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Islamic State flexes its’ muscles in Egypt: A counterattack on #Sinai2018 – Sanet Madonsela


Islamic State flexes its’ muscles in Egypt: A counterattack on #Sinai2018

By Sanet Madonsela

Sanet Madonsela is a specialist on Political Islam in Egypt. Email:

Volume 6 (2018), Number 19 (November 2018)

“Anger is an emotion preeminently serviceable for the display of power”-Walter Bradford Cannon

The November 2, 2018 deaths of seven Coptic Christians have managed to make headlines around the globe. While it might be easy to make assumptions about who did it and how it happened, the question of why these Coptic Christians were killed still hovers.In order to answer this question and avoid applying incorrect remedies, a bit of context needs to be provided.

The Islamic State in the Sinai Peninsula has been waging a deadly insurgency since the Muslim Brotherhood’s Muhammad Morsi’s ouster in a military coup by General al-Sisi in 2013. Morsi was succeeded by now President, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who launched a brutal attack on Islamists in 2013. His government believed that fighting the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters was the only way to end terrorism and establish peace and security in Egypt. This massive crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood left the Islamist field open to extreme groups such as the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda. This has, in turn, made Egypt the ideal recruitment base for militant jihadist organizations as there was no non-violent avenue. The new Egyptian government failed to establish its legitimacy, because it failed to build public trust in the security sector. Rule of law has been undermined as security actors are not held accountable for torturing citizens. Al-Sisi’s harsh security campaign has also legitimized militant groups as they can appeal to Egyptians based on their shared injustices. Moreover, the Egyptian government’s counter-terrorism attempts have produced more enemies than it has contained. Its crowded prisons have also become a breeding ground for extremism and radicalization.

More recently, the Islamic State opened fire on three minibuses carrying Coptic Christians. They managed to kill 7 people and wounded 19. They stated that they would continuously target Egypt’s Christians as punishment for supporting President al-Sisi. The Egyptian Interior Ministry scrambled to respond to a surge of Christian anger against the government. It stated that the 19 militants responsible for the death of these seven pilgrims have been killed. While this temporarily solves the problem, the question of why these Coptic Christians were killed remains unanswered. The Egyptian state launched a comprehensive operation called the “Sinai 2018” on February 9, 2018. This operation was aimed at removing terrorist and criminal elements and organizations from the Sinai, parts of the Nile Delta and the Western Desert. The operation has been successful in weakening the Islamic State in the Sinai. The Islamic State, however, regrouped and started responding on 24 October 2018. This day witnessed the deadliest attack on Egypt’s military in years. Twenty-eight soldiers were killed and 30 injured in North Sinai. This was followed by an attack on Coptic Christians on 2 November 2018. It would be flawed to view these as separate incidents. The attack on Coptic Christians also served two other purposes – to gain control over the fertile ground in the Minya province, as well as send a message to the Egyptian state that they are far from being defeated. Additionally, this attack also sought to avenge the death of Abu Hamza al-Maqdisi-who was in charge of the group’s training and planning in the Sinai.

All these attacks form part of a much bigger goal – the destabilization of the Egyptian state. It is important to note that Islamic State seeks to destroy the Egyptian security and economy and has been assisted through the Egyptian state’s negligence and discrimination against citizens in the Sinai. Through this, the Islamic State has managed to convince tribes in the Sinai to cooperate with them in exchange for improved employment in the area. In doing this, they have managed to attain good intelligence, which assisted IS fighters from avoiding being captured whilst initiating fatal ambushes for Egypt’s armed forces. The Egyptian state should accept that this group will not disappear in the near future and that their presence in the country is a symptom of a bigger problem. While probable remedies could include reconciliation talks at a senior level between non-violent Islamists (the Muslim Brotherhood) and the state, stopping extrajudicial killings and improved governance, the Egyptian state needs a more serious intervention strategy in the Sinai – one which privileges human security in an attempt to buy back the loyalty of the disparate tribes in the region.

Turkey-Africa Relations – Professor Hussein Solomon


Turkey-Africa Relations

By Hussein Solomon

Volume 6 (2018), Number 18 (November 2018)

Opening the second Turkey-Africa Economic and Business Forum last month in Istanbul, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared, “We want to improve our relations, built on mutual respect, in all areas on the basis of win-win and equal partnership” to the 3000 delegates attending. The forum was co-hosted by Turkey’s Ministry of Trade and organized by its Foreign Economic Relations Board and the African Union (AU). The forum is important since it indicates Ankara’s revitalized interests on the African continent as well as its desire to move from bilateral to multilateral engagements.

