By Albin Szakola and Jack Losh
May 22, 2020
The Assaha Hotel is a tall, traditional Lebanese stone building with a large swimming pool and tables for al fresco dining at the back.
The rooms are painted gold and the beds have satin sheets. While the booking websites list these amenities, they do not mention that the south Beirut hotel was owned, in part, by a man with family ties at the top of Hezbollah.
The mid-market, $60-a-night hotel also hosted a prominent rebel from the Central African Republic on the payroll of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force.
Ismael Djidah, a patron of the Assaha Hotel, is central to a plot that ties the Quds Force, the IRGC’s overseas arm, with efforts to build proxy forces in Africa to launch attacks on US and Western diplomatic outposts, military bases and officials.
At the time Mr Djidah stayed at the hotel in February 2018, its operating company, Lebanese Arab Company for Touristic Services, was still part-owned by Hamza Safieddine.
Information on Mr Safieddine’s ID tallies with a funeral notice for his mother that lists his brothers as Hashem, the head of Hezbollah’s executive council, and Abdallah, the organisation’s envoy to Iran.
Beyond his role in Tehran, the US Drug Enforcement Agency in 2016 accused Abdallah Safieddine of controlling the business affairs of Hezbollah’s clandestine External Security Organisation. The shadowy arm is accused of operating the internationally designated terror group’s overseas operations in South America, the Middle East and across Africa.
The Safieddine brothers have further ties to the pinnacle of power in Hezbollah – they are maternal cousins of Hassan Nasrallah, the organisation’s secretary general.
Mr Djidah’s stay at the hotel – on at least one of his numerous visits to the Lebanese capital – was confirmed by a bill included in a UN report in December 2019.
The road from the Central African Republic to Tehran
For those in the market for mercenaries, the Central African Republic’s Route National 8 is a fine road to take.
Barely more than a dirt track, this dusty highway runs for hundreds of kilometres through the rebel-held north towards Darfur in neighbouring Sudan. Along the way, it passes sleepy villages, checkpoints manned by militants and occasional displacement camps filled with civilians sheltering from the latest eruption of violence.
The journey would highlight the decades of neglect by the Christian-majority government that has transformed this mainly Muslim region into a hotbed of grievance and insurgency.
This is central Africa’s “autonomous zone”, says Yale University anthropologist Louisa Lombard, where a legacy of sultans, slave-raiding and sectarian division means that towns here “never lost their militarised-mercantile nature”.
Such militant and entrepreneurial flair caught the eye of Iran as a new front in its ongoing proxy war with the West, according to a UN investigation. The report laid out how Tehran cultivated a network of terrorist cells under the Quds Force, of which Mr Djidah was a critical part.
The Quds Force has operated, funded, trained and directed proxy militias across the Middle East and beyond for decades – its most successful project to date is Hezbollah. Its central role in Iran’s regional operations was highlighted when the US killed Quds Force head Qassem Suleimani in January.
As the influence of former colonial powers in central Africa has waned and Washington has reduced its foothold in the region, China and Russia have invested heavily. But Iran’s dealings around the Sahel states have remained shrouded in secrecy.
The Zahraa Brigade
Mr Djidah, who the UN established is most likely a Chadian national, had made a name for himself as a well-connected intermediary able to make introductions to warlords across the Chadian, Sudanese and Central African borderlands. Sources close to Mr Djidah portray him as a veritable LinkedIn of rebel contacts.
He also acted as a presidential adviser to a CAR rebel named Michel Djotodia, who ran the country for ten months after seizing power and triggering a civil war in the former French colony.
After Mr Djotodia was forced to resign amid spiralling violence, the pair fled to Benin in 2014. Here, it appears, Mr Djidah came on to the radar of the Quds Force.
One of his first meetings with Iranian operatives was in December, 2016, on Kish Island, an Iranian resort in the Arabian Gulf that he visited for one day, the UN found.
The next year, Mr Djidah made at least four trips to Lebanon. At least two more came in 2018, as did a trip to Iraq, according to visas, hotel bills and airline companies turned up by the UN investigation, which confirmed his travels to and from Rafic Hariri International Airport in Beirut. Besides his CAR diplomatic passport, Mr Djidah is believed to have also used a fake Nigerian document.
The UN began investigating Mr Djidah after he was arrested in Chad last year and an excerpt of his interrogation was aired on TV.
In a longer version of the video obtained by UN investigators, Mr Djidah said he aimed to form an armed group called Saraya Zahraa with the support of the Quds Force “to carry out violent actions against Western, Israeli and Saudi interests in Africa”.
