Europe terror raises concern of copycat attacks in SA

  • France
South Africa may be physically far from the recent terrorist attacks that took place in France and Austria, but we still have to be extra vigilant. Terror is now a global phenomenon, says experts, and Jewish communities have to be on their guard.
by TALI FEINBERG | Nov 05, 2020

“What has become clear is that there are no borders or boundaries in the world anymore,” says Jevon Greenblatt, the director of operations at the Community Security Organisation (CSO). “With social media and the speed of information, we can’t turn around and say what happens there doesn’t affect us over here.

“For example, the New Zealand mosque shootings motivated other right-wing radicals to emulate similar attacks.”

The series of attacks in Europe started when a teacher, Samuel Paty, was decapitated in the streets of Paris on 16 October, a few days after he showed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a lesson about freedom of expression.

On 29 October, three people were killed in an attack – including one woman who was decapitated – at the Notre-Dame church in the southern city of Nice. Later that day, in the southern city of Avignon, police shot dead an armed man after he refused to drop his weapon.

The attack in Vienna began on the evening of 2 November, when a heavily armed man opened fire on people outside restaurants at six locations, all near the street on which Vienna’s central synagogue is located. Four civilians were confirmed dead. Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the attack 24 hours later.

The resurfacing of the cartoons in France has led to mass protests, calls for a boycott, and tensions among world leaders. After the Vienna attack, French President Emmanuel Macron said among other things, “This is our Europe. Our enemies must know who they are dealing with. We will not give up.” Meanwhile, the United Kingdom raised its terror threat level from ‘substantial’ to ‘severe’, meaning an attack is now judged to be ‘highly likely’, in light of events on France and Austria.

Says Greenblatt, “There have been protests against France in South Africa, as well as talks on the issue and sermons in local mosques, so we can’t say there hasn’t been a physical effect in South Africa. Locals are expressing their anger and displeasure with what’s happening, and that could be seen as a microcosm of sentiments globally.

“It could encourage someone who is radicalised or unhinged to listen to the call of ISIS to carry out attacks, and to look at French, Western, or Jewish targets in South Africa. These recent events in Europe were ‘very successful’ in that they’ve damaged France’s sense of safety and security, and now Vienna’s as well. The more ‘successful’ an attack, the more ‘inspiring’ it is for other jihadists to emulate. So there is no doubt that copycat attacks are a concern at global level.

“On top of that, we have ISIS in the Cabo Delgado province of Mozambique. Just recently, ISIS made a statement that what is happening in France, and the normalisation between Israel and Arab states, is an affront to Islam, telling fighters to go out into the world and attack in revenge. ISIS has an agenda, and will use every single opportunity to justify that agenda.”

Jasmine Opperman, a terrorism expert and analyst at the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, echoes Greenblatt’s sentiments.

“South Africa has to end its self-constructed belief that we are different, that we are isolated, that we’ve never had this problem. We cannot say that anymore. We have ISIS supporters, fanatics on home soil, people feeling insulted [by the cartoons], and right-wingers communicating with international right-wing organisations,” she says.

“South Africa is the ideal setting for fanatics to execute an attack,” Opperman says. “This may be without any guidance or training – as can be seen in the ‘lone-wolf’ attacks in France – but based on personal beliefs. South Africa must pop out of its bubble of believing it’s immune to terrorism.” She says this especially true because of the presence of ISIS in Mozambique, although she doesn’t think that it’s in a position to direct activities in South Africa at this point in time.

Writing for Sky News, European correspondent Adam Parsons said after the Vienna attack, “What’s clear is that for the past few weeks, we have talked about a resurgence in terrorism in France. Now that tension has seeped beyond the borders. Few doubt that another attack will happen soon. What we don’t know is where.”

Opperman notes that the French attacks were “lone-wolf attacks that weren’t co-ordinated, with no reference to belonging to ISIS or al-Qaeda, even though on social media, these organisations celebrated the attacks as a victory for Muslims”.

“This is where the concern lies,” she says, “with developments in Europe, the divide between communities is getting bigger, and the opportunity for fanatics to execute attacks beyond a traditional terrorism framework is at play. The primary concern is that the scope of those willing to make use of violence has opened up, and we cannot ignore that, even in South Africa.” While she emphasises that an imminent terrorist attack on South African soil is highly unlikely, Jewish communities are always a more vulnerable target.

“My concern lies with the France attacks. That is to say, we could have individuals in South Africa, not associated with Al-Qaeda or ISIS, but due to hatred or feeling insulted by the cartoons, deciding to take action against the Jewish community or European embassies or personnel. We need to understand that a classic counter-terrorism approach won’t deal with these fanatics. For most of the time, we won’t even know about them. Hence, South Africa cannot ignore these developments. South Africa has to take note and put action in place.”

Examining the context of the recent attacks, Opperman says, “In Europe, for the past few years, we have seen a divide setting in. In Austria, antisemitism has been in drastic increase. Right-wing extremist groups are active on propaganda channels inciting individuals to take action. And that leaves Europe more vulnerable. In addition, Macron’s response to the Vienna attack creates even more of a divide of ‘either you’re with us or against us’. It could antagonise Muslim communities and create the opportunity for more fanaticism.”

Greenblatt says the CSO isn’t going to raise the threat level in the Jewish community because, “For 26 years, we have put mechanisms in place for basic security for our community. Every day, we are operating at a level where we understand that this can happen at any stage.

“This is just a slightly more sensitive time that could lead to a local reaction or inspire a copycat attack. We can’t say it won’t, and we have no information to say it will. But we always work with facilities and the community to be aware and vigilant.

“Our processes are aligned to what’s happening in the world. The fundamental principles of security are simple, and actions as small as locking a door or gate, proper access control, community protectors on duty at key times, and reporting any concerns to the CSO on 086 18 000 18 can make all the difference in preventing an attack.”

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