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The Counterterrorism Conundrum: Exploring the Evolution of South Africa’s Extremist Networks
Women rest inside an indoor sports stadium in Pemba on May 22, 2021 (Photo by JOHN WESSELS/AFP via Getty Images)
(Photo by JOHN WESSELS/AFP via Getty Images)

The Counterterrorism Conundrum: Exploring the Evolution of South Africa’s Extremist Networks

Brenda Githing'u

In March 2021, the Mozambican jihadist group Ahlus Sunnah Wal-Jama’ah (ASWJ) launched a highly coordinated attack on Palma, a coastal town in northern Mozambique that is home to thousands of expatriate workers, tourists, and internally displaced people. 1 Considering that the town is home to multi-billion dollar liquefied natural gas sites managed by multinational companies like Total, the attack marked a significant shift in the ambitions of an insurgency that had begun three-and-a-half years earlier with a series of small attacks on villages in Cabo Delgado province. Since October 2017, ASWJ—which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and now operates under the auspices of its “Central Africa Province” (ISCAP)—has metastasized at an alarming rate, killing just shy of 4,000 civilians and leaving 670,000 people internally displaced.2 While Mozambicans have long suffered at the hands of ASWJ, the Palma attack notably had regional ramifications, as foreign nationals were among the victims of the three-day onslaught. South African nationals were among the largest group of foreign nationals affected by the violence, with 43 South Africans requiring emergency evacuation and medical attention.3 Tragically, Adrian Nel became the first South African national to be killed by ASWJ as he attempted to escape a luxury lodge in Palma during the attack.4

The Palma incident grabbed international headlines, demonstrating the dividends that the Islamic State’s newest affiliate can reap for the group in the post-Baghuz era.5 The attack has also prompted widespread concerns within neighboring South Africa about the threat posed by ASWJ, especially in light of the first confirmed reports of South Africans joining the insurgency. These concerns have not arisen in isolation: Over the past five years, a number of cases have emerged in South Africa involving alleged plans to instigate terror attacks on behalf of the Islamic State while Islamic State material has additionally been discovered in the possession of several criminals in the course of police investigations, highlighting an emerging nexus between crime and terrorism within the country.

Given that the Southern African Development Community (SADC), southern Africa’s premier regional bloc, has announced plans for a multinational intervention in Cabo Delgado,6 the South African government is forced to rethink its historical opposition to Western interventionist counterterrorism approaches and is faced with a contentious debate over how to reorient its policy positions to meet the growing extremist threat in the region. South Africa’s existing Islamic State-inspired extremist and criminal networks are liable to help facilitate and capitalize on any further expansion of the ASWJ insurgency, lending a sense of urgency to the matter. Furthermore, South Africa’s military intervention in Mozambique now risks creating blowback that could exasperate South Africa’s emergent terrorism problem. Having long avoided the sorts of controversial debates over counterterrorism policy seen in many countries since September 2001, South Africa now faces a crucial policy choice.

South Africa and the War on Terror
In contrast to the experience of many African countries in the post-9/11 era, South Africa has never formally aligned itself with U.S. counterterrorism policies or objectives. The history of South Africa’s own transition from apartheid plays an important role in this regard. In 1988, as the then-proscribed African National Congress (ANC) struggled against South Africa’s apartheid regime, the U.S. government designated the party a terrorist organization, citing the support it received from communist nations such as Cuba, the Soviet Union, and left-wing African governments.7 The designation came after the ANC sought to escalate its resistance against the apartheid regime by establishing a military wing known as the Umkhonto we Sizwe to conduct low-level guerilla attacks. These included nighttime raids on chemical and oil refineries and bombings of government facilities and public spaces.8 While in prison, Nelson Mandela maintained the case for the necessity of armed resistance, noting that while the loss of innocent lives was “a tragic accident,” his fighters would continue to strike military targets and property that served the apartheid regime.9 Considering the ideological disposition of the ANC towards socialism amid the backdrop of the Cold War, the U.S. government viewed the ANC as a violent revolutionary organization that threatened Washington’s strategic and ideological influence in Africa.