Several reasons account for Turkey’s revitalized thrust into Africa. First, Africa provides economic opportunity with its 1.2 billion people. This is set to more than double to 2.5 billion by 2050. This demographic dividend could provide a source of cheap labour for Turkish companies as well as a market for Turkish exports. The latter takes on added significance if one considers that Africa is urbanizing at a rapid pace and that its middle class is expected to grow significantly in coming decades especially if the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement comes into effect. Second, and a concomitant of the first point, Ankara is being opportunistic in that it seeks to expand its footprint on the African continent at a time when Western states, specifically Trump’s America, is retreating from the continent. Whilst other players, specifically – China, has aggressively entered the African space, Ankara has a Muslim identity and is a successor to the Ottoman caliphate which it seeks to exploit. Early last month, for instance, President Erdogan visited Algeria, Mauritania, Senegal and Mali – all predominantly Muslim countries. The Ottoman aspect of the relationship comes out with Turkey recently securing a long-term lease and rights to restore Ottoman-era buildings on Khartoum’s Suakin Island in the strategic Red Sea. Third, there is the underlying philosophy and personal ambitions of Turkey’s strong-man president, which seeks to remake Turkey into a global player under his leadership. Since coming to office in 2003 as Prime Minister, Erdogan has made more than 30 visits to the continent.

One of the major reasons accounting for Turkish successes in Africa is that Ankara is far less risk-averse than many other countries. In 2011 when many international actors was fleeing from Somalia on account of a growing terrorist insurgency, famine and drought and a failing government, President Erdogan and his wife landed in the Somali capital Mogadishu and began negotiating a Turkish presence in the country. The successes of Ankara has been undeniable. There are currently 41 Turkish embassies in Africa that Ankara hopes to increase to 54 in the next few years. Turkish airlines, moreover, operates in 50 African destinations. Turkish trade volume with Africa has quadrupled from US$ 5.4 billion to more than US$ 20 billion between 2003 and 2017. Nevertheless, this is by no means a “win-win” or “equal partnership” that Erdogan speaks of. Consider for instance Turkey’s bilateral trade ties with Ethiopia. Whilst Ankara currently exports US$ 440 million to Ethiopia, it only imports US$ 36 million from Ethiopia. More than just the trade volume, however, is what Turkey actually exports to African countries. Turkey has a highly developed textile industry and in countries like Kenya, cheaper Turkish textile imports is hurting the Kenyan textile sector.

The full extent of the downside of Turkish relations with the African continent is perhaps best seen in Somalia where the entire state seems to have been “colonized” by Ankara. There is the Recep Tayyip Erdogan Hospital for those who are ill. A Turkish company runs the airport in Mogadishu. The roads are built by Ankara and refuse collection is done by the Turkish Red Crescent. The recently established Turkish military base in Somalia raises serious question over Somali sovereignty. Critics also argue that the contracts, Turkey secured from Mogadishu seems to have been skewed in their favour. The Somali state is notorious for its corruption.

Beyond the economic dimensions, there is also the political dimensions of the relationship that is often neglected. Africa has suffered terribly under various strong-men: from Amin and Bokassa to Mugabe and Bashir. Erdogan’s Turkey is increasingly autocratic and has the dubious reputation of having incarcerated the most number of journalists in the world. Africa has no need to emulate Turkish authoritarianism. Erdogan’s friendship with others of his ilk like Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, accused of war crimes by the International Criminal Court, undermines Africa’s attempts to democratize.

There is also a danger that Erdogan is externalizing his domestic problems onto the African continent. The Fethullah Gulen movement is an Islamic social movement which follows the teachings of reformist Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen. Gulen was an ally of Erdogan but after a falling out, Gulen has been in self-imposed exile in the United States but his movement is very active in Africa establishing schools and working in the health sector closely allied to African civil society. Erdogan has been using his African outreach to pressurize African governments to purge the movement in their respective countries calling the Fethullah Gulen movement a virus despite the positive work they are doing on the African continent.

African countries need to approach Ankara’s embrace with much more caution.



Islamic State Activity in South Africa: A Critical Analysis of what is currently Known – Dr. Barend Prinsloo


Islamic State Activity in South Africa: A Critical Analysis of what is currently Known

By Dr. Barend Prinsloo

North-West University, South Africa

Volume 6 (2018), Number 17 (October 2018)

  1. Introduction

Media reports are rife with the recent arrests of 11 suspects who are seemingly connected to the Islamic State (IS) and believed to be responsible for several attacks in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. These attacks include the attack on the Shi’a Mosque in Verulam in 2018 and the placement of home-made bombs which could be remotely detonated via a mobile phone.


