South Africa in the War on Terror

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 23

Last July’s arrest of two residents from Johannesburg and Pretoria suspected of having links to al-Qaeda has raised fears that the Republic of South Africa (RSA) is possibly being targeted as a new logistical and operational hub by pan-Islamic extremists. While it is difficult to assess the extent to which militant jihadists have penetrated the country, the RSA has certain socio-economic and political features that would, conceivably, be of interest to al-Qaeda and its affiliate groupings – particularly as they seek to extend the scope of their war against the west beyond the highly visible (and, accordingly, closely monitored) theaters of the Middle East and South, Southeast and Central Asia.

The July Arrests

The arrest of the suspected South African militants, who were from Johannesburg and Pretoria, took place following a tip-off to Pakistani police identifying a possible al-Qaeda cell in the eastern city of Gujarat. The two men – since identified as Feroz Ibrahim and Zubair Ismail – were apprehended along with Khalfan Ghailani, one of the FBI’s 22 most wanted international terrorists and thought to be a key player behind the 1998 suicide bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es-Salaam, Tanzania. [1]

According to the local law enforcement agencies that carried out the detentions, Ibrahim and Ismail were apprehended with detailed maps of Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town and Durban – each highlighting prominent tourist, financial and diplomatic institutions/complexes in the three cities concerned. Subsequent investigations have led Pakistani intelligence to surmise the maps were initial blueprints for a series of spectacular attacks in South Africa that were to have targeted:

The Johannesburg Stock Exchange

The Sheraton Hotel (one of the capital’s premier hotels for western tourists and businessmen) and the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria

The national Parliament complex – again in Pretoria

Various waterfront attractions and restaurants popular with overseas visitors in Cape Town

The port of Durban, allegedly to coincide with the visit of the Queen Elizabeth II cruise ship. [2]

The July arrests came on the heels of earlier police and intelligence reports that a plot to attack British and American targets during South Africa’s national elections in May (which marked the tenth anniversary of the end of apartheid rule) had been thwarted and that at least five Islamists suspected of involvement in terrorist activities had been expelled from the country. Combined, these events have heightened fears that the RSA is being systematically drawn into the operational universe of the so-called al-Qaeda “nebula,” possibly forming the territorial crux of an emerging Islamist sub-Saharan terror network that connects militants across the eastern extremities of the African continent – from Sudan to the Cape of Good Hope. [3]

South Africa as an Operational Target for al-Qaeda

Although the Mbeki government does not endorse U.S. policies on the Arab-Israeli conflict or Iraq and is not a major advocate of the global war on terrorism – at least in its contemporary manifestation – the RSA does display the general American preference for liberal democracy and individual freedom and remains part and parcel of the capitalist system that bin Laden insists is preventing Islam from achieving its rightful place as the world’s preeminent faith and religion. Commenting on the implications of the Republic’s explicit predilection to western norms and values, Greg Mills, the Director of the South African Institute for International Affairs, has observed, “The fact that [South Africa] has a particular view on Palestine or on Iraq…is no guarantee that you will not be attacked.” [4] Just as importantly, in at least five respects the RSA provides a relatively benign theater in which to plan and execute terrorist attacks.

Firstly, while only two percent of RSA’s population is Islamic in its religious orientation (the vast bulk of whom are concentrated in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban, embracing religious beliefs that are neither intolerant nor fanatical) an extremist element does appear to exist in the country in the guise of People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD – designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) by the U.S. State Department in 2001). The organization, which ostensibly describes itself as a militia devoted to safeguarding the interests of ordinary South African Muslims from the scourge of organized crime, routinely espouses anti-western rhetoric, is an ardent critic of U.S. foreign policy and deeply identifies with the Islamist rhetoric of Qibla – a domestic political group that portrays the secular Pretoria government as a threat to Islamic values. Of greater concern, PAGAD has also been connected to several high-profile attacks in Cape Town, including the bombings of Planet Hollywood in 1998 and a series of urban bombings in 2000. Local outfits of this sort have proven highly susceptible to outside co-option and influence, which as organizations throughout North Africa, and Central, South and Southeast Asia readily attest to, can be engineered in such a way to directly accord with al-Qaeda’s own logistical and operational designs.

Secondly, South Africa is characterized by an advanced and relatively efficient communications, financial and transportation infrastructure. The country’s media system is both established and internationally connected, guaranteeing that attacks will achieve the requisite publicity that is so integral to the hatred and fear al-Qaeda both craves and seeks to inspire. Banks are modern, but loosely regulated, providing a viable conduit through which to transmit operational and logistical capital. At the same time high quality roads, a well-run airline industry and a relatively good public train and bus network ensure that operatives can rapidly move between pre-selected attack sites as well as mount quickly put together strikes as and when opportunities arise. In all of these areas, RSA’s relative advantage compared to other potential target theaters in southern and eastern Africa (for example, Tanzania and Kenya) is decisive. [5]

Thirdly, there are numerous soft targets of opportunity in South Africa, many of which directly symbolize western cultural and economic influence. Among the more visible of these are internationally owned hotel chains catering to the thousands of overseas tourists that visit the country each year (for example, Sheraton, Hilton, Inter-Continental, Hyatt), shopping and entertainment complexes replete with prominent symbols of capitalist corporate power, world-class restaurants, nightclubs and major sports stadiums. Unlike more strategic, so-called “hard” targets (such as government buildings and diplomatic missions), these venues tend to be characterized by largely unimpeded public access, concentrating large numbers of people in a single space. They are, in short, easy to attack in a manner that is likely to yield a substantial body count.

