This weekend, both the US and the UK warned their citizens about possible terror attacks in South Africa, with malls in Joburg and Cape Town thought to be likely targets. Just how seriously should we take these warnings? By JASMINE OPPERMAN.
Jasmine Opperman is the Africa Director for the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium.
On Saturday, in a brief yet ominous message, the United States issued a warning to Americans in South Africa. Here it is, in full:
“The US Diplomatic Mission to South Africa informs US citizens that the US Government has received information that terrorist groups are planning to carry out near-term attacks against places where US citizens congregate in South Africa, such as upscale shopping areas and malls in Johannesburg and Cape Town. This information comes against the backdrop of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s public call for its adherents to carry out terrorist attacks globally during the upcoming month of Ramadaan.”
As if to emphasise the threat, the UK has also updated its travel advice for citizens, warning: “There is a high threat from terrorism. Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places visited by foreigners such as shopping areas in Johannesburg and Cape Town.” The UK warning came a week before the US warning.
A terror attack? In Joburg or Cape Town? The very idea may seem absurd. South Africa has plenty of problems, but, so far at least, violent Islamist extremism has not been among them.
The vague nature of the warnings issued doesn’t make things any clearer. While it is the legal duty of the US Embassy to warn its citizens about any impending threats, the lack of detail makes it hard to assess just how credible the threat really is. Only the allusion to the Islamic State in the text of the statement suggests who might be responsible. Meanwhile, the reference to the group’s “public call” to implement attacks during Ramadaan makes it hard to tell whether the threat is particular to South Africa, or global in nature.
This isn’t the first such warning issued by the US Embassy in South Africa. In September 2015, a similarly vague statement was issued. It should also be noted that, ever since the attack on the US Embassy in Benghazi, Libya, US missions have been playing it safe by releasing public warnings at the merest suggestion of a threat.
Sources contacted by the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC) suggest that there is no specific intelligence suggesting an attack in South Africa during Ramadaan.
This does not mean, however, that South Africans can ignore the threat. Irrespective of the credibility or otherwise of these particular warnings, South Africa is becoming increasingly vulnerable to terrorism on its soil.
TRAC has verified reports of Al-Shabaab supporters in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Roshnee, a suburb of Vereeniging; sympathisers of the Al Qaeda-aligned Jahbaht al-Nusra in Port Elizabeth; and continuous recruitment efforts by the Islamic State in Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg, Newcastle and Port Elizabeth.
In all these cases, active supporters have primarily been involved in recruitment and financial supply lines, rather than terrorist activity.
The relationship between Islamist militant groups and South African supporters is evolving, however. In particular, Islamic State recruitment is becoming less focused on “self-radicalisation” through digital engagement, prioritising face to face recruitment instead. Though there is as yet no suggestion of organised cells in South Africa engaged in planning terror attacks, this evolution mirrors the trend in places like Paris and Brussels where the group started by mobilising individuals before forming recruitment cells. It was these cells which eventually gained access to the weapons and explosives which allowed them to carry out high-profile attacks.
Support for the Islamic State in South Africa is evident in the estimated 20 to 50 people, including families, from South Africa that have moved to the group’s self-declared Caliphate in Iraq and Syria. In a document accessed by TRAC, a group of South Africans in the Caliphate are described as coming “from multiple educational backgrounds, from religious scholars to workers”.
Reasons for South Africans moving to the Caliphate differ from North Americans or Europeans. South Africans are not driven by resentment against the South African state or government; their motivation usually revolves around individuals seeking to prove themselves by joining the group’s calls for Jihad, or holy war.
This may change, however, thanks to the South African government’s Middle East policy, which prioritises relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia – both nations currently involved in the fight against the Islamic State.
If Islamist extremist groups ever do decide to target South Africa, the nation is unprepared to protect itself.
Shopping malls and tourist destinations are areas that are particularly prone to terror attacks. In South Africa, security is usually outsourced to private security companies, primarily aimed at preventing petty crimes such as theft. A lack in training, even basic, in how to respond to a terror attack, of identifying suspicious behaviour by suicide bombers aggravated by questionable private screening and vetting processes, means that the opportunity for attacks increases.
South Africa also has a history of porous borders and ease of access to passports, which has previously been exploited by individuals with known links to terror groups. One example is the so-called “white widow”, Samantha Lewthwaite, who used a South African passport under the name Natalie Faye Webb that gave her access to South Africa. Another is the senior al-Qaeda figure Fazul Abdullah Mohamed, who had a South African passport on him when he was killed in Mogadishu in 2011.
So far, terrorist groups have preferred to use South Africa as a kind of “cooling off” zone; a country whose lax laws and banking regulations allow terrorist groups to raise funds and recruit with relative ease. Although vague on detail, the US and UK warnings highlight the risk that this could change. Should a group like the Islamic State wish to stage a major attack in South Africa, the country is woefully unprepared to prevent it. It’s important to acknowledge and address these vulnerabilities now – before it is too late. DM
Photo: Sandton City entrance. (Paul Saad via Flickr)