Is a terrorist attack imminent in South Africa?

The recent US Embassy warning turns the spotlight on South Africa's vulnerability to the global threat of terrorism.

On Tuesday 8 September, the United States (US) Diplomatic Mission to South Africa issued a rare security message entitled Terrorist Threat to US Interest in South Africa. The alert warns citizens about a potential attack on US interests and facilities, and advises US citizens in the country to be vigilant and take appropriate steps to enhance personal security.

The alert came as a surprise to many South Africans and was met with mixed reactions. Some questioned the credibility of the information and the feasibility of a potential attack on the continent’s most advanced liberal democracy, which has been relatively stable since 1994. Conspiracy theories have also emerged, describing the alert as part of a strategy to destabilise South Africa and weaken its economy by creating panic.

In Washington, State Department Spokesperson John Kirby confirmed that the warning was based on ‘information indicating a potential terrorist threat’. He also praised the embassy’s action, stressing that it is ‘what we’re supposed to do. So the system worked.’

This is the first such warning for South Africa since the travel alert that the US government issued in May 2010, which warned citizens to be aware of increased terrorism risks during the World Cup. Prior to that, the US Embassy in Pretoria and its consulates around the country had closed for a number of days in September 2009. This followed a warning in which officials claimed there was a specific terror threat against US government targets in South Africa.

Terror threat warnings in South Africa have political and economic implications

None of these threats ever materialised, but their political and economic implications were felt. As a result, some South Africans have become suspicious of such warnings, which they view as a political tool.

The practice of issuing security alerts has a long history in the American government. Its systematic application, however, only began in March 2002, six months after the tragic attacks on 11 September 2001, when then president George W Bush signed the Homeland Security Presidential Directive 3, creating the Homeland Security Advisory System (HSAS).

The embassy alert was issued pursuant to a new Directive (ICD 191). Adopted in July this year, it specifically requires the intelligence community to provide warnings regarding threats of intentional killing, serious bodily injury and kidnapping. The alerts or warnings are colour coded to indicate the level of risk: green for low, blue for guarded, yellow for elevated, orange for high and red for severe or imminent risk. There are also three types of security advice: travel warning (orange), travel alert (yellow, issued for short-term security threats) and security messages (no colour code).

South Africa is not the only country to have been issued a terror alert this year. Indeed, the US government has issued more than 40 travel alerts and warnings in 2015, of which at least half are in African countries. Tanzania is the only country in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to have been subject to a travel alert. Other African countries include Tunisia, Nigeria, Algeria and Kenya. Surprisingly missing from the list are Egypt and Ethiopia. South Africa does not, in fact, appear on the US State Department’s official list of HSAS. Also interesting is that the US had to raise its own security status to ‘elevated,’ which calls for global caution.

South Africa can deal with any potential terror threat if it fully utilised its resources

Terrorist attacks on US interests in South Africa are not uncommon. In the post-apartheid era, a number of incidents alleged to have been carried out by PAGAD (People Against Gangsterism and Drugs) towards the end of the 1990s raised some red flags. These include a bomb blast at the Planet Hollywood in Cape Town; a blast at a Wynberg synagogue in 1998; a petrol bomb attack at a Kentucky Fried Chicken branch in Athlone in 1999 and a pipe bomb planted (which was defused) outside the New York Bagels and Sitdown in Seapoint in 2000.

Other attacks were also carried out against South African targets frequented by Americans, including restaurants and nightclubs. Since the saga of the so-called ‘Muizenberg cell,’ and the alleged confession of Feroze Abubaker Ganchi and Zubair Ismail of alleged plots to attack sites like the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, Union Buildings, Sheraton Hotel and US Embassy in Pretoria in 2004, South Africa has not faced any serious terrorist threat domestically.

This does not, however, mean that the country is immune from the threat of terrorism, and the US Embassy warning should be taken seriously. The global threat of terrorism is always high around the anniversary of the 11 September attacks, given that terrorist groups might also ‘commemorate’ the attacks. This happened in 2012, in Libya, where a US ambassador was killed along with three other US citizens in an attack at the embassy in Tripoli.

The threat is also heightened by the ongoing international efforts to defeat the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and other terrorist groups that have vied to attack the US and its interests anywhere in the world. Some of these groups are believed to have used South Africa as a safe haven. Al-Shabaab has been associated with South Africa in a number of ways, including through the infamous ‘White Widow’ (Samantha Lewthwaite), who reportedly resided in a Johannesburg suburb for at least two years.

Some members of these groups may also be carrying South African passports, which give them easy access to the country. A reported increase in the number of South Africans being recruited to join the Islamic State also points to the growing radicalisation of some youths. It also lends credence to intelligence reports that terrorists are trying to establish sleeper cells in South Africa and elsewhere in the region.

Continuing corruption could hamper South Africa’s efforts to deal decisively with terrorism

Whether South Africa faces an immediate terrorist threat beyond the perceived global menace is not clear, and the US security message did not provide detailed information.

Responding to the security message, the South African Minister of State Security, David Mahlobo called for calm and cautioned people not to panic. He indicated that based on his department’s assessment, ‘there’s no imminent threat that we can confirm that can befall anyone who is actually residing in the Republic.’

Barely a week following the alert, a commuter bus was petrol-bombed in Cape Town, killing two people and injuring 32 others. Although authorities are investigating it as a murder and attempted murder case, the incident raises more questions about South Africa’s vulnerability to terrorism.

While there is no cause for overreaction, there is also no harm being especially vigilant and security conscious, as recommended in the alert. Security agencies should be extra alert and do more to protect the country – particularly vulnerable sites such as malls, restaurants and other social and public places. There is also a need for increased collaboration among the intelligence agencies of the two countries, and for an institutional mechanism to manage such alerts, which are likely to be more frequent in the future.

The South African government is capable of dealing with any potential threat of terrorism if it were to fully utilise its resources. Reports about continuing corruption and the politics surrounding the fight against terrorism could, however, hamper efforts to decisively deal with terrorism.

The government must intensify its counter-terrorism actions, which may include putting in place rapid reaction capabilities and augmenting border control and surveillance. It should also prioritise the implementation of the 2004 Protection of Constitutional Democracy against Terrorism and Related Activities Act and other relevant legislation by investigating and prosecuting offenders.

This should include recruits travelling to join, train or provide any form of support to any terrorist group. The government may also consider strengthening regional cooperation on counter-terrorism. And finally, the SADC Special Forces for counter-terrorism should be elevated to function like the African Union’s Nouakchott Process.

Martin Ewi, Senior Researcher and Willem Els, Senior Training Coordinator, Transnational Threats and International Crime Division, ISS Pretoria

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