Tue, Aug 10, 2004 - Page 7 News List

South Africans jolted by terror arrests

ATTACK PLANS The arrest of men linked to al-Qaeda accused of plotting attacks in several cities has some South Africans wondering if they need to tighten security


A string of international arrests of South African citizens, followed by sensational reports in the last week of terrorist plots against tourism and financial sites, is raising new questions about the depth of Islamic extremism in a country known for its racial and religious tolerance.

South Africans were jolted all last week by headlines about terrorism, most stemming from the July 25 arrests of two Pretoria-area men during a raid on a suspected hide-out for al-Qaeda in Gujrat, Pakistan. The raid resulted in the detention of 14 suspects, including Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian accused of masterminding the bombings of the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

Gujrat's police commissioner said last week that the Pretoria men "had some terror plans for South Africa" and maps of several cities.

The country's newspapers, citing anonymous sources, have detailed a sheaf of planned attacks against financial institutions and sites frequented by US tourists. By various accounts, the men had plans to attack the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, the Sheraton Hotel and the American Embassy in Pretoria, the national parliament, a waterfront tourist complex in Cape Town and even the Queen Elizabeth 2 as it steamed into the harbors of Durban or Cape Town.

The two arrested men were identified as Feroz Ganchi, a 30-year-old doctor, and Zubair Ismail, 20, a student of Islamic studies. Their families insist that they have no connection to al-Qaeda and that they flew to Pakistan on a hiking expedition. South Africa's government says it has yet to gain access to the men, but it denounced the reports as baseless and needlessly alarming.

"This is a case of shouting `fire' in a crowded cinema," Cabinet spokesman Joel Netshitenzhe said last week.

But South Africans were greeted Thursday by fresh reports that another South African Muslim, a 29-year-old man, was quietly arrested last Tuesday in Mexico near the US border after the authorities found irregularities in his travel documents.

A spokeswoman for the South African police intelligence division declined to provide details, saying the case was under investigation.

Last week's disclosures follow the national police service's contention in May -- derided by some at the time -- that it thwarted al-Qaeda plot to disrupt South Afri-ca's national elections the previous month by expelling five people suspected of being terrorists.

By some accounts last week, however, the May expulsions and July arrests were both part of a larger al-Qaeda operation in South Africa. That is raising uncomfortable questions in a country that has lately considered Islamic terrorism to be Kenya and Tanzania's problem, not South Africa's.

"We've come to assume that the period of stability and nonterrorist headlines over the last few years is going to continue," Peter Gastrow, a terrorism analyst who heads the Cape Town office of South Africa's Institute for Security Studies, said in a telephone interview.

"We need more information now, in order to know whether we need to tighten up our security," Gastrow said.

Only 2 percent of South Africa's 45 million people are Muslim. The overwhelming majority of them -- blacks and ethnic Indians, concentrated in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban -- embrace a moderate, tolerant form of Islam, Gastrow said.

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