Durban explosive devices: Why Woolworths?

A SATAC ANALYSIS  13 July 2018
Prelude: The Verulam attacks

1. On Thursday 10 May 2018, three knife-wielding men stormed the Imam Hussain (Shia) Mosque after midday prayers and attacked Moulana Ali Nchiyane before torching the mosque’s library by throwing in a petrol bomb. Abbas Essop, a mechanic at a workshop across the road, ran into the Mosque. When Abbas intervened, the attackers. He died in hospital and became a collateral casualty in the attack‚ believed to be motivated by “extremist elements” intent on killing the resident Moulana and razing the building to the ground.

2. On the night of Sunday 13 May, a suspected bomb or Improvised Explosive Device was discovered beneath the Moulana‘s chair. Initial reports were sketchy with a poor photo made public and described the device as a PVC pipe bomb with a cellphone attached. Later the authorities described it as an Incendiary Device although the chemical composition has not been released at the time of writing. As of yet no motive for the attacks has been established and no group has claimed responsibility

The Woolworths – and Durban July – incidents

3. On Thursday 5 July an almost identical incendiary device to the Verulam one ignited amongst clothing in a Woolworths retail store 34 Km by road south of Verulam at the Durban Westville Pavilion shopping centre at approximately 01:30.

4. A few hours later yet another almost identical device ignited 22 Km by road north at the Durban Umhlanga branch of Woolworths. In both cases the damage was minimal thanks to the sprinkler system.

5. On Saturday 7 July, a very similar device was found in the cushions display at, once again, the Durban Westville Pavilion Woolworths.

6. Later that day, ljust after 10pm, officers were dispatched to Gladys Mazibuko (formerly Marriott) Road in central Durban where a “device” was found under a vehicle”.

7. Just over an hour later they were called out to the corner of Avondale and Milner Roads, central Durban, where another device was found under a car. Neither device detonated/ignited but visually were very similar to the Verulam device and the two Woolworths devices, although curiously one was painted purple.

The location of these incidents may be relevant as they were very close to the perimeter of the Grayville Race Course where that weekend the most prestigious horse race on the SA calendar, the Durban July, was in mid swing.

8. On the morning of Monday 9 July a suspicious device was reported at the Pavilion Centre in Westville. With the basement area cordoned off the police quickly determined that this was not a bomb or a hoax but a lost piece of electronics – a false alarm due to increased awareness and vigilance.

9. On the same afternoon the South African Police Services’ Explosives Unit was called to the Spar Supermarket in Austerville‚ Wentworth‚ Durban, after a ten year old boy arrived at the shop and gave a manager a brown envelope containing one live 9mm round and a handwritten letter. The letter stated that the recipient must put money inside the bag and leave it outside the supermarket otherwise a bomb will explode – and not to call the police.
The boy who delivered the letter alleged that it was given to him by unknown male to deliver. The manager took the envelope to the police station, accompanied by the boy. The police attended, cordoned off the scene and when the bomb disposal unit arrived a black plastic packet was found on the entrance near the tills containing a parcel. This was detonated under control of the bomb unit and declared a hoax.

10. On the morning of Thursday 12 July a bomb scare was phoned in to the police targeting Woolworths at Cornubia Mall in the Mount Edgecomb area of Durban. The SAPS bomb squad swept and no devices were found. The mall was reopened three hours later.

11. Less than an hour later hundreds of tenants of a 23-storey building in central Durban were evacuated following a bomb threat phoned in to a college on the seventh floor. Students due to write exams have been known to phone in bomb threats to postpone the exams if they are not prepared. The SAPS declared the call a hoax.

12. That afternoon a bomb scare was phoned in to Phoenix (Durban area again) police station – this time claiming that 3 devices had been planted. After being closed for about 2 hours the bomb squad declared the threat a hoax and the Hawks promised a swift prosecution.

Ten arson bombs, attempts or threats in seven days in a country that normally does not experience that in a year – never mind in one city. The last time we saw something like this was the PAGAD bombings and shootings of 1999/2000. And no motive or claim for responsibility. What is going on?

