Is the Islamic State a Viable Threat to South Africa?

co-authored with Jasmine Opperman, Africa analyst at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED) Project

al-Naba’ July newsletter discussing the insurgency in Mozambique, warning against external intervention.

Bottom Line Up Front:

  • South Africa has been a widely recognized safe haven and logistical base for terrorists for more than 20 years. During this period, some South Africans have been suspected and accused of having links to international terrorist organisations.
  • It’s been assumed the South African government’s initial strategy of dealing with terrorism, particularly in the 2000s, coupled with its foreign policy positions, would keep South Africa safe from terrorism.
  • The year 2015 marked a turning point, as a number of South Africans attempted to join the Islamic State in Syria. Some have been successful..
  • While the case of the Thulsie twins marked the first attempt at prosecuting terror related offences, the State has battled to garner sufficient evidence resulting in trial delays and released suspects.
  • In the meantime, a number of potential threats remain, namely: those who were prevented from joining the Islamic State in Syria, Islamic State returnees and suspects released facing allegations of being involved with the Islamic State. Deradicalization and rehabilitation programs are urgently needed in this regard.
  • In light of the Islamic State’s threat against South Africa’s intervention in Mozambique, there is also no evidence to suggest the group has influence over Islamic State followers in South Africa to instigate attacks.

The year 1999, was the first time South Africa was mentioned regarding any links to international terrorism. Over at least the next 10 years, the organisation in question was al-Qaeda, particularly after the events of the US embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam on the 7th of August 1998 and the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on the 11th of September 2001 in New York. However, in a new political dispensation under the African National Congress (ANC)-formerly designated as a terrorist organisation by the US State Department in August 1988-counter-terrorism and its associated measures became a highly contentious issue in South Africa. Determined to avoid being dragged into the US War on Terror (WoT), former President Mbeki took aim at the US and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) challenging why powerful states were allowed to make “the determination that terrorism and war constitute the central and principal threat and challenge that human civilization faces … [and why they were allowed to determine what] will translate into a set of obligatory injunctions issued by [the UN], which all member nations will have to accept and implement” (Rosand and Ipe, 2008: 45).

This came off the back of widespread perception in the region that the WoT was a Western imposed mandate. As a result, the South African government was quick to rid itself of any and all foreign terror suspects (Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, Saud Memon, Ibrahim Tantoush and Haroon Rashid Aswat) found within its borders, even at the risk of contravening its obligations to the UN Convention Against Torture and its own Constitutional Court ruling of 2001 (see Mohamed vs the President of the Republic of South Africa). The State simultaneously defended and received its own citizens accused of terrorism related offenses both locally and abroad (namely Feroz Ganchi and Zubair Ismail and Farhad Ahmed Dockrat and Junaid Ismail Dockrat). For the longest time, security analysts believed the State’s foreign policy position rejecting Western claims of terrorism related activities by its own citizens, its condemnation of atrocities committed by the US and its allies in the Middle East and its support for the Palestinian movement, would keep South Africa safe from being a target of terrorism.

Nonetheless, this has never changed the course of well documented evidence (see timeline below) pointing to South Africa being used as a key logistical base and safe haven for various suspects linked to international terror attacks and plans like Mohammed Yassar Gulzar and Samantha Lewthwaite. The paradox of South Africa’s reliable financial, transportation and communication infrastructure against poor bureaucratic and law enforcement capacity, porous borders, existing weapons, drugs and human trafficking syndicates, creates an environment conducive to sustaining terror cells (Marongwa, 2015: 781; Rosand and Ipe, 2008: 44).

Despite being one of the most unequal countries in the world, socio-economic grievances don’t appear to a factor contributing to the radicalization of individuals like Rashid Moosagie and Abu Hurayra, who could be considered middle class citizens lured more by the promises of an idyllic paradise laid out by the divine voice, adventure and righteous heroism. Fortunately, of the calls to action implored upon consumers of Islamic State propaganda, the ones that got away don’t pose an immediate threat to South Africa.

It’s important to note that many terrorist movements originated in opposition to certain political systems and orders that lacked inclusiveness and caused a certain section of the population to foster grievances against such a political system. It’s particularly in dictatorial, repressive, political systems that offer little or no room for fair political participation that political dissidents are labelled terrorist by the state. This often gives rise to more organised rebel movements that can morph into full blown terrorist organisation. It’s under these conditions that terrorist formation takes place towards affecting change to the current political system and not the seek self-rule, independence or a separate state. These are not conditions present in South Africa’s political system, which continues to offer an avenue of political participation at all levels of governance by any and all identity groups. 

