South Africa


More questions than answers

More questions than answers
Police officers stand outside the Imam Hussain Mosque where three members of the clergy where attacked with knives, hours earlier, in Durban, South Africa, 10 May 2018. EPA-EFE/STR

The lack of attention to the Durban mosque attack by the fan base or IS Central Command is indicative that IS has no direct interactions between the South African assailants and Islamic State.

On Thursday, South Africa experienced a horrific and unprecedented attack at the Shia mosque in Old Main Road, Ottawa in Verulam, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

Throat slitting and arson at the mosque led to immediate speculation that South Africa was crossing a threshold into secular violence with immediate correlations to international terror groups such as the Islamic State. The subsequent discovery of a “bomb” a mere three days later accelerated anxiety and fear of South Africa facing a violent secular dispute on home soil. Responses by the Hawks and local religious leaders fuelled fears that a new wave of attacks was imminent.

However, South Africa would best be cautioned not to unintentionally play into the hands of extremist warmongering. Anxiety, fear and schisms are unerringly the feeding ground extremist groups rely on to seek support for their extremists’ ideologies. Both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have proven to not only sustain a propaganda campaign but find supporters, irrespective of location, for extremists’ ideologies merely based on fears of local populations.

The countering of such propaganda campaigns remains problematic for governments, and South Africa is no exception.

For now South Africans are left with three possible scenarios:

  1. A local feud of great intensity;
  2. Crime related attacks; or
  3. Terrorism – There is a qualitative difference between terrorism and terrorising. The latter can be applied to many criminal acts, from murder to bank robbery to gang violence to organised crime. The former must have at least broader goal and not suit the agenda of one personal grievance.

There are numerous militant groups believed to be active in South Africa. But even after the immediate responses by the media referred to IS as culprit, IS has remained silent on the attack. Even after IS claimed credit for attacks in the same week – the 12 May 2018 knife attack in Paris, France, was claimed within the hour of the attack and the 13 May 2018 triple church bombings in Indonesia were also claimed within hours of the attack.

Since the attack at the Verulam Mosque, IS supporters have paid little attention to the attack and IS official channels only remain focused on traditional areas of priority, such as Europe, Afghanistan, Russia, Indonesia, Syria and Iraq.

The lack of attention by the fan base or IS Central Command is indicative that IS has no direct interactions between the South African assailants and Islamic State. Granted there have been inspired attacks, executed by radicalized individuals, where IS claimed credit much later (usually 7 to 10 days after the attack). Still, there are other reasons not to think IS will not claim credit later, if indeed these were IS inspired assailants attacking a Shia mosque, then why not target other areas as well? Why not choose more populated areas? To be only focused on the Moulana as target seems short sighted. Secondly, the fact the perpetrators fled the scene is contrary to an overwhelming trend of similar inspired attacks in other places of the world, where the perpetrators are not focused on their own survival.

Frustration and an expectation of immediate answers have to be weighed against a complex investigation. It is during this phase of allowing for a thorough investigation, that local leaders become centrifugal in refraining from accusations and emotive language. Communicating a message in which communities remain calm and cooperative is essential to understanding future prevention of attacks. Additionally, being candid during the investigative process is critical to local communities trusting in Government’s ability to provide adequate security and vigilance.

Hence the dire need for South Africa to take a step back and first answer basic questions related to the incident:

  1. Terrorism attacks select a target with the intent to communicate a message to a target audience, by means of instilling fear and suspicion. Without any knowledge on the perpetrators and actual motives this remains an open ended question related to the attack.
  2. With a reported history of tensions within the Verulam Mosque, the question of what exactly caused such tensions remain vague. Were these apprehensions indeed related to a Sunni/Shia divide or did conflicting personalities and personal grievances create a feud between individuals not reflective of relationships within the community?
  3. Why this mosque specifically? There have not been similar incidents at other Shia Mosques (Cape Town and Johannesburg) reinforcing the theory this is a local manifestation of a local issue rather than reflecting a national trend of a South Africa being faced with organised terrorism.

Unless the basic questions are answered, analysis and opinions will remain speculative coupled with heightened tensions within communities. There is however one undeniable reality: the manner in which South Africans respond and the language used should not allow extremist groups to shift its focus to South Africa as an area of opportunity in propagating extremists ideologies. DM


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