On Sunday, May 24, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said in an interview to the ABC network that “he worries about Iran and what U.S. intelligence agencies don't know about the Tehran government.”
It was the first time that America's top army officer had publicly admitted that the US and its military do not have the intelligence they need for dealing with Iran. Mullen's unusually candid admission came in the context of his forecast that Iran would have nuclear weapons as soon as 2010 or 2011. It may therefore be assumed that the American Chief of Staff's concern about the insufficiency of US intelligence applied to Iran's nuclear program.
But DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources report that Mullen had another troubling concern on his mind, aside from Iran's proximity to a nuclear capability: US naval and military intelligence appear to have missed a stealthy Iranian grab of a strategic foothold in the Indian Ocean earlier this month. The Iranian navy managed to drop anchor on the Comoros Islands unnoticed by using the cover of the international armada assembled for combating Somali piracy in the Gulf of Aden.
This base gives Tehran command over the main US and international military and commercial maritime routes to and from the Far East and Africa, the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea – its second world maritime chokepoint on top of the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf.
Three of four islands, Njadzidja, Nzwali and Mwali, form the Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoros. The fourth is governed by France. Located in the Indian Ocean, roughly 670 kilometers south east of Tanzania and
322 kilometers north of Madagascar, the four islands comprise an area of 2,550 square kilometers and have a population of 950,000. Its inhabitants are predominantly Sunni Muslims. While the official languages are French and Arabic, the majority speak Comoran, a blend of Arabic and Swahili.
Creeping up on US intelligence
Admiral Mullen has at least four good reasons to be disturbed by the intelligence drought surrounding Tehran's move:
1. Unbeknownst to the US Joint Chiefs of Staff intelligence unit and Fifth fleet HQ in Bahrain, the Iranian navy was able to creep up on the CTF 151 task force patrolling the Gulf of Eden off of Somalia and Kenya to fight off Somali piracy. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Admiral Mullen were sufficiently alarmed by their failure to pick up on the direction of Iranian warships moving under their noses to launch an inquiry into this serious security and intelligence lapse.
2. The establishment of an Iranian naval facility on the Comoros was discovered by chance from information reaching Washington from a foreign leader, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's exclusive intelligence sources.
In early May, the United States expressed serious concern about Eritrea's reported arms supplies to the radical Somali al-Shabaab militia fighting to overthrow the Mogadishu government.
On May 15, US president Barack Obama said: “We're extremely concerned about reports, and they seemed to be fairly serious and credible reports, that [Somalian insurgent group] al-Shabaab does have amongst its fighters a number of individuals of south Asian and Chechnyan origin. He was speaking to his most senior Africa official, Jonnie Carson.
Eritrean president drops nugget
The Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki in a public rejoinder disputed Washington's charge. He accused the Americans of picking on him because of his friendly relations with Tehran and certain Latin American regimes, such as Venezuela and Cuba.
Not content with this verbal shot, the African leader resorted to a heavy gun – albeit discreetly: He put together an intelligence report uncovering the dismal security plight – not only of Somalia but the rest of the Horn of Africa too – and mailed it through African intelligence channels to the National Security Council in the White House.
The Afwerki report's centerpiece was an account of how Iran duped the US and the other Western navies combating piracy by using them to disguise the smuggling of weapons to radical Somali militias led by al-Shabaab. This was meant to clear Eritrea of the US charge.
But in an incidental aside, he disclosed that Tehran had used the same cover to establish a clandestine base with permanent staff in the harbor of Moroni, capital of the Comoros islands.
Were it not for this postscript, Washington would have remained ignorant of the Iranian station for some time.
3. Afwerki included copious data on how the base functions.
According to his report, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources have learned, Iran managed to keep its secret Indian Ocean presence under wraps – first, by ascertaining that no regular shipping traffic plied the route from the Persian Gulf to Moroni and back which might attract notice to this new destination. Second, four warships were kept permanently in the harbor, after arriving singly over the last two months.
Iranian civilian aircraft touch down on the islands every three weeks, bringing fresh crews for the warships and lifting the sailors ending their shift back to home base at Bandar Abbas. They also ferry naval and intelligence officers staffing the Iranian facility together with technical crews and spare parts for the regular maintenance of the vessels.
Backwater for some, strategic base for others
Monday, May 25, after discovering US reconnaissance planes making passes over and photographing the Iranian warships at Moroni, Tehran sent its navy commander, Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, to announce in an interview to the Iranian news agency ISNA, that six warships had been consigned to international waters, including the Gulf of Aden.
This was “an historically unprecedented move by the Iranian Navy,” he said, to indicate his country's “high military capability to confront any foreign threat against its shores.”
The admiral did not pretend their mission had anything to do with Somali pirates.
4. There are few places even in Africa as out-of-the-way, poverty-stricken and godforsaken as the Comoros Islands. Yet it has been singled out for a key role in contemporary history not once, but twice, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counter-terror sources recall.
The first time was in the nineties, when Fazul Muhammad, al Qaeda's senior commander for East Africa made the Comoros his secret hideaway and launching base for spectacular terrorist attacks on the continent.
Disguised as a poor fisherman, he settled down in the slums of Moroni in 1995, married three local women and began building up his remote home base into one of al Qaeda's main striking-points for attacking American targets in East Africa.
It was from the Comoros that Muhammad orchestrated and directed the infamous bombing attacks on the US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar as-Salaam, Tanzania of August 1998.
That was not his first venture as super-terrorist. In November 1996, he plotted the less well-known Air Ethiopia flight 961 crash in which senior US Foreign Service officials and five Israeli Aerospace industry directors were killed.
In those days, Moroni was the secret regional headquarters for al Qaeda's operations in Somalia, southern Kenya and Uganda.
Iran is commended for “counter-piracy effort”
Fourteen years later, Fazul Muhammad is still at large, having repeatedly given the slip to US undercover pursuers. This dangerous master terrorist is as active as ever as al Qaeda's commander in the Horn and East Africa. It is therefore hard to comprehend how AFRICOM, the US military arm taxed with fighting al Qaeda and other Islamist terrorists, including Iranian subversive agents operating on the continent, missed the installation of an Iranian naval base at the former home of al Qaeda headquarters.
Ironically, the International Maritime Organization (IMO)'s secretary-general, Efthimios Mitropoulos, this week praised Iran's counter-piracy efforts in Somali waters and the Gulf of Aden, calling on the Islamic Republic to extend its “commendable” support to other ships.
In a letter to Iran's ambassador to the UK and its representative to IMO Rasoul Movahhedian, he wrote that the two Iranian warships conducting maritime security operations were a “most welcome contribution” to safeguarding international waters.
Had he known the Iranian warships' true destination, he would have written a different letter.
Our intelligence experts point out that the way Iran was able to set up its secret naval facility on the Comoros shows how dangerous it is for American and Middle East counter-terror agencies to ignore backwaters such as these islands, thereby allowing hostile elements to steal in and seize them as striking points.
The next article discusses this in detail.