THE government should do more to warn South Africans about dangers when travelling‚ say security experts‚ following the recent release of Stephen McGown‚ held hostage in Mali for nearly six years.
Terrorism expert Jasmine Opperman believes the government should be issuing travel warnings and advisories to South Africans travelling to countries such as Mali and Somalia.
Opperman said people should avoid travelling to countries where there were “high levels of insecurity” and “weak levels of governance” and should only travel there if they had specialised knowledge.
“The fundamental question you should be asking yourself is ‘Do I really have to go to Mali‚ do I really need to go to Al Shabaab controlled areas?” she said.
Opperman said the group‚ which had held McGown hostage for nearly six years in Mali — al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) — was active in Mali‚ Algerian and Mauritania and had recently merged with other groups to form Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin.
She said the group’s primary aim was to work against the peace operations in Mali and get rid of the French presence in the country.
“They are also highly active in organised crime and kidnappings and the taking of hostages was part of its business. Ransoms form a large part of their income‚” she said.
“Kidnappings like this are very opportunistic in nature. So any person travelling in war-torn areas in Africa need to be up to date in terms of which groups and militias operate in which area‚” she said.
Despite the South African government’s denial that it had paid a ransom‚ Opperman said “there was no way that they would’ve released him without payment“.
“In cases such as these‚ they rely on intermediaries so as not to go against the foreign policies and diplomatic laws‚” Opperman said.
She said one of the interesting debates around the issue was balancing the return of McGown and what it meant for him and his family‚ with the payment of ransom money which forms a large part of the group’s income.
“At the end of the day‚ you cannot place a monetary value on McGown’s return and what it meant for him and his family‚” she said.
Ryan Cummings‚ director of Signal Risk‚ agreed with Opperman‚ stating that the South African government should be providing information to people about “where it is safe to travel and where it isn’t safe to travel“.
Regarding the group that held McGown‚ he said: “They are one of the most sophisticated kidnapping groups in the world. They conduct reconnaissance‚ and will often know the nationality of their victims.”
“What happens a lot in Mali and the Sahel region is that criminal groups would kidnap people‚ and then these groups would buy them from criminal groups‚ knowing they can get more money from ransoms‚” he said.
Department of international relations and cooperation (Dirco) spokesperson Clayson Monyela said “as a matter of principle” South Africa did not issue travel warnings to any African countries.
“South Africa has no policy or tradition of issuing travel warnings to fellow African countries‚” he said.
“We advise all South Africans who are travelling anywhere‚ not just conflict or war zones‚ to inform us of their travel plans‚” Monyela said.
Monyela said that would enable the government to provide assistance sooner‚ should someone find themselves in trouble.
by Jan Bornmann -TimesLIVE