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South Africa Copes with Terrorism Threats - 2004-08-12

The recent arrests in Pakistan and the United States of South African passport holders with suspected al-Qaida ties have raised concerns that international terrorist organizations may be operating in South Africa.

South Africa has been particularly vulnerable to international terrorism in two main areas. It has extensive land and sea borders that can easily be crossed and are difficult to police. And, the ready acceptance of South African passports by many countries makes them valued possessions for potential terrorists.

Until recently, it was widely believed the porous borders were only used by illegal economic migrants and criminal syndicates. But, Annalie Botha, a senior terrorism researcher at the independent Institute for Security Studies told VOA the openness of South Africa makes the country vulnerable to terrorists as well.

"First of all as with all African countries we do have a problem with regard to border control, we have a huge problem with regard to illegal immigrants, we have very, I think one of the best infrastructures in Africa; and all those factors make South Africa quite vulnerable for individuals to come and hide in the country, as a safe haven and then to recruit," said Ms. Botha.

But Ms. Botha added that South Africa is probably no more at risk than many other countries.

"I think that one needs to understand that, first of all, its an international trend, that nationalities throughout the world become involved in transnational terrorism organizations, for example al-Qaida," she said.

South Africa's dark green passport, during apartheid an impediment to international travel, has become sought after, not only by those legitimately entitled to it, but also by those who wish to use it illegally.

The Department of Home Affairs, which issues passports, has been plagued by both corruption and fraud. Partly because it inherited chaotic and obsolete systems from the apartheid era and partly because of poor management, which has now been replaced.

The department's new director general, Barry Gilder, said that reports that there is widespread abuse of South African passports by international terrorists are exaggerated.

"The problems as far as we can tell in terms of passports are not massive," said Mr. Gilder. "And if the word normal is appropriate, it's a normal problem of all countries that their documents get abused, and I don't think South African documents are particularly more abused than [those of] other countries. They are just more popular perhaps than some countries' documents, because South Africa is a friend of the whole world so traveling as a South African passport holder is easy."

There have also been suggestions that because South Africa has a large and politically active Muslim community which is sympathetic to the plight of Muslims in places like Bosnia and the Palestinian territories, that it might be a breeding ground for international terrorism.

The activism among South African Muslims, who are largely of Indian origin, has its roots in the struggle against colonialism and apartheid and is founded on the principles of satyagraha, or non-violence, which were developed by Mahatma Ghandi during his stay in South Africa.

Iqbal Jhazbhay, a senior researcher in Islamic studies, says the Muslims' role in the anti-apartheid struggle and the development of a constitution which entrenches rights for all groups in South Africa has prevented the Muslim community from feeling marginalized in this country. He says it is this sense of belonging that makes the community less open to extremism.

"I think the Muslim community is aware that it has enjoyed [operating] within this legitimate space and also the fact that they have the space of a number of community radios, they are fully aware that if they go outside of that framework they are going to be under increasing tension," he explained.

Mr. Jhazbhay, of the University of South Africa in Pretoria, added that Muslims have already demonstrated they can deal with extremists in their midst.

"Within South Africa, just after 1994, we did have a group which had emerged called PAGAD, People Against Gangsterism and Drugs, in the Western Cape and it had taken on an anti-state and at times and anti-democratic posture, but it was very much marginalized by the mainstream Muslim community which did not agree with a violent approach to change in South Africa," he said.

Even so, Mr. Jhazbhay says that Muslim clerics and community leaders can help even further by publicizing their opposition to violence even more than they do now.

The South Africa government says international terrorism is not taking root in this country. And Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Aziz Pahad says that the failure of the United States and Pakistan to allow consular access to people they have detained on suspicion of terrorism makes it difficult to investigated those cases where individuals may have links to groups like al-Qaida.

"Well you know in the fight against terrorism, a lot of rules of the law go out of the window. They just say, 'this is operational security issues and until this is completed you can't have access.' I mean this is the new game since 9/11 in a way. And so all our diplomatic pressure it just gets blocked by saying 'this is being handled by the intelligence and security services,'" he said.

Analyst Annalie Botha says much more needs to be done in areas of international cooperation and information sharing. She says this is a particular weakness and undermines improvements made by the government in the past ten years in intelligence gathering and other methods used to combat both local and international terrorism.