South Africa’s concern over Islamic radical groups did not begin on 9/11. It began during the FW de Klerk administration in the early 1990’s and escalated in the mid-1990’s with the People against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD); a small terrorist cell located in their Western Cape province. Both Al-Qaeda’s 1998 United States (US) embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, and the 9/11 terror attacks forced the US to reexamine security on the African continent. America hoped, at a minimum, that most African countries would assist in this new US-led war against extremists that not only threatened US national security, but international security as well. This paper assesses South Africa’s involvement with the US in the war against Islamic extremism. It argues that, for the most part, South Africa has cooperated with the global power despite some conflicting views, and has played a beneficial role in helping to reduce the presence and activity of Islamic terrorists within their borders.


There have been numerous words or phrases to describe America’s goal of defeating “terrorists” who threaten to attack its country and its citizens. These include the war on terror, the global war on terrorism, and the long war. For clarity purposes, this paper utilizes the term “war against Islamic extremism.”

Why this specific wording? Because there are numerous problems with the word “terrorist.” Firstly, there are a number of groups labeled terrorist organizations by the US State Department. However, this particular war is not against a Colombian or Japanese organization. It is against individuals and groups who are often associated to specific Muslim extremist groups like al-Qaeda. Therefore, it is not an “us vs. them” scenario. Although these particular Islamic extremist groups share commonalities, they do have differences. Nevertheless, it would be incorrect to say it is an overall war on terror or a global one when most attention and financial resources are focused on fighting these Islamic radical groups in the areas of the world where they operate.

It is also particularly important to clarify the wording because one must remember that the current South African ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC) was labeled a terrorist organization by the US during most of apartheid, as well as a significant period afterwards. The US State Department writes in 2007: ‘The South African government is sensitive to distinctions between ‘terrorist organizations’ and ‘liberation movements’ since the ruling ANC was long branded a terrorist group during the struggle against apartheid.[1]

With that clarified, South Africa’s willingness or not to be an ally in the US-led war against Islamic extremism has been a considerable component of the US-South African relationship in the post apartheid era. Although 9/11 was the event that raised the bar on the war, America and South Africa had previous experiences with the issue since the 1990’s; most notably the attacks in South Africa by a indigenous network organization formerly known as People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD)[2] and the US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania by Al Qaeda, both occurring in 1998.

Both countries have concerns relating to the other when it comes to defeating Islamic extremists. America has been closely monitoring the numerous connections between Islamic extremist organizations such as Al-Qaeda and South Africa since the mid-1990s and 9/11. Other worrying trends in America’s eyes include members of these particular organizations using South African passports and reports of extremist training camps operating within South Africa’s borders.[3] South Africa has its own concerns. It feels that international law, and human rights in particular, should be abided by. South Africa has been very vocal about certain US foreign policy behaviors, such as the invasion of Iraq in 2003, especially due to the faulty intelligence presented by Washington. South Africa also does not want to upset their local Muslim population, and they feel the outright support of the US-led war would do just that.

Although there have been perceived times of disagreement such as with the Dockrats, two South Africans added to a list of Al Qaeda terrorists in 2007,[4] there were perceived times of agreement, with the extradition or deportation of alleged Islamic extremists. This paper argues that the more common occurrence is the latter. It will make this argument by investigating the pertinent issues from both the American and South African perspectives. Additionally, it will analyze the key events encompassing the war that occurred between the early 1990’s and present day, highlighting US-South Africa cooperation, which sometimes went against South Africa’s views on a particular issue.

America’s concerns over South Africa and the “war”

According to the US State Department, defense of the homeland is one of America’s broad foreign policy interests. The war against Islamic extremism fulfills this objective by engaging those who use terrorist tactics before they have the time and the means to carry out an attack against America. South Africa is a vital link in this mission due to a variety of reasons that will be discussed throughout this essay such as the growth of Islamic extremists on the African continent. And when it comes to these issues, Washington and Pretoria have had their fair share of disagreements and cooperative moments.

When it became clear in the late 1980’s and early 1990s that the ANC be taking over the reins of the South African government, the US immediately became worried about the weapons of mass destruction program developed under the Apartheid regime. Most of the government and literary attention focused on South Africa’s nuclear program, but their biological and chemical weapons were by no means insignificant.

