Since the bombings by People against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD) in Cape Town in the late 1990s, there has not been a serious terror attack in South Africa. Yet links continue to be found between South Africa and international terrorism. In June the US embassy in South Africa alerted its citizens in the country to possible terror attacks, and the UK and Australia similarly revised their travel alerts. How real is the threat?
Evidence suggests that South Africa has been used as a transit point for terrorists, and as a base for planning, training and financing terror operations. But perhaps the bigger problem is government communication in response to the allegations and mounting evidence. Rather than shedding light and inspiring confidence, the official line has fostered distrust and uncertainty.
What we do know is that South Africa has a long history when it comes to violent extremism.
In 1999, Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, a Tanzanian trained by al-Qaeda, was arrested in Cape Town for his role in the US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. He escaped detection by South African law enforcement for over a year before his arrest and hand-over to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation in a covert rendition in 2001.
Similar patterns are evident in the case of the ‘White Widow’, Samantha Lewthwaite. Lewthwaite was the widow of Germaine Lindsay, one of the four terrorists responsible for the 7/7 bombings in London. She was wanted by Interpol and the Kenyan authorities for links to al-Qaeda and her alleged role in planning a grenade attack on a bar in Mombasa in 2012. Between 2008 and 2010, she lived and worked in South Africa using a false South African passport.
Fake South African passports have been found in the possession of other al-Qaeda members. When Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, leader of al-Qaeda’s East African branch was killed in Somalia in 2011, he was carrying a South African passport. During the same period, boxes of authentic South African passports were discovered in a raid in the UK.
The production and use of fake passports could only have been facilitated by corruption – something extremists took easy advantage of.
There have been numerous reports of al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab members travelling through South Africa and these cases raise concerns about the country being used as a thoroughfare and safe haven for extremists to hide out or plan operations. Ibrahim Tantouche and Henry Okah, for example, lived in the country for many years.
Henry Okah, the alleged leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, lived on and off in South Africa from 2003 and reportedly coordinated attacks in Nigeria from South Africa. In 2010, he was arrested in Johannesburg and convicted three years later on 13 charges of terrorism.
Several factors make South Africa an ideal setting for planning operations. Corruption and organised crime can be used to facilitate violent extremism, as seen with the use of fake South African passports. The large number of illegal migrants also raises questions around border control and the ability of security forces to track those operating in the country.
Advanced communications networks and financial institutions are also useful for planning operations. There have been various allegations of terrorist financiers operating in the country. In 2007, cousins Farhad and Junaid Dockrat were put on the US Treasury department’s sanctions list for allegedly financing and facilitating South Africans travelling to Afghanistan to train with al-Qaeda.
The subject of terrorist training camps in the country has also arisen. In 2007 Nazier Desai and cleric Ahmed Sadek Desai were accused, respectively, of running and financing a training camp outside Port Elizabeth. Head of the National Intelligence Coordinating Committee at the time, Barry Gilder, conceded that there could be training camps operating in South Africa.
South Africa clearly has many links to international terrorism, but the extent of domestic radicalisation and violent extremism in the country is less clear and must be carefully monitored.
Government responses to reports of training camps and terrorist financing have provided little clarity. Further, some matters have been dealt with in secret, like the alleged extraordinary rendition of suspected Taliban member Khalid Rashid who went missing from South Africa in 2005. In a subsequent court decision, Rashid’s disappearance and deportation to Pakistan was declared illegal.
The unlawfulness and secrecy of events such as this have created distrust and uncertainty around the threat of violent extremism in South Africa. The lack of communication from government and the manner with which known cases have been dealt with, have left many unanswered questions that fuel fears about the risk South Africa faces from extremism. It has also led to some questioning – whether warranted or not – government’s ability and commitment to addressing the problem.
Other South Africans are in denial, interpreting the lack of information from government as implying that no threat exists. The public spat in June this year between Department of International Relations spokesperson Clayson Monyela and US Ambassador Patrick Gaspard over a terror alert issued by the US epitomised the extent to which the threat in South Africa is disputed, and fueled scepticism on both sides.
What is clear is that radicalisation is occurring in South Africa, as reports of citizens leaving for Syria to fight for the Islamic State show. The recent accusations against the Patels and Thulsies have fuelled these concerns. The extent of the threat, however, remains murky. What can be agreed on is that more transparency and better communication from government is necessary.
Albertus Schoeman, Consultant, Transnational Threats and International Crime Division, ISS Pretoria