An online expose detailing the goings-on into an alleged Al Qaeda training camp outside Pretoria has evoked sharp criticism from Muslim commentators. On Tuesday, media monitoring group Media Review Network (MRN) said the publication has “given credence to allegations which lack substance and credibility”.
The Daily Maverick on Monday reported that the police’s Crimes Against The State (CATS) unit and the State Security Agency (SSA) had been monitoring activities at a farm outside Pretoria and at a secluded farm in the Klein Karoo. The article also fingered the owners of the farms, the prominent Dockrat family, alleged to be behind the training camp. In 2007, the US government red flagged Dockrat cousins, Dr Junaid and Farhad, after tracing questionable financial transactions directly from them to al-Qaeda.
In response, the MRN said the writer De Wet Potgieter made similar claims in an article which appeared in The New Age in 2011. The body said details in the article are laced with speculation and include information that bear no relevance to Al Qaeda or any terror training.MRN executive Iqbal Jassat said the report therefore left the reader with more questions than answers.
“Again it’s nothing credible, completely outrageous and lacking all kinds of substance. At the same time, it’s highly irrelevant in the way he has scandalised the Dockrat family,” said Jassat. Freelance journalist Zahid Asmal echoed this point, saying Potgieter’s piece “lacked oomph” and was a poor attempt to re-oxygenate a story that died several years back. But Asmal added that it was a threat to South Africa’s fledging democracy, where Muslims have gained upper ground on a number of fronts.
“It’s [the report] a poor attempt to demonize this community, the family and the South African government and its security agency in the eyes of Western spooks operating in this country.” Asmal threw down the gauntlet at Prof Hussein Solomon, the academic who first raised the alarm on so-called terror camps in South Africa as far back as 2007. Solomon has been speaking about alleged terror cells operating in the country for years, but has been criticised by many analysts for not proving adequate proof of his theories.
In 2010, Prof Solomon made startling allegations of a jihadi facility in Port Elizabeth, where Al Qaeda-Al Shabaab linked operatives were being trained to disrupt the Fifa World Cup. In the report, Potgieter widely quotes Prof Solomon’s research into the matter. VOC News’ attempt to get hold of the academic was unsuccessful.
“Prof Hussein Solomon is a ‘Houdini’ of the highest order. His performed these acts quite a few times in the past,” said Asmal. South Africa’s security and intelligence agencies now have the obligation to explain why the investigation into the Dockrat family and the alleged terrorist training facility was stopped. If any surveillance of the alleged terror camp had been abandoned a few years ago, it would have been a justified decision by government, added Jassat.
According to him, in direct meetings with the State Security Agency (SSA), the MRN were able to confirm that at the time the focus was on alleged terror activity in Greenbushes in Port Elizabeth. At the time, Maulana Nazier Desai was given the reassurance that the monitoring of this camp had failed to uncover any kind of information related to terrorism. The Daily Maverick article was reflective of the paranoia, which so-called “terror experts” like Hussein Solomon wanted to promote.
“These types of assertions are intended to give rise to this phobia and a sense of fear mongering, said Jassat, adding that the story was highly sensationalist. “And while the story has all the juicy elements of the Dockrats, who they married to and all their business elements, all that’s missing is whether they sleep with their eyes open or closed.”
Asmal said questions needed to be asked as to why Potgieter left The New Age newspaper, directly after he made similar claims in 2011. He also claimed that Potgieter could not be trusted as he had worked for the government security agency during apartheid. “De Wet Potgieter chose to demean this community and the family without using any of his journalistic skills as an investigative reporter. There is much more to this story than training camps and Al Qaeda operatives in this country. Potgieter needs to tell South Africa why he chose to write this story…” said Asmal.
“Mainstream media in South Africa is dominated by a minority. Any small piece of drivel written by mainstream journalists will be picked up quickly by the international community. This is essentially what he’s [Potgieter] is trying to do.” The MRN called on the South African media not to feed into this which “only serve to fuel the flames of Islamophobia, xenophobia and racism”. “Any assertions of Al Qaeda being entrenched in South Africa would fuel public paranoia on terrorism. The dangers of this perception would be far worse for the Dockrat family,” said Jassat.
He believed there was an important element at play: the question of the due process of law. Both Junaid and Farhad Dockrat had been placed on the US government’s watch list for terror activities in 2007, resulting in their bank accounts being frozen. As South Africans, allowing this kind of information to “remain untested and unproven” would impact on the civil liberties of citizens of this country, he stressed.
“Unless the government is able to give a very clear and emphatic reassurance that their surveillance was based on pressure from USA, then we would have no reason to believe any of these stories in the way it has been concocted.” In his analysis of the presentation of the report, Jassat said apart from the opening paragraph that makes the claim that training of Al Qaeda terrorists in South Africa, there was very little detail.
“That’s the line that has this emphasis. The balance of the report deals with a swathe of information that is totally unrelated and irrelevant,” he mooted. “The burden of truth would be on those faceless sources and the one who has been identified [Prof Solomon] who had repeated these allegations in the past, and who has been confronted to provide the evidence and has failed.”
Investigative reporting underpinned the ability of the media to remain watchdogs of the community. Potgieter undermined the profession with “thumb-sucking” reporting, concluded Jassat. “Hussein Solomon’s ducking and diving doesn’t surprise me anymore. What does surprise me is that mainstream media would buy into this without understanding that the report is scurrilous. It has no basis in truth and its claims remain unsubstantiated.”
Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) spokesperson Nabeweya Mallick said the report did not warrant any comment, as it was an old story with no real facts. The ulema body would however discuss the matter amongst its members on Tuesday. VOC News contacted Potgieter several times for an interview on Monday, but was told that he was busy due to back to back deadlines. Prof Hussein Solomon did not reply to an emailed request for an interview. The Dockrat family were poised to issue a statement on the claims on Tuesday, following meetings with their legal team on Monday night. VOC (Tasneem Adams)