  1. Facts

During the past two years, at least four unprecedented attacks or incidences occurred in South Africa, some of which are attributed to IS activity in South Africa. These four incidences will be factually discussed to determine their relationship, if any.


  1. The Thulsie twins and Fatima Patel

The Thulsie twins (Brandon-Lee and Tony-Lee Thulsie) were arrested in Johannesburg on July 2016. They were charged with 12 counts relating to contraventions of the Protection of the Constitutional Democracy Against Terrorist and Related Activities Act (Pocdatara); and one charge for fraud, linked to the alleged use of fake passports. They were allegedly plotting a series of attacks on behalf of IS against Jewish targets and the embassy of the United States of America (USA).  It is also alleged that the twins were attempting to join IS in Syria. Two years after their arrest their matter is yet to go on trial after being postponed about 30 times.[1] Fatima Patel was arrested in Johannesburg around the same time as the twins but no connection were evident between her and the twins. She was later released and she moved to KwaZulu-Natal.[2]


  1. Rodney and Rachel Saunders

In February 2018, Britons Rodney and Rachel Saunders were kidnapped in KwaZulu-Natal. Sayfydeen Aslam Del Vecchio (38) and his wife Fatima Patel (27) were arrested during the same month for the crime. Del Vecchio claimed to be a member of IS at the time.[3] Del Vecchio grew up in Durban North, although his family originally hailed from Mozambique.  He was known as Thomas Vecchio before he converted to Islam.[4] In March 2018, two more suspects,ThembamandlaXulu (19) and Ahmad Jackson Mussa (36), were arrested in connection with the crime.  The investigation concluded that the Britons were killed and their bodies discarded in the uThukela river.[5] In July, Dutch authorities arrested Mohammed Ghorshid – trying to buy bitcoins with a credit card belonging to one of the murdered Saunders couple.  Ghorshid was on a watchlist due to his links with IS.[6]


  • The Imam Hussein Mosque attack in Verulam

On 10 May 2018, an attack was launched on the Verulam Mosque in KwaZulu-Natal. Three knife-wielding men killed one person, attempted to kill two others, tried to set the Mosque alight and left a home-made bomb which was discovered a few days later.[7] Between March and August 2018, Durban and surrounding areas were plagued with several incidents of placing home-bombs in especially Woolworths stores, including widespread hoax calls.[8] Late in October 2018, 11 suspects were arrested originating from South Africa, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania. FarhadHoomer, Ahmed Haffejee‚ ThabitMwenda‚ Mohamad Akbar‚ Seiph Mohamed‚ Amani Mayani‚ Abubakar Ali‚ Abbas Jooma‚ MahammedSobruin‚ NdikumanaShabani and Iddy Omaniwere charged with 14 criminal counts including murder, attempted murder, arson, extortion and the violation of Pocdatara.Hoomerwas identified as the leader of the group.[9]  The state are claiming the following as evidence of the group’s involvement and ties to IS:


  • A white Hyundai Getz and VW Polo Vivo, allegedly used in the mosque attack and a Woolworths store in Gateway in Umhlanga, were registered in the name of FarhadHoomer.[10]
  • Hoomer’s house in Reservoir Hills was used as a training premises for the group.[11]
  • Hoomer is also the owner of the house where a victim was found kidnapped.[12]
  • Eight IS flags, propaganda manuals and bomb-making material, including a mobile phone resembling those used for these makeshift explosives were apparently discovered inside this house during a raid by the Hawks.[13][14] A device similar to the device used in the mosque attack and those found at Woolworths stores was found at Hoomer’s home.[15] In addition, the police’s explosives unit uncovered that all bombs found in various areas in Durban had the signature of the same manufacturer and could be detonated remotely.[16]
  • The State alleges this group of men is supportive of IS and its teachings about “financial jihad”. (This involves punishment of non-believers by robbing them of their wealth.)[17] Evidently, copies of the IS magazine Rumiyah were found where a directive was given to carry out “financial jihad” by targeting the enemies of wealth through extortion, theft and fraud among others.[18]
  • Three victims of extortion in the matter had previous dealings with Hoomer, and stated that they received an SMS demanding $100 000 (about R1.4m) in order for the accused to allegedly continue with their activities.[19]
  • One of the suspects (not identified) is a part of a WhatsApp group called Jundillah, which is a Sunni militant organisation based in Iran.[20]


