Alarm bells about the threat of terrorism in South Africa have recently been sounding more stridently and more often. Are these false alarms or is the danger growing?
This question is complicated by the fact that the warnings are largely from foreigners, especially the United States (US). To many, this indicates alarmism or even outside interference. To others, panic buttons are being pressed because South Africa’s law enforcement, intelligence and prosecution services aren’t doing their jobs well enough.
This week, the US Treasury imposed sanctions on South African-based brothers Nufael Akbar and Yunus Mohamad Akbar, as well as Mohamad Akbar and Umar Akbar. It said they were ‘members of an [Islamic State] cell operating in South Africa who have provided technical, financial, or material support’ to Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (IS).
All four, the US Treasury added, were associated with Farhad Hoomer, whom it described as the leader of the Durban-based cell. The US had sanctioned Hoomer and three others in March for similar offences. This week’s sanctions included four South Africa-based companies connected to Nufael and Yunus Akbar and four owned or controlled by Hoomer.
Is Washington feeling obliged to act because Pretoria isn’t doing so effectively?
The US Treasury’s announcement came shortly after the US embassy in Pretoria – quickly followed by several other Western countries’ embassies – issued a security alert about a possible terrorist attack in the upmarket Sandton commercial district. The attack didn’t happen, though this might have been due to heightened security because of the alert.
Meanwhile the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) – a global intergovernmental watchdog of money laundering and terrorist financing – seems likely to add South Africa to its grey list soon. This is partly because ‘South Africa has failed to demonstrate that it is effectively identifying, investigating or prosecuting terrorist financiers or addressing terrorism finance through alternate measures.’
And in July this year, the UN Security Council warned in a report that South Africa was increasingly being used as a conduit for terrorist funding, mainly to Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
The two sets of US sanctions against Hoomer and his associates, in particular, raise the question of whether Washington feels obliged to act because Pretoria isn’t doing so effectively.
South African authorities arrested Hoomer, Mohamad Akbar and 10 others in 2018 for planting incendiary devices at a Shia mosque in Verulam and shops and a horse race in Durban. The cell members were also charged with murdering a worshipper, stabbing the imam, and kidnapping a Tanzanian. The case was thrown out of court because of prosecution deficiencies, official sources told ISS Today. It seems unlikely they will be reinstated.
Security services failings are aggravated by an ideological disposition to underestimate the terror threat
In June 2021, Hoomer was again arrested with four others at a warehouse in Mayville, Durban, in possession of ammunition and firearms. That case was also dropped, again, it seems, through law enforcement incompetence – this time the failure to secure search warrants.
US actions against IS in South Africa are creating tensions with the authorities. In October President Cyril Ramaphosa criticised the US for issuing the Sandton terror alert without consulting his government – although US sources hinted that Pretoria had been informed. This week, South African government sources told ISS Today that the US had warned Pretoria that it would be announcing sanctions.
In March this year, some South African security officials were apparently angered by the US sanctions against Hoomer and the others. Revealingly though, the finance and justice ministries acknowledged the sanctions and committed to working with other states to stop money laundering and terrorism financing. This sentiment was repeated on 9 November by Mondli Gungubele, Minister in the Presidency Responsible for State Security, in response to the recent sanctions.
Some officials acknowledged privately to ISS Today that they believe Hoomer is a local IS kingpin and remains free only because of missteps by South African law enforcement. They were also concerned about the slow progress of the case against Sayefundeen Aslam Del Vecchio, his wife Bibi Fatima Patel and their accomplice Mussa Ahman Jackson. They are standing trial for the murder of elderly botanists Rod and Rachel Saunders in KwaZulu-Natal in 2018.
Evidence was found in the accused’s home, but they weren’t charged with terrorism. Law enforcement sources told ISS Today that the case had recently been jeopardised by the presiding judge recusing herself after signing an Asset Forfeiture Unit order brought against the accused.
South Africa’s failure to deal effectively with IS and terrorist financing has a host of causes. These include problems in the intelligence, detection and prosecution services still recovering from the ravages of state capture during Jacob Zuma’s presidency. The South African government’s own Mufamadi and Africa reports have acknowledged these failings.
South Africa should take control, but can only do that by restoring confidence in its counter-terrorism abilities
These issues are aggravated by political factors such as an ideological disposition to underestimate the terror threat and see it as an obsession of the West. The FATF report alluded to this when it noted that South Africa’s reluctance ‘to classify politically motivated violent acts as terrorism’ was constraining its ability to tackle terrorist financing.
Apart from increasing the risk of violence, these failures could damage South Africa economically. The threatened FATF grey listing would probably lead to a ratings downgrade, followed by decreased investment and reduced trade.
The implications are also felt beyond South Africa’s borders. The March US Treasury sanctions suggested Hoomer’s IS cell was mainly raising funds for IS operatives elsewhere, like Mozambique and the DRC.
The apparent lack of coordination between the US and South Africa presents other risks, like provoking people while they remain free to retaliate. On 9 November News24 quoted Hoomer as saying about the latest round of US sanctions: ‘When you put a person in a corner, and you keep tramping on their toes, you are going to get a reaction that might not be too good. And then later on, they will say this person is a terrorist because look how they are reacting.’
And the Sunday Times quoted anonymous police officials claiming that the US Sandton terror alert had blown the cover off an advanced investigation into the preparations for the same attack.
The impression created by recent events is that Washington rather than Pretoria is steering counter-terrorism operations in South Africa. That obviously can’t be good.
South Africa needs to take control of its counter-terrorism but can only do that by restoring international and domestic confidence in its ability to do so. Determined and concerted action is needed by all government agencies involved – including better cooperation with other governments.