Terror's South African Front

August 18, 2004

Terror's South African Front

On July 25, following a twelve-hour shootout, two South African Al-Qaeda operatives were nabbed in Pakistan, along with African Embassy bombing suspect Ahmed Ghailani.

On July 25, following a twelve-hour shootout, two South African Al-Qaeda operatives were nabbed in Pakistan, along with African Embassy bombing suspect Ahmed Ghailani. According to reports, the pair was plotting attacks against a number of targets in South Africa, including the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and the National Parliament in Cape Town.

These arrests highlight the growing threat posed by radical Islamists in South Africa. In addition to Al-Qaeda's increased presence within the country, South Africa's government has closely allied itself with Iran and has largely ignored the spread of Islamic extremism within its borders.

Two months before the Pakistan arrests, the South African government revealed that security forces had thwarted an Al-Qaeda plot to disrupt the country's presidential election. South African terror suspects have even attempted to make their way into the U.S. Just last week, a South African with suspicious travel documents was arrested in Mexico near the U.S. border. His links to Al-Qaeda are currently being investigated. And on July 19, customs agents in Texas arrested Farida Goolam Mohamed Ahmed, a South African woman with a doctored passport. Like the man arrested last week, she is also being probed for possible Al-Qaeda ties. In addition, immigration officials have been on the lookout for suspicious persons with South African travel documents ever since British authorities discovered hundreds of genuine blank South African passports during an anti-terrorism raid in London earlier this year.

While these developments underscore South Africa's importance as a key node in the war on terror, in fact, radical Islam has held a foothold in South Africa since at least the 1980s.

One of the most well-established Islamist organizations in South Africa is Qibla, which has been labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. Formed in 1980 by radical Imam Achmed Cassiem to promote the establishment of an Islamic state in South Africa, Qibla uses the Iranian revolution as its model. During the 1980s, Qibla sent members to Libya for military training, and in the 1990s, operatives trained in Pakistan and fought alongside Hezbollah in South Lebanon. By 2000, over one hundred Qibla supporters had been arrested for violent offenses, including murder. After 9/11, Qibla announced that it had recruited fighters to send to Afghanistan.

Qibla is not the only group with which Achmed Cassiem is involved. In 1995, he was appointed chair of the Islamic Unity Convention (IUC), an umbrella organization for over 250 South African Muslim groups. There has been speculation that the IUC is a front for Qibla, and the group has voiced its support for convicted terrorists. Following the sentencing of those involved in the 1993 New York "Day of Terror" plot, Cassiem and the IUC penned an open letter to President Clinton that demanded "the immediate and unconditional release" of plot mastermind Shaikh Omar Abdel-Rahman and "all those sentenced with him."

To spread Cassiem's radical message, the IUC set up the Cape Town-based Radio 786. The station, which claimed 135,000 listeners in a 2000 survey, spreads extremist propaganda to South Africa's Muslims. In a 1998 report, the Israeli government singled out Radio 786 for its use of "classical anti-Semitic themes." Currently, the Radio 786 website boasts an extensive tribute to deceased Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin. 

In addition to Qibla and IUC, People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD) also has a significant presence in South Africa. According to the State Department, which labels PAGAD a terrorist organization, the group shares "some members and leadership" with Qibla.

While PAGAD claims that its sole aim is "to eradicate gangsterism and drugs," in reality, the group has launched an anti-Western campaign. For example, PAGAD is believed to have masterminded the bombing of the Cape Town Planet Hollywood in 1998, possibly in retaliation for U.S. strikes on Sudan and Afghanistan. What's more, PAGAD has adopted the language of holy war, as members are referred to as "mujahideen" and "martyrs." And, according to press reports, the group has sent members to Libya and Iran for training.

While hosting a number of indigenous terror groups, South Africa has also been a haven for international terrorist organizations. According to a variety of media reports, Israel lodged a formal complaint with the South African government in 1996 regarding the existence of five Hezbollah training camps. In 2002, The Wall Street Journal reported growing concern among security analysts that "Islamist extremists, including Al-Qaeda, are using South Africa's open society as a safe haven and a base to raise funds, launder money and plan terror operations." One U.S. counterterrorism official told The Journal, "[w]e are detecting so much smoke lately that something's got to be burning down there somewhere." In July 2003, the Israeli Security Services declared that there is "recognizable [Hamas] activity in South Africa."

In addition, South Africa has allowed a stream of radical students to enter the country. As an October 2003 Washington Post article noted, students from Pakistan's radical madrassas have fled to South Africa to avoid a post-9/11 government crackdown on extremist indoctrination. The Post quoted Mohammad Jamil, a spokesman for the Federation of Madrassas, who said, "[a]bout 500 have already moved to South Africa…Others are planning to pack their bags." These students likely found their way to the Islamic schools that recently sprang up in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban to meet the increased demand. The South African Embassy in Islamabad has contributed to this influx with its generous visa policy.

The South African government's willingness to allow this radicalized element into the country is not surprising given its general reluctance to take a firm stance against Islamic extremism. Most notably, South Africa has developed close ties with Iran, arguably the world's most active state sponsor of terrorism. Speaking on July 21, 2003 at the 7th South Africa-Iran Joint Bilateral Commission (established to expand political, economic and trade links between the two countries), Minister of Foreign Affairs Nkosazana Dlamani Zuma touted "the shared values between South Africa and the Islamic Republic of Iran, namely the promotion of democracy, justice, peace and prosperity." Just two months earlier, Zuma had traveled to Tehran for the 30th Session of the Organization of the Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers.

In line with South Africa's deeply troubling partnership with Iran, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Aziz Pahad, met with the chief of Hezbollah's political bureau, Mohammad Raad, in Beirut in June 2003. In a press release, the Department of Foreign Affairs remarked:

"Mr. Pahad noted Mr. Raad's position that Hezbollah was a legitimate liberation movement in terms of international law…Mr. Pahad…concurred that clear distinctions should be made between terrorism and legitimate struggle for liberation."

The South African government has also levied sharp criticism at Israel. For example, in 2002, Minister of Foreign Affairs Zuma led a Non-Aligned Movement delegation to meet with Yasser Arafat in an expression of solidarity with "the people of Palestine." The accompanying Department of Foreign Affairs release declared: "[t]he NAM delegation reiterated the movement's outrage at the intensification of the illegal Israeli occupation, the killing, vast destruction, the economic strangulation and other atrocities committed against Palestine and its people." More recently, the Department of Foreign Affairs lambasted Israel for killing Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin, who it termed "a moderating influence."

Despite its government's pro-Palestinian stance, South Africa clearly has not managed to escape Al-Qaeda's wrath. Instead, Islamic extremists have taken advantage of the government's laxity and, spurred on by a chaotic situation in which poverty, unemployment and AIDS are rampant, have been able to establish a solid base for fundraising, recruiting, and operations.

As an article in The Economist notes, "[South African President Thebo] Mbeki speaks more passionately about the need to stop the war in Iraq than about issues over which he has actual influence, such as AIDS…" Additionally, violent crime is at epidemic levels (139 police were murdered in 2002 alone) and the police are largely ineffective. Also according to The Economist, "[m]any in the police are inexperienced, poorly trained and corrupt; the institution itself cannot be relied upon to enforce the law adequately and to protect the public." Government officials are also wary of a sweeping crackdown on radicals due to fears that such actions could lead citizens to draw parallels with the apartheid era.

While this is a legitimate concern given the country's past, South Africa must look to the future in taking the necessary measures to neutralize the growing radical Islamic threat festering within its borders.


Josh Lefkowitz is a terrorism analyst at The Investigative Project, a Washington D.C. based counterterrorism research center.