February 16, 2021
Iran is seeking to “activate sleeper cells” in Africa in order to attack “soft targets” in an attempt to avenge the killing of top commander Qassem Soleimani in a US drone strike and its top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in 2020, reported The New York Times.
When Ethiopia’s intelligence agency recently uncovered a cell of 15 people it said were casing the embassy of the United Arab Emirates, along with a cache of weapons and explosives, it claimed to have foiled a major attack with the potential to sow havoc in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
But the Ethiopians omitted a key detail about the purported plot: who was behind it.
The only clue was the arrest of a 16th person: Accused of being the ringleader, Ahmed Ismail had been picked up in Sweden with the cooperation of friendly “African, Asian and European intelligence services,” the Ethiopians said.
Now American and Israeli officials say the operation was the work of Iran, whose intelligence service activated a sleeper cell in Addis Ababa last fall with orders to gather intelligence also on the embassies of the United States and Israel, reported the NYT.
They say the Ethiopian operation was part of a wider drive to seek soft targets in African countries where Iran might avenge painful, high-profile losses such as the death of Fakhrizadeh, said to have been killed by Israel in November, and Soleimani, killed by the United States in Iraq just over one year ago.
Citing Western intelligence sources, Rear Adm. Heidi K. Berg, director of intelligence at the Pentagon’s Africa command, said that Iran was behind the 15 people arrested in Ethiopia and that the “mastermind of this foiled plot,” Mr. Ismail, had been arrested in Sweden.
“Ethiopia and Sweden collaborated on the disruption to the plot,” Admiral Berg said in a statement.
Iran denied the accusations. “These are baseless allegations only provoked by the Zionist regime’s malicious media,” said a spokeswoman for the Iranian Embassy in Addis Ababa.
Even so, Ethiopia’s National Intelligence and Security Service said that a second group of plotters had been preparing to hit the Emirati Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan. A Sudanese official confirmed that account.
A senior United States defense official linked the arrests in Ethiopia to a failed Iranian plan to kill the United States ambassador to South Africa, which was reported by Politico in September. The American and Sudanese officials agreed to discuss the matter on condition of anonymity because of its diplomatic and intelligence sensitivity.
Still, much about the Ethiopian arrests and alleged Iranian role remained murky. The Ethiopian police have yet to formally charge the 15 plot suspects, only two of whom have been identified. Israeli officials say that as few as three of them may be actual Iranian operatives, with the others having been caught in the Ethiopian dragnet.
While Admiral Berg confirmed several details about Iran’s role in the Ethiopian arrests, other military and diplomatic officials in Washington declined to discuss it.
In contrast, officials in Israel, whose government is openly hostile to any thaw between Washington and Tehran, highlighted the purported plot as further evidence that Iran cannot be trusted.
For all its efforts, Iran has yet to deliver on its promises of vengeance for its high-profile losses, beyond a missile attack on American forces in Iran in January 2020, days after Soleimani was killed.
Any plan similar to the plot thwarted in Ethiopia, would be a curious choice, given its potential to undermine Joe Biden’s putative nuclear diplomacy with Iran, said Aaron David Miller, a foreign policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Africa is a relatively easy place to operate, and Ethiopia is preoccupied with other issues,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer now with the Brookings Institution, according to the NYT.
Meanwhile, the Jewish Chronicle revealed last week that the Israeli Mossad was behind the killing of Fakhrizadeh.
He was “killed by a one-ton automated gun that was smuggled into Iran piece-by-piece by the Mossad,” it reported.
“The 20-plus spy team, which comprised both Israeli and Iranian nationals, carried out the high-tech hit after eight months of painstaking surveillance, intelligence sources disclosed.”