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Non-Western responses to terrorism$

Michael J. Boyle

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9781526105813

Published to Manchester Scholarship Online: May 2019

DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9781526105813.001.0001

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South Africa: Understanding South Africa’s confused and ineffective response to terrorism

South Africa: Understanding South Africa’s confused and ineffective response to terrorism

18 South Africa: Understanding South Africa’s confused and ineffective response to terrorism
Non-Western responses to terrorism

Hussein Solomon

Manchester University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores why the South African government’s responses to terrorism are confused and ineffective. A significant contributing factor is that the African National Congress (ANC), which has governed the country since the end of apartheid in 1994, was a former liberation movement who themselves were labelled `terrorist’ by Ronald Reagan’s United States and Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. While in exile, the ANC had forged close ties with other similarly labelled groups and these strong bonds have endured. This historical legacy negatively impacts the formulation and implementation of current counter-terrorism policies. What the ANC government needs to understand is that the nature of the terrorist threat has radically morphed in the past few decades, from terrorist movements pursuing limited political goals to religious terrorist movements with global pretensions and absolutely no possibility of compromise.

Keywords:   South Africa, counter-terrorism, African National Congress (ANC), Al Qaeda


(p.449) That South Africa increasingly plays a key role in global terror networks, from the provision of safe houses or the acquisition of fraudulent identity documents to the raising of funds, is beyond doubt.1 Al Qaeda, the Palestinian Hamas, Lebanon’s Hizbullah and Somalia’s al Shabaab all have a presence in the country.2 The danger this poses to South Africa was evident in the September 2009 lockdown of the US embassy, its consulates and the offices of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) when a credible threat against US interests in the country was received, emanating from al Shabaab’s cell based in Cape Town.3 For instance, a 2010 National Intelligence Agency (NIA) document leaked in 2015 noted that there were jihadi training camps at Zakariyya Park in Lenasia in Gauteng Province, at a farm in Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape and in KwaZulu-Natal.4 In the 1990s, the Western Cape experienced a wave of urban terror conducted by local terror groups.5 The malevolent nature of the threat was underlined by the repeated discovery of new paramilitary training camps in South Africa,6 as new recruits were trained in the deadly arts accompanying the rise of militant Islam across the African continent. For all these reasons, an effective counterterrorism policy is essential.

If one examines the country’s legislative framework, on the face of it South Africa does have a clear and comprehensive counterterrorism strategy. The (p.450) US State Department’s June 2015 Country Reports on Terrorism argues that the South African Police Service (SAPS) Crime Intelligence Division, the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, the South African State Security Agency (SSA), the SAPS Special Task Force and the National Prosecuting Authority ‘possess the knowledge, resources, intelligence capabilities and techniques to effectively implement South Africa’s counter-terrorism legislation’.7 At the level of implementation, however, and from statements emanating from South African officials, the policy is far more ambiguous. This gap between promise and performance has resulted in South Africa’s counterterrorism strategy being rightly viewed by international partners as lacking credibility.8 This chapter briefly explores the country’s current counterterrorism policies, examines their implementation and provides reasons for the clear discrepancy between adoption and implementation.

South Africa’s rhetoric on terrorism

In the aftermath of 9/11, Pretoria immediately denounced the terror attacks on American soil, and offered Washington both humanitarian assistance and the full cooperation of its security agencies.9 The 9/11 attack, meanwhile, was one of the catalysts for South Africa to re-examine its own domestic terror laws. ‘While the world unites to condemn those dastardly acts in the United States, we have to skirt around the issue. We go around making promises to co-operate with everyone but as our law stands, we cannot deal with terrorism. We are the only country that refuses to look terrorism in the face as a unique crime,’said South Africa’s minister of safety and security in 2004, in support of specific anti-terrorism legislation.10

According to its Protection of Constitutional Democracy against Terrorist and Related Activities Act, 2004, the South African Government shall:

  • condemn all acts of terror

  • take all lawful measures to prevent acts of terror and bring to justice those involved in acts of terror

  • undertake to protect foreign citizens from acts of terror in South Africa

  • in the event of an act of terror in a foreign country and involving a South African citizen, cooperate with the host government to resolve the matter

  • not make concessions that would encourage extortion by terrorists

  • not allow its territory to be used as a haven to plan, direct or support acts of terror

  • (p.451) • support and cooperate with the international community in their efforts to prevent and combat acts of terror

  • use all appropriate measures to combat terrorism

  • support its citizens who are victims of terrorism.11

The need for such legislation came not only from such seminal events as 9/11, but also the urban terror campaign that ravaged the Western Cape in the late 1990s, which witnessed amongst other things the bombing of Planet Hollywood in August 1998 and the targeting of moderate Muslim academics speaking out against the extremists. Interestingly, the bombing of Planet Hollywood was not motivated by any local grievance. It was the result of Muslim rage following US President Bill Clinton’s 1998 decision to bomb Sudan. However, after security forces targeted People against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD), the local Islamist group responsible, it in turn targeted the police and the state prosecutor responsible for the case.12 The 2004 Protection of Constitutional Democracy against Terrorist and Related Activities Act of the Republic of South Africa also sought to integrate the country’s numerous pieces of anti-terrorism legislation into one coherent and comprehensive law, and to align this with international instruments to counter terrorism.13 The most important of these international instruments includes United Nations Security Council Resolution 1373, which affirms that any act of international terrorism constitutes a threat to global peace and security, and calls on member states to:

  • deny all forms of financial support for terrorist groups

  • suppress the provision of safe havens, sustenance or support for terrorists

  • share information with other governments in the investigation, detection, arrest and prosecution of those involved in terrorist activities

  • criminalize active and passive assistance for terrorism in domestic laws and bring violators of these laws to justice

  • become party, as soon as possible, to the relevant international conventions and protocols relating to terrorism.14

