Cape Town Muslims suspect radical group in bombing Violent faction denies Planet Hollywood attack

August 29, 1998|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- For two years, the Muslim community here has been shaken by a small violent Islamic faction, which uses the pipe bomb as its weapon of choice in a vigilante crusade against crime and its critics.

When a bomb exploded Tuesday at the Planet Hollywood restaurant, the finger of suspicion almost inevitably and immediately pointed to the radicals.

Unusually, much of the finger pointing came from the Muslims themselves, although there is no evidence to prove their suspicions.

"One can't say it's them," said Imam Rashid Omar, head of one of the oldest of this province's 400 mosques. "But it's not far-fetched. The situation on the ground lends itself to that interpretation."

For three centuries Muslims have been part of local society, first arriving as slaves to the original Dutch settlers, then forming their own community, which now numbers an estimated 400,000 in the Western Cape.

"The Muslim community is really an integral part of Cape Town and its history," said Peter Gastrow, of the South African Institute for Strategic Studies. "They have been here so long they represent a cross section in terms of class, occupation, profession."

Isolated Muslim community

But over the centuries, they have been isolated by geography from the rest of the Islamic world, developing their own religious tendencies and even their own spelling so that, for example, Ahmed is spelled Achmat here, and Hassan is Gasan.

"The only way to understand Muslim tendencies, Muslim groupings in the Western Cape is to understand it in the local context," said Omar.

"It appears very similar to what is happening in the other parts of the world, but this is a home-grown, indigenous movement."

During the years of apartheid, the natural distance was compounded by political isolation as the Islamic nations applied sanctions against this segregated country with as much, if not more, vigor than others.

Many Muslims inside South Africa joined "the struggle" against white minority domination. Among them was a charismatic leader, Achmat Casseim, who spent much of his early life in detention, serving part of his imprisonment on Robben Island, off Cape Town, with Nelson Mandela.

Casseim was a sympathizer of pan-Africanism, the notion of a united Africa, and an advocate of socialism. In the late 1970s, he became influenced by the Iranian revolution.

Out of all this came a movement called Quibla, which blended Africanism and socialism with Iranian religious fervor. It was highly politicized and occasionally violent.

When crime became a problem that threatened to undermine the community, the vigilante group People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD) was formed. It marched on the homes of drug dealers and gang leaders, warning them to behave or suffer the consequences.

Several gang leaders have been killed and the homes of others have been burned down, but, while PAGAD was widely suspected, it never acknowledged responsibility.

When an Israeli settler painted the Prophet Mohammed as a pig last year, it aroused outrage in the Muslim world, and another protest group was formed here. It was called Muslims Against Global Oppression (MAGO).

"My sense is it's the same people," said Gastrow, referring to Quibla.

"Quibla has become very astute in the sense of not using their own banner," said Omar. "They launch these front organizations. All of them are linked in some way. It's the same kind of folk."

Omar recalled that a year ago, after MAGO marched on the Israeli Embassy to protest the pig painting, a pipe bomb exploded outside a Jewish home in the Cape Town suburb of Newlands.

Last week, as MAGO planned a march on the U.S. Embassy here, a pipe bomb exploded in the Planet Hollywood restaurant, perhaps this town's most glaring symbol of American-style commerce and culture.

An anonymous phone caller to a local talk radio claimed MAGO was responsible for the blast, which was in retaliation of the U.S. bombing raids on targets in Sudan and Afghanistan.

But the group's leaders called a news conference at the University of Cape Town on Thursday to deny any involvement.

"We, the people of MAGO condemn this cowardice act and heinous crime in the strongest possible terms," said a statement. "In our denunciation of this bombing, we outrightly and distinctly distance ourselves from this act.

"It is a deep concern to our organization that an individual has deemed it fit to commit such a crime under the name of MAGO."

Abdul Kayum Ahmed, a spokesman for MAGO, said the organization was headed by an eight-member steering committee, and had no formal membership because it was community-based, mainly in the Cape Flats, an impoverished area outside of the city.

It was committed to fighting social and political injustice against Muslims. It was not, he said, allied to PAGAD.

Ibrahim Francis, a founding member of PAGAD, also denied any links with either MAGO or Quibla.

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