When US Navy Seals raided Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s Abbotabad compound last May, they seized a treasure trove of documents. Some of these documents have since been released by the Combating Terrorism Centre of the US Military Academy. Most fascinating from a South African perspective was that Bin Laden thought of South Africa as an open territory – an area where Al Qaeda operatives could target Americans. It is not clear whether Al Qaeda or allied groups tried to make good on its leader’s thoughts but what is known is that in September 2009 the US embassy in Pretoria and its consulates as well as the offices of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) were closed for almost a week on account of a “credible threat”.
The fact that Bin Laden thought of South Africa as an open territory and one in which his operatives could work relatively freely to strike at US targets should come as no surprise to those who have been following developments in the country. Porous borders, corruption in the Department of Home Affairs which allowed the fraudulent issuing of South African identity documents and passports to terror suspects, as well as a highly politicised intelligence services focused more on sectarian political battles within the ruling party all contribute to South Africa being seen as this “open territory”. As early as 1997, Al Qaeda had established a presence in South Africa. In October 1999, Khalfan Khamis Mohammed, part of the Al Qaeda cell which attacked the US embassy in Dar es Salaam in 1998 was arrested in Cape Town.
Not only was South Africa being used as a safe house by Al Qaeda but was central in the organisation’s fundraising efforts. The case of Yassin al-Qadi, a US-designated terrorist financier who invested US $3 million for a 12 percent interest in Global Diamond Resources that mined diamonds in South Africa is but one such example. He also controlled New Diamond Corporation, an offshore company that had mining interests in South Africa. The case of Abd al-Muhsin al-Libi, also known as Ibrahim Tantouche also points to how terrorists secure financing in South Africa. He set up two Al Qaeda financing fronts – the Afghan Support Committee and the Revival of Islamic Society. Both operated as charities that raised money for orphans; however, in reality the orphans were either dead or non-existent.
The issue of South Africa as an operational base and a transit and conduit for international terrorists to their target country also emerged in the case of a Tunisian Al Qaeda suspect Ihsan Garnaoui in 2004. Garnaoui was an explosives expert who trained in Afghanistan and was ‘promoted’ to being an Al Qaeda trainer. He held several South African passports in different names (including in the names of Abram Shoman and Mallick Shoman) and traveled via South Africa to Europe where he was accused of planning bombings on American and Jewish targets. According to Dutch counter-terrorism expert Ronald Sandee, most of Garnaoui’s preparation for these attacks took place in South Africa where he purchased sophisticated military grade binoculars with an integrated digital camera, diagrams and instructions for the assembly of detonators, as well as setting up networks in Berlin whilst still in South Africa.
Bin Laden was correct to characterise South Africa as an “open territory”. Indeed in one way, with the ongoing politicisation and dearth of professionalism in the country’s intelligence services, it may be more of an open territory than when Bin Laden wrote about it. The Al Qaeda leader’s designation of South Africa as an open territory should be of concern to South African policy makers. They need to take the terrorist threat seriously and act on it. Whether they will do so given the ongoing leadership tussle within the ruling party is the big question. What is clear from past experience is that politicians from the ruling African National Congress have always put personal ambition above national interest.