Following the kidnapping of a British couple in KwaZulu-Natal earlier this month, the British government has warned its citizens of a legitimate terror threat from extremists linked to ISIS in South Africa (SA). The British report highlighted the security risk posed by South African nationals who have travelled to Iraq, Syria and Libya to receive training and indoctrination, and the danger they present upon their return. The seriousness of this report emphasizes the result of the ongoing presence of violent extremist elements in SA in recent years, and the circumstances that have allowed it to blossom.
Among the most salient impediments to effective recognition and prevention of terror activity in SA is the popular opinion that such threats simply do not apply, as terrorists have not yet carried out attacks within the country borders. In June 2016, for example, both the U.S. Mission to SA and the U.K. warned their citizens against attacks targeting places where foreigners congregate, by ISIS militants. Responding to the alert, SA Minister of State Security David Mahlobo claimed that, “we remain a strong and stable democratic country and there is no immediate danger posed by the alert.” With that said, representatives of EXX Africa, a specialist intelligence consultancy, alleged that “there is ample evidence to suggest that South Africa is a long-established and preferred thoroughfare for international terrorist organizations.” Tellingly, Mahlobo himself acknowledged that “a growing number of South Africans were associating themselves with terrorist organizations.” In fact, SA has been moving steadily upwards in the Global Terrorism Index, which measures incidents of terrorism geographically, climbing from a rank of 140 out of 162 in 2010, to 47th place in 2017.
These troubling facts were officially recognized by the SA government who, in November 2016, publicly stated that ISIS has been using SA as a “logistics hub and hideout,” and that the government has identified foreign militant “sleeper cells” in their territory. A 2016 report by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), pointed to several Islamist fighters with South African passports who had been apprehended. This included top al-Qaeda militant Fazul Abdullah Mohammed (who was killed in 2011), and the infamous “White Widow,” Samantha Lewthwaite, who was married to one of the terrorists responsible for the 7/7 bombings in London, and lived in Johannesburg under a false SA passport while an Interpol warrant sought her arrest. ISS has further pointed out that SA is so appealing to ISIS because recruits tend to come from average-income families with little need for additional support, and the ease with which South Africans can travel without arousing suspicion.
Among the strongest indications of the simmering extremism that has taken root in SA can be observed from 2015 reports that 140 young South Africans had travelled to ISIS territory to join the group.
Though initially dismissed, 11 of these youth returned home months later to share their experiences. This provided a chilling example of so-called “terror-travel,” and served as evidence of this phenomenon making its way from established areas of extremism such as in Northern Africa and the Maghreb, to sub-Saharan Africa. As South Africans would inevitably comprise the largest number of extremist fighters in the south, it is rapidly becoming the most important country in the region for ISIS, especially now that their bases in Iraq and Syria have been effectively destroyed.
If one were to take a step further back, however, the truth is much more disturbing. While there has not been a serious terror attack in SA since the bombings by People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD) in Cape Town in the 1990’s, there are continuous links between SA and violent, extremist international organizations. Since the 1990’s, Iran-backed Hezbollah has run training camps in SA, and there is proof of al-Qaeda’s presence there dating to 1997, taking advantage of the lax counter-terrorism policy in the country. Hussein Solomon, a senior professor at the University of Free State’s Political Studies Department, has elaborated on the key roles SA has played in global terror networks since the 1990’s. According to Solomon, “the 2007 London bombers got their orders to launch their attack from a terror cell in Johannesburg,” and that an al-Shabaab terrorist attack against U.S. and U.K. teams and supporters during the 2010 World Cup, was only foiled “after a cellphone call from South Africa was intercepted by US authorities monitoring al-Shabaab in Somalia.”
Another serious risk confronting SA is the threat of seemingly legitimate organizations who are aligned with and support the activities of violent extremist groups. One of the most compelling examples is the Al-Aqsa Foundation. The Foundation is registered with the Department of Social Development with a focus on providing aid to Palestinians, and is an ardent and vocal supporter of the BDS SA movement, an organization that claims to be a peaceful, non-violent movement, but are actually strong supporters of extreme Islamic groups and violence against citizens that oppose their cause. In SA, the BDS movement serves as a breeding ground for youth indoctrination and recruitment towards such support, dominantly on university campuses.
The Foundation is also a known member of the Union of Good, a charity coalition headed by global Muslim Brotherhood leader and internationally wanted terrorist Yussuf Qaradawi. In 2003, the Foundation was designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. and U.K. due to its fundraising for Hamas, which continues to happen in SA in conjunction with the BDS SA movement. Moreover, Germany banned it in 2002, the Netherlands froze the group’s assets in 2003 and Denmark has charged three members of the Foundation with supporting terrorism. Even in SA, the Foundation ultimately had its activities with two South African banks suspended in 2013 for funnelling money to the extremist group, Hamas.
It may, therefore, be understood that, though SA has managed to avoid being a theatre for violent extremist and militant Islamist attacks, it has served as a “launch site” for some of the most radical international organizations. The lack of modern legislative mechanisms to confront such activities, and the absence of dedicated task forces to uproot them, have left SA vulnerable to exploitation, particularly by organizations registered in SA under false pretence, which claim to be “peaceful, and non-violent”. However, one should recognise that funding terror falls in the same category as committing it. As long as SA remains a popular thoroughfare for the logistical, financial and strategic elements of terror planning, the risks of an attack in-country, and of the continued recruitment of South African youth to violence, will only increase. (Israellink.co.za)