Nonetheless, the case of the Thulsie twins shed light on existing potential threats in South Africa, the biggest of which could be associated with those who don’t make it to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. One of two options are available or presented to them in their continued radicalization: either travel to the closest theater of jihad (which in this case would be northern Mozambique) or prepare to launch attacks locally. In fact, Swedish terrorism scholar, Magnas Ranstorp in 2018, argued that perhaps the most crucial groups to monitor are those who tried to leave but didn’t succeed because they return to an ecosystem of support which may be digital or physical, which encouraged their attempted travel in the first place.

A second group where a potential threat may emanate from are South Africa’s returnees. Feroz Ganchi and Zubair Ismail were South Africa’s first returnees who were returned from Pakistan and released just 5 months after allegedly being found plotting attacks in Johannesburg and Cape Town alongside Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani. More than 10 years later, the South African government, like many around the world, has been gripped with policy paralysis regarding what to do with mostly women and children stranded in refugee camps in Syria and Turkey. Former South African ambassador to Syria Mohammed Dangor is said to be advocating for the return of more than 20 widows of Islamic State fighters who she insists “aren’t coming back to plant bombs.” Beyond the State’s commitment to maintain surveillance on returnees after about 100 are said to have returned in 2018, the question remains: Does the State have the resources to monitor additional returnees and develop effective deradicalization programs in partnership with Muslim communities and leaders? Without a plan in place, particularly for existing returnees, South Africa would be sitting on a ticking time bomb.

Another group of potential threats may come from suspects linked to alleged acts of terrorism being released by the courts due to a lack or delay in presenting crucial evidence by the State. Earlier this month, the case of the 12 men (one of them, Farhad Hoomer) accused of the Verulam attack were dismissed by the Verulam Magistrate’s Court. According to Peter Fabricius, one of the 12 accused was among the ones arrested during a raid of a house in Kliprivier, just south of Johannesburg last week Thursday (the 23rd of July), where weapons, foreign military uniforms and an Islamic State flag were found. Additionally, the Thulsie twins, Fatima Patel, her husband, Sayfydeen Aslam Del Vecchio and their accomplice in Ahmad “Bazooka” Mussa, have all been between bars for the past 2 to 4 years awaiting trial. It’s unclear exactly how long the State will be able to to delay their trials but it’s likely the suspects will be more aggrieved and agitated upon release. Prisons are centers of radicalization not rehabilitation, which, again, places an imperative to develop programs for deradicalization and rehabilitation upon release. This threat exists in addition to the possibility there may be others we don’t know about.

Crucially, a well-planned deradicalization program is not about occupying the moral high ground by highlighting religious differences, or demonizing particular groups within society. It’s about the need for acceptance and the understanding that the manifestation of a threat of terrorism is not only through some kind of physical presence or discovery of Islamic State paraphernalia. Propaganda is at its most potent in cyberspace, where there is an undoubted link between online radicalization and active participation in terrorist groups, even if it is not yet well understood or manifest in ways not widely anticipated.

As special investigative units and crime intelligence heed the call by Intelligence Minister Ayanda Dlodlo, to take the threat issued by the Islamic State against South Africa’s intervention in Mozambique seriously, the raid in Kliprivier unearthed a symptom of a larger ongoing problem: the nexus between organised crime and Islamic State inspired (–not sanctioned) cells. If anything, this reveals nothing new about the nature of the environment where crime is as much a common activity in South Africa as the reality of radicalization and the existence of terror cells. To what end…remains unclear.

South Africa as yet does not have an active Islamic State group with the intent to execute attacks and create a violent extremist culture in its territory, nor is there evidence to suggest Ansar al-Sunna has influence over Islamic State followers in South Africa to instigate attacks in fulfillment of its threat. Irrespective the absence of attacks, South Africa’s vulnerability to propaganda and recruitment has been explained in numerous articles in the past. A multi-sector and coordinated intervention program cannot guarantee that South Africa will be fully secured from future attacks, but it can mitigate such possibilities.

As the South African government does its utmost best to avoid a Western military styled intervention in Mozambique, it certainly has its work cut out. If anything, what recent events have taught us is that South Africa, has become very much a part of a global phenomenon in what was widely perceived to be a Western problem and that of other countries like Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and Kenya. It’s perhaps only within the past 5 to 6 years that the State is waking up to the reality on the ground concerning activities within its own borders, a situation derived from over 20 years of international operations and activities by both foreign nationals and its citizens. Both on the ground and online.

This is an issue of coming late to the party. The question is, what are we going to do about it?


