The State Security Service (SSS) yesterday said it has smashed a spy linked to an Iranian-backed terror group which was working on plans to assassinate former military president retired General Ibrahim Babangida and former Sultan of Sokoto Alhaji Ibrahim Dasuki and attack American and Israeli interests and nationals in Lagos.
Marilyn Ogar, Deputy Director, Public Relations of the SSS, said while parading those connected with the allegation in Abuja yesterday that three arrests had already been made including that of 50 year-old Abdullahi Mustapha Berende of Ilorin in Kwara State who is the group's contact person in Nigeria.
Others paraded alongside Berende are Sulaiman Olayinka Saka and Saheed Aderemi Adewumi while Bunyamin Yusuf, also linked to the group, is still at large.
SSS said it had extracted information from Berende that General Babangida and Sultan Dasuki were made targets because attacking them 'could unsettle the West'.
The spokesperson Ogar said Berende, a local leader of the Shiite sect in Ilorin, was observed to have made several suspicious trips to and from Iran where he interacted with some Iranian collaborators known to operate high profile international terror network.
According to her, Berende, a former student of Imam Khomeni University in Iran, obtained and supplied intelligence to the network on the potential targets including the USAID, the Jewish Cultural Centre in Lagos, General Babangida and Alhaji Dasuki.
However, she said Berende was tracked and arrested. Ogar said the leader of the group travelled to Iran, received weapons training and was later assigned to grow a terrorist network in Nigeria.
She offered no details about the Iranians who backed the group or its name, or how deep the group's plans had gone, but an Iranian Embassy official, Abbas Faraji, told Daily Trust in Abuja yesterday that the development was a mere allegation as the embassy was not aware of any involvement of its country on any such terror spy network or its accomplices.
Faraji said several of such allegations could surface at one point or the other but that Iran does not have any hand in any such plan as far as the embassy was concerned. He added that the embassy makes representations on current developments concerning relations between Nigeria and Iran to the Nigerian Foreign Affairs Ministry but that such recent representation does not include aspects of any Iranian spy network or accomplice in Nigeria.
But Ogar, while parading Berende and others yesterday said: "As a result of painstaking investigation which lasted for six months, this Service arrested one Abdullahi Mustapha Berende, an indigene of Ilorin Kwara state on December 17, 2012 for his active involvement in espionage and terrorist activities".
She added that in the course of interrogation, Berende confessed that in 2006 he gained admission to study six months course in modern Shi'a Islamic Teaching (Da'awa) at Imam Khomeni University Iran and that he was recruited by some Iranians 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.
Ogar said Berende further confessed that after his return to Nigeria, he was invited by his sponsors to Dubai for further briefing in April 2012 and was tasked to establish a terrorist cell in South-Western Nigeria with particular emphasis on Lagos.
She said in his bid to establish the network, Berende recruited Sulaiman Olayinka Saka, Saheed Aderemi Adewumi, both of whom have been arrested and Bunyamin Yusuf, who is still on the run. She said his Iranian sponsors requested that he identifies and gathers intelligence on public places and prominent hotels frequented by Americans and Israelis to facilitate attacks and also to provide specific details on USAID, Max, Zim International Shipping Company, A.A Consulting, Peace Corps and the Jewish Cultural Centre (Chabad) in Lagos.
When tasked to provide names of prominent Nigerians who if attacked could unsettle the West, he gave the names of former military president Ibrahim Babangida and former Sultan of Sokoto Ibrahim Dasuki as targets of attack, the SSS said.
His Iranian handlers then directed him to secure their communication by using codes to represent the targets such as 'Uncle" (Israel) and "Aunt" (America)
Ogar said it was gathered that Lagos was the preferred spy centre because his sponsors believed that Israelis have an intelligence facility there that is used in spying on Iran so his lieutenants successfully conducted surveillance and gathered relevant data on the mentioned targets preparatory to possible attacks.
She said Berende personally took photographs of the Israeli Cultural Centre in Ikoyi, Lagos which he sent to his sponsors and was asked to establish a small business for undercover activities.
$USD 4,000 was paid to him upon completion of his training, 3, 500 Euros was paid in April, 2012 at the meeting in Dubai and $20,000 was also paid out of which he was to use $10,000 to relocate to Lagos, furnish his house and rent a shop for his business. $5,000 was to cover visa processing expenses while the remaining $5,000 was for his up-keep, the SSS spokesperson added.
It said the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) was incorporated into the investigation with a view to tracing the Iranian terror network, adding that the suspects would be charged to court after investigation.
Berende in his comment while being paraded said he regretted being lured into the network and that he still "loves Nigeria." He confessed using his "students" to obtain information about some Nigerians and institutions which was later forwarded to Iran.
"But I still held information on Nigerians in my e-mail address after realizing that I could not forward it to them", he said.
He said he intended to start a mobile telephone and Cocoa business ventures in Lagos. An accomplice, Sulaiman, said he got information about some prominent Nigerians after surveillance based on Berende's instruction.