Given the propinquity between organized crime syndicates and international terror networks, South Africa also enacted the Financial Intelligence Control Act in 2001 to stem money laundering, and joined the Financial Action Task Force and the Eastern and Southern African Anti-Money Laundering Group.15 In addition to these multilateral commitments and its domestic anti-terror legislation, South Africa also brought the issue of terrorism to the fore through (p.452) its bilateral relations. In October 2006, during a meeting with the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, at the Union Buildings, former South African President Thabo Mbeki declared that the two countries would share intelligence to help prevent terrorist attacks.16 This underscored the notion that terrorism constitutes a global threat and that only by acting in partnership can the international community eradicate this scourge. Following the al Shabaab twin bombings of the Ugandan capital, Kampala, in July 2010, the head of the South African delegation visiting Uganda condemned terrorism as evil and urged the international community to work together for its elimination. The South African official went on to state: ‘As South Africa, we remain committed to continuing to discharge our responsibility – individually as a country and as part of the international community – to combat terrorism in all its manifestations.’17

Whatever the rhetoric emanating from Pretoria, the threat perception varied considerably among the security agencies. Two statements bear this out. Tshepo Mazibuko, the spokesperson for South Africa’s embassy in Washington noted, Our security agents who frequently do security analysis have not yet come up with anything that says that there is al Qaeda activity in South Africa.’18 Yet the security agents he refers to seem to have a different take. Gideon Jones, the former head of the Crime Investigation Unit of the SAPS responded to a question posed on terrorism in the country by noting that, ‘[South Africa] is a perfect place to cool off, regroup, and plan your finances and operations. The communications and infrastructure are excellent, there is a radical Muslim community, and our law enforcement is overstretched.’19

Clearly, despite the formal legislative framework, confusion continues to reign among government officials. This gap between promise and performance, and rhetoric and reality, has resulted in South Africa evincing a credibility gap in the area of terrorism. Perhaps it is easier to enact legislation than implement it, or to sign international agreements than actually destroy terrorist infrastructure. This glaring contradiction is also evident in the operational sphere.

From promise to performance

The promise that South Africa’s counterterrorism legislation and attendant structures hold was not to be realized operationally; the ambiguity among policymakers in Pretoria was to have negative consequences. Two cases demonstrate the confusion and ineffectiveness of the South African counterterrorism strategy. The first of these is Mustafa Jonker and the Muizenberg cell. Just before dawn on 25 January 2008, Police Superintendent Noel Zeeman (p.453) led his officers on a raid of two homes in Muizenberg, outside Cape Town. Three of the men targeted were Mustafa Mohamed Jonker, his brother-in-law Omar Hartley and Sedick Achmat. They stood accused of being part of a group planning to overthrow the government by means of blowing up specific targets. The men had been downloading material on how to make explosives. Other members of the group were Mahomed Davids, Abdul Rasheed Davids and Rafiek Osman. Despite the nature of the items seized in the raid, and the gravity of the charges – high treason; terrorism; conspiracy to commit murder; and unlawful possession of firearms, ammunition and explosives – none of the men were arrested. Indeed, the Davids brothers subsequently left South African shores.

It would seem that the men’s Internet activity – visits to various jihadi websites – and a tip-off prompted the raids. Zeeman was to claim in court papers that the raid discovered chemicals, computers and videos containing brutal beheadings.20 According to police explosives expert Captain Bester, the chemicals in the men’s possession – hydrochloric acid, acetone and peroxide, which were hidden the under bed of one of the accused – were according to the formula downloaded from the Internet to make improvised explosive devices.21 The accused men in turn referred to the chemicals as ‘pool cleaner, paint remover and bleach’.22 As for the Internet downloads from jihadi websites, Jonker stated that the information that he downloaded was freely available and legal to download.23

Jonker and Hartley went to court to challenge the search and seizure warrants issued by the magistrate, with their lawyer demanding the full disclosure of the contents of the affidavit that led to the warrant being issued.24 Zeeman, meanwhile, asked the judge to place a ‘gag’on certain parts of the affidavit used to grant the search warrants as it contained ‘sensitive information’.25 However, in March 2008 when the case went to court, the presiding judge, Justice Bennie Griesel, told the men’s lawyers that he had not seen the state’s opposing papers. It subsequently emerged that a deal was struck between the accused men and the state that resulted in the case being dropped and the material seized in the raid being returned.26

For researchers attempting to analyse the risk posed to South Africa by terrorists, situations like these raise more questions than they provide answers. The state seemed confident of its case, yet refused to file opposing papers and then struck a deal with the accused before the case went to court. So, did Zeeman want to protect the ‘very reliable source’27 that had tipped him off about the Muizenberg cell? And was he afraid that the affidavit being made public would compromise his source? Or, on the other hand, could the accused be innocent? According to their lawyer, the raids were part of a conspiracy by a ‘Third Force to spread fear of Muslim culture and justify the (p.454) establishment of US military and Israeli secret services bases in South Africa’.28 It should be stated that no evidence was provided to prove such an assertion. Despite the promise of South Africa’s counterterrorism legislative framework and the institutions it established, this certainly was not realized in the case of this Muizenberg cell.

However problematic we may believe the Muizenberg case was, worse was to come in the second case: the strange case of the two South Africans caught in an al Qaeda safe house in Pakistan. On 10 July 2004, Dr Feroz Abubaker Ganchi and Zubair Ismail travelled together to Pakistan, the latter ostensibly to pursue his Islamic education and the former to do welfare work.29 They entered Pakistan on passports that were exact copies of ones seized in British anti-terror raids in London.30 In Pakistan, local contacts assisted them to a house in Mohallah Islam Nagar that sheltered Islamists from Kenya and Sudan, as well as senior al Qaeda operative Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani.31 Ghailani was alleged to have purchased the truck used in the 1998 vehicle bombing of the US embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in which more than 200 people were killed. On 16 December 1998, a New York court indicted Ghailani for his role in this terrorist act, which resulted in him being on the FBI’s list of twenty-two most-wanted terrorists.32