Fourthly, an entrenched and pervasive organized criminal influence has emerged in South Africa, much of which is run by sophisticated syndicates under the control of expatriates from Nigeria, Liberia and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Ghana. These groups engage in a broad spectrum of illicit activities, ranging from credit card and identity theft to the trafficking of guns, people, gems and narcotics (principally heroin, cocaine, crack and cannabis). [6] In an era where support from traditional state sponsors has become increasingly uncertain, such entities are rapidly emerging as a highly important adjunct to terrorist organizational structures. Not only have organized crime groups availed the movement of militants to, from and between attack venues, they have also provided a crucial conduit through which to generate and “hide” illicit proceeds that have subsequently been used to purchase weapons, replenish “battle-related” losses and otherwise sustain overall operational tempos. Al-Qaeda is already thought to have moved to benefit from the illicit sale of “blood diamonds” in South Africa and, following a raid earlier this year on a suspected jihadist safe house in London, is now believed to be actively exploiting a thriving underground trade in passports. [7]

Finally, corruption at many levels of government opens up opportunities to infiltrate the state security apparatus, bypass formal immigration and customs procedures – particularly at already highly porous checkpoints along the Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho and Mozambique borders – and obtain /stockpile logistical materiel. Corruption appears to have played an especially important role in facilitating the acquisition of passports. According to local law enforcement and intelligence officials, syndicates operating within the Department of Home Affairs have been selling identity documents on the black markets for several years – often for as little as $77 – many of which are now being used by al-Qaeda members to illegally enter South Africa as well as facilitate visa-free travel to other parts of the continent and prominent European hubs such as the United Kingdom. [8]

Addressing the Potential Terrorist Threat in South Africa

While concerted evidence of an entrenched al-Qaeda presence in South Africa has yet to emerge, the country’s western-centric and relatively benign operational character makes such a contingency a realistic possibility. As Peter Gastrow, Director of the Cape Town office of the Institute for Strategic Studies (ISS, one of the leading analytical think-tanks in the country) suggests, there is growing reason to question the assumption that “the period of stability and non-terrorist headlines over the last few years is going to continue.” [9]

Certainly South Africa has recognized the potential danger of extremist Islamic terrorism within its borders and has, accordingly, moved to institute various counter-measures that straddle the police, intelligence and criminal justice communities. [10] However, many of these modalities are bereft of concerted political will, lack sufficient human, material and technical resources and exist in the absence of an integrated and rationalized overall national counter-terrorism strategy. Moreover, there has arguably been no real attempt to link internal security initiatives with a broader array of policies and reforms designed to augment general institutional state development and systems of national governance.

There is, in short, considerable scope for improving the overall direction of counter-terrorism policy in South Africa. The key will be to formulate policies that reflect an integrated and holistic approach to state security, both in terms of the nature of specific tools and programs and the wider societal contexts in which they emerge. The goal should be one of sustained national resilience that is intolerant to, and effective against terrorist and associated extremist/criminal designs.

Andrew Holt is a Southeast Asia analyst based in Los Angeles.


1. “Gujrat Raid for Qaeda: South Africa Wants Access to Held Nationals,” The Daily Times, November 7, 2004.

2. Wines, “Arrests and Plots Give South Africans a New Problem”; “Suspects Allegedly Targeted S. Africa,” The Associated Press (South Africa), August 5, 2004; “South Africa Warns Against al Qaeda ‘Paranoia.'” India Daily, October 19, 2004.

3. Wines, “Arrests and Plots Give South Africans a New Problem.” “Doubts Over South Africa’s al Qaeda Arrests,” Afrol News, 27 May, 2004; “Al-Qaeda Members Hiding in SA,” Cape Times, October 4, 2004.

4. Greg Mills, quoted in “South Africa: Government Denies al-Qaeda Threat,” IRINNEWS.ORG, August 5, 2004, available on-line at

5. Interview, Nairobi, February 2004; Larry Benjamin, “Al Qaeda Again Connected to South Africa,” The Sowetan, June 1, 2004.

6. Mark Shaw, “West African Criminal Networks in South and Southern Africa,” African Affairs 101 (2002): 300-304; Peter Chalk, “Countering Nigerian Organised Crime,” Jane’s Intelligence Review (September 2003): 32-34.

7. Douglas Farah “Al Qaeda Cash Tied to Diamond Trade,” posted on, November 3, 2001, available on-line at; “Terrorists Obtain S. Africa Passports,” The Associated Press (South Africa), July 28, 2004.

8. Wines, “Arrests and Plots Give South Africans a New Problem”; “Terrorists Obtain S. Africa Passports;” Bill Gertz, “Al Qaida in Angola,” Geostrategy Direct, November 2, 2004.

9. Peter Gastrow, cited in Wines, “Arrests and Plots Give South Africans a New Problem.”

10. For an overview of these measures see H. Boshoff and M. Schoenteich, “South Africa’s Operational and Legislative Responses to Terrorism,” in Jakkie Cilliers and Kathyrn Sturma eds., Africa and Terrorism: Joining the Global Campaign, Monograph No. 74 (Pretoria: Institute for Security Studies, July 2002).