In early May, South Africa’s intelligence minister, Ronnie Kasrils, invited Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas member and prime minister of the Palestinian National Authority, to lead a delegation to South Africa. For good measure, Kasrils also demanded that the international community lift the aid embargo imposed against Hamas since its electoral victory in January 2006. Though sanctions were only to be lifted if Hamas recognized Israel, Kasrils insisted that Haniyeh had gone “a long way to meeting those requirements as we understand them.”
This embrace of Hamas should come as no surprise. As long ago as June 2003, South Africa’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, Aziz Pahad, met with representatives of Hezbollah. After the meeting, the ministry announced that “clear distinctions” must be made “between terrorism and legitimate struggle for liberation.”
Overtures to Hamas and Hezbollah are indicative of Pretoria’s utter indifference to the threat of radical Islamic ideologies and violence. The worst consequence of this blindness may be the creation of a safe haven for terrorists in South Africa itself.
According to one reported U.S. intelligence estimate, al Qaeda leaders are operating throughout South Africa. Other reports indicate that terrorists are exploiting the country’s banking system, and that South African passports are finding their way to al Qaeda operatives worldwide.
It is only natural, then, that South African jihadists are popping up in terrorist hotspots. In July 2004, Pakistani police arrested two South Africans–Feroz Ibrahim and Zubair Ismail–along with Khalfan Ghailani, who was on the FBI’s most wanted list for his role in the 1998 embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. Subsequent investigations have revealed that the pair was plotting to attack the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, the parliament complex in Pretoria, and several other high-profile targets in South Africa.
Another South African, Haroon Aswat, was tied to the July 7, 2005, London mass transit bombings. After the attacks, Zambian officials detained Aswat, who reportedly had exchanged a spate of phone calls with each of the four suicide bombers before they carried out their deadly attacks. Further research reveals that in the 1990s, Aswat was an assistant to London-based Abu Hamza al-Masri, a one-eyed, one-handed terrorist ideologue tied to al Qaeda groups in Yemen and Algeria. Aswat worked with al-Masri at the radical Finsbury Park Mosque, where a number of other terrorists received their training, including shoe bomber Richard Reid.
More recently, in January 2007, the U.S. Treasury named two South African cousins–Junaid Dockrat and Farhad Dockrat–Specially Designated Global Terrorists for their support to al Qaeda and the Taliban. Farhad, who had been detained in Gambia for suspected terrorist activity in 2005, was identified as having provided nearly $63,000 to al-Akhtar Trust, a charity that was designated in 2003 for providing support to al Qaeda. Junaid was responsible for raising $120,000 for Hazma Rabia, the al Qaeda operations chief killed in Pakistan by the U.S. military in 2005.
After freezing the Dokrats out of the U.S. financial system, Treasury submitted their names to the Sanctions Committee on al Qaeda and the Taliban for designation by the United Nations Security Council. To the chagrin of Washington, rather than pursuing these terrorists, South Africa’s foreign affairs minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, used his country’s new seat on the Security Council to put a hold on the U.N. designations. Thus, while American sanctions might freeze any of the Dockrats’ assets that reach U.S. banks (the likelihood of that is now extremely low), the terrorist-funding cousins continue to conduct business in South Africa–and everywhere else in the world except America–with impunity, all the while complaining about how the United States has arbitrarily accused them of funding terrorism.
Pretoria appears to have cast its lot with the two terror suspects, rather than the United States. Aziz Pahad voiced concerns about the designation, claiming that the rights of South Africans need to be defended. Pahad and other officials are asking for more information, which is odd, considering a South African Sunday Times report that discussions about the Dockrats has been ongoing between Washington and Pretoria for almost a year.
One cannot say that South Africa is hamstrung by a sizable or influential Muslim population–as is, for instance, France. Whereas some 10 percent of the French population are estimated to be adherents to the Islamic faith, with increasing sway over the Quay d’Orsay (although the election of Nicolas Sarkozy may change this), the Muslim population in South Africa is only about 600,000 out of a population of 44 million, or 1.5 percent.
Even South African Muslim leaders admit there is a problem in their community. As activist Naeem Jeenah writes on his website, “We do have people in our community who are sympathetic to al Qaeda and the Taliban; we do have people in our community who hold the same ideologies as those groups.”
Indeed, the problem is more systemic. Pretoria and Washington simply do not see eye to eye on virtually any of the critical international security challenges we face today. They have clashed over Iranian nukes (South Africa maintains friendly ties with Iran), the war on terror (South Africa does not agree with the U.S. definition of terrorism), U.N. reform (South Africa appears to be uninterested), and the Arab-Israeli conflict (Pretoria blames Israel).
Some of these policies can be traced to South Africa’s identification with the downtrodden. Its population remembers apartheid, and seeks to redress social injustice. There is a deep distrust of the United States, in light of the fact that the State Department labeled the African National Congress (ANC) a terrorist group until the organization was legalized and became a prominent political party in 1990. The State Department’s recent charm offensive through public diplomacy has done little to erase that chapter in U.S. history–even though the ANC was unquestionably involved in terrorist acts and had long-standing ties to the terrorist Palestine Liberation Organization, and Nelson Mandela embraced both Yasser Arafat and Muammar Qaddafi as loyal friends and supporters of the ANC.
Given this history, there is a deep distrust of America’s Middle East policy, particularly its unwavering support for Israel. When former President Jimmy Carter claims in his latest book that Israel “perpetrates even worse instances of apartness, or apartheid, than we witnessed in South Africa,” South Africans sit up and take notice.
South Africa’s quest for social justice notwithstanding, a terrorist threat looms inside the country. What has been revealed in the press and in U.S. government actions is likely just the tip of the iceberg. And Pretoria further supports terror by reaching out to murderous groups in the Middle East. As a result, Washington must keep an eye on one more potential source of danger: South Afristan.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former Treasury intelligence analyst, is director of policy for the Jewish Policy Center, and author of Al-Qaeda’s Armies: Middle East Affiliate Groups and the Next Generation of Terror.