The ANC, which took power in 1994 after the end of apartheid and has governed ever since, positioned itself at odds with President George W. Bush’s plans to pursue a “Global War on Terror” in the new millennium. At the start of the U.S invasion of Iraq in 2003, former president Nelson Mandela openly accused President Bush of embarking on an imperialist project to control Iraq’s oil.10 This position was reinforced in an ANC policy discussion document that downplayed the threat of jihadist terrorism on the African continent, stating that “U.S. efforts to indoctrinate Africa with fears of Islamic terrorism, [are] to establish a U.S. Military mission in every African country, to control media, financ[es], religions and politicians.”11 The ANC’s opposition to the “War on Terror,” as well as its own history as a designated terrorist organization, underscores the degree to which ideological divisions between hegemonic powers like the United States and smaller, formerly colonized powers like South Africa have precluded a universally acceptable definition of terrorism.

Ronnie Kasrils, an Umkhonto we Sizwe veteran and South Africa’s Minister of Intelligence Services from 2004 to 2008, captured the definitional contention over the term “terrorism” by arguing that there was a distinction to be made between jihadist movements and anti-colonial movements that the U.S. government has historically failed to appreciate.12 The ANC has often likened its history of struggle against the apartheid regime to that of the Palestinian liberation movement and associated militant organizations. This has raised concerns over the extent to which authorities would overlook the activities of militant groups in South Africa, especially since several high-profile Palestinian militants have received VIP treatment when visiting the country as late as the 2010s.13

A classified report allegedly drafted by the country’s National Intelligence Agency in 1998 noted the presence of Hamas delegates and affiliated individuals in the country. The report detailed these individuals’ fundraising efforts and attendance at conferences near Pretoria that were attended by members of other Islamist militant organizations such as the Taliban, al-Qaeda, the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front, [Palestinian] Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah.14 The report stated that foreign Islamist militants “prefer[red] to keep South Africa [as a] rear base for military training, convalescence, fund raising, media and proselytizing,”15 claims that were later confirmed by the head of the National Intelligence Coordinating Committee in 2007.16 Kasrils, for his part, raised concerns in 2008 that al-Qaeda operatives were taking refuge in South Africa with the possibility of establishing networks.17

These assessments came after the arrest of two South Africans, Dr. Feroz Ganchi and Zubair Ismail, in a joint U.S.-Pakistani raid in Gujrat, Pakistan in 2004. Ganchi and Ismail were captured in the company of one of the perpetrators of al-Qaeda’s 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and were alleged to have been planning attacks in South Africa at the time of their arrest.18 Then in 2007, the U.S. government sought to add two South African cousins, Farhad Ahmed Dockrat and Junaid Ismail Dockrat, to a list of UN sanctions on al-Qaeda and Taliban members.19 According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the cousins worked as al-Qaeda financiers who had “facilitate[ed] travel for individuals to train in al Qaida camps” in Pakistan.20

Under the administration of Thabo Mbeki (1999–2008), the South African government sought to shield its citizens from being drawn into Washington’s War on Terror which had led to countless terrorist designations as well as extraordinary renditions without due process. A statement issued by the cabinet condemned allegations that Dr. Ganchi and Ismail were linked to al-Qaeda and were planning attacks in South Africa.21 The South African government took a similar stance on the Dockrats, stating with regards to the UN sanctions list, “…we want to be absolutely certain that we are also totally in compliance with our national law…We have to be sure that anyone who is listed is involved in terrorist activities and the listing is therefore legitimate.”22

In doing so, the South African government’s opposition to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and its efforts to shield its citizens from terror-related charges and designations is widely thought to have garnered the support of Muslim communities and civil society organizations both locally and internationally. Consequently, there has been a long-standing assumption that South Africa would be safe from domestic threats of terrorism. However, this assumption has been challenged over the years as allegations of the presence of militant training camps and South Africans’ participation in the Islamic State have continued to surface.

Enter the Islamic State: The Evolution of South Africa’s Extremist Networks
South Africa’s extremist landscape began shifting in 2013 as a number of South Africans sought to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State. The estimated number of South Africans who have joined the Islamic State ranges between 60 and 100.23 Some of the earliest known individuals to successfully make the journey to Syria came from all walks of life, including a cleric from Port Elizabeth, Rashid Moosagie, who left with his immediate family;24 Musa Abu Mujahid Oscar, who hailed from a township in Pretoria;25 Abu Hurayra al-Hindi/al-Afriki, who left when he was about 18 years old;26 and two brothers, Bilal and Ahmed Cajeel.27 Utopian fantasies of life under an Islamic state, a longing for adventure, and a sense of outrage over atrocities committed in Syria and Iraq have been the key factors contributing to South Africans’ decisions to join the Islamic State in Syria.28 Thus, the ANC’s longstanding foreign policies in opposition to U.S. hegemony failed to mitigate the appeal of self-actualization offered by the Islamic State.