  1. The Malmesbury mosque attack in the Western Cape

On 14 June 2018, two worshippers were killed (one South African and one Somali national) and several wounded in a stabbing attack at a mosque in Malmesbury in the Western Cape. The attacker was shot dead by police.[21] Witnesses later stated that the attacker introduced himself as Somali, and said he was on his way to Vredenburg on the West Coast. The man asked for a place to overnight and remained in the Mosque. At about 03:00, the man just got up and started stabbing people. He did so calmly and unhurriedly. Later, when confronted by the police he was shot dead when attempted to stab the police too.[22] The police later issued a statement confirming that no elements of extremism were found in the attack.Not motive was identified by the police and they identified him as 23-year-old NurArawal from Somalia.[23] However, the Chairperson of the Somali Community Board of South Africa identified the attacker as Noor Abdullah and stated that Abdullah was known in the community to suffer from bipolar disorder.[24] Thereby, de facto attributing the motive for the attack to mental illness.


  1. Conjectures made by analysts and the media


  • The Thulsie twins and Fatima Patel are connected. Fact: there is no supporting evidence in the public domain that they knew one another or were working together.
  • Sayfydeen Aslam Del Vecchio, Fatima Patel, ThembamandlaXulu and Ahmad Jackson Mussa were part of a larger IS affiliated grouping. Although evidence is mounting that at least Del Vecchio and Patel were committed and somehow in contact with other IS members, their main motive was to obtain funding for IS and there is no evidence that they formed part of a larger IS grouping in South Africa.
  • The 11 suspects in the Verulam attack, given their diverse nationalities, IS paraphernalia, alleged training facilities and alleged criminal acts, are clearly indicating that IS is moving in greater numbers to South Africa. Facts: The suspects and their modus operandi were more indicative of an ideologically inspired criminal gang with no formal training in bomb making and motivated by personal greed. They also happened to be Muslims. Having IS paraphernalia does not make them IS affiliated members. Perhaps it is best to refer to them asIS inspired members.
  • The Verulam and Malmesbury mosque attacks suggest that a conflict is brewing between the Sunni and Shi’a groupings. Fact: The Verulam mosque is a Shi’a mosque but the Malmesbury mosque is Sunni – so there is no relation or reason to think this is true.


  1. Conclusion

These occurrences are certainly worrisome and the likelihood is high that IS will inspire more people to continue such attacks and conform to extremist views in South Africa.  What makes South Africa different, however, are the strong relations and platforms for dialogue which exist among the Islamic community within South Africa.  The trigger factors to lure people into the world of extremism is very low in South Africa and is more found in global affairs. South Africans, and the authorities, should thus be wary to definitively link these events with IS; where instead it should be linked to ideological inspired criminal behaviour (which has many forms). Nevertheless, South Africa will need to understand that they should start to institute proper counter-terrorism measures which are different than the old focus on “terrorism” and measures to fight terrorists. South Africa does not have a terrorist problem.Finally, there is no known evidence which links these four incidences.


























Tehran in Africa: Reflections on Iran-Moroccan Relations – Professor Hussein Solomon


Tehran in Africa: Reflections on Iran-Moroccan Relations

By Hussein Solomon

Volume 6 (2018), Number 16 (October 2018)

Relations between Rabat and Tehran this past decade could be characterized as `on-again’ and `off-again’. In 2009, Morocco cut-off ties with Iran on the basis of its attempt to sow internal tensions in the north African kingdom. Iran’s cultural attaché used his diplomatic cover to distribute books promoting Shia Islam as well as granting up to 120 scholarships per annum to Moroccan students to study in the Iranian religious city of Qom and to propagate this form of Islam in predominantly Sunni Morocco. A similar development was occurring in neighbouring Algeria where Iranian “diplomats” were engaged in aggressive proselytization and offering scholarships to Algerian youth. Consequently, the number of Shia in Algeria increased from 3,000 in 2013 to 100,000 by the end of 2017. This caused great disquiet inside Algeria’s Ministry of Religious Affairs. To be clear, this is not merely a theological issue but one of great strategic importance. Iranian proselytization, according to Abdurrahman Saidi, an Algerian Member of Parliament, seems to be linked to Tehran’s attempt to create a regional Shia movement called the Maghreb Party.  Thus, developments inside Morocco cannot be separated from broader regional developments.

