OPINION by Shafiq Morton
Recent reports that government had been told by the UN that 11 foreign terrorists might want to use the country as a base is nothing new. A neutral space in the “war on terror” and a gateway to the continent, South Africa’s neutrality is often seen to be the source of its vulnerability.
Accounts of Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabab, Boko Haram, the Taliban and secret training camps existing here are not strange to our ears. However, much of this has been anecdotal, with little concrete evidence.
The leaked Al-Jazeera spy tapes, which unearth that intelligence gathering is not an exact science, are a case in point. The saga of “jihadi training camps” (Islamic extremism is a MOSSAD obsession here) has been on the intelligence radar without meaningful substance since the 1990’s.
Of course, that does not mean that our SSA should smoke a cigar. In this troubled and turbulent epoch, South Africa still has to be watchful. The UN report, which informs the country of a possible scenario, is a notice of vigilance.
At the same time, we have to be honest with ourselves: a look at the past two decades reveals that we have not been exempt from the footprint of terror. In the 90’s, for instance, the Western Cape was gripped by fear when PAGAD, an anti-crime movement operating beyond the law, metamorphosed into a sinister anti-state one.
Shortly after PAGAD began to feel the weight of the courts in 1999, immigration authorities were alerted to the presence in Cape Town of Khamis Khalfan Mohamed, a suspect in the 1998 US embassy bombing in Dar us Salam. Mohamed – an alleged Al-Qaeda operative –was questioned and handed over to the FBI.
Then in 2004 police commissioner Jackie Selebi revealed that eight foreigners had been detained for planning to bomb the British QE2 luxury liner. Selebi’s claim was quickly denied.
Later in the same year, a Gauteng medical practioner, Dr Feroze Ganchi, and 20 year-old student, Zubair Ismail, were detained after a shoot-out with Pakistani security forces in Gujarat. According to their families, Ganchi and Ismail were on a hiking holiday.
Another East African Al-Qaeda suspect, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, was resident in the same house they were staying. The police seized laptops, maps, arms and explosives. Allegations that the South Africans were hatching plans to target Johannesburg were denied. They flew home as free men.
On October 31, 2005, a Pakistani national, Khalid Ahmad Rashid, was arrested in Estcourt and flown to Pakistan by a private jet. Only after numerous petitions by fiery local advocate, Zehir Omar, did details of his rendition become known.
In 2006 Rashid Rauf, a British citizen, was arrested in Pakistan with a forged South African passport. He was the mastermind of a plot to bomb trans-Atlantic flights. According to the Institute for Security Studies one of his accomplices, Mohammed Gulzar, lived in Gauteng with false South African papers before his arrest in Britain.
Some security experts suggest that it was probably Home Affairs’ corruption that became the biggest security liability to the country, its officials caught red-handed in 2002 working with foreign syndicates to issue forged identity documents – documents which ended up in the hands of Al-Qaeda operatives, including Haroon Aswat who was linked to Britain’s 7/7 bombing.
It was with South African papers (reportedly costing R60, 000) that Samantha Lewthwaite, wife of 7/7 bomber Germaine Lindsay and dubbed the “white widow”, is believed to have slipped in to East Africa. In 2012 Kenyan police issued a warrant for her arrest, saying she’d travelled on a fraudulent South African passport issued in the name of Natalie Webb.
Home Affairs confirmed that Lewthwaite had entered South Africa in 2008. Other reports say she had stayed in Mayfair, Johannesburg, for two years.
In 2007 the Imam Haroon Brigades popped-up on the website of Voice of the Cape radio station claiming credit for sabotaging Koeberg, and warning the SA government of its involvement in Somalia. Security officials raided a house in Muizenberg and discovered swimming pool chemicals under the bed of a suspect.
The 2010 World Cup was ostensibly centred more on crime than terror. Nonetheless, Free State University academic, Prof Hussein Solomon, claimed that Al-Shabab sleepers in the Somali community were preparing to target US interests during the event.
In 2013 The Daily Maverick ran a story by De Wet Potgieter entitled Al-Qaeda: Alive and Well in South Africa. His piece zeroed in on the Dockrat brothers, Farhad and Junaid, who had purportedly donated R400, 000 to the Taliban.
According to Potgieter, the Dockrat brothers had run an Al-Qaeda training camp in the Eastern Cape. It had been monitored by national intelligence, whom he suggests, were inexplicably called off the job. After inaccuracies in the story were interrogated by lawyers, The Daily Maverick pulled Potgieter’s piece off its site.
Late last year an ISIS YouTube video featured an Abu Shu’aib, professedly from South Africa, extolling ISIS’s virtues and encouraging Muslims to emigrate to its neo-Islamic state.
Recently, it was discovered by Simon Allison from The Daily Maverick that an 18 year-old South African, Abu Hurayra al-Afriki, was fighting with ISIS. Abu Hurayra (an assumed name) is said to be of Indian origin from Gauteng. He claims that another South African, Abu Bara, is also in ISIS’s ranks.
Added to the above, Media24 has broken a story that a Port Elizabeth family sold off their house to join ISIS. And whilst this is cause for concern – ISIS is a “one-way” ticket – this has to be measured against Tunisia (3,000 fighters) and France (over 1,000) amongst the 25,000 or so foreign fighters with ISIS.
Former SABC Head of Religious Broadcasting, Muhammad Nur Nordien, is right when he says that South Africa’s Muslim community – whose leadership has condemned ISIS out of hand – is not homogenous, and that a handful of individuals out of about 2 million, is a very small, if not unrepresentative, number.
In conclusion, whilst there is an obvious need for watchfulness, it could be said that Al-Qaeda and ISIS are not banging at our gates. The only instances of terror on South African soil since the 1990’s have all been indigenous – either from rabid right wingers or from PAGAD, who were put on the US’s terror list in 2001.
Shafiq Morton is the anchor of VOC’s Drivetime show. He is the author of three books: Notebooks from Makkah and Madinah; Surfing Behind the Wall, My Palestinian Story; Imtiaz Sooliman and the Gift of the Givers, A Mercy to All. His work has been in published in the Cape Argus, Al-Jazeera, Muslim Views, Al-Qalam and the Palestine Chronicle.