Intelligence was not the only problem witnessed at this time. SAPS were viewed as not effective enough to tackle numerous issues such as organized crime, which included groups with links to international terrorism and political corruption, amongst others. This led to a partnership between the US and South Africa to create a specialized investigative unit or what was referred to as the South African version of the FBI. Dale Stockton, supervisor of the Carlsbad Police Department in California notes that after a month of training at home, followed by almost three months of training in the US, a very select group known as the Scorpions emerged. The Directorate of Special Operations or the ‘Scorpions’ was given the job of investigating and prosecuting organize crime and corruption, in order to ensure a safe and secure environment for South Africa to grow and develop. The Scorpions were later dismantled by South Africa’s parliament in October 2008 due to controversy over political corruption. Its members were integrated into SAPS in 2009.
This was seen as somewhat of a blow due to America’s concern over the prevalence of international organized crime in South Africa. Nigerian syndicates, amongst others, engage in a wide variety of illegal activities from car hijackings and credit card thefts to the trafficking of arms, guns, drugs and even people. These syndicates are becoming increasing linked to Islamic extremist organizational structures. The State Department reported in 2010 that “South Africa’s direct international air links and its permeable land borders made it vulnerable to illegal immigration, trafficking, and international organized crime.”
This becomes an even larger problem when several suspects having links to al-Qaeda have been arrested in South Africa. The first and probably the most publicized case was that of Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, who was involved in the killing of hundreds of people on August 7, 1998 in simultaneous car bomb explosions at the US embassies at Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya. Although the targets were US government facilities, most of its victims were African civilians: approximately 11 Tanzanians were killed in Dar es Salaam and around 200 Kenyans were killed in Nairobi. Mohammed entered South Africa a week later on a tourist visa he had obtained the day before the attacks. Mohamed then applied for asylum under a fictitious name and lived in Cape Town for more than year working at Burger World. Eventually Mohammed’s luck ran out when he was arrested in October 1999 while still living in South Africa. Prosecutors alleged that Mohamed was the one who rented the residence where he and his accomplices assembled the Tanzania bomb; he provided the TNT and the rode in the actual bomb truck.
Three years later, in 2002, Mohamed Suleman Vaid and his wife Moshena of Durban were arrested at a Swaziland border post with more than one million Rand (US$130,000) hidden in their clothing. Vaid denied that the money was for al-Qaeda, but authorities claimed that the money was on its way to a Mozambique citizen with al-Qaeda connections. Reports that also surfaced revealed al-Qaeda was buying gold and diamonds to make it more difficult to trace the organization’s wealth in Africa.
Cases such as these have led to the American perception that South Africa may be targeted as a new logistical and operational hub by Islamic extremists. However, it is not only the US that shares this view. Israel is concerned that South Africa is a safe haven for international Islamic extremist organizations as well. In 1996, Israel lodged a formal complaint with the South African government regarding the existence of five Hezbollah training camps. In 2002, the Wall Street Journal reported a growing concern among security analysts that ‘Islamist extremists, including Al-Qaeda, are using South Africa’s open society as a safe haven and a base to raise funds, launder money and plan terror operations.’ One American counterterrorism official told The Journal, ‘[we] are detecting so much smoke lately that something’s got to be burning down there somewhere.’ In July 2003, the Israeli Security Services declared that there is ‘recognizable [Hamas] activity in South Africa.’
The issue of al-Qaeda leaders hiding in South Africa arose again in October 2004 when the CIA named South Africa as one of the countries where a new tier of al-Qaeda leaders were hiding. This news came in quite a dramatic fashion as a special investigation aired by the American television network CBS revealed that a recent CIA report had identified 29 new leaders serving as a ‘second and third tier’ in the al-Qaeda hierarchy stretching from Pakistan and Iraq to South Africa. Responding to the CBS report, South African intelligence sources said both the police and NIA were investigating alleged al-Qaeda operatives said to be functioning in South Africa—in Cape Town, Durban, the Eastern Cape and Gauteng. This became an even bigger worry after Barry Gilder, the coordinator of South Africa’s National Intelligence Coordinating Committee at the time, indicated that terrorists with links to Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan were increasingly spending time in South Africa.
The issue of al-Qaeda linked individuals in South Africa reached a climax in January 2007. The US Department of the Treasury added two South Africans, Farhad Ahmed Dockrat and Junaid Ismail Dockrat, as well as a Johannesburg-based company controlled by the latter, Sniper Africa, to its list of “specially designated global terrorists” for their role in financing al-Qaeda. Farhad transferred money to Taliban representatives in Pakistan, according to reports, which was then forwarded to al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, Junaid was in direct telephone and email contact with Abu Hamza Rabia, Abu Faraj al-Libi’s successor as al-Qaeda’s operations chief, to coordinate the sending of South Africans to Pakistan for terrorist training. Junaid also allegedly came up with US$120,000 to help sponsor the recruits’ travel and study under Abu Hamza before the latter met his end at the hands of a US-operated unmanned aerial vehicle in late 2002.