While the allure of the Islamic State may have drawn radicalized individuals out of the country, the Islamic State’s rise to prominence also ignited an unprecedented shift in the nature of extremist networks within South Africa, from subliminal operations involving allegations of training camps, fundraising, and proselytizing towards active participation in international terrorism.

This was equally matched by a shift in the South African government’s response to the emerging threat of violent extremism. South Africa’s premier police force, the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (commonly known as the Hawks), have undertaken a series of counter-terrorism operations since 2015, in the process foiling four terror plots that appeared to be inspired by the Islamic State. In two cases, key suspects and their accomplices fled to Mozambique to join ASWJ, underscoring the degree to which Africa’s newest jihadist insurgency might serve as a haven for Islamic State sympathizers around the region.

In 2015, the twins Brandon-Lee and Tony-Lee Thulsie and an accomplice, Ronaldo “Arashad” Smith, attempted to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State before they were stopped by the Hawks and placed under surveillance.29 As an alternative to their failed plans to travel to Syria, the trio allegedly began plotting attacks against government targets as well as Jewish and American institutions in South Africa on behalf of the Islamic State.30 In July 2016, the Hawks conducted a series of counterterrorism raids which led to the arrest of the trio as well as two siblings, Ebrahim and Fatima Patel, who were found in a separate location with bullets and stun grenades.31 The Patel siblings appeared to be implicated in a separate case unrelated to either the Thulsies or terrorism and were charged with illegal possession of weapons. However, Fatima Patel was later arrested again with her husband, Sayfydeen Aslam Del Vecchio, and a Malawian national, Ahmad “Bazooka” Mussa, in February 2018 for their alleged involvement in the kidnapping, armed robbery, and murder of two British botanists, Rod and Rachel Saunders.32 Patel and Del Vecchio were arrested at their home where police testified to finding an Islamic State flag.33

Three months after the arrest of Patel and Del Vecchio, knife-wielding men attacked a Shi’a mosque in Verulam near the eastern coastal city of Durban, murdering a congregant and seriously injuring both the imam and the mosque caretaker.34 The following day the Hawks discovered an incendiary device that had been planted at the mosque overnight after the attack. The same type of device was left in various locations around the city including parking lots and shopping centers.35 One of the twelve men arrested for their involvement in the mosque attack and planting of incendiary devices, Farhad Hoomer, was allegedly using his house as a training camp. Police said they found Islamic State DVDs in the house as well as a kidnapped victim who was being held in the basement.36

However, in July 2020, the twelve men accused of orchestrating the mosque attack were released and their case was struck from the roll.37 Yet only two weeks later, police uncovered a kidnapping syndicate in the south of Johannesburg, arresting five men in connection with the kidnapping and extortion of a businessman.38 Each of these five men had been one of the twelve suspects in the Verulam attack who had just been released.39 Once again, Islamic State material—as well as weapons and foreign military uniforms—were found in the Johannesburg residence that was raided, leading to speculation that the kidnapping and extortion case was the work of a domestic Islamic State cell.40

The aforementioned cases have raised concerns that South Africa now faces an imminent threat of jihadist terrorism. The dismissal of the Verulam mosque case in particular sparked outrage, as both the Hawks and the victims of the attack considered the incident a clear-cut case of religious extremism. Yet the four aforementioned cases have not irrefutably met the threshold of what would classically be considered terrorism given that the suspects lacked formal membership in any organization and the evidence submitted by authorities does not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the suspects were motivated by jihadist ideology and identified with the Islamic State.

