Chaos erupted in Cape Town’s central train station on Tuesday as a man dressed in the long gown and headscarf of a conservative Muslim woman opened fire on a train platform before eventually turning the gun on himself. Only the shooter was killed in an incident that left bystanders both terrified and perplexed.
Just moments before a resident in the area had called a police hotline to report the presence of “two strange men dressed in black” with “latex gloves over their other gloves.” The image of two tall, slender figures clad head to toe in black flowing garments was captured by nearby security cameras as well. It is not clear what happened to the other man.
Police spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Andre Traut told journalists that the circumstances around the shooting were being investigated, but that “we have reason to believe that the man who shot and killed himself could have been part of a group of two men who acted suspiciously prior to the incident.” He refused, however, to posit a motive. “We will not be speculating about the matter until our investigation has reached a more advanced stage.”
The police may not be speculating, but the public is. South African authorities have been concerned about the country becoming a terror haven ever since the United Nations Security Council warned in February that extremist groups might use the country as an operational base. Fears that terror groups were actively recruiting South Africans from the country’s Muslim community — around 740,000 or 1.5% of the population — ignited in April when a 15-year-old girl was stopped from boarding a plane in Cape Town on suspicion that she was traveling to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). Local media reported that she had told friends of her plans, and that evidence indicating she had been in contact with ISIS recruiters had been found in her bedroom. Another teenager was stopped from taking a similar flight a few days later; it is thought that they had been friends.
Alarming as Tuesday’s attack in Cape Town may be, terrorism analyst Jasmine Opperman, Africa Director for the US-based Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium, doesn’t see a direct link to ISIS or other transnational terror groups. As part of her research, Opperman monitors thousands of terror group-affiliated social media accounts. “If there had been a direct link, the twitter accounts would have gone crazy. I saw nothing,” she says. That doesn’t mean that South Africa is safe, she warns. On the contrary. The peculiarities of the case — the Islamic attire, the erratic behavior — point to what she calls an “aggravated lone shooter,” someone who is not necessarily groomed for a terror attack, but who takes on a terror mission in order to serve a self-defined cause. “This attire shows me indirect exposure to what is happening in the Middle East, where Islamic attire has meaning, but is also being used to conceal an identity in order to get away.” Those are the kind of attackers that are the most difficult to track.
ISIS may not have an organized presence in South Africa, says Opperman, but that doesn’t mean the country can breathe easy. The threat doesn’t come from the number of avowed members, she says, “but in increased exposure to their messaging and recruitment on social platforms. Our government is not in a position to track and monitor and analyze this.” And there are equally terrifying groups much closer to home. Somalia’s al-Shabaab terror group has repeatedly called for attacks against Jews and Jewish-owned businesses around the world. Unlike ISIS, says Opperman, al-Shabaab does have a strong presence in South Africa. Tuesday’s attacks, whatever the motive, are just a reminder that no country can consider itself immune.