According to recent reports, both Islamic State (IS) and Boko Haram have established training camps in South Africa.
There is history here. South Africa has a long tradition of jihadi groups and terrorist organizations operating training camps within its borders. Since the 1990s, Hamas, al-Qaeda and multiple Pakistani terrorist groups had more than a mere presence in South Africa – they were indoctrinating, recruiting and training South African Muslims. South Africa was also used as a rear base for laying low, preparing, and logistics.
Over the years the South African government has been aware of extremist activities within its borders. It observed them but did not respond. It is probably for just this reason that South Africa became popular with jihadi organizations and extremist groups.
As far back as 2004, for example, CBS News reported that South Africa was a logistical and financial hub for jihadi groups and that the CIA had concluded in a report that the country was being used as a rear base for al-Qaeda. At least one tier two or tier three al-Qaeda leader was in the country at that time, according to the report.
The Case of Feroze Ganchi and Zoubair Ismael
The South Africans Feroze Abu Bakar Ganchi and Zoubair Ismael make for an interesting case study. They were arrested in Gujrat, Pakistan after a 12-hour shootout on July 24, 2004. The two had traveled from Johannesburg to Lahore earlier that month and were planning to go to an al-Qaeda trainings camp in Shakai. They were arrested alongside Ahmad Khalfan Ghailani, a most wanted al-Qaeda operative who was involved in the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
After the two were arrested, it became clear that the two “had hatched a plot to carry out terrorist attacks on Johannesburg’s main tourist sites”, said a source. The Gujrat police chief stated that “authorities found several maps of South African cities among the items seized in the raid.” Some of the apparent targets of Ganchi and Ismael were the U.S. Embassy, the Sheraton Hotel, the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, the Carlton Centre and Ellis Park Stadium, to name a few.
In October 2004, Pakistan extradited the pair to South Africa. After two days of interrogation they were released and South African authorities declared that there was no threat of attacks in South Africa.
Further revelations and developments followed.
For example, it emerged that Ganchi had bragged in private to colleagues that he knew many al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan personally. Like terrorists, he also used a kunya – Umer.
Then in December 2004 Ganchi and Zoubair were on the road again. They were arrested in Conakry, Guinea on their way to Sierra Leone.
In January 2005 Ganchi and Zoubair were spotted in Indonesia and they were arrested again in March 2005 when they tried to cross the border with East Timo. This time the pair were accompanied by Muhsin al-Fadhli, who would go on to become one of the leaders of the Khorassan unit of al-Qaeda in Syria, where he was killed in 2015.
Ganchi was arrested again in 2009, this time in Egypt when he was on his way to Gaza.
Another interesting case is Ibrahim Tantoush, a Libyan terrorist facilitator with links to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and al-Qaeda. In 2003 Tantoush arrived in South Africa using fraudulent South African identification documents issued under the false name of Abdel Ilah Sabri. While in South Africa Tantoush asked for asylum, which was granted in 2007 even though Tantoush had been named a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) by the Unites States in 2004.
On February 3rd, 2014, he left Cape Town for Tripoli, Libya, using a Libyan passport. His purpose was jihad. Tantoush leads the Western Shield militia in Benghazi, which is associated with the LIFG and al-Qaeda. After his departure his asylum status in South Africa was revoked and he was identified in national systems as a person who should be stopped.
Hamas and Iran
Hamas was an early player. It had already set up training facilities in the late 1990s. In July 1997 the first Hamas military training camp started operations in Mpumanlanga in Natal.
The backdrop and developments at that time can be seen in a leaked South African intelligence document from 1998. It notes “… International Islamic Militants who prefer to keep South Africa a rear base for military training, convalescence, fund raising, media and proselytizing. They have an understanding with the ruling ANC-SACP.”
During a visit in 1997, Hamas representatives from the Middle East assessed a paramilitary camp in Greenbushes and decided that the facility was too basic and needed to be upgraded. They were also involved in paramilitary training in Lenasia.
In addition, in 1997 “there were talks that Hamas fighters could hide away in South Africa when it becomes to ‘hot’ for them abroad and vice versa for South African Mujahideen.”
Hamas also appointed Sheikh Thaafier Najaar to coordinate recruitment for Hamas in South Africa.
The Hamas clandestine infrastructure abroad is aimed at training a hardcore group of activists for religious and nationalist activities, according to the South African intelligence document: “This infrastructure operates under cover of overt activity, including propaganda and education. Clandestine activists are also involved in overt activities.”
This structure was headed by one person who was responsible for all activities in the country and had a total overview. The network was then organized in cells. Beneath the “country director” were regional heads operating cells of three to five activists. Recruitment mainly took place in mosques and the general pool of pro-Hamas activists. Potential candidates were spotted, observed and guided to the clandestine cells. Secrecy levels within the network were high – cells did not know about other cells’ activities.
Another active player in South Africa is Iran. Another leaked South African Intelligence document, titled Iranian Intelligence Service (MOIS) Operational Target Analyses and written in 2010 by the National Intelligence Agency, reported that the Iranian intelligence service was involved in training South African citizens inside South Africa. According to the report, regular training sessions were held in the Zakariyya Park Madrassa in Johannesburg to prepare South African and foreign students for a possible jihad against “USA aggression in the Middle East”.
Several Pakistani citizens attended training sessions at another training facility on a farm near Port Elizabeth. A third facility in Kwazulu Natal was a special training camp focused on Muslim students. The facility was led by a South African Muslim with jihadi credentials and with links to the Taliban.
