February 1, 2006  

al-Qaida in southern Africa

The emergence of a new front in the war on terrorism

Although the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001, did not start the deterritorialization of al-Qaida, it certainly accelerated the process.

The destruction of Osama bin Laden’s training camps and overthrow of his primary sponsor, the Taliban government in Kabul, scattered the militant leader’s associates in search of new logistical bases and places to hide. An initial assumption in Washington was that the terrorist network would try to relocate to Somalia, the one country in the world with an even greater degree of prolonged state collapse than Afghanistan under the Taliban.

On the face of it, Somalia seemed to offer ideal conditions — a fractured and partially radicalized Muslim population, poor state security structures, proximity to high-profile Western targets in neighboring states — and, indeed, it was Washington’s primary terrorism-related concern in Africa. But losing Afghanistan has had a different and more dangerous effect than was perhaps anticipated, propelling al-Qaida more swiftly in a direction it was already headed. Rather than relocating, it is reaching outward, tapping its roots into as many diverse local communities as it can.

As the Paris-based Islam scholar Olivier Roy notes: “What is new is that with al-Qaida, converts are now considered full members. For al-Qaida, converts are not just tools to get past security. It’s a way for them to become a global movement. In just about every al-Qaida cell over the past eight years, we have seen converts. It’s structural, not just accidental.”

One area of growing concern in this regard is southern Africa. Along with Nigeria in the west and Somalia in the Horn, South Africa resides at the top of the State Department’s list of worrisome states in Africa with regard to terrorism. This is in some ways counterintuitive. In its 2002 National Security Strategy, the Bush administration placed an emphasis on the threat posed by weak states in an age of globalized terrorism. South Africa is the most stable and prosperous country on the continent and has the best equipped police, military and intelligence structures. Its 2 million Muslims seem, for the most part, unreceptive to calls to extremism, and none of its neighboring states, though beset by varying degrees of state weakness, have anything like the more combustible mix of large Muslim populations, grinding poverty and social desperation that have rendered other points on the continent vulnerable to radicalization.

The rising security concerns about South Africa and its region thus prompt new thinking about the strategies of al-Qaida and the types of societies, states or regions that attract modern international terror-related activity. What signs of extremism or extremist activity are emerging from southern Africa? What drives radicalization and renders societies susceptible to it? What are the “goods” and “bads” drawing foreign extremists to the region? How does southern Africa fit into the global terrorism jigsaw puzzle? Finally, what internal measures and forms of external engagement can counter the threat?


Haroon Rashid Aswat, a Briton of Indian descent who grew up in the northern English town of Dewsbury, was arrested in Zambia on July 20, but not before tragedy struck. He’d been under surveillance for years by intelligence officials from the United States and other countries for at least three years. In the weeks before his arrest, South African security officials told authorities in New York that he had been living in their country for some time. Somehow he managed to slip under their gaze and traveled north, arriving in Zambia on July 6.

The following day, four young suicide bombers, at least one of whom was also from Dewsbury, blew themselves up on London’s transportation system, killing 56 people. Before the attack, they called Aswat 20 times on his South African cell phone. At the time of his arrest, he was traveling on a South Africa passport with about $50,000 in U.S., British and South African bank notes. As one Pentagon official put it, referring to the Aswat case, “I can tell you that in our view, that’s the tip of the iceberg.”

There were previous indications of links between southern Africa and international terrorism:

• In 2004, two South Africans of Asian descent — Zoubair Ismail, a student, and Feroze Ganchi, a doctor — were pinned down in a 12-hour gun battle between police and Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a suspected al-Qaida operative wanted by the FBI, in the Pakistani city of Gujrat. All three men were arrested. The Pakistani police alleged that the two men, who were found in possession of several South African maps, were plotting a series of attacks on the U.S. Embassy and government Union buildings in Pretoria, the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, a popular shopping district on the Cape Town Waterfront, and the Queen Elizabeth 2 ocean liner. The South African government deemed later that the evidence was insufficient.

• At roughly the same time, two other South Africans, both suspected by the U.S. of having links to terrorist foreign terrorist groups, were arrested trying to cross the U.S. border from Mexico, which at the time required no visas from South Africans.

