A lot of bad things have happened, and are still happening in South Africa; racial or ethnic conflicts, xenophobic violence, health crisis, unstable power, corruption and a lot more. But for many, one that seemed out of the realm of possibility is Islamic extremism. That conviction is now under attack by several worrying incidents.
In April, South African security authorities arrested a fifteen year old woman at the Cape Town Airport as she tried to leave the country to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The Security ministry said the teenage girl had been actively engaged with the terrorists in social media networks. Last November, Iraq’s ambassador to South Africa, Dr Hushaim al-Alawi, said at least three South Africans had died fighting for ISIS in Iraq and Syria, countries where the group control large swathes of territory. Dr al-Alawi said the group is active in South Africa and has been recruiting citizens to fight in Iraq and Syria. Then on Wednesday there emerged a letter, purportedly from South Africans who have joined the group in the middle east, which challenged Muslim Scholars in the country to visit the “Islamic State,” as the group calls the territories it controls.ISIS is now the regarded as the world’s number one global terror threat, surmounting the late Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda. Apart from overrunning large parts of Iraq, Syria and making inroads in Libya, the group has also become a source of inspiration to terror groups around the globe like Nigeria-based insurgents Boko Haram and North Africa-focused Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and a growing attraction for some young muslims mainly in the West. But no one expected the group to have any sort of influence on South Africa.
Islamic extremism is alien in South Africa where Muslims constitute less than 2 percent of the population and live in peace with the Christian majority. Before the advent of the ISIS fears the biggest Muslim related religious tensions that the country had faced involved relatively minor disputes over cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad and the plan of a Muslim to burn Bibles in response to to American pastor Terry Jones’ “Burn a Koran day”. Thecartoon disputes were effectively resolved in court while the the Muslim who planned to burn a bible, dropped his plan and admitted wrongdoing. So from where comes the avenue for Islamic terrorism?
The Institute for Security Studies (ISS) says the country is attractive to ISIS for a couple of reasons; some founded on logistics, others on flaws. “South African recruits seem more likely to come from average-income families, which reduces the financial burden their recruitment would otherwise pose,” the think tank wrote last week. It added that “travelling on a South African passport does not raise immediate suspicion, which makes it easy for South Africans to book itineraries that would be less accessible to passport holders from other African countries.” The report adds that lawlessness and corruption also increase the vulnerability of the country. “The recently released Abbotabad Papers, which indicate that al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden viewed South Africa as an open territory for the group’s activities, are worrisome,” it wrote. The label of an “open territory” is buttressed by the fact that the infamous “White Widow” Samantha Lewthwaite –the alleged mastermind of the Kenya mall attack– had lived in a flat in Johannesburg with her children.
Despite these rising fears of terrorism, many believe the potential of the rise of Islamic Extremism is very low. The 15-year-old Cape Town girl who was stopped from joining ISIS was the country’s first known detention linked to the group. The Security Ministry said at the time that it was still investigating whether the group had a recruitment network in South Africa. This is not the first time that the country has feared the rise of Islamist extremists. The 2010 World Cup was riddled with rumours of al-Qaeda, al-Shabab and Pakistani militants preparing attacks, although no direct threats or attacks materialised.
However, the ISS says the current threat of terrorism is real and escalating, and laments that the government is at the moment not doing enough to curtail the surge. “An increasing number of South Africans are reportedly joining such groups or participating in these organisations; with little or no response from government. The ambiguity of government’s response seems to be influenced by political and religious sensitivities to the issues,” the ISS report said. It urged the South African government to effectively address the growing problem by establishing a specialised unit within the national security apparatus “to monitor, investigate and prosecute suspected cases.”