Abuja — Three persons, including the leader of an Islamic sect based in Ilorin, Kwara State, are in the custody of the Department of State Security Services (SSS) over a plot to assassinate former military president, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida.
Other targets of the group included a former Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Ibrahim Dasuki, who is the father of the National Security Adviser (NSA), Col. Sambo Dasuki (rtd), as well as American and Israelis targets in Nigeria.
The leader of the group, Abdullahi Mustapha Berende, and two others were paraded yesterday in Abuja by the SSS. The fourth member of the group is on the run.
The Islamic leader, along with three of his accomplices, were said to be collaborating with some unnamed Iranians, known to be operating a high profile international terrorist network, to carry out the killings.
Berende relocated from Ilorin to Lagos and planned to expand his tentacles to other South-west states.
The suspects were also said to have been plotting against and spying on Americans, Israelis and some other Western countries' interests in the country and had plotted to attack such facilities.
THISDAY gathered that the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Olugbenga Ashiru, yesterday summoned the Iranian Ambassador to Nigeria, Saeed Koozechi, over the allegation that his country is involved in espionage in Nigeria.
Briefing reporters on the arrest of the suspects, SSS Deputy Director (Public Relations), Mrs. Marilyn Ogar, explained that for six months, the service had been on the trail of the group to determine their probable course of action and to stop them from executing their plans.
According to Ogar, "It was observed that Berende was a local leader of the Shiite sect in Ilorin and was observed to have made several suspicious trips to and from Iran where he interacted with some Iranian elements known to operate a high profile international terrorist network.
"In the course of interrogation, Berende confessed that in 2006, he gained admission to study a six-month course in Modern Shi'a Islamic Teaching (Da'awa) at Imam Khomeni University, Iran.
"He was recruited by some Iranian elements when he returned to Iran for further studies in 2011 and was subsequently trained on the use of AK-47 assault rifle, pistols, production and detonation of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).
"After he returned to Nigeria, he was invited by his handlers to Dubai for further briefing in April 2012 and was tasked to establish a terrorist cell in the South-western part of Nigeria with a particular emphasis on Lagos.
"His Iranian sponsors requested that he identifies and gathers intelligence on public and prominent hotels frequented by Americans and Israelis to facilitate attacks. He was also to provide specific details on the following targets: USAID, Max, Zim Intercontinental Shipping Company, A. A. Consulting, Peace Corps and Jewish Cultural Centre (Chabad) in Lagos.
"He was tasked to provide the names of prominent Nigerians who if attacked could unsettle the West and he gave the names of Ibrahim Babangida and Ibrahim Dasuki as targets of attack to his Iranian handlers."
Ogar further disclosed that Lagos was chosen as the preferred base because "the sponsors believed that the Israelis have an intelligence facility there that is used in spying on Iran and his lieutenants (Sulaiman Olayinka Saka and Saheed Aderemi Adewumi as well as Bunyamin Yusuf, who is at large) have successfully conducted surveillance and gathered relevant data on the above mentioned targets preparatory to possible attacks".
She added that Berende had taken photographs of the Israeli Cultural Centre in Ikoyi, Lagos that he had sent to his handlers and was given $24,000 and 3,500 euro to facilitate his trips to Iran, establish petty business, which would serve as decoy, and to relocate his family from Ilorin to Lagos.
Berende, who looked forlorn and moody when he was brought before press men, admitted having carried out the acts, but pleaded for forgiveness and leniency.
He said: "I regret what happened. It is embarrassing to everyone around me and me. I still plead for forgiveness; the whole nation and my family should forgive me and I really regret my actions. When people who are not known to you display friendship, one should be careful because you may not know the person's motives. There are people out there hunting for people to exploit and use to achieve their objectives. I regret that despite my academic background, I still fell prey to this kind of thing."
A source said yesterday that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the Iranian ambassador to respond to allegations that his country was carrying out espionage activities in Nigeria.
It was learnt that Ashiru, at the meeting with Koozechi, registered Nigeria's strong displeasure about the activities of some Iranians involved in espionage activities in the country.
"Some Iranians are involved in espionage here, they are using some Nigerians and Iran is supposed to be a friendly country, so what is happening? The Ambassador was invited, that we can confirm," the source said.
He added that although the ministry was not aware of the existence of the list of Iranian targets in Nigeria, it was not assuming that the list did not exist.