Delegates from around Southern Africa are in Pretoria for a two-day seminar on terrorism in the region. Among other things, they are discussing the emergence of right-wing terrorists in South Africa, and the activities of Islamic extremist terror groups in South Africa, Malawi, and Tanzania.
Southern Africa has not experienced the type of major terrorist attacks that have hit other parts of the continent, notably in Kenya and Morocco.
But senior terrorism researcher Anneli Botha of the Institute for Security Studies, which organized the meeting, says it is important to examine the causes of terrorism and strategies for prevention before there is a major attack, not afterward.
"I think southern Africa is part of the rest of the world, and we need to be constantly aware of the threat, internationally as well as within Africa," he said. "One can not say that, well, because nothing has happened in the past two years, you can sit back and relax. One needs to be aware of what could happen and prevent it, as far as possible."
International terrorism reached the edges of southern Africa when the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania was bombed in 1998. Although many people consider Tanzania a part of East Africa, it is a member of the Southern African Development Community.
In addition, domestic terrorist organizations have operated on a smaller scale in South Africa. Last year, a right-wing white supremacist group known as the Boeremag, or Afrikaner Force, set off a series of bombs around the country causing one death and a few injuries.
And several years ago, a Muslim vigilante group known as People Against Gangsterism And Drugs, was blamed for a series of deadly bombings in Cape Town, targeting Western businesses, police stations and mosques. The group has been largely dismantled by a massive police crackdown, and most of its leaders are currently in jail.
Researcher Anneli Botha says much research is being done into the causes, consequences and prevention of terrorism in Asia and the Middle East, but international crime experts are still largely ignoring Africa. She believes that is a serious mistake, one this seminar is designed to correct.
"Definitely, I think Africa could almost be regarded as maybe a next battleground for terrorism in the world," she said. "The reason why I am saying that is, you find all the necessary reasons for it. We have lack of border control, we have poverty, we have all the elements that could be used and exploited by extremist elements coming from the outside, but also from inside as well. So if you do not address that, I think we will soon have a problem huger [larger] than one would expect."
Ms. Botha says strategies for preventing terrorism do not just involve law enforcement. She also emphasizes basic economic and social development, as well as education, in a bid to eliminate the root causes of terrorism and make it harder to recruit would-be terrorists.
The organizers were overwhelmed by the number of people from around the region who wanted to attend the two-day terrorism seminar. Several high-level government officials are addressing the meeting, including the South African minister for safety and security, the director of public prosecutions from Zambia, and the head of the anti-terrorism police unit from Tanzania.
In addition, a speaker from Zimbabwe is raising the question of whether the human rights situation in Zimbabwe amounts to state-sponsored terrorism.
One particularly key issue on the table at the meeting is the delicate balance between fighting terrorism and protecting the human rights of those suspected of it. Several sessions are scheduled to address recent controversial cases in which southern African countries have broken their own laws in their efforts to apprehend and extradite alleged terrorists.
In one case, Malawi authorities working with the Central Intelligence Agency arrested five Muslim foreigners who were alleged to be al-Qaida agents. The men were spirited out of the country without a hearing, and they spent a month being interrogated at an undisclosed location in Zimbabwe before finally being released in Sudan and allowed to return to their families.
They have been cleared of any connection to the terrorism group, and the president of Malawi has apologized for their treatment. Amnesty International has criticized the United States for its role in the case.
Another case deals with the extradition of Khalfan Mohamed, a Tanzanian man who has since been convicted of helping carry out the 1998 embassy bombing in Dar Es Salaam. South African authorities arrested him in Cape Town on illegal immigration charges, and sent him to the United States to stand trial in the embassy case. Afterward, the South African constitutional court ruled that his deportation was illegal because he could have been sentenced to death in America, while the death penalty is specifically outlawed in the South African constitution.
Such issues are part of the strategic discussions organizers want to have at this conference, to ensure procedures are in place to deal with terrorism suspects both effectively and legally.