The relationship between Iran and armed organizations with different ideological and religious outlooks has been a central strategy of Iran since 1979. The aim is clear: to achieve dominance and control of different regional and international interactions and balances in the Middle East.
Iran's intrusion on others' rights and its destructive agenda has gone far beyond sponsoring specific organisations like the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood and active Shia militias. Iran has established links with organisations many had thought were Iran’s enemies - such as al-Qaeda and its various branches including the Somali Al Shabab group.
The following report reveals the truth of the so-called "holy jihad", or rather the Barbary Pirates, and the relationship between Tehran and Al Shabab.
Iran's Compass in the Horn of Africa
Due to the Horn of Africa's paramount importance to Iran's strategic thinking, Iran naturally focused on al Shabab.
In a statement to 7Dnews, Fras Elias, Iranian Affairs expert and professor of Political Science at Mosul University in Iraq, highlighted four major reasons why Iran has established firm relations with Al Shabab. First, to gain a foothold in Africa, namely Eritrea and Djibouti. Secondly, to open up new ways for investment and money laundering by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Third, to strike a strategic balance with Israel, who support Ethiopia, by offering assistance to Eritrea on the one hand, and exploiting the Eritrean Assab seaport for security purposes on the other. Fourth, Iranian maritime forces have sought to exploit the strategic Red Sea area with the aim of providing logistical support to the Houthis in the war in Yemen, while dealing a blow to international interests in the region.
Al Shabab is a tool to help Iran achieve these strategic objectives.
Barbary Pirates and Threatening International Navigation
Iran has exploited the terrorist Al Shabab movement to threaten international navigation through piracy and smuggling weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon and to the Houthis in Yemen.
Feras Elias emphasised that several UN reports on sanctions against the group since 2012 have shown that Iran is exploiting it to carry out terrorist activities in the Red Sea region. Among such activities, Elias says, is Iran's threat to international navigation in general, and to US navigation in particular, aimed at forcing the US to move some of its ships deployed in the Strait of Hormuz to the Red Sea.
The Iranian plan includes piracy, as "Iran offered full support to the piracy carried out by [Al Shabab]. Iran used the group to transport arms thorough smugglers to the Palestinian territories, namely Islamic Jihad and the Sabreen movement after Egypt closed most crossings with Gaza," says Elias.
The piracy carried out by Al Shabab reached its peak in 2011. In that year, according to the International Maritime Bureau, pirates carried out at least 237 attacks, detained 216 sailors, and seized 11 ships. The average ransoms paid amounted to 2 million dollars per ship.
Barbary Pirates and the Revolutionary Guards Exploitation
In October 2018, US experts accused al Shabab of selling coal through Iran, by shipping it to Iranian harbours with false certificates of origin, and circumventing international sanctions.
In this connection, Elias indicated that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, based on a so-called holy marine jihad ideology, is using Al Shabab as a weapon against international influence in Bab el-Mandab. Following the imposition of international sanctions on the Somali coal trade in 2012, which Al Shabab uses to finance its armed operations, Iran used many of its ships to export Somali coal to international markets under the Iranian flag. In return, Al Shabab undertakes the supply of uranium to Iran for use in its nuclear activities.
Elias adds that Al Shabab is considered a major supplier of uranium to Iran after taking control of several uranium mines in Somalia. This was revealed in a message the Somali Foreign Minister Yousef Omar sent to the US ambassador to Mogadishu, Steven Shultz. In this message, the Somali Foreign Minister clearly indicated that "al-Shabab supplies 10% of Iran's uranium needs for its nuclear programme".
Elias concluded his statements to 7Dnews, saying "Iran depends primarily on al-Shabab for transporting large amounts of arms to the Houthis in Yemen and armed Palestinian factions, which emphasises the strength of relations between the two sides".