A Crime-Terror Nexus? Financing and Recruitment for ASWJ
The recent evolution of violent extremism in South Africa suggests more substantial domestic engagement with international terrorism than ever before. This has manifested in two ways: Firstly, with the exception of the Thulsie twins, each of the terror cases since 2015 have included charges related to murder and terror financing through armed robbery, cryptocurrency trading, and kidnapping and extortion. This demonstrates an emerging nexus between organized crime and domestic extremist networks.41

Secondly, the emergence of ASWJ has presented an opportunity for Islamic State sympathizers from South Africa to engage in active militancy with an officially recognized affiliate without travelling as far away as Syria or Iraq. The associate of the Thulsie twins, Ronaldo “Arashad” Smith, turned into an uncooperative state witness against the twins and was later found to have fled to Mozambique, where he was pictured with another South African, Mohammed Suliman, who is said to have left for Mozambique accompanied by 15 other individuals. Furthermore, an unknown number of accomplices of the five suspects arrested for the aforementioned kidnapping in Johannesburg are also said to have fled to Mozambique,42 meaning that a conservative estimate would have at least 20 individuals from South Africa joining ASWJ since the start of the Cabo Delgado conflict.

These two developments—the crime-terror nexus and the emergence of ASWJ—have prompted the South African government to recalibrate and escalate its approaches to combatting Islamic State-inspired domestic extremism. This is seen in ongoing cases such as that of the Thulsies, who were denied bail after state prosecutors argued that the twins might follow their accomplice and join the insurgency in Mozambique upon release.43

The question of how ASWJ has managed to generate revenue has been a major source of contention among analysts and observers. The literature on the nexus between organized crime and terrorism is similarly divided by debates around the extent to which organized crime and terrorism—each a nebulous concept—overlap. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) lists a range of illicit activities that form an essential source of revenue for terrorist organizations. ISIS, for example, generated revenue for its operations in Iraq and Syria from human trafficking and the illicit sale of cultural antiques.44 However, at its height, ISIS generated most of its revenue from the sale of oil and from the taxation and extortion of the population in the areas it controlled.45 Similarly, while ASWJ has maintained control of the Mozambican port city of Mocímboa da Praia since August 2020, there has been no evidence to support speculation that the group has significantly exploited illicit trafficking routes for revenue.46 Following the Palma attack, during which AWSJ managed to rob and destroy two banks,47 the SADC established a technical mission to assess the nature and capabilities of the group in order to inform ongoing deliberations over a regional military intervention. One of the preliminary findings of the mission was that ASWJ receives funding from sympathetic individuals and private organizations from various countries across the region. These funds are sent through mobile money transfer platforms like M-Pesa, M-Kesh, and e-Mola that have spread across Africa in recent years.48

Transnational organized crime syndicates are widely known to use mobile money services to transfer proceeds from illicit activities across borders.49 While these platforms provide low-cost access to financial services in rural communities and help small or informal businesses and migrant laborers, the platforms also provide opportunities for terror financing. Terrorists may register multiple accounts through false or stolen identity documents or otherwise avoid detection by law enforcement through a practice called “smurfing,” in which small transactions are initiated to obscure the sum ultimately being transferred.50 The rapidity of transfers (most platforms allow users to send multiple transactions in immediate succession) offer limited time for the platforms to halt and investigate transactions.51 The fact that current and emerging mobile money transfer services generally fall outside the purview of national financial regulations ensures the continuation of poor monitoring and oversight.52 M-Pesa, M-Kesh, and e-Mola are available across southern and eastern Africa, including countries mentioned in the SADC technical mission report such as Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Africa, where investigations are underway to establish the beneficiaries of funds accrued by current suspects.53

As Hawks spokesperson Captain Lloyd Ramovha stated last summer, “the investigation into South Africans’ involvement with the insurgency involves Interpol and the Mozambican authorities…with detectives looking at cross-border financial flows, the origin of these funds and the involvement of organized crime in raising these finances.”54 In short, evidence is emerging showing that individuals in South Africa with existing ideological sympathies to jihadism have begun actively offering material support to the ASWJ insurgency.