Following a tip-off,33 Pakistani security forces surrounded the house and a fierce twelve-hour gun battle ensued. Fighting only ceased after Pakistani commandos broke down the wall and roof of one of the rooms and fired tear-gas canisters into the house after the men inside had run out of ammunition. The Pakistani security services discovered ten Kalashnikov rifles, pistols, hand grenades, laptop computers, chemicals, and atlases and maps in the house.34 Given the length of the gun battle and its ferocity, as well as the subsequent confessions from the South Africans, the Pakistani authorities believe that they were ‘trained terrorists’. Indeed, the Pakistani newspaper Dawn also stated that the South Africans had received training in Afghanistan and Iran.35 Pakistan’s law minister, Raja Basharat, stated that all of the twelve men arrested were operatives in Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network.36 Media reports indicated that both South Africans had confessed to the Pakistani authorities that their mission was to carry out terror attacks in South Africa. Among the alleged targets were the Carlton Centre, the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, Parliament, the Union Buildings, the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, the Sheraton Hotel, and the US embassy in Pretoria.37

The confusion in this saga stems from the South African Government’s reaction – once more highlighting the ambiguity amongst South African policymakers and security officials. When the news first broke, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) spokesperson Ronnie Mamoepa questioned whether Ismail and (p.455) Ganchi were indeed South African; he pointed out that there were several cases of forged South African passports being used by international criminals and terrorists.38 When it emerged that they were indeed South African citizens and the circumstances of their arrest came to light, then Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Aziz Pahad stated, ‘With the involvement of Ghailani, the case has taken on a more serious security aspect. What was earlier a foreign affairs issue is now an international security one.’39 In August 2004, South Africa’s NIA sent a team to Pakistan to question the two South Africans personally. The subsequent statements from then NIA Director-General Vusi Mavimbela were most interesting: ‘We wanted to know whether it was true that there were plans to attack South Africa. This was all we wanted to know and we found that there was no evidence of such plans. … We are not interested in why they are in Pakistan. South Africa is our only interest.’40

As in the case of the Muizenberg raid, there are more questions here than there are answers. Did South African intelligence agencies factor in why these men travelled on passports that were exact replicas of the ones seized in a British anti-terror raid in London, or how these men came to be in an al Qaeda safe house in Pakistan with a senior al Qaeda terrorist? The NIA seemed not to be interested in finding out the reasons for this. Moreover, the NIA did not seem to want to ask what the motivation would be on the part of Pakistani government officials to lie when they stated that the men were planning to attack targets in South Africa. On the other hand, what assurances did Mr Mavimbela have that these men were not going to strike at targets in South Africa?

These questions certainly demanded answers. The men eventually returned to South Africa, only to have the media probing any connection between the two men and the alleged al Qaeda terrorists from Syria and Jordan that the police had just deported.41 It subsequently emerged that both Ganchi and Ismail were indeed in contact with these men, and had met them on several occasions in April 2004 shortly before their arrests.42 They met at a mosque in Laudium, Pretoria, and a madrasah where Ismail attended Islamic education classes. And this was not their first contact with foreign Islamists. Three years prior to the events of 2004, Ismail had travelled to the United Kingdom where he met Islamists from London and Manchester.43

Worse was to come when SAPS intelligence officers confirmed that Ganchi and Ismail had targeted South Africa, thus contradicting Mr Mavimbela and the NIA. According to the police agents, they had been following the suspects and never doubted that they were targeting South Africa for terrorism purposes.44 Yet the NIA’s Mavimbela repeatedly denied that South Africa was being targeted by terrorists: ‘In terms of the information we have as (p.456) security services, we have got no information that any particular installation in South Africa is being targeted by al Qaeda, or any international terrorist organization.’45 But according to Ronald Sandee, research director of the Nine/Eleven Finding Answers (NEFA) Foundation, in his testimony to the US Congress, upon returning to South Africa and being interrogated by South African officials, both Ganchi and Ismail admitted to targeting South Africa for terror attacks.46 So why was Mavimbela so adamant that South Africa was not at risk?

More questions emerged. Had the SAPS known about the threat for over a year and a half47 – they were actually following the suspects – and not tell the NIA about it? Certainly, on the face of it, the two security agencies – given their contrasting statements – were clearly not informing each other about their activities regarding the same suspects, despite the existence of a National Intelligence Coordinating Committee (NICOC) whose very existence suggests the sharing of intelligence between agencies. More importantly, why were Ganchi and Ismail allowed to fly from South Africa via Dubai to Pakistan on travel documents that were problematic at best? Ganchi and Ismail were again caught and detained in Guinea in December 2004 when they tried to cross the border into Sierra Leone. Here, Ganchi was using the alias Dr Mohammed Nazzal.48 A few months later, on 7 March 2005, Ganchi and Ismail were again arrested, together with Muhsin Fadhi (aka Abu Sami from Kuwait) and Abu Ubaysah al-Turki (aka Ubaida Ubeyde from Turkey), when they tried to cross the border between Indonesia and East Timor.49 These questions arose again in 2009 when Ganchi was detained by the Egyptian authorities en route to Gaza.50

Are Ganchi and Ismail guilty of the crimes that they have been accused of, or are they hapless travellers who were in the wrong place at the wrong time? Why are there contradictory statements coming from the security apparatus of the state? Is there a threat to South Africa or not? What accounts for these ambiguous responses despite the clarity evident in the country’s anti-terror legislation?

The legacy of the anti-apartheid struggle

In this author’s view, a major reason for this ambiguity relates to the historical legacy of an African National Congress (ANC) that fought the apartheid South African state and was labelled ‘terrorist’by both Washington and London during the course of the anti-apartheid struggle. As such, many government officials and South African Muslim organizations repeat that rather stale mantra – ‘One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.’Moreover, while in exile (p.457) the ANC forged ties with several entities, including the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). These historical ties, and indeed ideology, have remained despite the transition of the ANC from liberation movement to government in South Africa following the first democratic election in 1994.

