempts to reach the Iranian Embassy for comments on Wednesday were unsuccessful."

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