The United Kingdom has reaffirmed its March 9 travel advisory for its citizens living or visiting South Africa, which not only included a warning about listeriosis but warned of “likely” terror attacks.
“Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places visited by foreigners, such as shopping areas in major cities. The main threat is from extremists linked to Daesh (formerly referred to as ISIL),” the advisory warned.
“News reports suggest that a number of South African nationals have travelled to Syria, Iraq and Libya. They are likely to pose a security threat on their return. There’s also a threat from individuals who may have been inspired by terrorist groups… to carry out so called ‘lone actor’ attacks targeting public places including where foreigners may gather.”
It was a warning not to be taken lightly, even if the State Security Agency has remained quiet on the matter, warned terrorism expert Janine Opperman. Religious extremism in SA, although in its infancy, was a ticking time bomb, Opperman said.
“We have a history of extremism, no one can deny that,” she added.
“But we are in an evolutionary phase in South Africa. The last message from the Islamic State to supporters in South Africa was simply, ‘Expand the footprint. That’s all we are asking from you’.”
She noted it wouldn’t be easy as there was no violent extremist jihadi culture present in SA. However, this did not isolate local communities.
“Violence does not play a role in the narrative when they go out to recruit. In all the cases I have worked with, only one incident occurred where violence played a role and that was unintentionally,” said Opperman.
“SA is being exposed to this world, we’ve seen it in Mozambique with the alShabaab cult were there was some sort of radicalisation. The government claimed the group has been defeated. However, it regrouped and launched an attack last week.”
Opperman believes Port Elizabeth is a hotbed for IS and al-Qaeda activity.
“It is an area which is concerning me, it is running like wildfire,” she said, adding there was no need for training camps as most information could be gained over the internet.
“Our greatest vulnerability at the moment is the silence,” Opperman said, and noted she didn’t see people taking it seriously.
Junior reseacher at the Transnational Threats and International Crime Programme of the Institute for Security Studies Raeesah Cassim Cachalia and consultant Albertus Schoeman reported in a policy brief last year transnational extremist groups were expanding their networks across the globe.
“South Africa has been linked to al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda and, more recently, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, with 60 – 100 South Africans estimated to have joined the group,” they wrote.
Schoeman wrote in a paper the links between SA and terrorism are real.
“Evidence suggests that SA has been used as a transit point for terrorists, and as a base for planning, training and financing terror operations,” she said.
“But perhaps the bigger problem is government communication in response to the allegations and mounting evidence. Rather than shedding light and inspiring confidence, the official line has fostered distrust and uncertainty.”