The ideological proximity of elements of the South African Government to terrorist entities is evident in a statement by former South African Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Fatima Hajaig. Addressing a meeting on 14 January 2009, she is alleged to have said: ‘They [the Jews] control [America] no matter which government comes into power, whether Barack Obama or George Bush … Their control of America, just like the control of most Western countries, is in the hands of Jewish money and when Jewish money controls their country then you can expect anything.’51 The views allegedly expressed by Hajaig are no different from those expressed by various militant Islamist groups, who all speak of a Jewish conspiracy. The South African Jewish Board of Deputies decided to lodge a complaint of hate speech with the Human Rights Commission against Ms Hajaig. As its chairman, Zev Krengel, stated, ‘The decision to lodge the complaint had not been taken lightly, but there had not been any realistic alternative. Not since the era of pro-Nazi Nationalist MPs more than half a century ago had such statements been made against Jews by a senior government official.’52

Despite Tehran reportedly being one of the leading sponsors of state terror, the South African Government has closely allied itself with Iran and its surrogates – Hizbullah and Hamas.53 Tehran and Pretoria, for instance, established a Joint Bilateral Commission to expand political and economic relationships between the two countries. At the seventh South Africa–Iran Joint Bilateral Commission, former Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma spoke of ‘the shared values between South Africa and the Islamic Republic of Iran, namely the promotion of democracy, justice, peace and prosperity’.54 South Africa’s proximity to the Iranian regime might well further complicate how it approaches Iranian-sponsored Islamist groups inside the country.

In June 2003, then Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Aziz Pahad met with the chief of Hizbullah’s Political Bureau, Mohammad Raad, in Beirut.55 Following the meeting, the Foreign Ministry stated that a clear distinction must be made ‘between terrorism and legitimate struggle for liberation’.56 Was this a case of viewing Hizbullah through the ANC’s own lens? Moreover, was Pretoria unaware of the five paramilitary Hizbullah training camps in South Africa?57 Similarly, former Intelligence Minister Ronnie Kasrils invited Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh to lead a delegation to South Africa.58 These developments led Jonathan Schanzer in a prescient article to conclude that Overtures to Hamas and Hizbullah are indicative of Pretoria’s utter indifference to the threat (p.458) of radical Islamic ideologies and violence. The worst consequence of this blindness may be the creation of safe houses for terrorists in South Africa itself.’59 Closely linked to the historical legacy of apartheid, and its pernicious influence on developing an effective counterterrorism strategy, is the issue of political correctness.

The eternal sin of political correctness

Political correctness characterizes the highest levels of South Africa’s political establishment and undermines the fight against the scourge of terrorism. Ronnie Kasrils on one occasion stated, ‘We guard against a rising international hysteria which serves to portray all Muslims as potential targets. The cry of “a terrorist in every Madrassah” echoes the “red under the bed” and “swart gevaar” [black danger] phobia of the Cold War and the apartheid era. We must never repeat such witch hunts in our country.’60 This ideological blindness on the part of Kasrils refuses to recognize the qualitative difference between the armed struggle against apartheid and the current global jihadist scourge; indeed, it besmirches the noble struggle against the apartheid regime. The ANC engaged in a non-violent campaign against the apartheid state. When this was met with violent action on the part of the South African state and when the ANC was banned, thereby preventing legal avenues of redress from being explored, the armed struggle was embarked upon. Although there was the infamous Magoos Bar bombing, when a restaurant was targeted by the ANC’s armed wing, attacks on civilians were not countenanced by the ANC leadership.61 The idea that one targets innocent diners in a restaurant or passengers on a bus was anathema to the ANC. In this way, the ANC was able to maintain the moral high ground. Even more important is the limited goals of the ANC – a democratic, non-racial South Africa – compared with the ambitions of radical Islamists who seek to establish a global Muslim caliphate.62

The legacy of apartheid looms large over South African policymakers both domestically and internationally – and it should. But when policymakers examine everything through the lens of apartheid, they inevitably get it wrong, since other actors are motivated by other compulsions. As Anneli Botha has cogently argued, ‘As a nascent democracy, South Africa is obsessed with protecting basic rights, rights that would be exploited by international terrorists working in tandem with local militants.’63 Are we then surprised that, despite all the terrorist activity taking place on South African soil, so few individuals have been arrested for terrorism? What Pretoria seems to have forgotten is that (p.459) these same terrorists are willing to deny the most fundamental of all rights – the right to life. Kurt Shillinger of the South African Institute for International Affairs (SAIIA) is also of the opinion that the reason why Pretoria has showed little desire to investigate its own Muslim community is because it does not want to alienate it.64

Internationally, South Africa’s approach to issues of terrorism is also coloured by the ANC’s own struggle against apartheid and the desire for political and economic equality. Thus, while commiserating with the US following 9/11, the South African Government urged Washington to adopt ‘a longer-term response of isolating terrorists through international cooperation to eradicate poverty and underdevelopment’.65 This was reiterated by former President Mbeki in his address to the United Nations General Assembly in 2003.66 So, in the South African rendition, poverty breeds terrorism. International experience, however, undermines this assumption. Osama bin Laden is a Saudi multimillionaire. Bin Laden’s successor and current al Qaeda chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri is a physician; Mohammed al-Atta, the leader of the 9/11 hijackers, was a German-trained architect and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to down an American airliner with explosives in his underwear, was the son of a prominent banker.67 According to recent research on the subject, there is little to substantiate the notion that poverty leads to terrorism – indeed, if anything, global jihadis tend to represent the best and brightest of their societies who, if not necessarily wealthy, are at least middle class.68

Further, as Eric Rosand argues, ‘Despite poverty being widespread, most of the world’s poorest have not produced terrorist organizations, particularly not ones with an international scope. A Norwegian Institute of International Affairs panel of leading terrorism experts found there is only a weak and indirect relationship between poverty and terrorism.’69 Other research has indicated that, far from using terror to attain certain political or economic objectives, Islamist terror aims only at threatening given social orders without having any feasible alternative. Indeed, this research has concluded that such ‘terrorist activity is not motivated by a desire to reach any “constructive” goals, but much rather by a deep-seated psychological want to annihilate those who do not share the cultural worldview of the terrorist himself. In the case of Islamic terrorism, the mere existence of plural and secularist alternatives to a fundamentalist way of life is perceived to be unacceptable: the jihad as a conquest of the dar al-harb, the non-Muslim world, is a core motivation.’70

It is a sad truism that Pretoria knows neither its enemies nor their motivations – the ideological basis that instils hatred and violence towards the proverbial ‘other’. How then can it ever hope to defeat terrorism within its borders? (p.460) Political correctness also breeds a false sense of security among South Africa’s policymakers.

