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Experts warn bomb scares could be ‘dress rehearsal’

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A respected terror analyst this week said recent bomb and explosive scares in South Africa could be “a dress rehearsal” for future attacks to be carried out by violent extremists.
by NICOLA MILTZ | Aug 10, 2018

Terrorism analyst Hussein Solomon, Senior Professor of Political Studies and Governance at the University of the Free State, told the SA Jewish Report that the bomb-related incidents in KwaZulu-Natal could be a precursor for what lay ahead. A continued spate of explosive devices found in and around Durban could be the start of what’s to come, a sort of trial run, he said.

There is a long and widely published history of terror groups active in South Africa, Solomon said. “This is a dress rehearsal. Based on my study of international terrorism, this is the modus operandi to test the defences of the security establishment, and how it responds.”

He said there was not enough information, and it was still too early to suggest a possible linkage or interconnectedness between the various incidents around the country, but he believes that the incidents in Durban “are all related”.

He cautioned South African Jewry to rely more on its Community Security Organisation (CSO) than the government for protection, as he believes intelligence services lack the capability and necessary competence to assist law enforcement on the ground.

“Terrorist organisations have been operating in South Africa for years. South Africa has done very little to stop the blossoming of these groups over time as state security organisations have been more focused on party politics.”

The past few months have witnessed a sinister increase in terror-linked cases, and a drastic spike in the number of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) being planted freely in open public spaces around the country. Some terror experts attribute this to the country’s lack of security and lax intelligence gathering.

Solomon said this week there had “been a 1 000% increase in terrorism incidents in Africa since 2006”.

“The situation will get worse, since 30% of IS fighters come from Africa, and with the fall of Raqqa [in Syria], many are returning to this continent. This situation is similar to the late 1980s, when 1 000 battle-hardened Algerian Afghan veterans returned to their country. We have seen a recent upsurge of IS activity in SA,” he warned.

Jasmine Opperman, the Director of the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium, said we should be careful not to jump to conclusions about terrorism. “This does not mean we don’t have a terrorism problem in South Africa, but it has to be contextualised.”

She told the SA Jewish Report that at least 100, some say more, South Africans had gone to the former Islamic State controlled area in Syria and Iraq. “We know that a minimum of 20-25 of them have returned to South Africa. They are being reintegrated back into society, and have willingly put themselves under surveillance [as part of the condition of being allowed to return], but do we have the capacity to watch them 24/7? No, we do not. Don’t tell me they are distancing themselves from ISIS ideology. These people desperately need to undergo a deradicalisation programme, which takes years, and communities need to be prepared to deal with these returnees.”

Opperman said she did not think the multiple Durban explosive devices were intended to cause fatalities or were a dress rehearsal for future attacks.

“I have not seen evidence that an international terror organisation is directing or inspiring people to execute acts of violence in South Africa. What I have seen and what I know for sure, is that there are people in South Africa who support extremist ideology who fortunately have not yet crossed the threshold and executed an attack.

“There are persistent calls by ISIS for lone-wolf attacks, and I believe this is our primary risk. South Africa does not have an extremist violent footprint, like Europe. There are tensions within the Muslim communities, but nothing like you see in Europe and the Middle East.” However, she pointed out that, “It takes only one person to change this whole dynamic.”

She believes that the IEDs do not bare the hallmarks of classic acts of terrorism. “It could be extortion rackets at play here, or disgruntled workers.”

She said that if an international terror group was going to announce itself, it would be via a bombing in which multiple people were to be killed. If it was a lone-wolf attack, the perpetrator would usually release a video stating their allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State in order to go down as a martyr.

“All of this is absent here,” she said, “However, this doesn’t make it any less concerning. An act of terror that creates fear is of equal importance.”

“The crux of the matter is whether South Africa has functioning, efficient crime intelligence and civilian intelligence services? Or, have these structures been so captured, they have been rendered ineffective? You need intelligence to back up law enforcement. Without this, you will never solve cases.”

It is still unclear whether any of the IEDs have been linked to the attack that was carried out on a mosque in Verulam, just outside Durban, in May. Soon after the tragic incident, a device thought to be an explosive was found at the same mosque.

Bomb disposal expert, Willem Els, of the Institute for Security Studies, said the police were not forthcoming with information. “Police keep their cards very close to their chests. We simply do not have much to work on.”

He said the police “should be more open [about the IED scares] without compromising the case in order to reassure the public”.

The police, he said, were “facing several challenges in terms of capacity and political will to deal with these incidents in a decisive way”.

Conditions in South Africa are “conducive” for terrorist groups and organisations to operate and raise funds, Els said. “I don’t think that terrorist attacks on South African targets are a very big threat, however I believe that other entities like foreign missions and interests may become a target.

“The incidents in the greater Durban area can… serve as preparation for bigger things. We simply do not have enough information about them to do a thorough analysis. We can only speculate at this stage. We can’t rule it out, even though no-one has claimed responsibility so far, according to our information.”

Els agreed that it could be the work of an extortion racket, where businesses are threatened with incendiary or explosive devices should they not pay a ransom.

“This scenario seems to us the most likely at this stage based on the available information,” he said.

Said Opperman, “A trend is developing with acts of extremism on the increase, and we seldom see any cases being solved and resolved. We don’t know who the assailants are, we can’t make the links or associations.” All this, she said, revealed how vulnerable we are to violent crime.

Jevon Greenblatt, the Director of the CSO in Gauteng, said reports suggested that terror groups used South Africa as a base to train, finance, and plan terror operations around the world.

“It is irresponsible to think that an attack will never take place on South African soil, especially in light of global trends and clear evidence of radicalism and previously foiled attempts in our country,” he said.

“It is up to all of us to pray for the best, but make sure that we plan for the worst.”

A national team from the Hawks Crimes Against the State unit has been investigating the incidents, but no arrests have been made.

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