Will the Westgate terror attack be a wake-up call for South Africa?

Suggested links between Islamist terror groups and South Africa are not new but local security services don't appear to take the threat seriously.

University of Free State political scientist Hussein Solomon, himself a Muslim, is reviled by more extreme members of his faith because of his warnings about the threat posed to South Africa by radical, militant Islamists and because of his criticism of large chunks of the local Muslim community for demonstrating ‘an implicit acceptance of jihadi discourse’.

Intolerance, hatred and intimidation against moderate Muslims like him have increased, he claims, in his latest online book Jihad: a South African perspective. Solomon describes how anonymous callers threatened his life and those of his children when he organised a conference on Islam in the 21st century. ‘Discussion, dialogue and open debate are anathema to these Islamo-fascists’, he comments.

He was shocked when a local Muslim radio station interviewer once told him on air that death threats against him were understandable because he had once hosted an adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas – leader of the modest Fatah party – instead of the more extreme Hamas.

Apart from explicating such attitudes, Solomon says his second reason for writing his book is to warn that South African security services are not taking ‘the peril of Islamist terrorism seriously’.

‘Speak to a South African securocrat on the need for vigilance against any Islamist terror threat and you will most likely be scoffed at. This was my experience in my numerous interactions with our security establishment. The Islamist terrorist threat is either an American creation or alternatively it does exist but it is exclusively directed against Western and Israeli interests. After all, we South Africans have not invaded Afghanistan and Iraq; nor have we occupied Palestinian land’. Implicit in this position, explains Solomon, is the twin assumptions that legitimate grievances are driving Islamist rage and that we in South Africa are somehow insulated from terrorism on account of our opposition to the invasion of Iraq or our support of the Palestinian cause. ‘Sadly, these assumptions are fallacious in the extreme’, he adds.

‘Legitimate grievances might well be exacerbating Islamist rage; however; it is certainly not the catalyst for it. Rather, Islamist terrorism is motivated by a worldview which expounds the position of world domination through the violent seizure of governments and the establishment of an autocratic state where dissent, political opposition and the proverbial other does not exist’.

Solomon is regarded as bright though occasionally rather cavalier by the mainstream academic community studying the same topics. His warnings about alleged jihadi training camps in South Africa, in particular, have been treated with some scepticism. But many of his peers nonetheless mostly accept his basic assumption that South Africa is inadvertently providing a safe haven for members of organisations like al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab to conduct other activities.

This week Solomon’s local enemies accused him once again of raising false alarms about possible threats to South Africa, in his comments on the Nairobi Westgate shopping mall terror attack. One of his critics suggested he had a bad record, recalling his warnings about a threat to the World Cup in 2010. Yet those were no false alarms even if they did not materialise. The United States (US) closed its embassy in Pretoria and all its other missions in South Africa for several days late in 2009 because of an undisclosed security threat. South African intelligence sources said then that they had intercepted messages from a Somali expatriate in South Africa to al-Shabaab in Somalia, discussing possible attacks on US diplomatic installations. And the security sources acknowledged possible linked threats to World Cup events a few months later.

Reports this week about the alleged South African connections of the so-called ‘white widow’ Samantha Lewthwaite, have added credence to these concerns. Lewthwaite, who was married to one of the ‘7/7’ London suicide bombers and had since joined al-Shabaab, was reported as having been involved in the Westgate attack. She is also reported to have been travelling on a fraudulently-acquired South African passport under the name Natalie Faye Webb – a photograph of which was released by Kenyan authorities in 2011 – and to have lived in Mayfair, Johannesburg for some time recently.

Perhaps none of this will be confirmed. But it came as no surprise to Anneli Botha, terrorism expert and senior researcher with the Transnational Threats and International Crime division at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria. She said that during her recent research in East Africa on al-Shabaab, she interviewed former al-Shabaab members or current members in prison who had given similar accounts. ‘One former member admitted that he had spent two years in South Africa after being trained in Somalia. He said he had obtained a South African passport and a lot of ideological training from a few local extremist mullahs’.

Botha said she believed there was a ‘tremendous threat brewing’ in South Africa, not so much as a direct target of Islamist terror itself but as a ‘very active role player’. The real threat was not of attacks such as that at Westgate because South Africa, unlike Kenya, does not have troops fighting al-Shabaab in Somalia. But she believed the likes of al-Shabaab would have no compunction about attacking a Western target in South Africa such as an embassy – as its ally al-Qaeda bombed the US embassy in Nairobi in 1998 – regardless of the consequences for South Africans who might be caught in the crossfire.

Botha said the police and other security agencies she spoke to in East Africa were greatly concerned that their South African counterparts were not taking the threat of terrorism seriously and were too inclined to dismiss such threats as US-inspired propaganda. ‘They told me: “We hope you don’t wake up the way we woke up”’.

Botha said al-Shabaab recognised no loyalty to anyone but its own cause and would strike wherever it could do the most damage to its perceived enemies. ‘If it is possible for anything good to come out of the Westgate attack, it will be to get South Africa out of its comfort zone; to get our heads out of the sand,’ she said.

Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa

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