Since the Islamic revolution in 1979, Iran has promoted “Khomeinism” as one of its foreign policy tools in the Muslim world. Despite Nigeria’s geographic and cultural distance from Iran, there is no region outside of the Middle East where Iran’s ideology has a greater impact than in northern Nigeria. Nigeria’s pro-Iranian Shi`a Muslim community was virtually non-existent 30 years ago but now comprises about five percent of Nigeria’s 80 million Muslims.
In recent years, Iran’s Quds Force and Lebanese Hizb Allah have coordinated intelligence gathering on U.S. and Israeli targets in Nigeria and engaged in weapons and drug trafficking in West Africa with operatives drawn from Nigeria’s Shi`a community. The Iranian government also maintains ties with an influential religious group called the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN).
The rhetoric and actions of the IMN’s leading imams and former members add fuel to the hot mix of Islamic fundamentalist movements that emerged in northern Nigeria after the 1970s. This article analyzes the activities of the IMN, the Quds Force, and Hizb Allah in Nigeria and West Africa. It finds that the Zaria, Kaduna-based IMN’s charismatic leadership and northern Nigeria’s attraction to revivalist Islam enables Iran to spread “Khomeinism” in Nigeria, including its antagonism towards the United States and the West.
Kaduna, which is the political center of northern Nigeria, has experienced increased Muslim-Christian violence, unemployment, and anti-Western sentiment since Nigeria restored democracy in 1999 and 12 northern states adopted modified versions of Shari`a (Islamic law). The IMN exploits this extremist-prone environment to extend its message to Shi`a and Sunnis, including members who joined movements such as Boko Haram.
Radicalization in Northern Nigeria: Iran and the IMN
Iran’s main advocate in Nigeria is the IMN’s leader, Ibrahim al-Zakzaky. Al-Zakzaky graduated from Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Kaduna in the 1970s, where he led the Muslim Students’ Society and then Nigeria’s Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1980s. During the Cold War period, al-Zakzaky was known for preaching Islam as an alternative model to socialism and capitalism and leading rallies where followers burned Nigeria’s constitution to protest secularism and supported Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979.
After traveling to Iran in 1980, al-Zakzaky adopted the symbolism and rhetoric of Shi`a Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini on top of the ideology of the late Sunni Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood founder, Hasan al-Banna, and Muslim Brotherhood thought leader, Sayyid Qutb. Al-Zakzaky then founded the IMN and went on “recruitment tours” to northern Nigerian universities to showcase the Iranian revolution.
In between periods of imprisonment in the mid-1980s, al-Zakzaky converted to Shi`a Islam and transformed the IMN from student activism to a mass movement that called for “a second jihad” to implement Shari`a in Nigeria.
He also declared Nigeria’s secular government unfit to rule and the traditional Sunni leadership of Nigeria, including the sultan of Sokoto and Sufi brotherhoods, guilty of siding with the government to “protect their offices and worldly possessions.” Al-Zakzaky, however, downplayed the IMN’s “Shi`a” image, choosing instead to portray it as an “Islamic movement.”
Today, the IMN, which is commonly known in Nigeria as “the Shi`a” (despite al-Zakzaky’s attempts to portray it as non-sectarian), is Africa’s largest Shi`a movement. It has reportedly mobilized more than one million people for Shi`a religious events and 50,000 people for political rallies where Khomeini and his successor, Ali Khamenei, and Hizb Allah leader Hassan Nasrallah are revered, while flags of the “Great Satan [the United States]”
and Israel are burned. The IMN also has hundreds of paramilitary guards called hurras, a Hausa language newspaper that honors IMN “martyrs,” a Hausa radio station called Shuhada (the martyrs), an al-Zakzaky Facebook page, and an IMN website with faces of Khomeini, Khamenei and al-Zakzaky on every page.
As in previous years, al-Zakzaky visited Iranian centers of Shi`a scholarship in Qom and Mashhad in 2012 and met dozens of IMN members studying in Iran. He also visited Lebanon, where he received a red flag from Karbala, Iraq’s Shi`a shrine of Imam Husayn, as a gift from Nasrallah, and Iraq, where he prayed at Najaf’s Shi`a shrine of Imam Ali.