Diplomatic ties between Morocco and Iran remained severed between 2009 and 2016. Diplomatic ties were restored in December 2016 but this proved short-lived as Rabat once more cut-off its relations with Tehran on 1 May 2018. Once again, the reason for the cession of diplomatic contact was Iran’s attempt to destabilize Morocco. The attempt to destabilize Morocco took many forms. These included Tehran’s offer to protect Morocco’s Shia community from so-called religious discrimination as well as support for the Polisario front via Iran’s proxy – Lebanese Hezbollah. These linkages are well documented. As early as 2016 Hezbollah established a committee to support the “Sahrawi people”. Hezbollah officials then visited theTindouf camps in Algeria to begin providing this support. Members of Polisario then underwent military training by Hezbollah as well started receiving heavy weaponry. Members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) also assisted in this training of Polisario. Hezbollah, with its experience in tunneling, is also assisting Polisario to build a series of tunnels that would bypass the security wall Morocco had built. It should be noted that Hezbollah has a strong presence in West Africa and is now seeking to establish a presence in North Africa and is seeking to connect its West African and North African proxies as part of a broader regional strategy. This penetration of Iranian and Hezbollah influence is also taking place at a time when the Trump Administration has taken its eye off the ball on the African continent.

The difference between Morocco severing diplomatic ties in 2018 from its 2009 experience, is that it has decided to go on the offensive against Iran regionally and internationally. The Arab Quartet Committee met and after receiving evidence from Rabat condemned Iran’s attempt to “arm and train elements to destabilize Morocco” as well as its attempt to “disrupt security and stability in the region”. Moreover, Gulf countries – including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar endorsed Morocco’s decision to sever diplomatic relations with Tehran. Even Polisario-friendly Algeria was compelled to take action following evidence provided by Rabat regarding the activities of the Iranian embassy’s Cultural Attaché to Algeria, Amir Al-Moussawi, Al-Moussawi, it was alleged, was more powerful than the Iranian ambassador, having direct connections to Ayatollah Khamenei’s strategic advisors. Al-Moussawi subsequently announced his departure from Algiers in a Facebook post. Rabat has also gone on the offensive internationally – specifically lobbying the US to take stronger action against Tehran. The fruits of this strategy became evident in October 2018 with a US House Resolution that criticizes Iran for meddling in North Africa.

It should be noted that Iran and Hezbollah’s malevolent activities in North Africa also undermines the African Union’s (AU) attempts to stabilize this troubled region. Morocco has only recently rejoined the continental body and there are attempts to repair bilateral ties between regional foes Algeria and Morocco. Moreover, there are efforts to settle the thorny Western Sahara question through a plan granting greater autonomy to the region. Tehran’s involvement threatens all this.

The Arab Spring Exposed – Dr. Glen Segell


The Arab Spring Exposed

By Glen Segell

Volume 6 (2018), Number 15 (September 2018)

Finally, there is a probability that the Arab Spring might be exposed. The impending Battle for Idlib reported as a probability of being the deciding battle for ending the last major rebel stronghold in Syria will be the deciding factor. It may end the Syrian civil war but not in favor of those that started it as part of the Arab Spring wave of protests that the region has felt since December 2010.  The question “Why” is answered by the answer “The theory underestimates Political Islam.”

The significance of the Arab Spring and indeed the Syrian civil war is to grasp that disorganized urban liberalism cannot compete with the politics of tribe let alone Islamism. Even if President Asad’s forces manage to win the Battle for Idlib it doesn’t mean that President Asad will be in control of Syria. Neither will be the rebels that started it seeking individual freedoms. The underlying causes for the Syrian civil war remain and this poses an ever-constant threat for all.

The underlying causes for the Arab Spring also remain. Turning back to December 17, 2010 the first day of the Arab Spring shows this. Poverty, lack of rights and the use of force to suppress expression are all matches that could spark the flames of revolution and anarchy. Then a Tunisian fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after the authorities confiscated his goods and beat him. The incident sparked an uprising that within weeks would topple Tunisia’s venal autocracy. Protests spread to Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria. Despots from Morocco to Mesopotamia felt the heat of popular anger. Many couldn’t withstand it.

Consequently, the Middle East and North Africa are now less stable, and less hopeful, than it was before. Such instability poses a threat because it introduces the probability of instant anarchy, chaos and war with no clear indication of who will emerge as governance. At the start of the Arab Spring democracy thirsty denim-clad, smartphone-wielding young Arab liberals were projected across social media and TV screens as being the new hopeful leaders of the Middle East and North Africa.

The terror of 9/11 and the ensuing bad image of Islam were on the way out of the door. However, this was short lived.Once the dictators fell, the liberals were quickly sidelined as Islamists and remnants of the old order battled for dominance. Knife-wielding jihadist and refugees rose to global prominence as the image of Middle East and North Africa in turmoil.

