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The Daily Maverick and the Dockrats: Is Al-Qaeda really 'alive and well' in SA?

One month ago the Daily Maverick published an article by De Wet Potgieter headlined  "Al Qaeda is alive and well in South Africa".  A second part was promised, but has still not been published.

The article implicated a Muslim family, cousins Farhad and Junaid Dockrat, in the terrorist group's activities. The article also criticised the South African Government for not properly investigating the Dockrats. Potgieter wrote, "US and British intelligence have warned the South African authorities to stop 'pussyfooting' with intelligence regarding international terrorists activities in South Africa."

After the article was published, the Democratic Alliance's Dianne Kohler-Barnard was quoted saying, "South Africans deserve an explanation as to what happened and why the investigation was stopped. If there was no terrorist threat then Crime Intelligence should be able to explain their reasoning for halting their investigation."

We do not know if the Dockrats have links to al-Qaeda. But Potgieter's article presents no convincing evidence that they do. Using, mainly, innuendo Potgieter has made an extremely serious and damaging claim against a family. Perhaps Potgieter's still-to-be-published follow-up will be a damning indictment of the family and the state's investigation. But what Potgieter has published so far amounts to untested allegations.

The article has been widely criticised for its lack of evidence and problematic language. "The piece on al-Qaeda in SA is disappointing, uses antiquated language, shoots in the dark and maligns a community," tweeted Al Jazeera journalist Azad Essa. Some of the criticism has been published on the Daily Maverick. The Maverick told us that they are still working on the second part of the story. They are concluding an internal process and will respond to criticism of the story this week. There are several questions that need to be addressed.

Did the article need so many references to ethnicity?

Potgieter wrote that Farhad Ahmed Dockrat was a cleric at the beginning of 2000 at the Darus Salaam Muslim Centre in the former Indian township of Laudium outside Pretoria. "This mosque is said to be popular among Pakistani and Malawian Muslims," wrote Potgieter.

"What has Pakistanis and Malawians frequenting a certain mosque have to do with al-Qaeda or terrorism?" asked a Gauteng Imam, in his response on Daily Maverick.

“De Wet Potgieter’s article speaks of the Malawis and Pakistanis frequenting the mentioned mosque. Err... So what? They are carrying out their religious obligations i.e. praying, then go home to their families,” wrote Ejaz Khan, producer of Radio Islam in an opinion article also published in the Daily Maverick.

The article also mentions the “anxiety” that “stems from the fact that thousands of illegal immigrants from Pakistan manage to cross into South Africa, while the government appears to turn a blind eye.”

When asked who was anxious by journalist Zahid Asmal, Potgieter mumbled, “local people, the people of South Africa."

Potgieter also mentions a farm built by the Dockrats, and explained, "14 units were constructed by Malawians. Nobody from the local coloured community in Haarlem was hired for the construction work."

Na'eem Jeenah, director of the Afro-Middle East Centre, wrote: "When you say things like 'they employed Malawians instead of local coloureds', as South Africans we should really be sensitive about that when a few years ago that was the kind of statement that got foreigners killed, and even now [in South Africa] Somalians are frequently killed."

Is having an obstacle course on your property evidence of links to terrorism?

One day after Potgieter's article was published, Faranaaz Parker from the Mail & Guardian called several people in the Laudium Muslim community. In this community (according to the Daily Maverick) many people frequently visited a farm owned by the Dockrat family, where there was a “military style obstacle course.” Moreover, “agents say they saw people take part in military-style training."

However, none of the people Parker contacted considered the Dockrats linked to these activities. As Parker quotes, “The Dockrats are known to be a charitable family and the idea that Farhad and Junaid Dockrat may be running an al-Qaeda-linked military camp has been largely dismissed as outrageous." One of the people in Laudium interviewed by Parker said, “the only thing I know to come out of Drockrat’s farm is organic chickens."

The Dockrat family published a letter stating:
"There was no 'military style' obstacle course. Farhad put into place obstacle courses, including rope climbing, tree climbing, crawling through drums and other fitness obstacle courses. These were installed openly and not covertly. The Zoo Lake in Johannesburg has a jungle gym with similar obstacle courses. How does that become illegal and how is that linked to al-Qaeda?"

Did the Dockats lose a court case?

Potgieter also mentioned that the Dockrats had a legal fight with a second community near the Storms River Mouth on the Garden Route. The legal dispute was over an irrigation channel that crossed property purchased by the Dockrats and that was traditionally used by the local families. According to Potgieter, "the Dockrats eventually lost the case in 2012."

Potgieter appears to be wrong. "In fact, Farhad won the application with costs. A court order proves that. A copy of the order is obtainable from the Cape High Court under case number 25325/2010,” explained the Dockrats.

This was also confirmed by Radio Islam which stated, “The Dockrats did however win the case with costs. Zahid Asmal quoted court records with valid case numbers -- (25325/2010 & 21794/2011). Clearly Potgieter failed to check or cross-reference the statement of the farmers after they told him they had won the case before writing the article.”

When Potgieter was confronted with this fact on Radio Islam, he said that he based this on what the locals said and didn’t check if it was true.

Was there sufficient evidence tying the Dockrats to an AK-47?

Once the Dockrats installed themselves in Storms River Mouth on the Garden Route, Potgieter quotes the estate manager of where they lived, Greg Pearson, who mentioned seeing an AK-47 lying on a desk in their office.

Pearson was involved in a legal dispute with the Dockrats. Members of the Pearson family are the only sources quoted in this region where the Dockrats lived.

According to Pearson, “Farhad and his sons were all carrying side arms”, wrote Potgieter. Pearson's wife mentioned hearing shoutings and his mother-in-law claimed being harassed by them.

