" Tehran's reach now extends into Hezbollah communities in West Africa, and it seeks to duplicate there what it did in Lebanon," said a U.S. official who has been monitoring the trend. Cells of the pro-Iranian Hezbollah, or Party of God, have been linked to a series of suicide bombings, hostage abductions and other terrorist activities in Lebanon since 1982.
Spanish police said that 10 people were arrested. They are suspected of plotting to attack U.S. and other Western targets in Europe. Some carried Lebanese passports.
In West and Central Africa, the list of countries where Hezbollah is now active includes four with strong and longstanding relations with the West-- Ivory Coast, Senegal, Gabon and Zaire. Western intelligence officials also suspect that there are cells in other African countries.
The cells have taken root mainly among the tens of thousands of Shiite Lebanese emigres working in Africa, U.S. and French officials have said in interviews over the last three years.
France discovered the network when Paris briefly mediated through a Shiite Lebanese sheik based in West Africa while trying to win freedom for its hostages in Lebanon. But the depth of Hezbollah's penetration in the region was not uncovered until after a bomb exploded in September aboard a French airliner as it was flying over Niger. The blast brought down UTA Flight 772, killing 171 people. French intelligence authorities now suspect that cells of pro-Iranian Shiite extremists played "a prominent role" in the bombing.
In recent months, the French have uncovered a series of security breaches at their embassies in Guinea, Gabon, Senegal and Tunisia involving the sale of passports and intelligence cables to Hezbollah cells.
The most serious breach occurred in Conakry, Guinea, where a French consular official provided 100 French identity cards and 60 French passports to a Shiite cell. The scheme was uncovered after a Lebanese carrying one of the French passports blew himself up with a homemade bomb in London last summer, according to French envoys in West Africa.
In Dakar, Senegal, a French Embassy employee was caught providing French identity cards to another group of Lebanese. In Brazzaville, Gabon, where UTA Flight 772 originated, the security breach involved the theft of French diplomatic cables.
Most of the French Embassy employees involved were contract workers who had served in Beirut or had Lebanese connections, according to French officials. Several have been arrested.
In addition to the French Embassy incidents, an arms cache linked to a Hezbollah cell was uncovered in Ivory Coast last year.
"We don't believe the cells are being created to destabilize the countries they are in," said a French official. "But all these countries offer bases for operations against the West.
"They are in the courtyard of Europe. And security is notoriously lax in West Africa."
The French government believes that the false passports were obtained to facilitate freer passage to Europe. Both U.S. and French officials contend that the heightened security focus of Western intelligence agencies on Iran and Lebanon may have led to the creation of an alternative network for arms, personnel and access to Western targets in Third World countries not previously under suspicion.
U.S. and French officials now believe that the network has been building clandestinely since 1986. The movement reportedly centers around mosques and Shiite clerics espousing Islamic extremism to fight Western influence in the Third World as well as the Mideast.
"There has been a lot of proselytizing among Muslim communities throughout the world, including West Africa, since the Iranian revolution. In this context, the emergence of Hezbollah cells is not surprising," a U.S. counterterrorism official said.
If Lebanon should return to law and order under the new reconciliation government, he added, "then it's possible that they would shift the base of their activities to Shiite communities in West Africa. The real believers are not going to give up that easily."
The U.S. official who has been monitoring the trend added, "The groups in West Africa have their own agendas, but they are also part of a broader movement with common anti-Western goals."