The quest for democracy left each Arab Spring country worse off than, each in its own way. Dreams turned into nightmares. Although Tunisia has adopted a secular constitution it is also the world’s top exporter of fighters for the Islamic State. Egypt is once more ruled by the officer corps through repressive means. Yemen and Libya have ceased to exist as unified states. Then there is Syria, the regions battle ground for proxy conflict. In hindsight it is clear what happened. By crushing or co-opting opponents, secular autocrats empowered Islamist outfits that were the only remaining channel for dissent.

The lesson learnt is that simply removing a dictator has no connection to Islamism’s attraction. While secular Arab nationalism is state centric, the Islamists’ agency and inherent ideological drive is not state centric. So, while leaderless, social-media-driven protest is effective against unpopular regimes it is insufficient for winning power and for effective governance to provide essential services.

The Arab Spring was a quest for individual freedoms that is political Islam which is more attuned to the contest for geopolitical mastery. There will still be a quest for individual freedom, however probably it will only be a dream. The Arab Spring has been a setback in the quest for such freedom; partly to blame because of Western powers. For example, in Libya, the U.S. removed Moammar Gadhafi but abandoned the country with few viable institutions to its tribal furies. In Syria, American President Obama watched impassively as the Iran-backed tyrant killed and gassed his own people.

Wither the Arab Spring for individual freedoms after the Battle for Idlib to end the Syrian civil war because it is a dream and not a practicality. The Syrian civil war has highlighted that intellectuals and activists don’t dare imagine another uprising because they know that, given an opening, large numbers of Arabs will demand Shariah law, repression of women, and ethnic and sectarian revenge.

In short, the opposite of the Arab Spring quest. The millions that have fled the Arab Spring countries to other parts of the region are rendering their own judgment about the state of Arab civilization. Perhaps that’s an unfair judgment, but it follows my observations about an Islamist political culture be in the Middle East or North Africa that prizes honor, tribe and piety above reason and compromise.

Contextualizing Shiah-Sunni Relations in South Africa in the light of the Verulam Mosque attacks of 10 May 2018 – Dr MAE (Ashraf) Dockrat


Contextualizing Shiah-Sunni Relations in South Africa in the light of the Verulam Mosque attacks of 10 May 2018

By Dr MAE (Ashraf) Dockrat

University of Johannesburg

Volume 6 (2018), Number 14 (September 2018)

Muslims arrived on South African in five waves. There is evidence that some arrived as sailors and hands on the first ships of the Dutch and Portuguese colonialists. Indonesian-Javanese political prisoners who refused to be yoked by the colonialists came as political prisoners and the mosques and their graves at the Cape are evidence to this. There was a subsequent influx of indentured laborers to Durban/Natal in the late 18th/early 19th centuries. They provided the work force on the sugar-cane plantations there. A fourth wave of mainly Gujerati traders came as paid passengers on ships and settled in the then Natal and Transvaal. Up to this point these diverse ethnic groups were all Sunni Muslims and were affiliated with Sunni theological bodies. The trader communities did include a negligible amount of a couple of Shiah Ismaili Khojas. With the collapse of apartheid, the mid 90’s saw a fifth wave of settlers in South Africa. These were people from a range of countries with the bulk of them from the Indian Subcontinent. Up to this time the Muslim population were and remain predominantly Sunni.

In the 1970’s the isolated apartheid state was ever keener to establish contacts with international partners. Iran, under the Pahlavi Shah had a very good relationship with the RSA government of the day. The Centre for Islamic Studies, under the chairmanship of Professor Cobus Naude at the Broederbond established Rand Afrikaans University (now University of Johannesburg) facilitated for better understanding of Muslims and the politics of the Middle-East. The Centre would publish a newsletter “Midde-Ooste in die Nuus” (Middle East in the News) regularly. This was a very important source of information for the State’s foreign affairs and international relations departments. As relationships with Iran warmed, the Iranian government made economic alliances where petrol and SASOL oil-from-coal technology was shared. The Republic of South Africa was also guaranteed a good supply of crude oil. Cultural exchanges were also facilitated through the Embassy of Iran in Pretoria. The local South African Muslim community, many of whom had welcomed Ayatollah Khoemeini’s 1979 Iranian Revolution, were taken on 7-10 day visits to Iran. Meanwhile, the religious leaders of the Sunni majority had soon after the 1979 revolution began a campaign to warn its congregants of “Shiah Meance” and “Shiah Threat”. This is evident from the publications of the main Sunni theological bodies of the time. For them the cleric’s coup was no more than a “mirage in Iran” and they cautioned against the gaping theological differences through widespread pamphlets and booklets which were published on behalf of the “Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamah” (People of the Sunnah and the Prophet’s Companions). The Shiah, it was pointed out, did not look at the Prophet’s Companions with the veneration that they deserved and saw the first three Caliphs who succeeded him as usurpers of the hereditary right of Ali, the son in law and cousin of the Prophet (hence ahl al-bayt, the People of the Prophetic Household).

