Opinion Piece

David Bax: The Great Jihadi Trek South

South Africa is not immune to the radicalisation that has, and is, occurring in northern Mozambique and further away in Kenya and Somalia.

The black flag of ISIS is reported to have flown over KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), large Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIEDs) explode in Mogadishu and, back in South Africa, the terror-linked trial of twins Brandon-Lee and Tony-Lee Thulsie has the potential to set interesting and influential precedents for how the state will address radical Islamic terrorists.

These events highlight the ever-present threat of terror attacks and the malicious yet effective tactics and strategies of the organisations that execute them. How to evaluate the likelihood and nature of terror attacks in different contexts is becoming more and more relevant and urgent for the South African government and civil society.

The main concern of these latest incidents is not whether they are being committed by credible “terrorists” or merely common criminals, but rather that they are building a narrative and a space for this message in South Africa. In February 2018, the press reports the kidnapping of two British citizens in KZN. The alleged attackers claimed to be acting on behalf of ISIS. Their actions and apparent connection to ISIS could form the basis of a rallying cry for those disaffected members of SA society looking for a group to which they can “truly” belong.

In order to evaluate and mitigate the likelihood of attacks, it is important to understand how terrorist organisations manifest.  They do this in four different ways. The first manifestation is a travelling terrorist organisation, which is extremely mobile and can deploy its forces and perform acts of terror internationally, but often has minimal local support. This organisation is always a threat and exceedingly hard to eradicate.

The second manifestation is a locally motivated organisation. With considerable support, this organisation creates cells and slowly evolves from seemingly benign beginnings to a much more endemic risk. This always poses a continuous threat to any country over the long-term as conflicts with such organisations are likely to be prolonged.

A third manifestation, and possibly the newest and least theorised, is the return of "fighters” from Syria and Iraq — the tracking of whom is not easy.

The fourth, more insidious manifestation is the gradual geographic movement of Islamic extremism and its correlates — the South African public is not appropriately conscious of this threat.

This fourth manifestation is moving ever closer to our country. It is evident in the slow progression of endemic terrorist organisations trekking south from Somalia and northern Kenya towards South Africa. These movements are the second phase of the first southerly movement of terror organisations from Afghanistan and the Middle East to north-east Africa and the Horn.

Over the past few months, there have been several attacks in northern Mozambique which bear the hallmarks and characteristics of Islamic terror attacks. The assailants claim to be "Muslim" and it is evident that the attacks were carried out by a radicalised and structured organisation. This is the furthest south that terror attacks have taken place and is disturbing evidence of the southern spread of Islamic terrorism.

There is significant concern among experts who interpret these attacks as the result of the increasing conservatism and radicalisation of receptive Mozambican communities — a known precondition for the formation of Islamic terrorist organisations. This receptiveness is compounded by the decline in popularity and prevalence of the more moderate Sufi imams, and the rise of more conservative Salafi preachers in the three most northern provinces of Mozambique — all predominantly Muslim.

How South Africa deals with this rising threat flowing down the East African coast is critical. We cannot ignore it, hiding our heads in the sand, while hoping that it does not arrive on our doorstep. A more sensible and, arguably, necessary alternative is, first, that we seek to understand how and which communities in South Africa are likely to become vulnerable, or are currently vulnerable, to radicalisation. And, second, that we prevent radicalisation from happening by building resilient communities that encourage and facilitate the diversion of at-risk community members to a more productive direction, resulting in greater social cohesion.

The proactive mapping and understanding of communities and the consequent implementation of community resilience programmes would significantly decrease the number of disaffected members of society — a known recruitment base for radicals. A proactive approach addresses not only the threat of radical Islam, but the threat posed by Internet recruitment and South African ISIS returnees. The urgent redirection of vulnerable members of society to activities and beliefs that benefit their communities is essential if the southern movement of Islamic extremism is to be halted.

South Africa is not immune to the radicalisation that has, and is, occurring in northern Mozambique and further away in Kenya and Somalia. Government and civil society must understand that South Africa is vulnerable to both religious and political extremism — especially given the current state of our domestic politics, the parlous state of the economy and the widely felt disappointment, frustration, and anger among its youth. The question of whether our already strained social cohesion can continue to bear the weight of all of these threatening and undermining factors is as relevant now as it was in 1994.

The ongoing trial of the Thulsie twins, the recent kidnapping in KZN, and the increased proximity of Islamic radicalisation in Mozambique highlight South Africa’s vulnerability.

It is imperative that government and civil society start to examine what drives radicalisation in our own country—and establish programmes and strategies to ensure that all our citizens feel embraced and included in the increasingly diverse family that makes up our country. It is far easier and cheaper to build stronger bonds and social cohesion within a nation than to try and rebuild them once they have already been badly weakened by violence and isolation. DM

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