June 13, 2011 | World Defense Review

Playing with Fire: South Africa’s Dangerous Terrorist Liaisons

 On October 1, the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) was officially stood up, achieving its “initial operating capacity” as a subordinate component of the U.S. European Command (EUCOM) with the understanding that, by October 1, 2008, it will be a fully independent unified combatant command. While the White House announcement in February of the command's creation emphasized that its goal was to “strengthen our security cooperation with Africa and create new opportunities to bolster the capabilities of our partners in Africa,” not all Africans have responded to the initiative with the balanced perspective of Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who, while acknowledging that “AFRICOM is undeniably about the projection of American interests – but this does not mean that it is to the exclusion of African ones,” nonetheless saw value in the undertaking and has repeatedly offered to host its headquarters.

Leading the opposition has been South Africa's defense minister, Mosioua Lekota, who in July did not even respond to a request from the U.S. Embassy to meet with General William E. “Kip” Ward, the designated first commander of AFRICOM, when the latter was in Johannesburg recently to attend a seminar hosted by the Brenthurst Foundation, an African nongovernmental organization that works on policy and economic development. The following month, Lekota went even further. Not only did he state publicly that should Africa “avoid the presence of foreign forces on her soil,” but, in a diplomatically maladroit display of his own country's hegemonic pretenses over its neighbors, the South African defense chief lectured his subregional counterparts during their annual meeting in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to the effect that “the interests of unity of African nations supersedes any individual view of a constituent member” and threatened that “should any particular country choose to break ranks with this decision…other sister countries may refuse to cooperate with it in other areas other than that particular area.”

At one level, South Africa's opposition to AFRICOM is consistent with what an analysis based on realist international relations theory would expect. Smaller countries will tend to view the new command as a potential hedge against the hegemonic aspirations of their larger neighbors, while larger nations may conversely view it as a potential obstacle to those same ambitions. Thus the willingness of Botswana's President Festus Mogae to openly muse about possibly opening country to the command even as Minister Lekota was quoted in the South African media as fulminating that “any country that wants to go against the decision” to give the cold shoulder to AFRICOM should “consider what the implications might be.” At another, deeper level, however, the South Africa government's hostility is profoundly troubling because it arises not so much out of a rational geopolitical calculus of its own interests, but rather out an ideological straightjacket that endangers not only the lives and property of its citizens, but the security of Africa and, indeed, the world.

Before the advent of majority rule in 1994, the South African government had branded the African National Congress (ANC) – of which Mosioua Lekota was the chief of intelligence – as well as other anti-apartheid and national liberation groups across the region as “terrorist organizations.” As a result of this historical experience, after they came to power, the new political classes tended to accept the relativist notion that “one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter” and subsequently have not viewed transnational terrorism with the same concern as the United States and other countries. What compounds this state of affairs is that the ANC government, perhaps recalling its cadres' difficult experience as effectively stateless persons, has now adopted what is essentially a “don't ask, don't tell” policy with respect to outside militants operating on its national territory. As I reported last year, one of the terrorists responsible for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, Kenya, Khalfan Khamis Mohammed, entered South Africa a week afterwards on a tourist visa he had obtained the day before the attacks. Mohammed then applied for asylum under a fictitious name. He lived Cape Town for more than year – working at Burger World, no less – before being discovered. Although the terrorist was turned over to the U.S. where, after his convicted by a federal court in New York, he now serves a life sentence without the possibility of parole, the South African Constitutional Court subsequently ruled that the extradition was “illegal.”

Nor was the East African al-Qaeda operative the only terrorist to have friends in South Africa. South Africa's minister for intelligence services, Ronnie Kasrils, a militant trained in the Soviet Union who was a member of the central committee of the South African Communist Party before he became a member of the national executive committee of the ANC, has campaigned tireless for a lifting of the international boycott of Hamas. In May, he even traveled to visit with Hamas member Ismail Haniyeh, then-prime minister of the Palestinian Authority. His comments on what he saw exceeded even those of habitually demonize the Jewish State: “The analogy between apartheid and Israel's occupation of Palestine is often made. It is not the same thing. The occupation is absolutely worse.” Needless to say, one should not expect much counterterrorism cooperation from this particular intelligence chief.

In January, when the U.S Department of the Treasury added two South Africans, Farhad Ahmed Dockrat and Junaid Ismail Dockrat, as well as a Johannesburg-based company controlled by the latter , Sniper Africa, to its list of “specially designated global terrorists” for their role in financing al-Qaeda. Cousin Farhad funneled money to Taliban representatives in Pakistan for forwarding to al-Qaeda while Cousin Junaid was in direct telephone and email contact with Abu Hamza Rabia, Abu Faraj al-Libi's successor as al-Qaeda's operations chief, to coordinate the sending of South Africans to Pakistan for terrorist training. Junaid also allegedly ponied up $120,000 to help sponsor the recruits' travel and study under Abu Hamza before the latter met his end at the hands of a U.S.-operated Predator drone in late 2005. When the U.S. State Department forwarded the designation to the United Nations Security Council al-Qaeda and Taliban Sanctions Committee, South Africa's foreign minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a former wife of dismissed Deputy President Jacob Zuma, used her country's fresh membership on the Council to stop what would otherwise be the routine endorsement of the ruling.