The danger of a false sense of security

There is some sense of naiveté among senior South African policymakers on the issue of terrorism. Responding to Ganchi and Ismail’s arrest in Pakistan and the accusation that they were planning to attack targets in South Africa, Aziz Pahad stated: ‘Anybody who has any sense would know that South Africa had taken consistently correct positions on issues like the Middle East and the war on Iraq, and there was no reason why anyone would want to attack it.’71 From this perspective, then, South Africa is safe from terrorism because of its ‘consistently correct’foreign policy positions vis-à-vis the Middle East. After all, South Africa is neither in Iraq nor in Afghanistan, and it is pro-Palestinian (whatever this means within the context of a pro-West Fatah vs a pro-Iran Hamas).

However, the urban terror campaign conducted by PAGAD in the Western Cape in the 1990s, as well as various other attempts to commit terror attacks since, suggests something different. PAGAD was established in December 1995 by Muslim groups, ostensibly to take on the scourge of drugs in the Western Cape.72 However, its violent vigilante campaign against drug traffickers attracted the attention of the police authorities. This resulted in the organization targeting the state as well as various Western and Jewish interests and those institutions purported to promote ‘immoral’behaviour. PAGAD’s bombing campaign did not only target the US consulate in Cape Town or Western-associated restaurants like Planet Hollywood, but also synagogues, moderate Muslims, gay nightclubs and, very importantly, the organs of the South African state itself. In August 1998, there was an explosion outside the offices of the police special investigation task team, and in September of the same year the judge presiding over a case involving a PAGAD member was assassinated.73

The anti-secularist ideology of radical Islamism is another reason to doubt Mr Pahad’s statement. During the 1990s similar structures to PAGAD, often with overlapping memberships, were established. One such structure was PAPAS, or the People against Prostitutes and Sodomites.74 This points to the fact that radical Islamists are fundamentally intolerant of the liberal democratic and secular ethos of the South African Constitution. In his excellent book, The War of Ideas: Jihadism against Democracy, Walid Phares makes clear the radical Islamist antipathy towards liberal democracy values.75 In this regard, it is important to note that while South Africa has been critical of US (p.461) policies in relation to the Middle East, the country ‘does display the general American preference for liberal democracy and individual freedom and remains part of the capitalist system that Bin Laden insists is preventing Islam from achieving its rightful place as the world’s preeminent faith and religion’.76 In other words, then, South Africa could be targeted on the basis of its secular ethos and its liberal democratic values, and not merely its foreign policy orientations.

Ambiguity in South Africa’s counterterrorism response

There is a clear tension among South African policymakers when it comes to terrorism. On the one hand there is the demand of international law as represented by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1373 to take action against terrorists, which is reinforced by South African domestic legislation – The Protection of Constitutional Democracy against Terrorist and Related Activities Act. At the same time, because of the legacy of the anti-apartheid struggle, there is a certain ideological proximity between members in the ANC Government and terrorist movements – the notion that they are actually ‘freedom fighters’. Thus, despite having the necessary legislation to take action against terrorists, the ANC Government lacks the political will to act. As a result, ambiguity has come to characterize South Africa’s counterterrorism response.

This ambiguity arises from the gap between the dictates of the political correctness approach and a harsh reality that contradicts this. Various instances bear this out. Jackie Selebi, the former national police commissioner, informed the media that various al Qaeda operatives were planning to stage terror attacks during April 2004. A few months later, though, in August 2004, first government spokesman Joel Netshitenzhe, then former NIA Director-General Mavimbela and head of SAPS Crime Intelligence Ray Lalla denied that South Africa had been targeted by al Qaeda. However, they refused to provide further information, stating that ‘operational security’precluded them from doing so.77 This presents a quandary for those researching terrorism in South Africa. Do we listen to the national police commissioner or to the head of the SAPS Crime Intelligence Unit? Moreover, if South Africa was not targeted, what operational security considerations would prevent one from sharing this with the media?

Another example of this ambiguity among the country’s policymakers was when former Intelligence Minister Ronnie Kasrils, in October 2004, denied media reports that South Africa was being used as a base for al Qaeda (p.462) operations. However, in August 2005 he warned that al Qaeda was possibly trying to set up networks in southern Africa and that it would be easy for them to attack harbours.78 So, does the 2005 statement from Mr Kasrils supersede the 2004 statement? Is al Qaeda using this region as a base for its operations?

Pretoria’s ambiguous response to terrorism also extends into the international sphere. As mentioned earlier, in October 2006 during his meeting with the Indian prime minister, former President Mbeki spoke of the need for international cooperation in the area of counterterrorism. When such cooperation is needed from the South Africans, however, they balk. In January 2007, when South Africa was informed that the US intended to place two South Africans – the Dockrat cousins – on the UN Security Council’s list of terror suspects, South Africa was vehemently opposed to this.79 We have no reason for South Africa’s opposition here unless we accept Kurt Shillinger’s point, mentioned earlier, that Pretoria did not want to alienate its Muslim citizens. However, it should be noted that Muslims only constitute 1.5 per cent of the total population.80 Electorally speaking, there will be little consequence should the ruling ANC adopt a tougher stance against terrorism. Needless to say, relations between Washington and Pretoria soured. These incidents raise the question of whether South Africa is prepared to ‘walk the talk’in the global fight against terrorism. Put differently, is South Africa a credible partner in the fight against terrorism? On the available evidence, the answer has to be an emphatic ‘no’.

