Nigeria Breaks Up Terrorist Plot Against U.S., Israeli Targets

ABUJA (Reuters) -

Nigeria’s secret service says it has arrested a “terrorist cell” trained in Iran who planned to attack U.S. and Israeli targets in Africa’s most populous nation.

The State Security Service (SSS) said it arrested Abdullahi Mustapha Berende and two other Nigerians in December after Berende made several suspicious trips to Iran, where he interacted with Iranians in a “high-profile terrorist network.”

“His Iranian sponsors requested that he identify and gather intelligence on public places and prominent hotels frequented by Americans and Israelis to facilitate attacks,” SSS spokeswoman Marilyn Ogar said in a statement.

Ogar said Berende sent his Iranian partners photos of the Israeli cultural center in Lagos and told them that they should attack former military ruler Ibrahim Babangida and Islamic spiritual leader the Sultan of Sokoto to “unsettle the West.”

“There is conclusive evidence that Berende [and] his Iranian handlers were involved in grievous crimes against the national security of this country.”

Iran has yet to respond to the allegations.

Berende, who will now be charged in court, admitted to reporters on Wednesday that he spied for Iranian counterparts.

“As for surveillance, that one is true… It is a regrettable phenomenon,” he said as he was paraded by the SSS in their Abuja offices.

He received $30,000 to carry out operations, the SSS said.

This is not the first diplomatic incident between Nigeria and Iran. An Iranian diplomat was arrested in 2004 on suspicion of spying on the Israeli Embassy in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, Israeli sources said. Iran denied any arrest.

In 2010, authorities at a Lagos port found a hidden shipment of artillery rockets, rifle rounds and other weapons from Iran. The shipment was allegedly bound for Gambia. A Nigerian and an Iranian face criminal charges over the shipment.

Nigeria’s population of 160 million is split roughly equally between a mostly Muslim north and a largely Christian south.

Islamist groups in the north have become the biggest threat to stability in Africa’s top oil producer. Western governments are increasingly concerned that they are linking up with extremists outside Nigeria, including al-Qaida’s north African wing.