Iran escalated its missionary activities in Kenya following the Islamic Revolution, working to propagate Khomeinism among Kenyan Muslim communities “through media, press, educational institutions, charitable works and direct diplomatic financial support from Iran Embassy in Nairobi.” Iran operates a large cultural office in Kenya alongside its embassy which carries out programming meant to cast Iranian- style Shiism in a favorable light. Iran’s proselytization in Kenya has helped expand its Shi’a population to roughly half a million, many who are ideologically predisposed to backing Iran. A Kenyan Shi’a cleric, Morteza Morteza, commented on Iran’s ideological expansion in Kenya addressing the 5th General Assembly of Ahlul Bayt World Assembly in 2011, saying that due to the Islamic Revolution, “The number of Shi’a Muslims has sharply increased and a lot of Kenyans got familiar with this honorable school of thought.”
During the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran undertook a concerted effort to establish strategic military, commercial, and diplomatic ties with African nations in order to offset Iran’s growing isolation from the West due to its illicit nuclear program. Iran’s renewed outreach to Africa sought to strengthen Muslim allegiances and engender goodwill through offers of oil, aid, and infrastructure projects. Iran’s diplomatic and economic ties to Kenya burgeoned during this period, as Kenya sought Iranian investments. In 2009, President Ahmadinejad visited Kenya with a 100-person Iranian business delegation and agreed to extend Kenya a $16 billion line of credit for housing, dam construction, healthcare, and humanitarian assistance.
Ahmadinejad’s visit to Kenya was the first such trip for an Iranian president since 1996. The visit provided visual evidence of Iranian Shi’a ideological expansion into Kenya, as thousands of ecstatic Shi’as mobbed Ahmadinejad as he arrived in the port city of Mombasa, chanting “Allahu Akbar.” Beyond economic appeals, Ahmadinejad sought to frame Iran’s interest in Kenya, and Africa more broadly, in populist, anti- imperialist, anti-Western terms. During his visit, he called for African nations to stand up against Western powers, saying, “ Western countries have for years oppressed African states, exploited Africa’s natural resources. … The time has come for the developing countries of Asia and Africa to rise up and refuse [to accept] dictatorship.” Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric in Kenya fit into his overarching project for an Iranian-led anti-imperialist front, which was also visible in his approach to Latin America.
Kenya’s strategic location on a shipping lane east of Africa makes it an important ideological battleground between Iran and its adversaries. It is, therefore, not surprising that the Raisi administration prioritized Kenya for Raisi’s first trip to the continent. Kenya features prominently in Iran’s propaganda strategy in the Horn of Africa. For instance, the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization (ICRO), an Iranian soft-power institution within the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance tasked with spreading the revolution and disseminating Iranian culture, has a branch in Kenya, Uganda, and other African countries.
Iran’s efforts to spread its Khomeinist ideology in Africa support a broader pernicious goal of the Islamic Republic: to anchor Hezbollah and IRGC-Quds Force operatives in Africa who can carry out subversive terroristic attacks against Western and Israeli interests. Iran’s ideological expansion into Kenya bears out this strategy, as two major terrorist plots involving Iranian agents have been thwarted in recent years. In June 2012, two Iranian nationals, allegedly members of the IRGC-Quds Force, were arrested by Kenyan security forces and subsequently led the authorities to a cache of RDX, a powerful explosive, large enough to topple a tall building. Kenyan officials believed the Iranians intended to target American, British, Israeli or Saudi Arabian interests within Kenya. The officials also alleged that the advanced explosives and the men’s links to the Quds Force indicated that Iranians at the highest levels of government likely had knowledge of the plot. In December 2016, a Nairobi court charged two Iranian men and their Kenyan driver, with “facilitation of a terrorist attack” after authorities caught them filming the Israeli embassy with their mobile phones. The surveillance was conducted from a diplomatic vehicle that belonged to the Iranian embassy, indicating state involvement in the plot. In March 2019, the Supreme Court reinstated the convictions and 15-year sentences of two Iranians in a disrupted 2012 bomb plot that included scouted locations in Nairobi and Mombasa.