Terror: SA a 'soft target'

22 November 2015 - 02:05 By THANDUXOLO JIKA and ANDRÉ JURGENS

As the world reels under a bloody spate of terror attacks, State Security Minister David Mahlobo has told South Africans there is no need to panic.

Mahlobo told the Sunday Times that the government was working with international intelligence agencies to ensure that there were no threats to the country's security.

"We remain vigilant as a country and do our routine work, but we are not on high alert. There is no panic," said Mahlobo.

"The reality is that there is no country that is immune to terror, so we need to address the root causes."

Friday's attack in Mali's capital, Bamako, during which at least 21 people were killed, has sent shock waves across the globe. The attack came a week after the bloodshed in Paris that claimed 130 lives.

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However, Mahlobo said he was confident that any threats to South Africa would be detected, saying the government was "working with communities on a larger scale to fight any contact with radicals".

Yesterday French minister of foreign affairs Laurent Fabius met with President Jacob Zuma to discuss the upcoming COP21 climate conference and co-operation on fighting terrorism.

Asked about recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Mali and whether his meeting with Zuma was related to these events, he said: "Our countries do co-operate in the fight against terrorism, through the exchange of information and sharing our respective analyses.

"Although my visit is focused on the COP21 conference, we addressed the fight against terrorism."

Institute for Security Studies counterterrorism expert Anton du Plessis said recent attacks around the world indicated a shift in strategy by terror groups - one that placed South Africa under potential threat of an attack.

"What we've seen in the last two weeks is a serious game-changer in terms of where global terrorist groups are trying to position themselves. It's clear from attacks taking place around the world that terrorist groups are trying to attract headlines and keep their recruitment strategies alive.

"If IS- and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Africa have changed strategy, then South Africa does face a threat. South Africa's government is not considered a high target for terrorist groups, but we have probably the highest concentration of what would be considered soft targets that would generate the highest level of publicity and fear within Western targets on the continent."

On an operational level, South Africa had good counterterrorism capacity in close co-operation with countries such as the UK, US and France, as seen during the World Cup, he said.

"But as we saw in Paris, you don't need a highly organised, big group of guys with explosives. You just need three or four people with AK47s, which are freely available in this part of the world, to pull off an attack right under the nose of intelligence.

"I don't think we can be complacent. The US embassy alert [in September] is a reminder that we're not off the radar."

The Department of International Relations yesterday condemned the terror in Mali: "South Africa stands with the rest of the international community in its condemnation of attacks targeting civilians and reiterates its stance that terrorism, in whatever form and from whichever quarter, cannot be condoned."

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Meanwhile, a US security expert said African nations would remain vulnerable to militant attacks and it would be difficult for them to prevent similar violence in future.

"The ability to conduct attacks on soft targets is going to continue to be a challenge," General David Rodriguez, the head of US Africa Command, told reporters in Washington on Friday.

In the wake of the attack on Nairobi's Westgate shopping mall in September 2013, which left 67 people dead, it emerged that "White Widow" Samantha Lewthwaite, the alleged mastermind behind the killings, managed to obtain fake South African IDs and spent time in Mayfair, Johannesburg, with her two children.

Boko Haram was this week named the world's deadliest terrorist group by the Global Terrorism Index. The militant group, which has targeted Nigeria and its neighbours for years, was responsible for 6664 deaths last year, more than any other terrorist group in the world, including IS, which killed 6073 people, according to the index.

Attacks in Nigeria this week alone, including two female suicide bombers detonating vests at a cellphone market in the northern city of Kano, left scores of people dead. In Cameroon yesterday suicide bombers killed six people and wounded dozens.

In Mali, security forces were hunting down at least three people suspected of involvement in Friday's jihadist attack in Bamako.

"We are actively pursuing three suspects who might have been involved in Friday's attack on the Radisson Blu Hotel," a source said.

The Malian government declared a 10-day state of emergency from midnight on Friday and called for three days of mourning for the victims.

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Belgium yesterday closed the Brussels metro network after police found an arsenal of chemicals and explosives, as the UN unanimously endorsed a resolution urging nations to combat IS, warning that the terrorist group intends more attacks similar to Paris.

The Belgian government raised the terror alert to its highest level, shutting the transit system.

A receptionist at the Radisson Blu in Bamako described Friday's attack, during which heavily armed gunmen shouting "Allahu Akbar! [God is great]" stormed the hotel, seizing hostages and leaving bodies strewn throughout the building. The gunmen barrelled past the hotel's light security, using fake diplomatic licence plates to confuse guards, and burst into the lobby guns blazing.

"They started firing everywhere," said the receptionist. "They cut someone's throat, a white man. I saw four of them, armed to the teeth."

US President Barack Obama condemned the assault calling it "another reminder that terrorism threatens many of our nations". - Additional reporting Monica Laganparsad, AFP, Bloomberg

jikat@sundaytimes.co.za, jurgensa@sundaytimes.co.za

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