In his questioning, Mr Djidah claimed to have recruited between 30 and 40 militants from CAR rebel groups who went on to travel to Lebanon, Iraq and Syria in 2017 and 2018 for training and firearms instruction at Iran-run camps.
UN investigators were able to find evidence that confirmed at least 12 members of Saraya Zahraa had travelled to Lebanon and Iraq. These members planned to establish a group comprising between 200 and 300 militants who would co-ordinate their activities with other Chadian and Sudanese cells
Mr Djidah said that the Quds Force had given him between $12,000 (Dh44,076) and $20,000 on each trip to Iran, Lebanon and Iraq – a confession corroborated by the UN’s diplomatic sources.
The entire plan is understood to have been organised by Unit 400, a highly specialised section of the Quds Force run by a senior officer named Ali Parhoon.
The operation fits closely with Iran’s previous support for militants and proxies to fight the US at arm’s length.
“The strategy has always been aimed at expanding its regional influence and to complicate US and allied forces’ efforts around the Middle East,” said Dr Vladimir Rauta, a lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of Reading who has written extensively on proxy warfare.
Iran’s operations in Africa
Iranian endeavours in the region are nothing new.
The Quds Force’s new commander, Esmail Qaani, has been a critical point of contact for Tehran on the continent and was sanctioned by the US in 2012 for funding “terrorist groups” and Quds Force “elements in Africa”. The US Treasury Department blamed the Quds Force for a 2010 shipment of grenades, mortars and rockets bound for Gambia but intercepted in Nigeria. Qaani’s history in Africa and recent promotion has prompted speculation that Tehran may expand its African activities.
But Dr Rauta cautioned against assuming that partnering with Iran reflected an anti-Western agenda among Saraya Zahraa and others. Such dealings have as much to do with local competition, pragmatism and resources.
“One of the big misconceptions about proxy relationships is that proxies are totally subservient to whoever funds them,” said Dr Rauta. “They might simply be marriages of convenience, where one side needs the material support that is provided by countries like Iran. There is a lot of sense in seeing this as opportunistic and not necessarily aligned along the lines of hatred towards the US.”
While Djidah claimed his growing force of militants were drawn from armed groups that earlier comprised the CAR-based coalition of mostly Muslim rebels, observers say there is every possibility that these were merely bored, regular young men with limited opportunities, picked up from displacement camps and the region’s impoverished villages. When they’re not fighting, many of the region’s “rebels” hold down ordinary jobs as mechanics, traders and bike taxi drivers.
Mr Djidah also alleged that his former boss, Mr Djotodia, was involved in the plot. Although the former CAR leader strongly denies the claim, he admits visiting Kish Island in April 2016, describing this as a trip organised by Iranian business partners.
Mr Djotodia’s lawyer described Mr Djidah as a “totally unreliable witness who was trying to extort money from the Iranian regime”.
In comments made to the UN, Iran denied the allegations and, the report said, “underlined that it neither interfered in the internal affairs of any country nor supported any violent act”.
But Iran and its proxies – chief among them Hezbollah at the top of its regional network – have played crucial roles in forming, training and assisting rebel and militia networks across the Middle East. That the Assaha Hotel was a key location in the murky conspiracy between Mr Djidah, Hezbollah and Iran is just the latest such revelation.
Hezbollah and the hotel business
The operators of the Assaha Hotel, the Lebanese Arab Company for Touristic Services, was co-founded by Hamza Safieddine, the Mabarrat Charity Association (established by late grand ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, whose son Ali now oversees the charity), Ali Fadlallah and two others.
The grand ayatollah died in 2010 and while he has been described as an early spiritual mentor to Hezbollah, he always denied the claim.
The company is part of the Assaha International Group, a conglomerate of companies in Lebanon, Qatar, Sudan, the United Kingdom and Kuwait, according to a website for the brand. The group operates a series of restaurants and hotels, including one near London’s Hyde Park. Hamza Safieddine entered into another business with the Mabarrat Charity Association.
In 2016, Ali Fadlallah said their network of schools, hospitals and other institutions had been unfairly caught up in US sanctions against Hezbollah. Ali Fadlallah’s father was sanctioned by the US in 1995, but the charity he founded was never put on a blacklist by Washington.
For now, the whereabouts of Mr Djidah is unknown – but this former customer of the Assaha Hotel is unlikely to make a reservation there any time soon.