Travelogues of the time with titles such as,“9 Days in Iran”, by MS Banoo (1983) and a similar publication, “Towards Understanding Iran Today”, by Fatima Meer reflect opposite sides of the spectrum in the South African Muslim community. Banoo, the conservative theologian, was critical of the newly founded Iranian state whereas Meer expressed her delight by what she had seen on her travels. The MYM (Muslim Youth Movement), a more liberal Muslim grouping who had come under the influence of Maulana Maududi (d.1979), a Pakistani revivalist scholar, were evidently quite excited with the prospect of a Muslim state in Iran. The new Iranian dispensation of velayet-e-faqih (the leadership of the jurist-consult) and the widespread reform appealed to their sensibilities. This is reflected in their euphoria at the time.

The Jamiatul Ulama Transvaal (Council of Muslim Theologians) printed books countering what they perceived to be a serious threat to the belief system of their congregants. This then is the root of the Sunni-Shiah conflict in South Africa.

In 1995 Hojjatol islam Mohammed Sharif Mahdavi was appointed as the Iranian ambassador to South Africa. He actively participated on public platforms and perhaps due to his training clearly displayed a proselytizing zeal. Another important shiah cleric Imam Maulana Aftab Haider served as a missionary and established a center to cater for the religious needs of the Shiah community. Haider and his group not only saw to the pastoral needs of his community but also began actively propagating Shia Islam amongst the mostly lower class black and middle class Indian communities. In the mid-1990’s South Africa opened its doors to foreign nationals. Pakistani, Ithna Ashari (Twelver) Shiahs entered the Muslim community. They strengthened the public profile of the religion with their Karbala festivals and established Imam baras for their worship. Local Indian Muslims maintain their own expression of Shiasm and became more active on social media platforms. At about this time an Iraqi Sufi Shiah, Shaykh Fadlallah Heiri made South Africa his home. His preaching appealed to the affluent Indian business community and he established the Rasooli Centre in Pretoria. It is clear that distinctions based on class and origin prevail in the Shiah community.

The Ahlus Sunnah ulama (theologians) realized the growing threat from the Shiah and organisations of various persuasions were formed. The most vocal of these being the Ahlus Sunnah Defence League (ADL). The debate of excommunication (takfir) is what distinguishes some anti-Shiah lobby groups from others. Some,such as the Port Elizabeth based Maulana AS Desai in his periodical publication, The Majlis, adamantly insist that all Ithna Ashari Shiah are kafir (non-believers) while others, including the ADL, hold that only those who blatantly deny some of the core tenants of the dogma are not in the pale of Islam. Nevertheless they see all Shiah as threats. Shiah polemic has also been equally vitriolic especially in their slander against the Prophet’s wife Aisha and the first three caliphs. Souring relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran on the international scene means that local groups on both sides of the divide have enough theological arguments to buttress their positions. The Shiah and the Sunni camp accuse one another of hate speech.

Against this background South Africans were shocked when on 10 May 2018 there was a bloody attack on the Shia Imam Hussain mosque in Verulam, north of Durban. While all theological bodies condemned the dastardly act the local Tribune tabloid of 13 May quoted the head of the Shiahs in South Africa, Haideras saying that the attack “came in the wake of hate speech against the Shia community that has continued for years, and escalated to unparalleled levels recently.” The newspaper reported that: “The attack in which an imam had his throat slit and two others were stabbed repeatedly was allegedly the work of men who had been surveying the mosque with the intention of killing its religious leaders.”

For some months before this, Imam Rashied Omar of the Claremont Main Road Mosque proposed that South African Muslims bind themselves to a document called the“Cape Accord”. This document, meant to encourage peace and unity and eradicate extremism and based on the Amman Accord, was signed in Cape Town by some Islamic leaders. Included in this accord is a section which appealed to communities “to be tolerant of the differences between Muslims and not escalate intra-faith hostilities”. The recent Sunni-Shiah violence made this accord all the more relevant for those who have championed that it should be ratified. However the Cape Accord has not been welcomed by all, and differing opinions about it have caused further divisions. After a number of key signatories withdrew their support many now see it as a dismal failure.

That the Verulam mosque attack is a turning point in the future of Sunni-Shiah relationships in the community is questionable.  What seems to be the case is that it marks just another event in a long standing battle.

“Can we ever actually prevent terrorism?” – Dr. Anneli Botha


“Can we ever actually prevent terrorism?”

