Johannesburg, South Africa – Friday prayers had just ended in Mayfair and the streets slowly came back to life in this predominantly Muslim neighbourhood in central Johannesburg.
Mubarak Hassan, 19, leaned against the wall outside a small barber shop on busy 7th Avenue. Like most of the young men around, Hassan wore his traditional white robe.
“No one will talk to you,” Hassan told this reporter with a smile. “No one wants to have anything to do with al-Shabab. The people prefer to be quiet about them. Many journalists have been to this area of town over the last week.”
After al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the Westgate mall attack in Nairobi last month, government security forces have been trying to track down cells of the hardline Somalia-based group in this neighbourhood. Although a majority of its residents are ethnically Indian, Mayfair is known as “little Mogadishu” as it is home to about 5,000 Somalis.
After the mall siege in Kenya, allegations emerged that Briton Samantha Lewthwaite used to live in Mayfair. Lewthwaite – nicknamed the “White Widow” – was married to one of the suicide bombers who attacked London on July 7, 2005. She has been tied to al-Shabab and is wanted for allegedly planning terrorist attacks.
Dozens of media teams descended on Mayfair in an attempt to track the woman down.
|A photo of Lewthwaite‘s South African passport [AFP]|
Lewthwaite was initially linked to the mall attack that killed more than 70 people, but Kenyan police have named four assailants that it said were the only ones involved.
The government is investigating whether or not she obtained a fake South African passport while staying in Mayfair.
South African police said investigations into al-Shabab’s presence in the country have been ongoing for more than a year. However, neither state security nor the elite police unit – The Hawks – have publicly revealed more details, “as this could be self defeating”, Brian Dube, spokesman for the South African state security agency, told Al Jazeera.
“From a government perspective, we can indicate that we take seriously the threats posed by terrorism, and we remain vigilant as no country can claim it is immune from such threats,” said Dube.
In 2011, Kenya invaded Somalia to counter cross-border infiltration by al-Shabab. The armed group has vowed to continue striking Kenyan targets until it removes its troops from Somalia.
Dube said there was no need to fear a similar attack in South Africa. “The Kenyan-style incident happened against the background of very peculiar historical conditions that are markedly different from South Africa,” he said.
Somalis interviewed said there is no al-Shabab activity in Mayfair. “I don’t believe they are here,” said Hassan, adding most people living in the area fled Somalia because of the group. Hassan’s parents sent him to South Africa when he was 12, so he would not be recruited by al-Shabab. He said he hasn’t seen or heard of any radical activity within the community.
We are concerned that there are going to be resentments or even backlashes. We fear to be linked to al-Qaeda or al-Shabab just because we're Somali.
Amir Sheikh, the chairman of the Somali Community Board of South Africa, is also convinced that al-Shabab is not present in the country. His biggest worry rather is reaction from South Africans to the Somali community. Violent incidents against Somalis have flared recently, with three shopkeepers killed earlier this year.
“We are concerned that there are going to be resentments or even backlashes against the community because of the events in Nairobi,” he said. “We fear to be linked to al-Qaeda or al-Shabab just because we’re Somali.”
Sheikh left Somalia 10 years ago, before al-Shabab was founded. Since then he has closely followed developments surrounding the group.
“It has become a global problem,” he said. “There has been an alert in Uganda now, their malls are safeguarded. No one is safe from al-Shabab.”
Anneli Botha, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, agreed that al-Shabab can no longer be seen exclusively as a threat to Somalia.
“We gradually see a move beyond only Somalia, as the attacks have shown. Members of al-Shabab are recruited in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania. It has become a regional threat more than a Somali threat. And Kenya is going to be at the heart of this debate,” Botha told Al Jazeera.
Botha’s work on al-Shabab in East Africa, she said, has shown that the group “most certainly has links to Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Qaeda in the Islamist Maghreb”.
The main concern is a possible convergence of these armed groups, she said. “It’s not only an idea – it’s happening, they share and train together.”
Through an interview with a former al-Shabab member in Somalia, Botha said she found out that he had been sent to South Africa for two years to receive training.
“He said he lived and worked here and obtained a South African passport while he was in the country. A South African passport is a nice commodity to have – one can travel anywhere in Africa with it,” said Botha.
With reports saying Lewthwaite had acquired a South African passport, a national discussion is now under way about the ease with which one can get hold of a travel document and live in the country undetected.
Corruption is institutionalised in South Africa, you can bribe officials to get passports.
South African Minister of Home Affairs Naledi Pandor told a recent press conference that the issue was being addressed.
“We have changed both the process of application as well as the character of the passport,” Pandor said, adding that Lewthwaite’s passport had been cancelled.
But Hussein Solomon, a professor of political science at the University of the Free State, said the problem goes deeper than the application process and passport design.
“Corruption is institutionalised in South Africa, you can bribe officials to get passports,” Solomon said, citing previous cases of terrorists using South African travel documents in attacks such as the 1998 US Embassy bombing in Nairobi and London attacks in 2005.
Solomon said he is not convinced the government has made serious efforts to monitor groups such as al-Shabab. He laughed when told the police have been watching the group for a year now.
Solomon said the organisation has cells all over South Africa – in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth – as well as across other southern African countries, especially Mozambique.
“You can compare it to Hezbollah – which is based in Lebanon, but they’re not entirely Lebanese. We need to look at their relationship to Boko Haram, the terrorists in Mali, the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, groups with a Salafist ideology in general.”
After the Westgate attack, it is clear that al-Shabab is prepared to launch operations against civilians throughout the region. Amir Sheikh, the community leader, noted the majority of the group’s victims in Somalia were Muslims.
“What these people do has nothing to do with religion. Terrorism has no skin colour, no country, no religion,” he said.