• On April, 25, 2001, Mohamed Suleman Vaid of Durban was arrested along with his wife while attempting to smuggle $130,000 in local currency across the border into Swaziland. The ensuing police investigation indicated ties to al-Qaida. Vaid, who denied any connection with such groups, was carrying the funds to a Lebanese businessman in Mozambique who allegedly did have such links. It was established that in the 18 months preceding his arrest, Vaid had made the trip 150 times — roughly once every four days.

• Harun Fazil, an associate of bin Laden’s in Afghanistan and Somalia who was a key logistics man in the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, had been living in Zimbabwe prior to those attacks.

Much has been made in recent years about the alleged link between African gemstones and al-Qaida. Shortly after Sept. 11, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal published lengthy pieces describing an intricate trade route between various African states and distant Muslim trading centers such as Dubai and Jaipur. Al-Qaida, the argument held, was financing its activities with diamonds from Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and tanzanite from mines at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro operated by foreign Muslims. The State Department rejects this theory, pointing instead to trends and activities indicated by some of the cases cited above.

Southern Africa is vast but highly interconnected, with networks of ports, railways and highways, and richly endowed with natural resources and caches of small arms left over from the region’s many liberation struggles and civil wars. Stretching from Cape Town to Dar es Salaam, it is anchored by South Africa at once the most modern and powerful industrialized state on the continent as well as the most democratic and liberal — but otherwise characterized by weak states, states slowly emerging from decades of conflict and, in the case of Zimbabwe and Congo, failing states.

Against this backdrop, a range of factors makes the region attractive to foreign terrorist groups. First, the “bads.” The Southern African Development Community (SADC) is one of the most disorganized and least effective of Africa’s nine regional economic communities. Dominated by liberation movements-turned-ruling parties, its politics remain strongly influenced by stubborn allegiances and rivalries forged during the struggles against colonialism. This explains, to a large extent, the failure of regional leaders to condemn President Robert Mugabe’s ruinous domestic policies in Zimbabwe in the past six years or wrest the SADC security organ from his ineffectual control. As the Aswat case shows, the region’s borders are poorly monitored and, particularly in South Africa’s case, travel documentation is easily abused. Africa’s most functional state has one of the world’s most suspected passports.

Forgery is not a greater problem in this regard; poor bureaucratic capacity and corruption are prevalent throughout the region. With the exception of Botswana, none of SADC’s 14 member states ranks above the median on Transparency International’s 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index. For as little as $50, bribery can purchase an officially administered passport within a few days.

Another negative that renders southern Africa vulnerable to exploitation by foreign terrorist groups is organized crime. Money-laundering, customs abuse and trafficking in arms and narcotics are prevalent problems throughout the region, all of which present terrorist groups with potential means of raising funds. In a paper on the potential link between the two enterprises, South African crime analyst Charles Goredema concluded that southern Africa “is equally attractive to legitimate entrepreneurs and terrorist groups and money launderers. The contemporary reality is that it is characterized by little policing, inadequate legislation and understaffed and underresourced law-enforcement agencies.”

The region’s “goods” are also a potential attraction. Beyond the region’s coherent physical infrastructure, which provides easy movement regionally and internationally — direct flights to dozens of European, Asian and Latin American cities as well as New York, Washington and Atlanta — South Africa has sophisticated banking and communications networks. The region hosts many of the largest ports on the continent, providing vital gateways for global trade, but even South Africa has extremely limited container security. South Africa’s liberal constitution, meanwhile, provides broad legal protection, making extradition difficult. The country’s steady economic growth, strong currency and universities provide an additional draw. Key terrorism figures have often used universities as both a means of entry into Western societies and a vantage point for logistics and team-building.

Finally, South Africa’s growing trade ties with non-Western states, based either on historical demographic links or new “South-South” initiatives, open conduits for the movement of goods and people into and throughout the region with less than adequate monitoring. As Western and South Asian diplomats have confirmed, more Pakistanis enter South African than leave. The majority are most likely drawn by the promise of better lives and slip quietly, albeit illegally, into the fabric of society. But there is ample evidence of an influx of money and influence into South Africa’s Muslim communities, reflected in the growth of foreign-funded new mosques across the country.


