Al-Qaeda is a loaded word, and when used implicitly to manufacture consent for a terrorist threat – as has been the case in Potgeiter’s article – it serves to conjure up the post 9/11 Islamic bogey that so unfairly associates a whole section of South African society with terror.
This is something that the Media Review Network, a Gauteng-based media watchdog, believes is Islamophobia – the creation of an irrational, racist fear of Islam.
Indeed, many South African Muslims have asked what exactly Potgeiter was trying to prove. That most of his information was old, re-cycled and already public knowledge, suggests that Google could have done his work in a day – and not in a year, as he claims.
At the core of his report are two things: firstly, the South African intelligence services’ apparent laxity in following up on unspecified local Islamic terror threats before the 2010 World Cup and, secondly, the existence of “Al-Qaeda training camps” near Vlakplaas and in the Karoo.
Potgeiter mentions Gauteng businessmen, Junaid and Farhad Dockrat, as funders and facilitators of the “Al-Qaeda” training facilities, which according to his intelligence sources, were providing military training and sniper skills.
He mentions allegations by the CIA in 2001 that the Dockrats had been channelling funds (R400, 000) to Al-Qaeda via the Karachi-based Al-Akhtar Trust, a trust that was listed by the US treasury as a terrorist organisation in 2003.
The Al-Akhtar Trust, reportedly an offshoot of the Al-Rashid Trust that was listed in 2001, is believed by the US and European intelligence community to have had links with a person involved in the kidnapping and murder of the Wall Street reporter, Daniel Pearl.
A supporter of the Taliban (with rumoured covert Pakistani secret service support) the Al-Akhtar Trust is also believed to have had links to the Kashmiri jihadi movement, Jeish-e-Muhammed (JeM), and – according to Stanford University – of having provided medical treatment for injured Al-Qaeda cadres in 2001.
Potgeiter writes that the Dockrats were the subjects of intensive surveillance by the police’s specialised unit, Crimes against the State (CATS) and the State Security Agency (SSA), in an operation named Operation Kanu.
In his report, Potgeiter equates Operation Kanu with Operation Waco, an apparently similar undertaking directed against the Boeremag, 22 of whose members who were arrested and brought to trial in 2003.
Potgeiter suggests that the prosecution of the Boeremag and cessation of the investigation into the Dockrats was irregular. It is implied that the government had acted in an unfair manner by going after White Afrikaners, and not wealthy Indian Muslims.
I can remember a very highly placed intelligence source saying before the World Cup that the terror situation was under control – there was no Al-Qaeda threat to South Africa – and that the Dockrats, who were definitely on the security radar, had been watched for a long time.
When I interviewed Potgeiter on a radio show he admitted to using the word “Al-Qaeda” generically to describe Islamic extremism. He did not provide proof of concrete links to Al-Qaeda, but promised more details in a follow up story.
However, what Potgeiter has failed to mention is that numerous intelligence think-tanks, and even intelligence agencies world-wide, agree that the old core of Al-Qaeda – Al-Qaeda “prime” – has been moribund and ineffective for years.
At best, during its heyday, the core of Al-Qaeda was never more than several hundred men. The likelihood, then, of the colourless but shadowy Dr Ayman al-Zahawiri orchestrating an international network from his hideout is extremely unlikely.
It is not admitted often that even in Afghanistan during the Taliban era Al-Qaeda was regarded as exclusively “Arab”, a separate group, and was sometimes even a disliked guest.
The idea – punted by neo-cons and jihadi alarmists – that Al-Qaeda is an international organisation with underground cells in over 100 countries is a wishful cast into the lake of terror speculation. Al-Qaeda – or what’s left of “prime” – has little capacity.
As The Independent’s Robert Fisk has observed: the presence of Al-Qaeda was conspicuously absent during the recent Arab uprisings.
But what grip Al-Qaeda has had, in spite of its hugely spectacular failure, has been to capture the imagination. If you’re a jihadi group fighting a forgotten local struggle somewhere in the desert just say you’re Al-Qaeda and the press will come running.
In other words, Al-Qaeda has become an ideological franchise that has slipped into the power vacuums and civil chaos of conflict zones in North Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
Inspired by extremist Saudi Arabian Wahhabism, groups such as Al-Shabab in Somalia, Ansar al-Dine in Mali, AQIM in Iraq, Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan, Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, Boko Haram in Nigeria and AQAP in the Arabian Peninsula have all focused on regional issues.
The point is that Usama bin Laden may have inspired them, but their actual links to each other, or a central body called Al-Qaeda, are tenuous – if not doubtful.
What is significant is that if put together, all these groupings would not even constitute 0.5% of the world’s total Muslim population of 2.2 billion. And yet – as the al-Qaeda franchise – they capture almost 90% of world’s media coverage on Islam.
In the same breath can there be much difference to when people hear about Islam and think Al-Qaeda, to hearing about burgers, and thinking McDonalds? It doesn’t mean to say that everybody eats McDonalds, and it doesn’t mean to say that all Muslims are Al-Qaeda.