Following the closure of the US embassy and consulates as well as the offices of USAID in September 2009 due to the al Shabaab threat, South Africa’s then National Police Commissioner Bheki Cele said that the police were investigating the threat. However, he added that the police had not ruled out the possibility of a hoax. In the same statement he also said that police were pursuing some people and there would be arrests.81 If the threat was a possible hoax, why were the police pursuing suspects for imminent arrest? Moreover, if the threat had been a hoax or ‘not credible’as Cele subsequently asserted, why did it worry the South African Secret Service (SASS) enough to send agents to Kenya and Somalia to gather their own intelligence on al Shabaab?82 This ‘hoax’also prompted the NIA to conduct raids on a Somali organization in Johannesburg in November 2009.83 Another consequence of this ‘hoax’was a joint operation involving senior police officers, members of NIA and American agents. The operation resulted in the arrest of militants linked to extremists in Somalia and Mozambique and, ultimately, to al Qaeda lieutenants in Afghanistan and Pakistan.84

The ambiguity of the South African Government’s responses sends confusing signals to the international community. In the process, South Africa loses credibility in the fight against extremism and terrorism. This ambiguity also (p.463) emboldens terrorists to move to South Africa as a safe location from which to operate. In May 2013, for instance, it came to light that British-born Samantha Lewthwaite (the so-called ‘White Widow’), who had strong links to both al Qaeda and al Shabaab, had spent two years in South Africa setting up a terror network that spanned the United Kingdom, South Africa and Pakistan.85 It is also evident that such ambiguous policies produce much frustration within the country’s intelligence apparatus – resulting in a high turnover of staff. In the process, the country’s ability to secure its borders and protect its citizens is severely compromised.


South Africa confronts a very real terrorist threat. In the 1990s, the country experienced a wave of urban terrorism in the Western Cape. Since then there have been various attempts by Islamist militants to attack South African targets. In addition, South Africa continues to play host to various terrorist groups such as al Shabaab, Hamas and Hizbullah. This goes beyond the mere provision of safe houses where international terrorists can lie low: Hizbullah operates at least five paramilitary training camps. With the rise of Islamic State on the African continent, and according to the Institute for Security Studies, between 150 and 300 South Africans have been recruited into the ‘caliphate’, the threat has escalated.86 Despite an excellent legal system taking a strong stance against terrorism, South Africa’s counterterrorism strategy continues to be wracked by contradiction and general ambiguity.

A major reason for this ambiguity is the historical legacy of the anti-apartheid struggle, in which the ANC that now forms the South African Government was labelled terrorist. As such, Pretoria is loath to use this label to describe Islamist militants. As was mentioned earlier, when former South African Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Aziz Pahad met with Hizbullah, he stressed the distinction between terrorism and the struggle for liberation. If Hizbullah is indeed to be viewed as a group of liberation fighters by the South African Government, how are we to understand Hizbullah’s attack on a synagogue in Argentina, its paramilitary camps in South Africa or its drug-trafficking and extortion rackets in West Africa?

From this legacy of apartheid stem the twin dangers of political correctness and a naïvely false sense of security. The latter emanates from Pretoria’s ‘consistently correct’foreign policy orientation, which it believes renders it immune to terrorist attack. This position is erroneous in the extreme, given the terrorist atrocities already committed on South African soil. All of this serves to undermine the effective implementation of counterterrorism (p.464) legislation. While an argument could be made that since the late 1990s there has been no terrorist atrocity committed on South African soil, and that the country’s seemingly ambiguous response is shielding it from such attacks, there were several attempts at terrorism in the country which were fortunately thwarted. Moreover, South Africa’s ambiguous response to terrorism has resulted in it being used as an operational base to plan attacks elsewhere. This was the case of Haroon Rashid Aswat, a Briton, who exchanged a number of telephone calls with all four of London’s 7 July 2005 bombers just before the London attacks, while Aswat was based in Johannesburg.87

The issue of South Africa as an operational base and a transit point and conduit for international terrorists to target other countries also emerged in the case of a Tunisian al Qaeda suspect, Ihsan Garnaoui, in 2004. Garnaoui was an explosives expert who trained in Afghanistan and was ‘promoted’to being an al Qaeda trainer. He held several South African passports in different names (including in the names of Abram Shoman and Mallick Shoman) and travelled via South Africa to Europe, where he was accused of planning bombings on American and Jewish targets.88 According to Ronald Sandee, most of Garnaoui’s preparation for these attacks took place in South Africa, where he purchased sophisticated military-grade binoculars with an integrated digital camera, and diagrams and instructions for the assembly of detonators, as well as setting up networks in Berlin while still in South Africa.89 It should be noted that both the international counterterrorism regime and South Africa’s domestic counterterrorism legislation call upon the security services to prevent the operations of terrorism even when it is targeting a foreign country. In this sense, too, South Africa’s counterterrorism regime must be assessed as a failure. To put it differently, terrorism is a global threat and to think of counterterrorism through the prism of narrow national self-interest (whether the host country is targeted), is extremely problematic. The recruitment of South African citizens into the ranks of Islamic State illustrates the connection between the global and the national very well. Whilst initially going to Raqqa, those trained also find their way back into the country, where they pose a threat to all South Africans.

In an effort to protect innocent lives from any fresh terrorist atrocity, Pretoria needs to jettison the ideological baggage of the past and understand that contemporary Islamist terrorism, with its nihilist violence and global ambitions, cannot be equated with the limited political goals of the anti-apartheid struggle. Moreover, Pretoria’s political mandarins’historic antipathy towards the West for the initial support rendered to the apartheid state must also mature and understand that, given the existential nature of the threat posed by international terrorism, we all need to make common cause in the struggle against terrorist barbarism for the sake of our common humanity.

Valid URLs are included for online references wherever possible, but for some the URLs consulted are unfortunately no longer available and alternatives could not be found.


(1) Hussein Solomon, ‘Playing ostrich: Lessons learned from South Africa’s response to terrorism,’Africa Security Brief 9 (January 2011): 1.

(2) Hussein Solomon, Jihad: A South African Perspective (Bloemfontein, South Africa: Sun Media, 2013).

(4) Angelique Serrao, ‘Spy cables reveal SA’s jihad camps,’Independent Online, 25 February 2015, available at: www.iol.co.za/news/politics/spy-cables-reveal-sas-jihad-camps-182316 (accessed 11 February 2016).

(5) Anneli Botha, ‘PAGAD: A case study of radical Islam in South Africa,’Terrorism Monitor 3:15 (2005): 10.

(6) John Solomon, ‘New report of terrorist camp in South Africa,’Terrorism in Focus 4:12 (2007): 6; De Wet Potgieter, White Widow, Black Widow: Is al Qaeda Operating in South Africa? (Johannesburg: Penguin, 2014).

