The Safari Club was an alliance of intelligence services formed in 1976 that ran covert operations around Africa at a time when the United States Congress had clipped the CIA’s wings over years of abuses.
Its formal members were Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and France. The group maintained informal connections with the United States. The group executed a successful military intervention in Zaire in response to an invasion from Angola. It also provided arms to Somalia in its 1977–1978 conflict with Ethiopia. It organized secret diplomacy relating to anti-Communism in Africa, and has been credited with initiating the process resulting in the 1979 Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty.
Alexandre de Marenches initiated the pact with messages to the four other countries—and to newly independent Algeria, which declined to participate.
The original charter was signed in 1976 by leaders and intelligence directors from the five countries:
- Alexandre de Marenches, of le Service de Documentation Extérieure et de Contre-Espionnage, France’s external intelligence agency
- Kamal Adham of Saudi Arabia’s Al Mukhabarat Al A’amah
- The Egyptian Director of Intelligence
- Ahmed Dlimi, Moroccan Director of Intelligence and commander of the Moroccan Army.
- General Nematollah Nassiri of Iran’s SAVAK
The charter begins: “Recent events in Angola and other parts of Africa have demonstrated the continent’s role as a theatre for revolutionary wars prompted and conducted by the Soviet Union, which utilizes individuals or organizations sympathetic to, or controlled by, Marxist ideology.”
The group’s purpose was therefore to oppose Soviet influence by supporting anti-Communists. The charter also says that the group intends to be “global in conception”. Its formation has been attributed to interlocking interests of the countries involved (which were already cooperating to some degree). Alongside ideological pursuit of global anti-Communism, these included the more concrete goals of military strategy and economic interests. (Examples include international mining operations and investments in apartheid South Africa’s Transvaal Development Company.)
The Safari Club takes its name (reportedly de Marenches’ idea) after the resort in Kenya where the group first met in 1976. The club was operated by Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi—also a friend of Adham’s.
The original charter establishes that an operations centre would be built by 1 September 1976 in Cairo. The group made its headquarters there, and its organization included a secretariat, a planning wing, and an operations wing. Meetings were also held in Saudi Arabia and in Egypt. The group made large purchases of real estate and secure communications equipment.
The creation of the Safari Club coincided with the consolidation of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI). The BCCI served to launder money, particularly for Saudi Arabia and the United States—whose CIA director in 1976, George H. W. Bush, had a personal account.
BCCI also served as an intelligence gathering mechanism by virtue of its extensive contacts with underground organizations worldwide.
The group used an informal division of labor in conducting its global operations. Saudi Arabia provided money, France provided high-end technology, and Egypt and Morocco supplied weapons and troops. The group typically coordinated with American and Israeli intelligence agencies.
Shaba I airlift
The group’s first action came in March–April 1977, in response to the Shaba I conflict in the Congo. The Club came to the aid of Zaire—led by the Western-backed and anti-Communist Mobutu—in repelling an invasion by the Front for the National Liberation of the Congo (FNLC). France airlifted Moroccan and Egyptian troops into Shaba province and successfully repelled the attackers. Belgium and the United States also provided material support. The Shaba conflict served as a front in the Angolan Civil War and also helped to defend French and Belgian mining in the Congo.
The Safari Club ultimately provided $5 million USD in assistance for Jonas Savimbi’s National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).
Egypt–Israel peace talks
The group helped to mediate talks between Egypt and Israel, leading to Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977, the Camp David Accords in 1978, and the Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty in 1979. This process began with a Moroccan member of the Safari Club personally transporting a letter from Yitzhak Rabin to Sadat (and reportedly warning him of a Libyan assassination plot); this message was followed by secret talks in Morocco—supervised by King Hassan II—with Israeli general Moshe Dayan, Mossad director Yitzhak Hofi and Egyptian intelligence agent Hassan Tuhami. Immediately after CIA Director Stansfield Turner told an Israeli delegation that the CIA would no longer provide special favors to Israel, Shackley (who remained active in the Safari Club) contacted Mossad and presented himself as their CIA contact.
Ethiopia and Somalia
The Safari Club backed Somalia in the 1977–1978 Ethio-Somali War after Cuba and the USSR sided with Ethiopia. This conflict erupted when Somalia attempted to gain control over the (ethnically Somali) Ogaden region of Ethiopia. Prior to the war, the USSR had supported both states militarily. After failing to negotiate a ceasefire, the USSR intervened to defend Ethiopia. The Soviet-backed Ethiopian forces—supported by more than ten thousand troops from Cuba, more than one thousand military advisors, and about $1 billion worth of Soviet armaments—defeated the Somali army and threatened a counter-attack. The Safari Club approached Somalian leader Siad Barre and offered arms in exchange for repudiating the Soviet Union. Barre agreed, and Saudi Arabia paid Egypt $75 million for its older Soviet weapons. Iran supplied old weapons (reportedly including M-48 tanks) from the U.S.
The events of Somalia brought unique divergence between the official policies of the U.S. and the Safari Club. Carter, perturbed by Somalia’s unexpected aggressiveness, decided against publicly backing Somalia, and the shah of Iran was forced to deliver the message from Carter that “You Somalis are threatening to upset the balance of world power.” But On 22 August 1980, Carter’s Department of State announced a broad plan for military development in Somalia, including construction of a base as well as economic and military aid to the Somalian army. This policy would continue into the Reagan administration.
The group could not continue as it was when the 1978–1979 Iranian Revolution neutralized the Shah as an ally. However, arrangements between the remaining powers continued on the same course. William Casey, Ronald Reagan’s campaign manager, succeeded Turner as director of the CIA. Casey took personal responsibility for maintaining contacts with Saudi intelligence, meeting monthly with Kamal Adham and then Prince Turki. Some of the same actors were later connected to the Iran–Contra affair.
The existence of the Safari Club was discovered by the Egyptian journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, who was permitted to review documents confiscated during Revolution.
Safari Club members, the BCCI, and the United States cooperated in arming and funding the Afghan mujahideen to oppose the Soviet Union. The core of this plan was an agreement between the United States and Saudi Arabia to match each other in funding Afghan resistance to the USSR. Like military support for Somalia, this policy began in 1980 and continued into the Reagan administration.