In 1999, a year after the devastating U.S. embassy attacks in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, the then-Organization of African Unity adopted its Convention on the Prevention and Combating of Terrorism. It required all member states to adopt anti-terrorism legislation, accede to U.N. instruments and share intelligence. A few years later, at a meeting in Algiers, the reconstituted African Union (AU) adopted a plan of action calling for the establishment of an African Center for the Study and Research on Terrorism to act as a nerve center for an integrated counterterrorism system across the continent. The facility is based in Algiers. The states and regional economic communities are required to designate focal points — defined by the AU as “a Unit, a Team, Directorate, Ministry or any other relevant agency, which coordinates the activities of all agencies involved in the prevention and combating of terrorism” — to liaise with the center. Only 20 of 53 states and three of eight regional organizations have done so. SADC and South Africa are among those that have not yet identified a focal point.

This points to two fundamental flaws in leadership shaping counterterrorism capacity on the continent. The first is a failure by most African governments to recognize terrorism as a real and abiding threat. Many tend to see it as a “Western issue,” and certainly, for most African states, the pressing needs of development are rightly more important.

The second, which is more relevant to southern Africa, is ambivalence among African governments about definitions of terrorism and identification of terrorists. South Africa in particular treads gently on the issue of terrorism for historical reasons. Not so long ago, during the most critical phase of its struggle against apartheid, the now-ruling African National Congress (ANC) was labeled a terrorist organization by both Washington and London. As a result, Pretoria tends to chafe against the Western-led global war on terrorism, and has only cautiously and conditionally acknowledged the threat of foreign-inspired terrorism within its own borders.

As Intelligence Minister Ronnie Kasrils stated, “The activities of suspected international terrorists have been an area of focus of the South African Intelligence Services for some time ? . But we guard against a rising international hysteria, which serves to portray all Muslims as potential suspects. The cry of ‘a terrorist in every Madrassa’ echoes the ‘red under the bed’ and ‘swart gevaar’ phobia of the Cold War and apartheid era. We must never revert to such witch hunts in our country.”

Despite the leadership role that South Africa is poised to play this year in the Financial Action Task Force, an intergovernmental agency constituted to establish international standards and means for combating money laundering and terror finance, the ANC’s ambivalence about terrorism has had important manifestations. President Thabo Mbeki led an Africa-wide challenge to embrace a more development-oriented approach to confronting terrorism at the United Nations last fall. An abiding grudge, meanwhile, complicates Pretoria’s cooperation with Washington on countering terrorism.

Perhaps most curious, however, is the bill called the Prohibition of Mercenary Activities and Prohibition and Regulation of Certain Activities in Areas of Armed Conflict that is now before the South African parliament. Legislation would make it a criminal offense for any South African to participate in any foreign armed conflict as a combatant, mercenary, or private security guard. However, it allows such participation in “legitimate armed struggles, including struggles waged, in accordance with international humanitarian law, for national liberation; self-determination; independence against colonialism, or resistance against occupation, aggression or domination by foreign nationals or foreign forces.”

In other words, if passed, the thousands of South Africans present in Iraq as private security forces will have to withdraw, but any South African may be legally entitled to fight in the insurgency against the coalition forces.


In the post-Sept. 11 era, “al-Qaida spotting” has become something of an industry. Myths and allegations flourish. The very nature of the phenomenon, however, complicates identifying its presence. In many cases, links can be drawn back to bin Laden and his associates. More often the connection is more tenuous. It is clear, however, that southern Africa comprises a mix of economic strengths and state weaknesses, demographics and social “seams,” and historical links and attitudes that provide ample attraction and opportunity for terror-related activity. As the State Department notes: “It is unclear to what extent terrorist groups are present in South Africa; however, the activity of al-Qaida and affiliated persons or groups in South Africa and Nigeria, home to Africa’s largest Muslim population, is of growing concern.”

The conditions prevailing in the region point urgently to the need to reduce support for foreign and foreign-influenced radical Islamic groups. This requires, above all, greater cooperation among democratic states on and off the continent with regard to sharing intelligence, securing borders and strengthening security structures, and removing the political ambivalence about terrorism among African governments through policies that acknowledge an inseparable link between security and development. South Africa’s Muslim population may not be radicalized, but growing segments within it are increasing sympathetic with the rhetoric and aspirations of Islamism.

Just as African-Americans tend to identify with the plight of people of African descent worldwide, a similar global affinity exists among Muslims even if the vast majority reject terrorism as a legitimate means of struggle. As the trends of terror-related activity in southern Africa suggest, understanding the causes of radicalization and what renders societies susceptible to such external influence is vital to closing off new fronts in the war on terrorism before they develop.

Kurt Shillinger is a research fellow with the South African Institute of International Affairs, where he specializes in security and terrorism in Africa.