Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

The government should do more to warn South Africans about dangers when travelling‚ say security experts commenting after 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, and that citizens should avoid travelling to countries where there are "high levels of insecurity" and "weak levels of governance" and should only travel there if they had specialised knowledge [of the region].

"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 that held McGown hostage for nearly six years in Mali — al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — had recently merged with other groups to form Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin, whose 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."

Despite the South African government’s denial that it had paid a ransom‚ Opperman said "there was no way 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."

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."

Ryan Cummings‚ director of Signal Risk‚ agreed with Opperman‚ saying the South African government should be providing information to citizens about "where it is safe to travel and where it isn’t".

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 kidnap people ... knowing they can get more money from ransoms."

Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco) spokesperson Clayson Monyela said "as a matter of principle" SA did not issue travel warnings to any African countries. "SA 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", which enables the government to provide assistance sooner‚ should someone find themselves in trouble.

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