On May 2002 the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), supported by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), devised a plan to hijack source material from South Africa’s biological weapons program — material the new South African government had for years claimed was destroyed when the secret apartheid-era program called Project Coast was shut down.[5] A document obtained by the South African newspaper Mail and Guardian showed the American plan was first a covert project to remove South Africa’s unacknowledged biological stockpile — with the help of one of the scientists, Daan Goosen.

Goosen reportedly delivered his biological toxin sample to the FBI on 9 May 2002 via a toothpaste tube that concealed a vial of a less dangerous pathogen, an organism that was however technically advanced because it was based on genetic modification. However, the FBI decided to reject the deal and the US embassy reported Goosen to South African Police Service (SAPS) without telling South Africa’s National Intelligence Agency (NIA). The NIA eventually came across the police investigation and the fallout became embarrassing for the NIA as Goosen — a man who was supposedly close to the Agency- had made contact with the Americans without telling them.[6]

The US used this incident and South African government’s failure to come clean about its biological assets to portray them as a proliferation risk. Goosen himself believed he was deliberately set up by the US to make South Africa look bad.[7] Investigative journalists Sam Sole and Stefaans Brummer uncovered that South African government officials admit privately that organisms and pathogens developed by Project Coast still exist.[8] This was important because the US remained concerned about the prospect of Islamic extremists obtaining such materials.

There was further American anxiety because of the perception that South Africa was not successfully combating security related issues. This feeling came about much earlier then the 2002 Goosen incident. One of the main events that elevated this view came on August 6, 1998 when an explosion occurred outside the offices of the South African police special investigation task team. The Planet Hollywood restaurant in Cape Town was attacked later that same month. These two events propelled the South African Islamic extremist group PAGAD into the world of Islamic terrorism.[9]

PAGAD was formed in 1996 as a community anticrime group fighting drugs and violence in the Cape Flats section of Cape Town. By early 1998, they had also become antigovernment and anti-Western, according to the US State Department. PAGAD and its Islamic ally, Qibla, viewed the South African Government as a threat to Islamic values and consequently promoted greater political voice for South African Muslims. PAGAD used several front names, including Muslims Against Global Oppression (MAGO) and Muslims Against Illegitimate Leaders (MAIL), when they launched anti-Western protests and campaigns.[10]

Officials from the FBI assisted South African police to determine whether there was any link between the bombing at the American related restaurant and the missile strikes US President Bill Clinton launched against targets in Sudan and Afghanistan in retaliation for the 1998 US embassy bombings. This question was answered when a person claiming to represent MAGO telephoned a South African radio station shortly after the explosion claiming responsibility for the attack, saying it was in retaliation for the US strikes. An official statement by the group later denied any connection with the bombing, but PAGAD was ultimately determined to be the organization behind it.[11]

US Attorney General Janet Reno’s attendance at the US-South African Binational Commission meeting in February 1999 was regarded as a strong indication of just how seriously the US considered the problem of security related issues in South Africa, which included Islamic extremism. US Vice President Al Gore also had what was referred to as a ‘massive retinue of security personnel’ larger than his normal tight security, in case security risks arose from organizations such as PAGAD, which was indeed warranted at the time.[12]

PAGAD members perpetrated at least 14 prominent acts of terrorism in 2001 that included attacks against eyewitnesses in PAGAD-related court cases, restaurants and international interests. One of the larger attacks occurred on August 29, 2001, when a car bomb was detonated near the US consulate in Cape Town injuring seven people.[13]

It also became obvious to America at this time that South Africa’s intelligence capacity was somewhat lacking. In 1998, writer Anthony Holiday maintained that there are intelligence-gathering organizations like the South African NIA, but they are leaky and crippled by inefficiency and Byzantine office intrigues, as a new breed of ANC analysts and operatives struggle to wrestle control from apartheid-era survivors.[14] Due to this fact, (and also because of the friendly disposition Pretoria evinced towards the likes of Cuba’s Castro, Palestine’s Arafat and Libya’s Qadaffi), “foreign intelligence agencies, like the CIA and the British Secret Intelligence Service, no longer supply us [South Africa] with ‘feed’ from their spy satellites – something they readily did before apartheid died.”[15] Most are aware that satellites photos are what Holiday refers to as the the “staple diet of spies in the developed world.” Without them, a modern intelligence or political adviser is like “grandma without her bifocals.”[16]