Al-Qaeda in South Africa?

Any Muslim living in a democratic state is a potential candidate for al-Qaeda. Conversely, any democratic state with a sizeable Muslim presence is likely to provide a safe haven for terrorist cells.

This appears to be the sum total of the rationale guiding intelligence agencies, currently prosecuting the US led “War on Terror.” Simplistic and ridiculous, yet true.

Recently an article in the Wall Street journal alleged that US and SA investigators were looking into reports that Islamic militant groups, including al-Qaeda, are operating from South Africa. In response, Lorna Daniels, a spokeswoman for SA’s National Intelligence Agency, confirmed that the NIA has been co-operating with the US on investigations into terrorism.

However, Daniels’ subsequent remarks, as reported in the Business Day, (Dec 11) raises alarm in the Muslim community, not merely for the sheer superficiality of her observations, but that her views confirm the outrageous proposition I set out in the opening paragraph.

She is reported to have said that the NIA was aware of several studies and reports on Africa’s suitability as a location for militant groups and reports that SA’s democratic society and large Muslim population made it a perfect haven to raise funds, launder money and plan terrorist actions.

The following day, in a further report in The Citizen (Dec 12) it was disclosed that American media suggested that “there was mounting evidence of al-Qaeda’s presence in SA”, yet, apart from confirming my earlier hypothesis, not a single shred of evidence was presented.

In the absence of any tangible proof, what we have to go by therefore are unconfirmed reports that “various Islamic groups, including al-Qaeda, were laundering money through SA, smuggling gold, diamonds and cash through ports, including Durban ..”

And the consequent hype created, affords opportunistic political formations such as the Democratic Alliance and the NNP to score political points by questioning the government’s ability to be an effective partner “in the global fight against terrorism.”

The result is that additional pressure is placed upon the government to display its “effectiveness’ by curbing civil liberties through the pending imposition of new anti-terror laws. Public debate on criminalizing legitimate social activities will be deflected – while the focus will unfairly place Muslim socio-economic, as well as welfare and relief aid pursuits in the spotlight.

The fact that time-honoured ethics which guide journalists can be discarded as glibly as happens routinely in the US media’s coverage of the Bush administration’s “War on Terror”, is a sad reflection of a faulty understanding of US patriotism. This unwritten allegiance demands that neither the propaganda emanating from the Pentagon, nor the wisdom expounded by Bush and his coterie of dinosaurs, may be challenged.

So it is that American publications unashamedly release reports which implicate innocent individuals as well as groups as “terrorists” or worse, linked to al-Qaeda. And countries are subject to the same form of demonising, as is currently the case with the allegations that South Africa is a “safe haven” for fugitives.

Now that South Africa has been caught up in the “War against Terrorism” and its Muslim population has been implicated as harbouring al-Qaeda “cells”, it is left to be seen how swiftly the Justice Ministry is able to fast-track the proposed anti-terror provisions into law.

The challenge for civil society is to ensure that the realignment of interests in world politics which has allowed the remaining superpower, the United States, to declare that those who were not on its side were automatically anti-American, not allow the destiny of billions be dictated by a lone ranger and his side-kick.

(Mr. Iqbal Jasarat is Chairman of the Media Review Network, which is an advocacy group based in Pretoria, South Africa.)