According to Shillinger, the US was irate when it was leaked to the press—on a Friday in time for the Sunday headlines—that the US had added both Dockrats to their list of global terrorists. Shillinger indicated that the US and South Africa were in negotiations over the issue for more than six months prior, as South Africa was gathering strong evidence for their courts and the US was preparing an overseas intelligence docket. The leak supposedly came from the South African embassy in Washington after the US thought South Africa was dragging their feet on the issue.
Many South Africans were upset about the news when they read it in the Sunday newspapers. K. Brown, a writer for the South Africa Business Day stated: ‘while the Dockrats could well be linked to al-Qaeda, their treatment raises serious questions about our sovereignty as a state.’ Brown went on to say:
SA’s handling of its relationship with the US points to the fact that government is willing to fall into line with the US and to do its dirty work on the continent. Not only does the ANC betray its own political history by adding its weight to prevent other international liberation movements from charting a similar course to its own, it is allowing itself to become a proxy for the US in its shameful bullying of the world.
Then when the US State Department forwarded the designation to the UN Security Council al-Qaeda and Taliban Sanctions Committee, Foreign Minister Dlamini-Zuma used her country’s membership on the Council to stop what would have otherwise been a routine endorsement of the ruling.
Another American concern that gained prominence around this time is Islamic extremists using South African documentation to move around the globe. Al-Libi, also known as Ibrahim Tantouche, emerged in South Africa in February 2004 when he was detained for holding a fake South African passport. A few months later, British security agencies found boxes of South African passports at the home of a suspected al-Qaeda member in the United Kingdom. The passports were legitimate passports, not fakes, indicating that they were obtained illegally through a South African government official. There was a strong possibility that al-Libi acquired the fake passport through al-Qaeda support structures in South Africa. Media sources reveal that Al-Libi previously directed the al-Qaeda terrorist financing fronts, the Afghan Support Committee and Revival of Islamic Society, which diverted money to al-Qaeda.
Another incident occurred on July 19, 2004, when US authorities arrested a South African woman, Farida Goolam Mohamed Ahmed, for trying to enter America illegally from Mexico. Several pages had been torn out of her passport. The US government quickly investigated any possible ties she may have had to terrorist activities in Pakistan. Not even a week later, two South African suspects – Feroz Ibrahim and Zubair Ismail – were arrested in Pakistan with Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, an al-Qaeda operative wanted by the FBI for his role in the 1998 US embassy bombings.
Ibrahim and Ismail, two South Africans of Asian descent, were arrested during a 12-hour gun battle with Pakistani police in the eastern city of Gujrat, which led to the capture of Ghailani. Gujrat’s police chief, Raja Munawar Hussainl, alleged that the two—Ismail, 20, an Islamic student, and Ibrahim, 30, a doctor—were “plotting attacks in their home country.” According to Hussainl, authorities found several maps of South African cities among the items seized in the raid. Pakistani police said they believed there were several targets for attack in South Africa, including the US embassy, the Sheraton hotel and the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the Johannesburg Securities Exchange, the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront shopping centre in Cape Town and the Cunard liner, the QE2, which stops at Cape Town and Durban.
The US Department of Homeland Security put inspectors at major airports and seaports across the nation on high alert for suspicious travelers from South Africa in response to the events mentioned. “Al-Qaida and other terrorists may be utilizing South African passports to facilitate travel” to the US, warned the four-page bulletin issued by US Customs and Border Protection, a bureau of Homeland Security. It advised of suspicious routes of entry, which included passage through Britain, Canada or Mexico. Britain and Mexico do not require any type of visa for South Africans.
Most recently, a fake South African passport was found on Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, when he was killed at a checkpoint in Mogadishu, Somalia in June 2011. This particular Mohammed was seen as the alleged “mastermind” behind the 1998 embassy bombings was also suspected of plotting the Kampala bombings a year ago by al-Shabaab, an East African militant group.
Lastly, America is aware of South Africa’s small but vocal Muslim community. South African Muslim leaders have previously admitted there was a problem in their community with Islamic extremism. As activist Naeem Jeenah wrote on his website in 2007: “We do have people in our community who are sympathetic to al Qaeda and the Taliban; we do have people in our community who hold the same ideologies as those groups.”