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South Africa Probes Possible Links to Kenya Terror Attack

View of a shopping center in Lenasia, south of Johannesburg, Aug. 28, 2013.
View of a shopping center in Lenasia, south of Johannesburg, Aug. 28, 2013.
Anita Powell
South African officials say they are looking into possible links the Somali militant group al-Shabab may have in South Africa, where experts say they are concerned about the country becoming a hub for fundraising and recruiting for extremist groups. 

Possible links between South Africa and terrorist activity became more public after last week’s attack on an upscale Nairobi mall. While South African officials haven’t given any details, some experts are painting a picture of South Africa as a staging ground for terror groups in Africa.

Brian Dube, a spokesman for South Africa’s State Security Agency, confirmed that South Africa has been investigating possible activity here by Somalia’s al-Shabab group for some time.  However, since the investigation is ongoing, he declined to provide many details.

“We wouldn’t want South Africa to be used as a haven for any criminal activities, and of course including issues of terrorism.  That is something that we would not allow as a government, we wouldn’t want to see that," said Dube.  "So the extent that there could be elements that would want to pursue those interests… ours as a government is to be responsible and to ensure that we need to do our part and we need to close all networks and make sure that there is no avenue which will allow our country to be used as a springboard for any terrorist or criminal activities.”

“White Widow” connection?

South Africa is the continent’s economic and banking hub.  It is also a magnet for refugees from all over Africa. And it may have a link to a woman some have speculated is a Kenya attack suspect, the so-called “White Widow.”  No officials have confirmed whether Briton Samantha Lewthwaite, a self-professed jihadi who is the widow of one of the London 2005 suicide bombers, was involved in the Nairobi attack.

But she has been a wanted terrorist for some time.  Interpol put out a worldwide arrest warrant for her last year, and on Thursday - on Kenya’s request - the police agency issued a high-priority "Red Notice" for her arrest.

This week, South Africa’s Home Affairs minister said Lewthwaite at one time possessed a fraudulent South African passport.  South African media reported that she took out bank loans under an alias and rented an apartment in a predominantly Muslim neighborhood in Johannesburg.

Last year, the U.S. State Department cited analysts who noted South Africa’s large Somali community and the presence of al-Shabab sympathizers.  Those analysts believe that groups here may be helping fund violent extremism in East Africa.

Possible safe haven

Anneli Botha, a senior terrorism researcher at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, recently returned from Nairobi, where she was helping train Kenya’s Anti-Terrorism Police Unit.

Botha said although her focus is on terrorism groups outside of South Africa, her nation is often mentioned in talk of terror groups’ strategies and efforts.

“I think in South Africa we’re often considered to be more of a safe haven than really an immediate target.  But what you also have to start to realize, maybe not only as citizens, but also as government, that the threat of terrorism is a reality," she said. "It is something that is affecting other African countries, and we have an equally responsible role to go after those and assist these countries in their investigations.”

Naeem Jeenah, executive director of the Johannesburg-based Afro-Middle East Center, said South Africa’s 1.5 million Muslims are not especially worried about being accidentally caught in a police dragnet.  But he warned authorities against being overzealous.

“The South African Muslim community doesn’t have any concerns about this kind of thing," he said. "Concerns, however, are around particularly foreigners, foreign Muslims that are in South Africa, and in this situation now, particularly Somalis. …  The reality is that when these kinds of incidents happen… when the kinds of incidents happen as we just saw in Nairobi, then there is also increased pressure put on the South African government.  And when that happens, then they get a little more brazen in their monitoring kind of activities.”

He also noted that South Africa has a propensity towards xenophobic violence, particularly against Somali nationals - and warned authorities to be mindful of sending communities over the edge in a nation that is already notorious for violent crime.

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