The case of the Thulsie twins, arrested on allegations of planning an attack against the US embassy and Jewish institutions in South Africa, is becoming increasingly important from a counterterrorism perspective. By JASMINE OPPERMAN.
To date not much detail is known about the Thulsie case, apart from allegations that they were planning and intending to attack the US embassy and Jewish business interests. As details continue to emerge, the case becomes extremely important from a counterterrorism perspective.
It presents the ideal opportunity to gain knowledge and understanding on processes of radicalisation and the actual extent of the terrorism threat on home soil. The risk of assessing as the case unfolds is that the community will attach its own interpretations and value judgements, thus creating suspicions and perceptions that divide the community at large rather than unite.
What are the risks?
The Thulsie brothers case must not be seen as representative of the entire South African Muslim community. Judging a community based on the actions of fringe elements not only feeds extremists propaganda, but also emphasises a call to action against “injustice”, further propagating discrimination.
The condemnation of groups based on perceptions has already shown the extent of violence that can be incited in attacks on foreigner groups in South Africa, such as Somalis and Nigerians.
The Thulsie case strictly follows a specific series of facts: a failed attempt to leave for Syria – friends reported that the brothers were banned from the local mosque. The mosque was concerned that their behaviour would cause trouble. The strict facts do not implicate their circle of friends; moreover, the mosque pre-empted any radical exposure to its congregation.
Terrorism is equated necessarily with madmen alone. The images of chaos portrayed in recent incidents in Europe (I.e. Ansbach, Munich, Nice and now Normandy) are not necessarily relevant to the Thulsie case. However, responses to recent attacks in Europe shared a worrying commonality: the media automatically stereotyping the attackers as mere lunatics.
Condemning acts of terror as acts of the mentally insane is far easier than determining and understanding terrorism. Radicalisation is not confined to a specific group of individuals and, yes, that can include the psychologically unstable. South Africa cannot seek short cuts in countering terrorism, but should rely on an informed foundation of knowledge and insight into the driving forces of radicalisation.
The Thulsie case is not about a religion. One must remember that what the accused actually were arrested for was intent to execute a criminal act. Those accused will be investigated, not because they are Muslim, but because they are part of an investigation into a crime.
From an opportunity perspective:
The court case allows South Africa an opportunity to understand the terror threat divorced from an actual attack. The fear is that the summer series of attacks in Europe will be a mirror image of what South Africa is set to be confronted with. This is not necessarily the case, nor should we resign ourselves to this coming to pass.
Teenagers I have interviewed exposed to IS propaganda, plus what we know about the Thulsie brothers, have shown distinct characteristics, such as resentment against authorities, appeal of the glamour of the Islamic State, and lack of training.
Irrespective of the court case verdict, evidence will give South Africans an opportunity to learn about the radicalisation process of its own citizens, and more specifically allow a process of developing psychological profiles of individuals who could become “radicalised”.
The case provides South Africa with the opportunity to send a stern message that terrorism, irrespective of its ideological roots, will be dealt with in accordance with the rule of law, and with full adherence to and respect for the constitutional rights of the accused.
Fighting terrorism is not a showcase of force in showing vigilance against the threat of terror. Demonstrating our basic respect for humanity is key to fighting the Islamic State’s message – that the constitutional rights of any person in South Africa will not be compromised, no matter the severity of any terror related case.
The Thulsie brothers matter is a watershed court case, a thermometer for the extent of South Africa’s vulnerability to actual terror attacks. Yet what is set to happen outside the courtroom is of equal importance in showing South Africa’s ability to fight against terrorism.
South Africa is afforded the rare opportunity to set its counterterrorism strategy on the right path. Misguided narratives within the community will divert attention away from the real threat of terrorism South Africa is confronted with. DM
Jasmine Opperman is Director of Africa Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium (TRAC) (http://www.trackingterrorism.org)
Main photo: Example of numerous propaganda messages in the Islamic State following recent attacks in Germany