(7) US Department of State (USDS), Country Reports on Terrorism 2014 (Washington, DC: USDS Bureau of Counterterrorism, 2015), available at: www.state.gov/documents/organization/239631.pdf (accessed 2 May 2016).

(8) Author’s interview with De Wet Potgieter, Bloemfontein, 10 January 2015. See also Solomon, Jihad.

(9) UK Parliament, Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, ‘Foreign Affairs – fifth report,’UK Parliament website, 18 May 2004, available at: www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200304/cmselect/cmfaff/117/11702.htm (accessed 3 September 2010).

(10) Quoted in Privacy International, ‘Terrorism profile: South Africa,’Privacy International website, 17 June 2004, available at: www.privacyinternational.org/article,shtml?%cmd%SD=x-347–66677 (accessed 19 March 2009), p. 1.

(11) Martin Schonteich, ‘South Africa’s arsenal of terrorism legislation,’African Security Review 9:2 (2000): 40, available at: www.issafrica.org/pubs/ASR/9No2/Schonteich.html#Anchor-21093 (accessed 3 September 2010).

(13) Henri Boshoff and Martin Schonteich, ‘South Africa’s Operational and Legislative Responses to Terrorism,’in Jakkie Cilliers and Kathryn Sturman (eds), Africa and Terrorism, Joining the Global Campaign, ISS monograph 74 (Pretoria: Institute for Security Studies, 2002), pp. 18–35.

(14) United Nations, ‘Security Council unanimously adopts wide-ranging anti-terrorism resolution; calls for suppressing financing, improving international cooperation,’press release SC/7158, United Nations website, 28 September 2001, available at: www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2001/sc7158.doc.htm (accessed 20 August 2010).

(16) Ibid., p. 2.

(17) Quoted in Department of International Relations and Co-operation (DIRCO), South African Intervention at the NEPAD Heads of State and Government Orientation Committee, press statement (Kampala: DIRCO, 25 July 2010), p. 1.

(p.466) (18) Quoted in Paul Sperry, ‘Homeland insecurity: US warns of al Qaeda from South Africa – inspectors on high alert for operatives using nation’s passports,’ WorldNetDaily, 6 August 2004, available at: www.wnd.com/?pageId=25969 (accessed 1 September 2010).

(19) Quoted in Federal Research Division (FRD), Library of Congress, Nations Hospitable to Organized Crime and Terrorism (Washington, DC: FRD, 2003), pp. 23–4.

(20) SABC News, ‘State cuts deal with Muizenberg coup plot accused,’SABC News, 25 March 2008, available at: www.sabcnews.com/south_africa/crime1justice/0,2172,166418,00.html (accessed 6 May 2009).

(21) Independent Online, ‘Internet download leads to bust,’Independent Online, 23 March 2008, available at: www.iol.co.za/news/newsprint.php?art_id_=vn20080323115841846C64 (accessed 25 June 2008).

(23) Legalbrief, ‘Web site downloads lead to terror accusations,’Legalbrief website, 26 March 2008, available at: www.legalbrief.co.za/article.php?story=2008032608341632 (accessed 4 September 2010).

(25) Sunday Tribune, ‘Internet downloads lead to bust,’Sunday Tribune, 23 March 2008, p. 2.

(26) Karen Breytenbach, ‘Police to return “terror raid” material,’Cape Times, 26 March 2008, available at: www.iol.co.za/index.php?set_id=1&click_id=15&art_id=vn20080326052235418C855953 (accessed 31 August 2010).

(27) Karen Breytenbach, ‘Cape terror suspects fight case in court,’Cape Times, 25 March 2008, available at: www.iol.co.za/index.php?set_id=1&click_id=13&art_id=vn20080325054519104C525056 (accessed 31 August 2010).

(29) Deon de Lange, ‘Cape Terror suspects fight case in court,’ Beeld, 28 July 2010, available at: www.iol.co.za/index.php?set_id=1&click_id=13&art_id=vn20080325054519104C525056 (accessed 31 August 2010).

(30) Graeme Hosken, ‘SA targeted by terrorists – police,’Pretoria News, 4 August 2004, available at: www.iol.co.za/index.php?sf=174&set_id=1&click_id=13&art_id=vn20040804052518353C413655 (accessed 3 September 2010).

(31) Jawad Naeem and Graeme Hosken, ‘Did SA pair confess to Pakistani officials?’ Star, 4 August 2008 available at: www.iol.co.za/index.php?sf=174&set_id=1&click_id=3&art_id=vn20040804141036483C796053 (accessed 31 August 2010); Tisha Steyn, ‘SA men “trained terrorists,”’ News24 website, 26 July 2004, available at: www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/SA-men-trained-terrorists-20040726 (accessed 31 August 2010).

(32) News24, ‘Al Qaeda suspect co-operating,’ News24 website, 29 July 2004, available at: www.news24.com/World/News/Al-Qaeda-suspect-co-operating-20040729 (accessed 31 August 2010).

(36) Andrew Meldrum, ‘Terror link to South Africa after gun battle,’Guardian, 6 August 2004, available at: www.guardian.co.uk/world/2004/aug/06/pakistan.terrorism (accessed 4 September 2010).

(p.467) (38) News24, ‘SA men’s fate unknown,’ News24 website, 29 July 2004, available at: www.news24.com/World/News/SA-mens-fate-unknown-20040729 (accessed 4 September 2010).

(39) Quoted in Deon de Lange, ‘New twist in Al Qaeda arrests,’ News24 website, 30 July 2004, available at: www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/New-twist-in-al-Qaeda-arrests-20040730 (accessed 4 September 2010).

(40) Adriaan Basson, ‘SA 2: Pakistan must decide,’ News24 website, 23 August 2004, available at: www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/SA-2-Pakistan-must-decide-20040823 (accessed 4 September 2010); see also News24, ‘NIA clear SA men in Pakistan,’ News24 website, 21 August 2004, available at: www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/NIA-clears-SA-men-in-Pakistan-20040821 (accessed 4 September 2010).

(41) Michael Schmidt, Kashiefa Akim and Noor Jehan Yoro Badat, ‘SA pair accused of terrorism fly home,’ Star, 18 December 2004, p. 1.