SATAC Analysis

The Verumam Mosque attacks are believed to be isolated religious rivalry incidents and even though the Muslim community are involved and the incidents well publicised ISIS/L remained uncharacteristically silent. Serious observers suspect no link to organised terrorism.

However, the publicity, including a photograph of the device – it did not detonate – has probably triggered a spate of copycat incidents. All of the components can be obtained in a hardware store and a cellphone shop new, without arousing suspicion for about SAR 300 (US$20) and assembled in 30 minutes.

So someone in the Durban area used the now well-known design to target Woolworths. But why?

Without a threat or demand we can rule out extortion – unless this is a test phase – or giving management a taste of what could happen.

Could it be a deranged, unhappy customer?
Or a seriously disgruntled employee or ex-employee?
Could it be a criminal distraction – diverting store security whilst stealing? If so one would expect the loss to have been detected by now as it would have to be significant to do this. Also the timing, – 01:30 in the morning – seems to eliminate this motive.
Or a bigger criminal plot – testing police response times and procedures.
Or a grand criminal plot, like the CIT heist which took place on Tugela Plaza, near Durban, on the 11th, by diverting the police to a ‘bomb’ on the other side of the city (actually there were no bomb threats that day).

At the time of writing we don’t know much:
We don’t know if the cell phones were being used as remote controls or timers.
We don’t know if the devices that had not ignited had failed or had not been triggered.
We don’t know if the rigging and formulations link these devices together or with others.
We don’t know if there were fingerprints found, CCTV recordings of use or other evidence from which we could probe the conspiracy theories.

Hopefully the authorities will help us to reduce unhelpful speculation by giving us some feedback.

Woolworths are not an elitist store but are the favourite up-market supermarket of the better-off and SA’s new, aspiring middle class. Could this be a crime of envy? This theory could be supported by the attempts to set fire to the two cars near the up-market Durban July. Remember, one of the devices was painted purple – the colour that represents royalty and privilege.

Could it be anti –Semitic? The company was founded by and until about 2010 was controlled by Jewish families – perhaps linked to recent Israili-Palestinian conflicts?

In early August 2014 a group called BDS South Africa launched the peaceful and largely ineffective #BoycotWoolworths campaign in protest to the store stocking Israeli products. And in September 2015 thousands protested in Cape Town, waving Palestinian flags near the entrance of Grand West Casino in the build-up to Grammy Award-winning artist Pharrell Williams’s concert. The protest was given the green light after BDS scored a victory when a High Court application, aimed at preventing them from getting 40 000 protesters to the event, was dismissed. Williams came under fire for collaborating with Woolworths.

But Woolworths are low profile on such issues and certainly a not political organisation. BDS give no indication of moving towards extremism and are the kind of organisation that need and want publicity, so if they were behind the attacks they would at least ‘support’ the disruption of the stores.

Would business rivals benefit from that disruption? Marginally, and not enough to justify the risk and cost of being caught. Not unless the rival was also a sociopath – not concerned with the long term consequences of his or her actions.

Or simply a person who likes to create chaos and likes to see the result of his or her ‘work’ on the TV and in social media?

Or pranksters.

The extortion attempt on afternoon of the 9th at the Spar supermarket was most probably a petty crook inspired by the previous fear, someone hoping for a quick ‘score’.

And the hoax calls on the 12th? Hopefully the police will be able to trace the calls but with no physical evidence we have nothing to suggest that they are linked to the three actual devices left at Woolworths – although if the desired effect is disruption, these calls were almost as effective as the pipe bombs.

And finally, the hoax call to the Phoenix police station? Again, using the heightened awareness and the uncertainty created by the four (including Verulam) real devices to force the police to evacuate their premises. A great win for someone who needs to prove his ‘power’ to himself – or just a prankster?

Whatever the real reasons are for these events we can be fairly sure that they are not linked to organised terrorism.

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SATAC Research & Analytics Team

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