Below is a timeline of terror related incidents that took place in South Africa, involving its citizens, immigration statuses or legal documents:

  • 1999

    Khalfan Khamis Mohamed arrested in Cape Town

  • 2001

    Mohamed Suleman Vaid and his wife Moshena were arrested at a Swaziland border post with over R2 000 000 (US$130,000) hidden in their clothing. The pair were accused of laundering and smuggling money to fund Al-Qaeda operations.

  • 2003

    Saud Memon arrested in South Africa and handed over to U.S intelligence agents.

    Ihsan Garnaoui, a Tunisian suspect accused of targeting American and Jewish sites in Germany, told investigators he was in possession of several South African passports.

  • 2004

    Al-Qaeda suspect in the U.K found in possession of South African passports by security officials

    Ibrahim Tantoush arrested and found in possession of a fraudulent South African passport in Indonesia. Tantoush soon deported to South Africa where he faced possible extradition to Libya on charges relating to gold theft towards funding Al-Qaeda’s operations.

    Farida Goolam Mohamed Ahmed arrested trying to enter the U.S from Mexico illegally. Ahmed was accused of being an Al-Qaeda operative.

    Feroz Ganchi and Zubair Ismail arrested during a raid in Pakistan alongside Al-Qaeda operative, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani.

  • 2005

    Haroon Rashid Aswat discovered to have been living in South Africa for several weeks after being arrested in Zambia trying to escape South African authorities.

  • 2006

    Mohammed Yassar Gulzar arrives in the U.K from South Africa on a fraudulent South African passport.

  • 2007

    Farhad Ahmed Dockrat and Junaid Ismail Dockrat designated by the U.S Department of Treasury as Al-Qaeda financiers.

  • 2008

    Samantha Lewthwaite (also known at the White Widow) enters South Africa.

  • 2009

    Islamic State executioner, Mohammed Emwazi (also known as ‘Jihadi John’), arrested after attempting to flying to South Africa from Tanzania.

  • 2010

    U.S Embassy issues alert on possible terror attacks against U.S interests and facilities.

  • 2011

    Senior Al-Qaeda operative, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, killed in Somalia, was found with South African passport.

  • 2015

    Rashid Moosagie immigrates to Syria to join the Islamic State with his wife, two adult sons and daughter.

    Abu Hurayra al-Hindi/al-Afriki immigrates to Syria to join the Islamic State.

    Qeel Abdul-Haq Kloberie’s driver’s license found on the body of an Islamic State fighter following a blast in Iraq.

    Brandon-Lee and Tony-Lee Thulsie (also known as the Thulsie Twins) attempt to travel to Syria.

  • 2016

    Ebrahim and Fatima Patel arrested and charged for possession of unlicensed firearms and explosives. The siblings were released on R5 000 ($302) bail. The raid also led to the arrest of the Thulsie twins who charged with planning to attack U.S and Jewish institutions on behalf of the Islamic State.

  • 2018

    The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) held a meeting on 19 April 2018 with the South African Communist Party (SACP) at the (Congress of South African Trade Unions COSATU)’s offices to discuss Pakistan’s treatment of their followers. The following day, one of their own, Majid Khan Manjila, was killed in an apparent assassination during rush hour traffic in Johannesburg. The killers couldn’t be immediately identified. A wanted political terrorist in Pakistan, Khan has been implicated in hundreds of targeted killings in Pakistan; he fled to South Africa to escape justice.

    Ahmad “Bazooka” Mussa, Sayfydeen Aslam Del Vecchio and Fatima Patel charged with murdering British botanists, Rod and Rachel Saunders.

    Attack at the Imam Hussain Mosque in Verulam, Durban province when attackers went on a stabbing spree targeting worshipers and set the mosque partially ablaze, resulting in two casualties. A day after the attack, a firebomb was discovered to have been planted in the mosque. In the following months the same type of firebombs were discovered in retail outlets.

    12 men: Farhad Hoomer, Ahmed Haffejee‚ Goolam Haffejee‚ Thabit Mwenda‚ Mohamad Akbar‚ Seiph Mohamed‚ Amani Mayani‚ Abubakar Ali‚ Abbas Jooma‚ Mahammed Sobruin‚ Ndikumana Shabani and Iddy Omari, were charged for their alleged involvement in the Verulam attack and links to the Islamic State

  • 2020

    Case of the 12 men accused of the Verulam attack was dismissed by the Verulam Magistrate’s Court in July, despite the State requesting a further postponement to gather evidence.

Featured Image Source: Mozambique: Islamic State threatens South Africa – AIM report.

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