Conclusion: Assessing the Risks of Intervention in Mozambique
As a former liberation movement once designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, the ANC-led government is now faced with the task of reconsidering its policy positions on Western approaches to counterterrorism as it deliberates its intervention in Mozambique. Abandoning long-standing policy positions may rouse grievances among civil society actors and religious organizations that are concerned that South Africa might duplicate the sorts of Western military interventions and occupations that have proven immensely costly (both in terms of lives and treasure) across the Middle East and Africa. The risk of blowback to any foreign intervention is also high. While South African officials have assured the citizenry that there is “no imminent threat” of jihadist terrorism (to use Minister of State Security Ayanda Dlodlo’s phrase),55 emerging evidence of material support for ASWJ from South Africans marks a significant shift in terms of the risks the country may face from a militarily intervention. Indeed, in July 2020 the Islamic State threatened South Africa in an editorial published in its al-Naba’ newsletter, claiming that any South African intervention in Mozambique would “result in prompting the soldiers of the Islamic State to open a fighting front inside [South Africa’s] borders.”56 Individuals, networks, or even organizations that are already sympathetic to the insurgents in Mozambique may turn towards more active support of the insurgency—whether by recruiting, training, financing, or conducting terror attacks—now that South Africa has become a party to the Cabo Delgado conflict.

The risk of blowback within South Africa has historical precedent from elsewhere on the continent. Almost immediately after Kenyan forces intervened in Somalia under the auspices of Operation Linda Nchi in October 2011, a cohort of al-Shabaab-trained Kenyans returned to the country and—with the support of other al-Shabaab sympathizers based in certain Kenyan cities—began instigating small-scale attacks on security forces and public places. These attacks were frequent but made few headlines outside of Kenya. Yet by 2013, al-Shabaab had assembled a special commando team that launched a high-profile assault on an upscale mall in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, killing nearly 70 people. Then, in 2015, al-Shabaab killed nearly 150 students in an assault on a university in the eastern town of Garissa.57 All the while, al-Shabaab and associated recruitment networks developed well-crafted propaganda to exploit the grievances of Kenyan Muslims, pushing a narrative that East African governments, backed by the West, were waging a war against disenfranchised Muslims across the region and that religious solidarity demanded that Kenyan Muslims respond.

It appears that disagreements are already emerging within the political arena as to the nature of the ASWJ insurgency and the appropriate responses. Several influential leaders within the South African Muslim community have downplayed the religious dimension of the Cabo Delgado insurgency, characterizing it instead as a conflict arising from disenfranchised communities who have not benefitted from the province’s mineral wealth. Faisul Sulieman, chairman of the South African Muslim Network (SAMNET), stated, “This is more a conflict about resources and a disgruntled local population than it is about some establishment of any Islamic state or caliphate in southern Africa.”58 These statements have some merit given that inequality and economic disenfranchisement are notable factors in fueling Cabo Delgado’s insurgency; but the statements also likely reflect an anti-interventionist position rooted in concerns from within South Africa’s Muslim community that an intervention would lead to the sorts of atrocities that have been experienced by innocent Muslim civilians in other theaters of the War on Terror. With evidence emerging of extremist networks operating in South Africa, grievances which may arise out of a military intervention in Mozambique have the potential of being exploited by ASWJ for domestic acts of terrorism or recruitment.

Considering the nature of terror-related cases in South Africa to date, it is important to temper fears somewhat. Any attacks that may take place in the near term are likely to continue manifesting as criminal acts seemingly inspired by the Islamic State rather than the type of complex assaults employed by groups like al-Shabaab. Additionally, South Africa remains an ideal logistical hub for revenue generation, recruitment, and possibly training. As such, South Africa is unlikely to see any major attacks anytime soon. For now, extremist networks will likely continue to operate clandestinely within the broader context of a society suffering from high levels of organized and violent crime. Therefore, traditional and routine criminal investigations and operations by the South African Police Service, and particularly the Hawks, will continue to play a crucial role in mitigating the threat of domestic terrorism.

However, it is only a matter of time before existing extremist networks within the country adopt a more ambitious set of objectives. This is all the more likely now that South Africa has decided to intervene in Mozambique. An intervention removes many of the incentives ASWJ and its Islamic State backers would have to exercise restraint in terms of targeting South Africa, instead giving a new impetus to attack the country. If South Africa’s extremist networks should also swell with new members, be they local recruits or ASWJ fighters returning from Mozambique (perhaps with specific orders from above), then they would pose a much greater threat than any of the cells that have plotted attacks to date. Thus, while situation is still evolving and much remains uncertain, South Africa clearly faces one of its most serious security challenges of the post-apartheid era.

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