Carrying side arms is common in South Africa and is not evidence of a link to terrorism. However, having an AK-47 is suspicious because it is illegal to own an automatic or semi-automatic firearm in South Africa without a special endorsement. But given that they were in dispute with the Dockrats, are the Pearson family's claims sufficient to make the allegation?

Why did the investigation stop?

Potgieter doesn’t present any source to answer the most crucial question he raises: why did the investigation stop in 2010? The most obvious answer, which the family also gave in their response, would be that there was nothing more to investigate.

Potgieter, however, hints in his article that the halt wasn't driven by professional considerations. “The teams of intelligence operatives were recalled from the operation sites, all visual material seized and laptops with the surveillance data and situation reports of deep-cover agents taken away from them. The men were told by their superiors that the orders for the cessation of the surveillance operation had come 'from the top'. No other explanations were given and they were re-deployed to other assignments.”

Potgieter does not describe his source for this. Investigations almost always end at the instigation of higher-ranked officers; it's their job to decide if an investigation is worth continuing. And presumably all the materials that were obtained are locked up in evidence rooms and the people involved are redeployed.

Potgieter quotes an intelligence source saying, “We’ve dealt with the Boeremag, why are we not dealing with al-Qaeda?" The implication of this is that the government is biased and unconcerned by terrorism associated with Islamic fundamentalism.

But the public record does not support this because the South African government did shut down terror by an Islamic fundamentalist organisation called PAGAD. In the late 90s a spate of bombs by PAGAD killed several people in Cape Town. PAGAD members were prosecuted and imprisoned for public violence and similar crimes. So where is the evidence that the SA government does not care about terror by Islamic fundamentalists?

Is Professor Hussein Solomon a reliable source?

Potgieter quotes Professor Hussein Solomon extensively. He is a questionable source. Solomon’s quotes were taken directly from the website of RIMA (Reaserch on Islam and Muslims in Africa), which is a newly established Israeli think tank.

Ejaz Khan wrote after the publication of Potgieter’s piece, “They do so every few years – Hoosen (sic) Solomons and Co attempt to disrupt the equilibrium, fail dismally ... They are not easily deterred and seem almost galvanised by failure. They are driven by trial and error, hoping that one day it would stick."

Solomon’s warnings of terrorists attacks before the Soccer World Cup in 2010 were widely criticized. In the article by Solomon that Potgieter quoted, Solomon also wrote "when South Africa hosted the 2010 Fifa World Cup Soccer tournament, these cells would move en masse to South Africa to strike at various US-linked interests."

Did the Dockrats donate money to al-Qaeda?

Potgieter's most damaging point is that Farah Dockrat in 2001 made a donation of "more than R400,000 to the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan to be forwarded to Al-Akhtar Trust, an Afghanistan-based entity that the treasury previously designated as an al-Qaeda fund-raising arm.” [our emphasis]

But the Dockrats point out in their letter that the trust was only designated a terrorist entity by the US in October 2003, i.e. long after their donation was made, not previous to it as claimed by Potgieter. “Prior to that it ostensibly operated as a charitable organization and orphanage, it was permissible to donate funds to it. The United States in a historic retrospective application of sanction, decided to propose a listing of Farhad and Junaid Dockrat as international terrorists on the United Nation’s listing for an alleged donation two years before Al-Akhtar was listed,” wrote the Dockrats.

Where is the exposé?

The only source Potgieter cites who actually claims to have witnessed suspicious actions by the Dockrats is Pearson. Perhaps Pearson's allegation that the Dockrats had AK47s is worth looking into, but alone it does not make a story.

Beyond the Pearson family and Solomon, Potgieter's sources are "top-level" intelligence sources from the U.S. and Britain, a series of articles on the Dockrats by Reuters reporter Michael Georgy in 2007, a press release from the US Treasury in 2007 and a South African intelligence source who supplied the Boeremag quote.

This raises a few questions. Most of the reports Potgieter cites are old. Little information that he presents in his article is based on new reports or conversations. That’s why he has been accused of writing a cut and paste piece. Potgieter was previously criticised in 2011 for writing about the presence of al-Qaeda in South Africa in a piece for The New Age, without providing sufficient evidence.

Apparently Potgieter worked for a year on this investigation, but there is definitely not a year's worth of information-gathering presented in part one. Potgieter's article should not have met the Daily Maverick's standard for publication.

This article was first published by the community journalism project, GroundUp. You can follow the authors on Twitter at @yaelevenor and @Camimi68.


UPDATE: Following the publication of this article, Daily Maverick retracted their story and apologised “unequivocally and unconditionally” to their readers, the Dockrat family and South Africa’s Muslim community.

In the apology, which was  published prominently on their website, they stated: “We acknowledge that we are not in possession of evidence to show that Farhad Dockrat or Junaid Dockrat are linked to Al-Qaeda or any other terrorist organisation, or that Farhad Dockrat was seeking seclusion on Greylock, or in Tsitsikama, for the purposes of establishing terrorist training camps or that Farhad Dockrat and Junaid Dockrat were conducting any illegal activities”

Daily Maverick editor Branko Brkic took personal responsibility for the “failure”.

“After almost four years and close to 12,000 stories later, today it is my own turn to taste the most bitter medicine of all. Today, Daily Maverick has issued an apology and retracted the story titled “Al-Qaeda: Alive and well in South Africa,” he wrote.

“[I]t hurts desperately that we have published a story that ultimately should not pass our own final test – that every single story, as written, was fully, rigorously and critically examined and that, ultimately, was complete in every detail.”

The journalist who wrote the article, De Wet Potgieter,  reportedly resigned. He defended his reporting, writing that there was “no malice in my intention”.  He claimed he had become  “caught up in the twilight realm of a power play in the intelligence world” and had now “paid the price”.


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