- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 7, 2005

JOHANNESBURG - One terrorist suspect sold Islamic compact discs and digital video discs at flea markets. Another worked at a hamburger joint, blending into a country whose porous borders, ease of money laundering and passports for sale have created a popular hide-out for international fugitives.

After the arrests of the two — a U.S. Embassy bomber and a man accused of plotting to set up a militant training camp in the United States — authorities are investigating whether al Qaeda members are using southern Africa as a base to raise money, recruit supporters and provide logistical support for global attacks.

Members of South Africa’s security forces and some government leaders warn that the region must step up its vigilance or it could become a terrorist target. Britain was accused of ignoring the danger of letting militants base themselves there before the July 7 mass-transit suicide bombings by homegrown Muslim radicals.

Vulnerable harbors

“There are groups in Africa that claim to be part of al Qaeda and other structures, and here in southern Africa they have been discovered seeking refuge and quite possibly attempting to set up networks,” said South African Intelligence Minister Ronnie Kasrils.

Mr. Kasrils, addressing a navy symposium last month, said Africa’s busy sea lanes and harbors are vulnerable because much of the world’s oil and other cargo move through the Red Sea, the Suez Canal, along the Mozambique Channel, around the Cape of Good Hope and through the Straits of Gibraltar. Other potential targets include U.S. and other embassies, international corporations, major hotels, shopping complexes and sports stadiums.

“It is not something that we would consider an imminent threat or danger, but we have to be vigilant,” South African government spokesman Joel Netshitenzhe said. “No country would want to be seen as a base for terrorism.”

Penetration from radicals

Although it is difficult to assess the extent to which Islamic radicals might have penetrated southern Africa, the region is attractive as a base and largely off the security radar as pressure mounts on al Qaeda and its associates in northern and eastern Africa.

In July, authorities in Zambia captured and deported to Britain Haroon Rashid Aswat, accused of plotting to set up a camp in Bly, Ore., in 1999 to train militants to fight in Afghanistan. Investigators said that the Briton of Indian descent also had spent time in South Africa and made trips to Botswana and Mozambique before his arrest.

Mr. Aswat denies he is a terrorist, but Zambian investigators said he told them he was a bodyguard for al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Investigators also questioned him about the July 7 bombings, but London police have discounted any connection.

‘Silent menace’

Mr. Aswat, who has family in Johannesburg, supported himself here by selling Islamic CDs and DVDs at flea markets, said Ahmed al-Arine, a Jordanian immigrant who worked for him. But that is unlikely to explain or provide enough money to finance the amount of traveling he did.

In 1999, Khalfan Khamis Mohamed was arrested in Cape Town and deported to the United States. He now is serving a life sentence for his role in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. The Tanzanian had entered South Africa under an alias, obtained a temporary residency permit and worked at a hamburger place for months until he tried to renew his permit and was caught.

Mr. Netshitenzhe, the South African spokesman, acknowledged that the presence of the two major suspects raises questions but said their arrests show local security forces are working well with their international counterparts to fight terrorism. The government spokesman said terrorism “is a silent menace” fought mostly behind the scenes.

Stealth foreigners

Aswat was monitored closely before his arrest, investigators said.

Wanted militant foreigners such as Aswat and Mohamed can blend easily into South Africa’s significant Muslim minority — 2 percent of its 45 million people.

The country has modern banks, good roads, airlines and telecommunications — all useful for planning attacks. Long stretches of unpatrolled borders and government corruption provide opportunities to bypass immigration controls, launder money and acquire materials illegally.

Officials here have acknowledged that al Qaeda militants and their associates traveling through Europe have obtained South African passports, which allow travel to many African countries and Britain without visas. U.S. and Mozambican officials also have looked into whether al Qaeda is laundering money through the Indian Ocean nation.

Southern Africa has syndicates dealing in everything from counterfeit goods and credit-card fraud to trafficking guns, gems and narcotics — all potential revenue sources now that traditional avenues of terrorist funding are being shut down.

Al Qaeda elements

“Is there a formal structure of al Qaeda here? Probably not,” said Kurt Shillinger, who heads the counterterrorism project of the South African Institute of International Affairs. “Are there elements of al Qaeda? Probably.”

Mr. Shillinger said he would be surprised if such elements undertook attacks here, given how useful South Africa can be as a support base.

Last year, South Africa also deported two Egyptian brothers, one with asylum status in Britain, and two Jordanians after questioning them about a suspected plot to carry out attacks during the 2004 South African election. No charges were brought.

But the government has shown little desire to investigate its own Muslim community, said Mr. Shillinger, in part because it does not want to alienate it.

Taliban fighters

A few of South Africa’s Muslims, who are of Pakistani, Indian and Malaysian descent, are thought to have fought in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Hamas and Hezbollah also might have been active here since the 1990s, said the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies.

Two South Africans were arrested in the city of Gujarat, Pakistan, last year in a gunbattle that netted Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian al Qaeda suspect in the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa. Both men were released without charge, and their link to Ghailani was never explained.

Most Muslims in South Africa are moderates and embrace their government’s vision of multicultural democracy after the oppression of apartheid.

“As South Africans, we wouldn’t want this young democracy to be damaged by irresponsible people, whether they come with Muslim names or non-Muslim names,” said Moulana Ihsaan Hendriks, of the Muslim Judicial Council.

Breeding ground of hate

South Africa’s Muslims include a small number of radicals. Members of People Against Gangsterism and Drugs, a vigilante group, were blamed for a series of 1998-2000 bombings that killed three persons and injured scores. The group denies those accusations. Targets included police stations and courts, a Planet Hollywood restaurant and the Cape Town airport.

Hussein Solomon, a security specialist at the University of Pretoria and a Muslim, said some mosques and religious schools are spreading anti-Western rhetoric. He said he received two death threats after inviting the U.S. ambassador to a conference on terrorism.

“Hate is being inculcated,” he said. “Something has to be done or we are going to be facing a major problem here.”

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