If its official and semi-official coddling of terrorists were not bad enough, South Africa has also become implicated in the actual potential proliferation of technologies necessary for the production of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and, potentially, their transfer to terrorist groups. This is especially ironic given the country's unique position as the only state to have voluntarily abandoned its nuclear weapons program after having successfully developed such armaments. In an article earlier this year in Arms Control Today, the journal of the Arms Control Association, researchers Jack Boureston and Jennifer Lacey detail how South Africa's staunch defense of Iranian nuclear ambitions goes beyond its diplomatic support for what its representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) termed “the need to guard against the imposition of any arrangement that may infringe on the inalienable right of states” to nuclear technology. In August 2006, just days after the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1694 giving the mullahs a one-month deadline (since then effectively prorogued) to “suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development,” three South African cabinet ministers traveled to Tehran to offer, according to the two veteran nonproliferation researchers, “to transfer natural uranium to Iran for use in its program.”

In August, a study published in the Naval Postgraduate School's journal Strategic Insights, asserted that “al-Qaeda and its local affiliates have increased their presence in South Africa over the past decade” and reported that official were worried about “the possibility that radical Islamic groups will succeed in efforts to obtain WMD components, materials or expertise from South Africa.” The author, Dr. Stephen Burgess, deputy chair of the Department of International Security Studies at the U.S. Air Force War College and associate director of the U.S. Air Force Counterproliferation Center, cited as causes for concern the involvement of a South African branch in the A.Q. Khan network, the continuing existence of biological weapons samples and experts in South Africa, the country's advanced weapons industry, and the distinct possibility that “al-Qaeda or affiliates will increasingly be successful in efforts to recruit new foot soldiers from among the poor and disaffected youths in poor Muslim neighborhoods in several cities in South Africa.”

Of course, an increasing number of South African officials, especially among the middle ranks of the country's military and intelligence services, are fully cognizant of the risks of the ANC leadership's flirtations with terrorists and rogue states. Elite units like the National Prosecuting Authorities FBI-style Directorate of Special Operations (commonly known as the “Scorpions” unit) successfully broke up Islamist vigilantes-turned-terrorists of People Against Gangs and Drugs (PAGAD), which carried out a string of bombings earlier in the decade, as well as Iranian-backed Shi'a movement Qibla, whose operatives were trained in Pakistan and some of whom fought alongside Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in the 1990s. (The Scorpions recently even obtained arrest and search warrants for Jackie Selebi, the commissioner of the South African Police Service and current head of INTERPOL, on charges of fraud and racketeering as well as links to an organized crime figure. The arrest warrant was subsequently withdrawn, although the official political opposition Democratic Alliance accuses President Thabo Mbeki of protecting his longtime ally.)

In March, Barry Gilder, an intelligence veteran with nearly three decades of experience who retires at the end of this month as coordinator of South Africa's National Intelligence Coordinating Committee (NICOC), an interagency body, expressed publicly acknowledged that agents were keeping a close eye on individuals and organizations with links to terrorists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq: “We are concerned that terrorists are spending time here…it is something we are taking very seriously.” Gilder noted that an interagency task force from the National Intelligence Agency, South African Secret Service, the police, defense intelligence and other agencies had been formed under the auspices of NICOC to oversee investigations and said: “We are putting together all information, and see whether we can feed these to enforcement agencies.”

Despite these signs of progress in counterterrorism, it needs to be borne in mind today's South Africa is a democracy and thus policy direction comes not from the security professionals, but the political echelons of the ANC among whom the “anti-Western” and “revolutionary” rhetoric of the bin Ladens and Ahmadinejads of the world still resonates. In fact, Mr. Gilder's restrained remarks elicited a strong negative reaction in the South African political and media circles. The Star newspaper, for example, ran a prominent commentary by a leading Muslim cleric, Moulana E.I. Bham, who, representing Johannesburg's council of Muslim theologians, the Jamiatul Ulama, decried the fact that “the global anti-terror industry, chaired by the U.S.A., has led to many unfortunate assumptions made by governments and the public alike.” Moulana Bham trump argument was that “history has shown that today's illegitimate organization and suspected terrorist (the example of the ANC and Mr. Mandela would suffice) may just become tomorrow's hero.”

While one should be careful not to over exaggerate the imminence of the threat, the overall risk is very real. Between the ideologically-motivated ignorance of the country's rulers to the dangers posed by transnational Islamist terrorism as well as the attractiveness of South Africa's highly-developed infrastructure to terrorist networks seeking a base for and/or a theater of operations, terrorists understandably find in South Africa an enabling environment at the very least. South Africans should not count on their leaders' long-standing ties to terrorists groups and regimes to immunize them from the danger that confronts civilization in the twenty-first century. To cite just one example, in a little over two years, in 2010, South Africa will be the first African nation to ever play host to the World Cup Finals, the most widely-viewed sporting event in the world and a target terrorists may find too tempting to pass up. Should anything happen during the tournament, the consequent drying up of tourism and foreign investment would be devastating not just to South Africa, but to the entire African continent. While AFRICOM may not be welcome in South Africa, if the new structure is to “enhance our efforts to bring peace and security to the people of Africa and promote our common goals of development, health, education, democracy, and economic growth in Africa,” it will have to closely monitor – even if from a discreet distance – the foolish playing with fire by the political leaders of that pivotal state before the flames sweep across its entire area of responsibility.

J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs and a Research Fellow of the Institute for Infrastructure and Information Assurance at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.

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