Southern Africa is a growing terrorist hideout, potential al-Qaida base
By ALEXANDRA ZAVIS
Associated Press Writer
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - One terror suspect sold Islamic CDs and DVDs at flea markets. Another worked at a hamburger joint, blending into a country whose porous borders, easy money-laundering and passports for sale have created a popular hideout.
The arrests of the two - a U.S. embassy bomber and more recently a man accused of plotting to set up a militant training camp in the United States - have authorities investigating whether al-Qaida members are using southern Africa as a base to raise funds, recruit supporters and provide logistical support for global attacks.
Members of South Africa's security forces and some government leaders say the region must step up anti-terror vigilance or it could become a target itself - much like Britain, accused of ignoring the danger of allowing extremists to base themselves there prior to the July 7 suicide bombings of its transportation system by homegrown Muslim radicals.
"There are groups in Africa that claim to be part of al-Qaida and other structures, and here in southern Africa they have been discovered seeking refuge and quite possibly attempting to set up networks," South Africa's Intelligence Minister Ronnie Kasrils said last week.
Kasrils, who was speaking at a Navy symposium, said Africa's busy sea lanes and harbors were vulnerable with much of the world's oil and other cargo moving through the Red Sea, the Suez Canal, along the Mozambique Channel, around the Cape of Good Hope and through the Straits of Gibraltar. Other possible targets include U.S. and other embassies, international corporations, major hotels, shopping complexes and sports stadiums.
"It is not something that we would consider an imminent threat or danger, but we have to be vigilant," South African government spokesman Joel Netshitenzhe told The Associated Press. "No country would want to be seen as a base for terrorism."
While it's difficult to assess the extent to which Islamic radicals may have penetrated southern Africa, the region is attractive as a base and it's largely off the security radar as pressure mounts on al-Qaida and its associates in northern and eastern Africa.
Wanted Islamic militant foreigners can easily blend into South Africa's significant Muslim minority _ 2 percent of its 45 million people.
The country also has modern banks, good roads, airlines and telecommunications _ all useful for planning attacks. And long stretches of unpatrolled borders and government corruption provide opportunities to bypass immigration controls, launder money and illegally get materials.
Officials here have acknowledged that al-Qaida militants and their associates traveling through Europe have obtained South African passports, which allow travel to many African countries and Britain without visas. U.S. and Mozambique officials have also looked into whether al-Qaida is laundering money through the Indian Ocean nation.
Southern Africa has syndicates dealing in everything from counterfeit goods and credit card fraud to trafficking of guns, gems and narcotics _ all potential revenue sources now that traditional avenues of terror funding are being shut down.
"Is there a formal structure of al-Qaida here? Probably not," said Kurt Shillinger, who heads the South African Institute of International Affairs' terrorism project. "Are there elements of al-Qaida? Probably."
Shillinger said he would be surprised if such elements unleashed attacks here, however, given how useful South Africa can be as a support base.
In July, authorities in Zambia captured and deported to Britain Haroon Rashid Aswat, who's accused of plotting to set up a camp in Bly, Oregon in 1999 to train militants to fight in Afghanistan. Investigators said the Briton of Indian descent also spent time in South Africa and made trips to Botswana and Mozambique before his arrest.
Aswat denies he is a terrorist, but Zambian investigators said he told them he was a bodyguard for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. Investigators also questioned him about the July 7 bombings, but London police have discounted any connection.
Aswat, who has family in Johannesburg, supported himself here by selling Islamic CDs and DVDs at flea markets, according to Ahmed al-Arine, a Jordanian immigrant who worked for him. But that is unlikely to explain - or finance - the amount of traveling Aswat did.
In 1999, Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, jailed for life for his role in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, was arrested in Cape Town and deported to the United States. The Tanzanian had entered South Africa under an alias, got a temporary residency permit, and worked at a hamburger place for months until he tried to renew his permit and got caught.
Netshitenzhe acknowledged the presence of the two raises questions, but said their arrests are proof local security forces are working well with their international counterparts to fight terrorism.
He said terrorism "is a silent menace" fought mostly behind the scenes.
Aswat was closely monitored before his arrest, investigators said.
Last year, South Africa also deported two Egyptian brothers, one with asylum status in Britain, and two Jordanians after questioning them about a suspected plot to launch attacks during the 2004 election. No charges were brought against the men.
But the government has shown little desire to investigate its own Muslim community, in part because it does not want to alienate it, said Shillinger, the analyst.
A handful of South Africa's Muslims, who are of Pakistani, Indian and Malaysian descent, are believed to have fought in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Hamas and Hezbollah may also have been active here since the 1990s, said the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies.
Two South Africans were arrested in Pakistan last year in a gun battle that netted Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian al-Qaida suspect in the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa. Both men were released without charge, their link to Ghailani never explained.
Most Muslims in South Africa are moderates and embrace their government's vision of multicultural democracy after the oppression of apartheid.
"As South Africans, we wouldn't want this young democracy to be damaged by irresponsible people, whether they come with Muslim names or non-Muslim names," said Moulana Ihsaan Hendriks, of the Muslim Judicial Council.
However, the community includes a small number of radicals. Members of People Against Gangsterism and Drugs, a vigilante group, were blamed for a series of 1998-2000 bombings that killed three people and injured scores of others - accusations the group denies. Targets included police stations and courts, a Planet Hollywood restaurant and the Cape Town airport.
Hussein Solomon, a security expert at the University of Pretoria and a Muslim, said anti-Western rhetoric is spread by some mosques and religious schools. He said he got two death threats after inviting the U.S. ambassador to a conference on terrorism.
"Hate is being inculcated," he said. "Something has to be done, or we are going to be facing a major problem here."