By Anneli Botha

Volume 6 (2018), Number 13 (August 2018)

When receiving peer review feedback on a recent policy document I wrote, I was struck by the question posed by one of the reviewers, now only starting her career: ‘Can we ever actually prevent terrorism?’ This is in reference to counterterrorism presented as a negative, while preventing violent extremism (PVE) is presented as the absolute positive. Getting over the initial disbelief in the reviewer not being able to see the connection between PVE and counterterrorism (CT), I started to think how far we’ve come since 9/11, only seventeen years ago (not disregarding all the valuable lessons before this deciding event in history):

From introducing new terminology to describe old practices and tactics, for example referring to the decentralized nature of terrorist organisations and their networks as ‘New Terrorism’ while the Anarchist in the late 1800s managed to operate in a similar fashion spreading its ideology not through the internet and social media, but through immigration from Europe to the United States (opening a new debate on Western fears surrounding immigration – however not to be discussed in this commentary).

Back to the ‘latest strategies’ in preventing terrorism. For example, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 as reflected in UN Resolution 1373, the prevailing thought was that ‘draining the swamp’ would be achieved through introducing initiatives to prevent the financing of terrorism. In other words, should terrorists not have access to funds, those organisations would cease to exist. This ‘flawed’ strategy was justified in reference to examples of earlier cases where money was transferred from the main organisation to the execution cell: flawed, not because it was not important to address weaknesses in the legal international financial system, but flawed in thinking that by not being able to receive money through legal means would cause terrorist organisations to end their existence, disregarding the role ideology and the reasons why the organisation exists play. This is not even mentioning the reasons individuals join, play in driving terrorism. Therefore, seeing terrorism not only as a tactic, but also a form of communication, the best strategy preventing and countering it is to adopt a holistic approach that includes the criminal justice system, the military when confronted with an insurgency, as well as non-conventional actors in this debate. It would be wise to include governmental departments such as education, urban and rural development etc. as well as non-state actors, for example the broader civil society, non-governmental organisations, etc.

In the middle is a group of young analysts and ‘experts’ getting swept away in the ‘new’ craze of preventing and to a lesser extent countering violent extremism (P/CVE). I refer to this wave as “The new big business” considering the amount of donor money spent addressing domestic manifestations of radicalisation into violent organisations (especially Islamic State during the peak of the era of foreign fighters) and in support of other countries experiencing the devastating consequences of terrorism – and yes, violent extremism manifests in terrorism. What is wrong with this ‘industry’? In a nutshell the following: The temptation to introduce or rather ‘sell’ programs to prevent individuals from joining terrorist organisations (despite preference to rather refer to violent extremist organisations) without understanding why people resort to these organisations in the first place. Secondly, the tendency to see social and community development programs through the PVE and CVE (to a lesser extent) lens although the majority of recipients in the first place were never at risk to be radicalized and then claiming success that cannot be empirically tested. I am not implying that these initiatives do not play a positive role within these communities, but rather that history proved over-and-over again that only a small minority of individuals join terrorist organisations and continue to execute acts of terrorism. Reaching these individuals that are truly at risk requires a very different approach than what is commonly used. For example, when individuals that had been radicalized into joining al-Shabaab in Kenya and Somalia and Islamic State in West Africa (more commonly known as Boko Haram) in Nigeria were asked if they were aware of initiatives to prevent people from joining, a minority answered in the affirmative. When those who had been aware were asked why these initiatives were not successful, it became apparent that not trusting those who led these initiatives and the fact that the organisation and their friends were more convincing introduced some new concerns associated with the PVE ‘industry’.

Returning to the initial question: ‘Can we ever prevent terrorism’ my answer is: If we have any doubt, what are we doing and why are we doing what we’re doing? Why are we studying radicalisation and terrorism for any reason other than to identify new trends and weaknesses in an attempt to get ahead of the threat. A threat that manifests differently over continents, within continents and between countries sharing a common border in an attempt to prevent the manifestation of violent extremism in the form of acts of terrorism. Yes, we can prevent terrorism if we first understand the why, who and how on an individual level and develop counter and preventative strategies to provide answers to these questions, tailored to each organisation. Secondly, by equipping the state and its security forces to develop and implement initiatives aimed at addressing the short-term threat, while considering the medium- and long-term consequences of these short-term initiatives. Thirdly, by investing in the intelligence capabilities of the state and structures to facilitate the timely sharing of intelligence within and between countries. Lastly, and probably the most important, to appreciate and recognize history by learning from lessons in the past and those who came before us who have the experience that money cannot buy.