Although a former Iranian diplomat described the IMN as an “Iranian proxy,” the IMN claims it only receives “simple handouts” from its members. Nonetheless, evidence shows the IMN largely serves as an extension of Iranian foreign policy in Nigeria, especially in spreading “Khomeinism” among the country’s Muslims.
Gateway to Radicalism
Although the IMN does not promote violence, its imams preach that the West conspires to “dominate minds and resources” of Muslims by converting them to Christianity and secularizing them, Jews are the “lowest creatures on earth” and the “children of monkeys and pigs,” the West fabricated the 9/11 attacks on the United States, and the Nigerian government created Boko Haram to justify Western-Christian “occupation” of the Muslim world and northern Nigeria.
This rhetoric appeals to broad sectors of Nigeria’s Muslim population, including Sunnis. For example, at more than 10 IMN-led protests over the U.S.-made film Innocence of Muslims in August 2012, most participants were neither IMN members nor Shi`a and never saw the film, but were persuaded by the IMN’s message. Boko Haram also capitalized on the upsurge in anti-American sentiment by issuing a widely viewed YouTube video in which its leader, Abubakar Shekau, promised retaliation against “evil plotters of the blasphemous film.”
The IMN’s rhetoric has in some cases translated into violence. In 1991, an IMN imam in Katsina (who also spoke at film protests in 2012), Yakubu Yahaya, whose hero was Khomeini, led hundreds of IMN members in an attack on the office of the Daily Times newspaper after it portrayed the Prophet Muhammad in a cartoon marrying a prostitute.
In the 2000s, the IMN clashed most frequently with Sunnis in Sokoto, which is the seat of the sultan of Sokoto and where Nigerian intelligence reported that IMN established training camps for recruits from across northern Nigeria. In 2005, IMN imams sought leadership positions in mosques in Sokoto, which led to violence between Sunni and Shi`a.
In 2007, Nigerian security forces destroyed the IMN’s headquarters in Sokoto and arrested an IMN imam after a Sunni cleric was assassinated at a mosque allegedly by the IMN in revenge for the cleric’s support of the crackdown on the IMN in 2005. Al-Zakzaky, however, claimed the IMN was framed to justify ousting the IMN from Sokoto. In 2012, al-Zakzaky again accused Nigerian security forces of a plot to assassinate the IMN’s imam in Yobe, Mustapha Lawan Nasidi, while Nasidi was leading prayers, but the attack failed insofar as it killed Nasidi’s brother, driver, and two people seated near him.
When Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman visited Abuja in 2009, al-Zakzaky said that Nigerian security forces targeted the IMN for Israel because “Iran is waxing stronger in Nigeria through me, and this is why they want to attack us, to finally slay the growing Iranian influence and our movement.”
n several cases, IMN members have been radicalized in the movement but then formed or joined more violent groups. One example was when a mob of former IMN members turned Salafi-jihadists publicly beheaded a Christian Igbo trader in Kano in 1994 for allegedly desecrating the Qur’an.
According to a prominent Zaria-based Salafist imam and Nigerian scholars, Boko Haram founder Muhammad Yusuf also met and followed al-Zakzaky before Yusuf became Borno State amir of Jama`at al-Tajdid al-Islami (Movement for the Revival of Islam, JTI).
JTI was a Kano-based IMN breakaway group founded in 1994 that continued al-Zakzaky’s confrontational stance toward the government but through Salafist doctrine and whose members reportedly carried out the beheading of the Christian trader in Kano. In 2002, Yusuf founded Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jama`a (Companions of the Prophet), which was known locally as the “Nigerian Taliban” or “Yusufiya” (Followers of Yusuf), and became the Borno representative on the Supreme Council for Shari`a in Nigeria.
In July 2009, the Nigerian security forces killed Yusuf and 1,000 of his followers, who were by then known as “Boko Haram” because of the radical teachings of Yusuf and his deputy, Abubakar Shekau (“Boko Haram” means “Western education is sinful” in Hausa). In July 2010, Shekau announced that he succeeded Yusuf, and he formed the Salafi-jihadi group Jama`at Ahl al-Sunna li al-Da`wa wa al-Jihad (Sunni Group for Preaching and Jihad), which has continued to be known as “Boko Haram” since it began waging an armed insurgency in September 2010.