The UK and Australia issued warnings on Monday, two days after similar advice was issued by the United States embassy in Pretoria. The British warning specifically pointed to upmarket shopping areas and malls in the commercial hub of Johannesburg and Cape Town, widely regarded as South Africa’s tourism capital, as the most likely targets.
South African officials have moved to reassure tourists after a series of warnings from western nations that there is a high threat of terrorist attacks against foreigners in the country.
South Africa’s state security minister, David Mahlobo, said in a statement: “We remain a strong and stable democratic country and there is no immediate danger posed by the alert.”
Clayson Monyela, a foreign affairs spokesman, accused the US embassy of encouraging panic with a false alarm.
South Africa has a significant expatriate and tourist population that would be vulnerable to attacks on luxury hotels and shopping centres similar to those seen elsewhere on the continent.
Militants from the Somalia-based al-Shabaab group killed 67 people when they attacked a shopping centre in Kenya in 2013, holding security forces at bay for several days. There have been a series of strikes on hotels used by foreigners in west and northern Africa in the past six months.
“There is a high threat from terrorism. Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places visited by foreigners such as shopping areas in Johannesburg and Cape Town,” the British government said in a statement on its travel advice website.
“There is considered to be a heightened threat of terrorist attack globally against UK interests and British nationals, from groups or individuals motivated by the conflict in Iraq and Syria. You should be vigilant at this time,” the statement said.
It was not immediately clear what triggered the warnings. Security officials say there are no known militant groups operating in South Africa, which has only a small Muslim population. There has been a rise in conservative activism in recent years but very limited involvement in extremism.
Experts said that although the warnings appeared to be unusually detailed and based on credible information, the risk remained low.
“Terrorism is evolving and so it’s much more likely that there would be an unsophisticated, self-radicalised type attack. I’d be very surprised to see a major, complex operation,” said local analyst Ryan Cummings.
Africa is increasingly spoken of as a “new front” in the global campaign against Islamist militant violence.
The Boko Haram movement has survived a government offensive against it in Nigeria and continues to inflict heavy casualties, while al-Shabaab in Somalia is resurgent. The death toll from terrorist attacks in both countries has risen dramatically since 2011.
Factions of al-Qaida have also proved tenacious in the Sahel region, despite a French-led intervention and the commitment of significant military resources by the US. Isis has made inroads in Libya, which is, according to some reports, likely to act as a base for the organisation if it is forced out of Syria and Iraq.
There is some evidence of a small number of South Africans fighting for Isis. In April a South African was reported to have been killed while fighting with the group near the ancient city of Palmyra.
In Tanzania, there has been evidence of increasing Islamist activism.
Islamist militants on the continent do use South Africa as a logistical and financial hub but not as an “operational base”, said Cummings.
“The message and ideology of Isis is resonating among some South Africans and they may be motivated to mount an attack locally. But that’s just a hypothesis,” he said.
Isis, which is under pressure militarily in Iraq and Syria, has called on supporters to mount strikes during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which starts this week.
Some analysts believe that as Isis loses ground in its heartland it is likely to mount more widespread attacks in the west and across the Islamic world to maintain strategic momentum and bolster its position as the highest-profile organisation among Islamic militant groups.
Though Boko Haram is tenuously connected with Isis, al-Shabab is aligned with al-Qaida. The leaders of the Somalia-based group recently defeated a bid by internal dissidents to switch loyalties and pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Isis and self-appointed “caliph”.
In a video distributed last year, al-Shabaab warned it hoped to conduct more attacks against shopping centres across the world.
A recent United Nations report warned that “while it does not appear that al-Shabaab has the capacity to carry out attacks outside the [east Africa] region, the call for more attacks should not be taken lightly.”