SA's pledge to aid Nigeria could put us in Boko Haram's sights

'We must not think Boko Haram does not have sympathisers or loyalists on South African soil,' says terrorism expert Jasmine Opper­man.

'We must not think Boko Haram does not have sympathisers or loyalists on South African soil,' says terrorism expert Jasmine Opper­man.

South Africa’s well-intentioned promises to assist Nigeria in its fight against terrorist group Boko Haram could have disastrous consequences and could invite retaliation locally, a terrorism expert has warned.

The South African National Defence Force has denied vehemently that it will send its Special Forces to Nigeria to provide combat support to Nigeria’s military, but it did not say whether the issue is under discussion.

According to a memorandum of understanding between the two countries, signed in 2013, they will work together to “promote training of military personnel through exchange of trainees, instructors and observers; exchange military intelligence information on specific matters; encourage and facilitate industrial co-operation between respective defence industries in research and development of defence equipment; and co-operation in the field of military medical services”.

Following a meeting with Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, Nigerian Minister of Defence Mansur Dan-Ali told reporters in Abuja that “discussions on the deployment of the Special Forces have reached an advanced stage”, Punch in Nigeria reported earlier this week, adding that these would soon be concluded.

Dan-Ali visited South Africa last week and discussed possible weapons deals with local arms manufacturer Denel.

When asked for further comment on the deployment of the Special Forces, defence spokesperson Siphiwe Dlamini said no decision had been made.

The South African government was angered when it emerged last year that the Nigerian government had contracted a private security firm run by South African former soldiers, Executive Outcomes, to help fight Boko Haram.

Terrorism expert Jasmine Opper­man from the United States-based Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium said the discussions with Nigeria indicated a possible “drastic change” in foreign policy that would involve South Africa directly in the global alliance against the Islamic State, to which Boko Haram has pledged allegiance.

“If South Africa goes in there, no matter on what level, whether intelligence or training, South Africa is joining, via Nigeria, the Saudi Arabia alliance against [the Islamic State]”, she said. “We must not think Boko Haram does not have sympathisers or loyalists on South African soil.”

She said there was evidence that the Islamic State was recruiting here.

Anneli Botha, a senior researcher on terrorism at the Institute for Security Studies, was more cautious, saying nobody really knew which extremists or how many sympathisers of the Islamic State, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab were in South Africa.

She said Boko Haram was primarily focused on West Africa but there had been threats in South Africa after the xenophobic attacks last year that they would respond to the violent attacks on Nigerians.

A military expert, Helmoed-Römer Heitman, said a threat of retaliation should not put South Africa off doing the right thing.

“How do you watch the things that are happening in Nigeria and do nothing?” he asked.

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