ABUJA, Nigeria—Members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), a group led by converts to Shia Islam originally inspired by the Iranian Revolution 40 years ago, have vowed to fight to punish Americans, “the tyrants of this century,” for the assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani last week.
That a group in West Africa would call for vengeance in the name of Quds Force commander Soleimani suggests just how far-flung his influence was, and how hard it will be for anyone, including the Iranian government, to restrain those who might attack American citizens and American interests. And, yes, at the same time it will be hard for the U.S. to pin the blame squarely on Tehran for the actions of such a group.
Iranian “proxies” come in many forms, and may or may not follow Tehran’s orders when they decide to attack Americans, whether to curry favor with Iran or simply to build their own reputation in their home countries.
Ominously, the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations told CNN in an interview broadcast Friday that his government cannot be held responsible for what militias or other sympathizers might do. “We can speak on behalf of the Iranian government, we are not responsible for the actions that others might take,” Ambassador Majid Takht-Ravanchi told John Berman. The question was limited to Iraqi militias, but how much more deniable are the actions of jihadists in Africa, Latin America, or East Asia?
Already last Sunday, two days after Soleimani died, the al-Shabab group operating out of Somalia killed an American serviceman and two American contractors at a base in northern Kenya as part of its “Al-Quds Will Never Be Judaized” guerrilla campaign.
The American death toll in Kenya was higher than the attack in Iraq that supposedly ignited the fury of President Donald J. Trump, yet the incident has received scant attention, and has been dismissed by some analysts as a local matter because the guerrillas of al-Shabab are not known to have had connections to Soleimani, and did not claim any link to the attack. But Soleimani’s operatives were active in Kenya in the past, and covert alliances of convenience among terrorist organizations and state sponsors often defy conventional wisdom about who cooperates with whom.
On Monday in Abuja, hundreds of Islamic Movement of Nigeria members took to the streets of the Nigerian capital to protest the Soleimani killing, chanting slogans attacking the U.S. government, and burning the U.S. flag.
“America will pay for the killing of Soleimani,” Ibrahim Hussien, one of the demonstrators, told The Daily Beast. “They have no idea what they have done.”
In Abuja, the IMN began to plan its demonstration hours after news came of the Iranian military commander’s death, according to Hussein, who claimed to be part of the planning process.
The group started by releasing a statement hailing Soleimani for being an “ardent anti-imperialist who gave the United States of America and their stooges in the region sleepless nights” and that his fight for victory against the U.S. would be “accomplished by his brothers, children, and students from resistance men and mujahideen from all the peoples of the world that reject humiliation and submission to the tyrants of this century.”
When the group's members took to the streets, their anger was visible. The long march round the central area of Abuja was noisy as demonstrators repeatedly chanted “death to America”, just as Shiite protesters in Iran sang in the aftermath of Soleimani's killing.
“We'll make America pay,” a protester told The Daily Beast. “It will happen when nobody expects.” As the IMN began to plan its protest, Nigeria's Inspector General of Police (IGP), Mohammed Adamu, placed security forces across the country on red alert, directing commands in Nigeria's 36 states to protect areas and buildings where Americans are present.
“We don't know how long this will last,” a police officer patrolling the area close to the U.S. embassy in Abuja told The Daily Beast. “The police want to ensure that Shia demonstrators do not cross the line.”
The IMN was outlawed by the Nigerian government last July following a series of deadly clashes with the country's armed forces, mostly over the continued detention of its leader, Ibrahim Zakzaky, an Iranian-trained Shiite theologian who became a proponent of Shia Islam around the time of the Iranian revolution in 1979, when he was inspired by the Ayatollah Khomeini.
Zakzaky, a mortal enemy of the United States, was arrested in 2015, following a crackdown by security forces which left hundreds of IMN members dead. The Nigerian military had accused his followers of attempting to assassinate the head of the country's army in Kaduna State in the northwest. He is still being held by the Department of State Services (DSS), Nigeria's secret police, who've charged him with a number of offenses, including “culpable homicide” and unlawful assembly.
The Shiite group, which seeks the creation of an Iranian-style Islamic state in Nigeria, has long received funding from Iran and uses those funds to operate its own schools and hospitals in parts of Muslim dominated northern Nigeria. It does not recognize the authority of the Nigerian state and views Zakzaky as its symbol of authority. After gatherings, members of the group pledge allegiance to the late Ayatollah Khomeini, the Iranian supreme leader who led the revolution in 1979, and to Zakzaky.
Although Nigeria’s Muslim population, estimated at 60 million, is largely Sunni, the Shiite minority is significant. There are no actual statistics, but some sources estimate the number to be between 4 million and 10 million followers of Shia Islam. The movement is especially strong in northwest and northeast Nigeria, but has organized structures in most of the 36 states, which is the reason why police divisions across the country have been on alert since the killing of Soleimani.
“We are serious about the directive from the IGP and that is why we have deployed our men to sensitive areas and places where the U.S. has interest,” said Terna Tyopev, a police spokesperson quoted by local media. “We are not taking anything to chance because the world is a global village and what happens elsewhere could have a ripple effect here.”
Demonstrations by the IMN, which has called on its members to protest Soleimani's killing on a daily basis, often have been deadly. In November 2018, clashes with security forces in Abuja left at least 45 dead and 122 wounded, according to Amnesty International, and a deputy commissioner of police was killed during a demonstration by the sect last July.
Zakzaky previously admitted to the BBC that he trained his men—hundreds of them—as guards, but likened it to “teaching karate to the Boy Scouts.” The group he leads reportedly has a youth front, whose members undergo military training. But so far, these militants haven’t been a huge threat to the Nigerian state. That may change if members of the group carry out their threat.
“We are peaceful people but can be violent if provoked,” Kasim Ibrahim, a member of the IMN who was part of the Abuja protest, told The Daily Beast. “America is pushing us to the wall.”