Thoughts on South African and international politics and culture

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Islamic militancy in South Africa
An interesting article on radical Islamic factions in South Africa, Anneli Botha from the Institute of Security Studies finds that the threat of Islamic terrorism is "surprisingly real". She points the finger at Qibla historical local role, as well as their role in hijacking what was supposed to be a less violet PAGAD.

"During the anti-apartheid struggle Qibla simultaneously supported the black consciousness movement in South Africa, in particular Pan Africanism. Although Qibla is a purely South African organization, it is manipulated from a safe distance by the Iranian intelligence services, which use the organization not only to propagate the world view of the Islamic Republic, but also as a cover to conduct espionage in RSA. In order to broaden its support base inside the South African Muslim community, Qibla initiated three projects:

1. Played a key role in the formation of the Western Cape-based Islamic Unity Convention (IUC), which was formed in 1994 to serve as an umbrella organization for more than 250 Muslim groups. The objective of the IUC is to promote Islamic unity in South Africa, as a precursor for an Iranian-style Islamic revolution in the country.
2. Positioned itself as the driving force behind the militant/extreme components in PAGAD, in particular the G-Force.
3. Assumed control over the IUC'?s Radio 786. This medium proved to be useful in mobilizing individuals within the Muslim community for its cause."

After detailing PAGAD's rise and fall, Botha goes on to assess the current threat of Islamic terrorism in South Africa:

"The key question, of course, revolves around the likelihood of an al-Qaeda attack against Western interests in South Africa. For its part, the government of RSA hopes that its neutrality in the so-called war against terrorism and its pro-Palestinian stance will spare it from the wrath of international jihadists.

The real threat is to U.S. and other Western interests in the country; in this respect there are major causes for concern. As a nascent democracy, South Africa is obsessed with protecting basic rights, rights that could be exploited by international terrorists working in tandem with local militants. This Â?rights-basedÂ? environment is compounded by widespread official corruption in South Africa that makes it very easy for skilled and experienced terrorists to operate and further their aims (for instance by acquiring fake documentation) without fear of detection. Moreover, South Africa has porous borders and large immigrant communities that can shelter terrorists. Furthermore, high-value targets, including large embassies and the headquarters of multi-national corporations, proliferate in the country."

I think the crack at South Africa being a "rights-based environment" is a bit hyperbolic. True, we have a constitution that enshrines certain rights, but to say that "South Africa is obsessed with protecting basic rights" ignores the fact that many in this country, including those correctly or incorrectly suspected of criminal activity, have had their rights trampled upon since 1994, and I doubt that one could say that it has hindered our security forces. The police's eventual crushing of PAGAD is testiment to this.

All of her other points are well taken, and the various rumblings from Ronnie Kasrils (although last year he stated that there were no Al-Qaeda operatives in the country) about "Al-Qaeda members trying to build their network in southern Africa", as well as concerns by othgovernmentsnts, especially the US and UK, highlight the vulnerabilities in South Africa to Al-Qaeda operatives. Africa has long been an effective hideout, training and transit point for shady international operators, and South Africa is no different. [Read a thorough report on Africa's role in the fight against terrorism here]

We have a potentially volatile political decision coming shortly, which may stir up local Islamic militants. As stated in the report, South Africa's 'independent' status on the war on terror and its stand against the Iraq war, have appeased local militants, but with South Africa officially joining the US-led "War on Terror" list last week, and the upcoming UN decision on the Iran nuclear situation. South Africa's neutral stance has earned it political currency on both sides of the debate, and Mbeki has already been in discussions at the UN this week with factions on both sides, including Condeleeza Rice, Ariel Sharon and representatives from Iran. They're all trying to get South Africa in their camp in the increasing likelyhood of the Iran nuclear question going to the UN Security Council.

Qibla, with its Iranian links, will be watching with interest.