(43) Jawad Naeem and Graeme Hosken, ‘The hunt is on for al Qaeda recruiter,’Cape Argus, 4 August 2004.

(45) Quoted in Moshoeshoe Monare, Graeme Hosken and SAPA, ‘Government insists SA is not under threat,’ Mercury, 5 August 2008, available at: www.iol.co.za/index.php?sf=116&set_id=1&click_id=13&art_id=vn20040805051704165C941309 (accessed 4 September 2010).

(46) Ronald Sandee, ‘Target South Africa,’presentation to US Congress, 26 May 2010, p. 4 (personal communication; text of presentation e-mailed to author 11 June 2011).

(50) News24, ‘SA, Egypt in talks over doctor,’ News24 website, 26 January 2009, available at: www.news24.com/NEWS24v2/components/Generic/News24v2_print_PopUp (accessed 26 January 2009).

(51) Independent Online, ‘Jews take minister to court,’Independent Online, 14 June 2009, available at: www.iol.co.za/general/news/newsprint.php?art_id-nw2009012814380093-C66 (accessed 15 June 2009).

(52) Quoted, ibid.

(53) Josh Lefkowitz, ‘Terror’s South African front,’In the National Interest website, 17 August 2005, available at: www.inthenationalinterest.com/Articles/Vol3Issue33/Vol3Issue33Lefkowitz.html (accessed 19 March 2008).

(54) Quoted, ibid., p. 3.

(56) Quoted in J. Schanzer, ‘Pretoria unguarded,’Weekly Standard, 12:35 (2007): 4, available at: www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/013/6771khfy.asp?pg=1 (accessed 20 March 2008).

(59) Ibid., p. 3.

(60) Quoted in K. Shillinger, ‘Al Qaeda in southern Africa,’Armed Forces Journal, 1 February 2006, available at: www.afji.com/2006/02/1813653 (accessed 8 June 2018).

(p.468) (61) Truth and Reconciliation Commission, ‘Holding the ANC accountable,’in The TRC Report, vol. 6, sect. 5, ch. 3 (Cape Town: Government Communication and Information Services, Government of the Republic of South Africa, 2003), p. 649, available at: www.info.gov.za/otherdocs/2003/trc/5_3.pdf (accessed 5 May 2008).

(62) Hussein Solomon, Pakistan and the Legacy of Maulana Maududi, occasional paper no. 9/2009 (London: International Institute for Islamic Studies, 2009), p. 2.

(64) News24, ‘SA “a growing terrorist hideout,”’ News24 website, 6 September 2005, available at: www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/SA-a-growing-terrorist-hideout-20050905 (accessed 20 March 2008).

(66) South African Department of Foreign Affairs, ‘Initiatives in the fight against global terrorism,’Department of Foreign Affairs website, 22 September 2003, available at: www.dfa.gov.za/doc/2003/ungao922.htm (accessed 24 June 2010).

(67) Werner Swart, ‘Terror Alert,’Sunday Times, 27 December 2009, p. 1.

(68) Marc Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).

(69) Eric Rosand, ‘The UN-led multilateral response to jihadist terrorism: Is a global counter-terrorism body needed?’Journal of Conflict and Security Law 11:3 (2007): 402.

(70) Jan Schellenbach, ‘Appeasing nihilists? Some economic thoughts on reducing terrorist activity,’Public Choice 129 (2006): 304.

(75) Walid Phares, The War of Ideas: Jihadism Against Democracy (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

(76) Andrew Holt, ‘South Africa in the war on terror,’Terrorism Monitor 2:23 (2004): 1, available at: www.jamestown.org/terrorism/views/article_php?articleid=2368948&printthis=1 (accessed 19 March 2008).

(77) Hussein Solomon, South Africa’s Ambiguous Response to Terrorism, CiPS e-briefing paper no. 55/2008 (Pretoria: Centre for International Political Studies, University of Pretoria, 2008), p. 2.

(79) Schanzer, ‘Pretoria unguarded,’p. 1; Independent Online, More SA names placed on terror list – Pahad,’Independent Online, 31 January 2007, available at: www.iol.co.za/index.php?set_id=1&click_id=13&art_id=qw1170276483482B236 (accessed 20 March 2008); M. Terdman, Al Qaeda Inroads in Southern Africa, Project for the Research of Islamist Movements (PRISM), African Occasional Papers 2:1 (2008): 3, available at: www.e-prism.org/images/PRISM_African_Papers_vol_2_no_1_Southern_Africa_March_08.pdf (accessed 25 March 2008).

(80) Think Tank for the Research on Islam and Muslims in Africa (RIMA), ‘Numbers and percentage of Muslims in African countries,’, RIMA website, 2013, available at: https://muslimsinafrica.wordpress.com/numbers-and-percentage-of-muslims-in-africa (accessed 2 May 2016).

(p.469) (81) Peter Fabricius, Shaun Smillie, Gillian Gifford and Reuters, ‘US still on terror threat alert in SA as buildings close,’Pretoria News, 23 September 2009, p. 1.

(82) Adriaan Basson, ‘Sizing up 2010 terror threat,’Mail and Guardian, 26:2 (2010): 6.

(83) Voice of the Cape, ‘Mixed responses to Somali militancy claim,’Voice of the Cape, 4 November 2009, available at: www.vocfm.co.za/index.php?section=newsandcategory=vocnews&article=49552 (accessed 5 November 2009).

(84) Asian News International (ANI), ‘Al Qaeda plot to attack 2010 football World Cup foiled in South Africa,’ Newstrack India, 14 October 2009, available at: www.newstrackindia.com/newsdetails/128098 (accessed 28 October 2009).

(86) Nivashni Nair, ‘Driver’s licence links “Islamic State fighter” to SA,’Sunday Times, 23 November 2015, available at: www.timeslive.co.za/thetimes/2015/11/23/Drivers-licence-links-Islamic-State-fighter-to-SA (accessed 11 February 2016).

(88) USA Today, ‘Terrorists obtained South African passports,’USA Today, 24 July 2004, available at: www.usatoday.com/news/world/2004–07–27-south-africa-terrorists_x.htm (accessed 1 May 2016).