The Zarqawi Network in South Africa
In 1992 a group of Arab Afghan fighters set up an organization called al-Khalifah in Peshawar, Pakistan. One of those involved was Abu Walid al-Masri, a kunya for Egyptian journalist and jihadi ideologue Mustafa Hamid. After the group was set up, the men left Peshawar and headed to the mountains of the Tribal Areas around the city. There they assigned “rulers for many Islamic countries”. The group became known as Jama’at al-Muslimin (JaM).
This group decided that it would be important to set up a rear base for jihadis in South Africa, as it was easy to travel from Pakistan to South Africa and from there onwards to Europe, especially the United Kingdom.
The designated point man for South Africa was Sulayman Damra, a Jordanian, who was part of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Bayt al-Imam organization. Damra was arrested in 1992 for a failed terrorist plot and sent to prison. In Jordan Damra was not only close to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his deputy Khalid al-Aruri. He also knew Muhammad ibn Isa ibn Musa al-Rifa’i. Al-Rifa’i (1959-2014), also known as Abu Hammam al-Filistini and Abu ‘Isa al-Rifa’I, was one of the founders of the JaM and was named its Caliph in April 1993, when his name was changed to Abu Isa Muhammad Ali ibn Ahmad al-Hashimy al-Qurayshi.
Using the kunya Abu Muntasir, Damra came to South Africa in 2000 after he was released from prison in Jordan in 1999. In South Africa he married a local woman and was contacted by Abu Hammam, the emir of the JaM. Abu Hammam asked Damra to join him in the United Kingdom, but first Damra was asked to go to South Africa and try to recruit new members for the JaM there. He worked together with another Jordanian, Ibrahim al-Rawashedeh aka Abu Suhayb, and Shahid Hazem.
During his stay in South Africa Damra was also contacted multiple times by Zarqawi and his deputy al-Aruri, who wanted Damra to come to Afghanistan and join them in their camp near Herat. But Damra felt obliged to prepare for his trip to the United Kingdom. However, something went wrong and a few years later he was still in South Africa.
Damra also set up a study center for Quranic teaching and Arab language courses near Cape Town in order to spread the ideology of the JaM. Although a group of men started working in the center, it never became fully operational as Damra got into trouble with his South-African in-laws, who accused him of dealing in drugs. Damra also had trouble with new restrictions that came into place after 9/11.
The Case of Ihsan Garnaoui
The Tunisian Ihsan Garnaoui was living in Germany when he decided to leave for Afghanistan/Pakistan in April 2001. He arrived in an al-Qaeda training camp in July 2001 and undertook basic training, followed by an explosives training course and an advanced weapons course. He then served as a trainer in Afghanistan until he received orders after 9/11 to return to Germany to prepare and carry out bombing attacks. His aim was to build an independent cell in Germany and carry out bomb attacks on U.S. and Jewish targets.
South Africa was a key staging post in this plan. With two forged South African passports in the names of Abram Mermud Shoman and Mallick Shoman, Garnaoui first travelled from Pakistan to South Africa.
Garnaoui stayed in South Africa and Lesotho from November 23, 2002 to January 18, 2003. He was at least in Pretoria, Johannesburg and Maseru. On January 16, 2003 he applied for a Schengen visa at the Belgian General Consulate in Johannesburg. He had bought a return ticket for Johannesburg-Brussels-Johannesburg.
In South Africa Garnaoui had recruited Ayub Rashid Patel to join him in the preparations for terrorism in Germany. Patel was willing to travel with him and applied for a visa on January 13, 2003 at the Belgian Consulate in Johannesburg. He was going to fly from Johannesburg via Paris to Brussels on January 30. As he only bought a one-way ticket, the visa was refused.
Garnaoui also used his period in southern Africa to make his first preparations for the planned bomb attacks. He acquainted himself with sophisticated military grade binoculars, with an integrated digital camera, that he had bought in South Africa. In addition, he acquired wiring diagrams and instructions for the construction of detonators for explosives as well as a Motorola T-190 mobile telephone suitable for setting off a detonator.
While in South Africa, he also started to make contacts with acquaintances in Berlin whom he hoped would support him in carrying out the attacks.
On January 18, 2003, Garnaoui finally left South Africa for Germany. To conceal his identity and final destination, he flew under the name Abram Mermud Shoman from Johannesburg to Brussels. On January 19, 2003, he traveled by train from Brussels to Berlin through Aachen and Cologne. Before he could execute the attacks, Garnaoui was arrested in Berlin on March 20. When he was arrested he identified himself with a forged Portuguese passport issued on January 10, 2000 in Lisbon in the name of Mustafa Boujnah.
For more than two decades terrorist groups have used South Africa as a place to recruit, train and equip and as a logistics hub. With a lax law enforcement regime and rampant corruption, South Africa is ideal for seasoned jihadis and terrorists.
Furthermore, the country’s diversity makes it possible for all kinds of people to blend in easily. The large Indian Muslim community in South Africa has close contacts not only with India but also with Pakistan. It is easy for Pakistanis and Afghans to set up training camps in South Africa and for South African Indian Muslims to travel to Pakistan to visit a training camp.
In fact, during the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, one of the main threats was a terrorist attack coming from either the Horn of Africa or from the Afghanistan/Pakistan area. The porous borders and corruption were a reason for extra vigilance. A specific threat was related to a group of persons linked to Lashkar-e-Taiba who were given visas to travel to South Africa during the World Cup. In the same time period two Pakistanis were arrested in Zimbabwe and one was linked to the Mumbai attacks in 2008. They travelled on false Kenyan passports and were stopped at the border.
In sum, organizations like Islamic State and Boko Haram currently operating training camps and running logistics operations in South Africa fits perfectly in the standard picture over the course of decades.