SA will have a price to pay for its ambivalent stand on terror
Date Released: Mon, 30 September 2013 16:59 +0200
As Kenya weeps, the ANC drags its feet on creating a policy on extremism, writes Ray Hartley
The only people smiling are the members of al-Shabab wandering around the malls of South Africa with impunity.
South Africa has not been a victim of organised terrorism since a spate of pipe bombings, believed to be the work of People Against Gangsterism and Drugs, hit Cape Town in 1998, fizzling out as a number of the vigilante group’s operators were arrested and jailed by 2002.
It is easy to forget the most traumatic incident, the pipe bombing of the Planet Hollywood restaurant at the Waterfront, which resulted in two deaths and numerous injuries. Until then, it had seemed South Africa’s tolerant multicultural democracy had immunised it against this sort of extremist attack.
This act of terror at a premier tourist destination would have had a devastating effect on tourism were it not for the highly effective policing operation that broke the back of the bombing network.
Could it be that, more than a decade later, we have once more begun to believe that we are somehow immune to the horror that is being inflicted on East and West Africa by terrorist organisations?
The minister of intelligence, Siyabonga Cwele, appears to be on top of things. In May this year he said a case was being made against operatives of al-Shabab, the Somali extremist grouping behind the Kenyan shopping centre massacre, who were working from South Africa. Speaking at a briefing before his budget vote in May, he said: “We are committed to fight terrorism not only in South Africa, but anywhere it occurs.”
The government’s news service reported him saying: “Last year we picked up some information that some brothers and sisters are linked to terrorist groups such as al-Shabab.”
Cwele’s statement that “there is no friendly terrorist anywhere in the world” appears to place this country squarely in the camp of those seeking to destroy the capability of the likes of al-Shabab.
But if there were arrests of the operatives that Cwele was talking about in May, they have not been made public. It is more likely that the wheels are grinding slowly, perhaps even reluctantly. Could it be that timeous action might have interdicted those planning the Kenyan atrocity?
It is tempting to believe that the failure to act against the al-Shabab operation at home is because of the poor state of the intelligence services, which appear to have been drawn into domestic political factionalism at the expense of their ability to properly assess and act against external threats.
Although there may be an element of truth to that, the real reason for our failure to act may be more about the global balance of power. Because of the way in which South Africa has positioned its foreign policy, it finds itself unwilling to be seen to be pursuing a US agenda, in this case, what the US calls its “war on terror”.
Here is how Cwele qualified his stance on terror at the May briefing: “To us, it’s not only religious extremists. We’re trying to link the underlying causes. Fortunately, in South Africa we have a good working relationship with the Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities.”
Anneli du Plessis of the Institute for Security Studies said she found officials in the government, police and military uncomfortable when discussing terrorism. “There is a worry that South Africa is not taking terrorism seriously. Whenever you start a discussion about terrorism, they go back to the age-old accusation that the ANC was a terrorist organisation.”
Government officials who believe they were part of a legitimate liberation movement say their just cause was smeared by the “terrorist” label. A crude view would say that they appear to be wondering aloud if the “terrorists” they are being asked to fight today might also have a legitimate cause. But it is, thankfully, more sophisticated than that. The government clearly recognises the illegitimacy of the al-Shabab operation.
What rankles is its perception that it is being asked to sign up to a US agenda, which might have other objectives, such as strengthening the US influence over African states.
“For them, it’s an American agenda and they are not going to spend money on an American agenda,” said Du Plessis. Faced with a choice between allocating intelligence resources to Muslim extremism or right-wing extremism, they would always choose the latter, she said.
South Africa’s reluctance to sign up for the US war on terror might play well with its allies in the Brics, especially Russia and China, but it is not without cost.
For countries such as Kenya, whose head of state, Uhuru Kenyatta, on Friday attended memorial services for close relatives killed by the al-Shabab militants in the shopping mall attack, South Africa’s foot-dragging on terrorism could reduce its regional influence.
The revelations that South African passports obtained under false pretences and that al-Shabab militants appear to be able to attend what is described as “ideological training” unfettered in South Africa are a cause of anger.
South Africa’s weak passport regime has been exposed for several years. In 2011, Du Plessis wrote an article under the heading “Why al-Qaeda seems to prefer South African passports”.
Her thesis is simple: the weak link in the chain is the easily forged birth certificate. “A birth certificate is a piece of paper. With that forgery, I can apply for a legal ID. With that ID document, I can get an illegal passport.”
Another major African country racked by terrorism is Nigeria, which faces attacks by Boko Haram militants. Then there is the terror campaign of al-Qaeda in the lands of the Islamic Maghreb, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, and the Signed-in-Blood Battalion.
South Africa’s failure to act decisively against terrorism will begin to count against it with these countries in African multinational forums.
The fussiness over whose agenda one may or may not be following might, ironically, backfire, leading to South Africa ceding influence to the US, which is making major efforts to fight terror in Nigeria, Kenya and elsewhere.
The US runs a Rewards for Justice programme, which places a substantial bounty on the heads of those it has identified as leading terrorists.
In June, it offered a reward of no less than $7-million (about R70million) for information on the whereabouts of Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram.
In a teleconference of its Africa Regional Media Hub in which journalists from Nigeria and several other African countries participated, no questions were asked about a US agenda. Instead, the focus was on the mechanics of the programme and how people could participate.
The programme has also placed a bounty of $7-million on alShabab’s Ahmed Abdi AwMohamed, also known as Godane, believed to be the commander of the organisation.
Meanwhile, South Africa seems content to stay away from committing itself while its ministers fuss over administrative details.
On Thursday, Home Affairs Minister Naledi Pandor huffed that the passport of the alleged commander of the mall attack, “White Widow” Samantha Lewthwaite, had been cancelled in 2011 after it was discovered to be fraudulent.
“There has been no contact from the government, police or security service of Kenya indicating that a South African passport was used,” she said.
That is cold comfort for Kenyans coming to terms with the horror of terrorism.
The only people smiling are the members of al-Shabab wandering around the malls of South Africa with impunity, their South African passports in their pockets.
Picture: REUTERSMALL OF DEATH: A wounded man at Nairobi’s Westgate shopping centre in which at least 72 people were massacred.
By Ray Hartley
Ray Hartley is a Rhodes University graduate
Article Source: Sunday Times