Israel exposes terror ties between SA and Iran
Israeli daily Haaretz reported recently that Shin Bet said it had arrested 29-year-old computer engineering student Mohammed Maharameh, from Hebron, who was “recruited into Iranian intelligence by a relative, Bahar Maharameh, who resides in South Africa”.
This emerged when a terror cell in the West Bank was bust in November.
How serious is this issue? Why is this information emerging through the media, and what’s at stake for the Jewish community?
When Mohammed Maharameh visited South Africa in 2015, Shin Bet said he met agents from Iran’s capital, Tehran. His assignments against Israeli targets allegedly included recruiting a suicide bomber, planning shooting attacks and establishing a computer shop as an intelligence-gathering post. Israeli authorities arrested him and two other suspects in November 2017, charging them with espionage and terrorism.
Says terrorism analyst Hussein Solomon, senior professor of political studies and governance at the University of the Free State: “This incident doesn’t surprise me… there has been accommodation of networks between local and foreign jihadis in South Africa for years. We have groups like Hamas operating here, people in the Palestinian diaspora are here – some for economic reasons, others certainly for other reasons.”
Solomon contends that, according to Iraq’s ambassador, about 300 South Africans fought in Raqqa, Syria. The CIA found the suspect allegedly responsible for bombing the American Embassy in Tanzania, in Cape Town.
Daniel Ackerman, who has studied Islamic extremism in Africa, says: “Terrorist networks require three factors to operate in a country: ungoverned or poorly monitored territories, a stable financial system, and relatively good transport infrastructure. This allows individuals to be trained, financed and moved around with relative ease and discretion.”
Jevon Greenblatt, director of the Community Security Organisation (CSO) in Gauteng, said his organisation had not been able to independently corroborate the Maharameh allegations. Without a specific threat to the South African Jewish community, CSO will not activate extra resources, but monitoring continues.
Jasmine Opperman is a director at the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium, headquartered in Florida, US and has 19 years’ experience in South Africa’s intelligence services. She shares her thoughts on why this latest story unfolded through the media. It followed soon after US President Donald Trump’s announcement that the US recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the subsequent ANC conference resolution that government should downgrade its embassy in Tel Aviv to a liaison office.
Firstly, she contends: “This is more than a subtle warning that if South Africa continues relations with Iran – we know that there’s close diplomatic, economic and military co-operation between them – Israel’s intelligence services do have information available on what is happening on South African soil, and is willing to release it.”
Secondly, she asks why this crucial information was not passed on to the Shin Bet’s South African counterparts to investigate. “This tells me that there is ineffective co-operation between the intelligence services in countering violent extremism” – a point foreign diplomats repeatedly make to her.
Thirdly, Opperman says: “In South Africa there is a historical footprint of recruitment. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are active and trying to recruit and spread their propaganda. One expects our State Security Agency (SSA) to investigate this as a matter of urgency.
“One must ask whether the details of this case have been liaised to SSA. Will it undertake an investigation?”
Solomon suggests why this may not be the case. The country’s spies are so busy fighting factional political battles and digging up dirt on potential opponents that they are not performing their core function of keeping the country safe from terrorism. There is a profound lack of trust in, and between these institutions.
He says: “We know for a fact from books like Jacques Pauw’s The President’s Keepers, for example – that South Africa’s intelligence services are politicised and criminalised, therefore the trust doesn’t exist. Instead of our intelligence services focusing on these [extremist] groups, what they are doing is focusing on the enemies of President Jacob Zuma, spying on journalists and judges, and trying to keep the president out of jail.”
Hence, foreign intelligence agencies don’t trust our agencies and won’t share critical information, leaving South Africa increasingly exposed. Solomon doubts any action will be taken because of our security services’ incompetence and indifference.
Greenblatt says Israel contends that an Iranian-inspired attack in Johannesburg was foiled in 2012, and there was beefed-up shul security in 2014 on the High Holy Days thanks to a tip-off. The infamous Thulsie twins, Brandon-Lee and Tony-Lee (23), remain in custody for allegedly planning terror attacks, including scoping out King David Linksfield school for such purposes. Greenblatt says: “We believe that an attack in this country is very possible… We are concerned that it’s just a matter of time before something, G-d forbid, happens. There is no doubt that there’s an element within the Muslim community that is radical, and open to recruitment.”
He adds that BDS, often dismissed as innocuous, “opens up the door to the next level, which is joining an outfit like al-Qaeda and actually carrying out an attack. So, we can’t discount the influence of organisations like BDS in starting off the process of radicalisation.”
Opperman reflects how both Israel and Iran are wooing African states. “Having Pretoria on its side at United Nations and African Union level is paramount to Iran trying to overcome its isolation.” Iran leverages its historical support for the anti-apartheid struggle to boost its soft power and commerce.
Pretoria seems to turn a blind eye to the activities of violent extremists, hoping they will leave the country alone if they can fund-raise, train and recruit here. Recent terror attacks in London, Manchester, Paris and Brussels illustrate the dangers of ignoring or neglecting disaffected, angry populations.
Opperman says: “Let’s call a spade a spade. The Jewish community will always be seen as an ideal target.”
Says Greenblatt: “Security isn’t a knee-jerk reaction when something, G-d forbid, goes wrong… The likes of the Thulsie twins can walk into any shul or shopping centre at any time. CSO works every day to educate the community to see the reality of potential threats.
“Preparing our community is not only the responsibility of the CSO but of every community member and organisation,” says Greenblatt. He emphasises the need for good physical security, the right procedures and appropriate personnel, “so we never have to regret not having done something”.
Nelson Kgwete, spokesperson for the department of international relations and co-operation, wrote the following reply to SA Jewish Report when asked for official comment: “The South African government is not involved in any way in any conflict involving any number of states in any part of the world. We believe in peaceful resolution of conflicts. Any person with knowledge of any criminal activity taking place within South African borders must furnish law enforcement authorities with details of such crime/s.”