Ottawa, near Verulam, is the picture of a sleepy KwaZulu-Natal country village. Yet last week, it became the site of an extraordinary act of violence: an attack on a Shi’a mosque which saw one man killed and two others badly wounded. It’s the type of story that is foreign to South Africa, and has caused shockwaves to reverberate beyond the Islamic community. Was it an isolated act of sectarian violence? A sign that ISIS-style extremism may be taking root on local soil? Or a deliberate attempt to sow discord among Muslims?
“You know how they say giants have always got soft hearts? Abbas was one of them.”
Farouk Essop is standing in the front courtyard of the Imam Hussain mosque, just a few metres from the spot where his younger brother Abbas collapsed, his throat slit.
It was just after 2.30pm last Thursday when Abbas Essop, 35, staggered from the place of worship, shouting: “They’re burning the mosque, they’re burning the mosque!”
Though an ambulance was on the scene within 15 minutes, Essop died shortly after arriving at hospital.
“He was tall, he was big sized, but he was this soft person inside,” Farouk says.
“His friends will tell you: you can phone Abbas in the middle of the night and tell him you’ve got a problem. Irrespective of the problem, he will come help you.”
“And that is why it does not come as a surprise that Abbas would put his life before anybody else’s to save the mosque.”
Media reports are referring to the “Verulam mosque attack”, because Verulam is the nearest town of any size. The mosque is actually in Ottawa, which is the kind of village that the Census would refer to as a “sub-place”. It neighbours Verulam, but it’s much smaller: just 2.39 square kilometres in size.
Walking around Ottawa a few days after the attack, it’s hard to believe that something so traumatic could happen here. The roads around the Imam Hussain mosque are named for the spirit of the area: Dove Place; Peace Grove.
It has a solidly middle-class air. A private music academy and a Montessori pre-school are a stone’s throw from the mosque.
“Very few people in Durban would know where it is,” suggests DA shadow councillor for Ottawa Rory McPherson.
“There are maybe 250 homes in total. Very residential; people live in Ottawa and commute to neighbouring areas for work. It’s a community that gets on with itself.”
Some of the residents admit that they only found out about the mosque attack through social media.
“Suddenly Ottawa is in the international news!” marvels Tholi Majozi, who runs a guesthouse just around the corner from the mosque.
From her garden, she points across the neighbouring roofs to the blue minarets of the mosque.
“You can see it from here!”
“We didn’t hear anything, see anything.”
Here’s what we know so far.
Around 2.30pm on Thursday 10 May, either two or three men entered the Imam Hussein mosque as if they were intending to worship there. The caretaker, Mohamed Ali, thought nothing of letting them through.
Once inside, they embarked on mayhem. A library containing Qur’ans and other holy texts was set alight, as was a relic room. In the kitchen, they appear to have opened a gas tank, presumably intent on sparking an explosion there.
Farouk Essop takes up the story at this point. His brother Abbas, who owned a car workshop across the road, heard a commotion inside the mosque and ran across to see what was happening.
“He was attacked in the kitchen. He was overpowered by two men with – we’re guessing – both of them with knives. We don’t know the exact details, but we know that he was stabbed in the neck, which severed his main artery, and in his head, and one in his side here.” Farouk gestures to his hip.
“But also he sustained other blows to his body. When we were doing his last rituals, ablutions for his body, we saw blue marks and scratches all over his body. And he had some teeth marks in his fist, so obviously he punched someone in the face somewhere along the line.”
The timeline of events is extremely hazy, but at some point caretaker Ali was also set upon by the men and stabbed several times.
The mosque’s moulana (religious leader) Ali Nchinyane heard screams from his office on the second floor, and ran down – “armed with his set of nunchuks”, says Farouk.
The notion of a nunchuk-wielding moulana sounds like a detail too outlandish to be true, but two other mosque insiders separately confirmed it. Nchinyane is currently recuperating at his family home and couldn’t be reached for comment.
Nchinyane was seemingly attacked from the back. In the course of grappling with his assailant, he was stabbed in his throat and chest. Managing to escape, he dragged himself upstairs to his room and locked himself in.
The attackers ran out of the mosque and made a swift getaway by car – leaving the three men they had knifed fighting for their lives. Two would survive; one would not.
The reason why events are still so shrouded in mystery is that the only witnesses to the crime were the men who were attacked. With one dead and two others, including the caretaker, Ali, critically injured in hospital, it didn’t take long for rumours and speculation to flourish.
Fuelling much of it was the one fact which seemed to potentially hold the key: the Imam Hussain mosque was a place of worship for Shi’a Muslims.
In late January this year, an article began to circulate locally on social media.
Headlined “How To Identify A Shi’ah In The Street”, it warned South African Muslims that it is “becoming increasingly important to become vigilant as to who may be Shi’ah, and who may not”.
The article lists the alleged characteristics of Shi’a Muslims, from the way women wear hijab to the manner in which men “keep their trousers below their ankles”.
Some of the so-called tell-tale signs have a more sinister quality.
“They have no noor (light) on their faces,” the article records. “There is a matt-like [sic] coating of darkness on their faces and bodies. In some situations of war when the bodies of Muslims and Shi’ahs are mixed, it is generally seen that the blood of Shi’ahs turn black and their corpses stink, whilst that of Muslims remain red”.
Then the Verulam mosque attack happened.
Today, the article is still online, but an interesting foreword has been added in red text.
“Important note”, it reads. “Under no circumstances does Islam permit any form of violence against the Shiahs. The need for understanding how to identify them is to safeguard oneself from being deceived into falling into one of their traps”.
The article is published on the website of an organisation called the Jamiatul Ulama Gauteng. Repeated attempts to contact the group by phone and email were unsuccessful.
The dispute between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims stretches back over 1300 years, and has its roots in the succession battle following the death of the Prophet Muhammad. The group who believed that the Prophet should be succeeded in leading the Muslim faith by his son-in-law Ali became known as Shi’as or Shiites, while the opposing Sunni group regarded the Prophet’s aide Abu Bakr as the true successor.
Most global Muslims are Sunni, and there are conservative elements in both strains of belief. Saudi Arabia is governed by Sunni Muslims; Iran and Iraq are Shi’a strongholds.
Shi’a Muslims make up only a tiny proportion of South Africa’s Muslim community.
Outside the Muslim community, the perception has always been that Sunni and Shi’a populations in South Africa get on remarkably peacefully compared to the rest of the world.
But in reality, this isn’t the whole picture.
The article circulating on social media earlier this year was not an isolated example of offensive rhetoric directed at Shi’as.
Local groups calling themselves Islamic Awakening, Ahlus Sunnah Defence League and Darul Islam Task Team have previously disseminated inflammatory statements about Shi’as. They have called for Shi’as Muslims to be banned from Muslim graveyards and barred from marrying Sunnis, for Shi’a-owned restaurants to be prevented from attaining halaal certification, and for Shi’a children to be potentially prohibited from attending Islamic schools.
These appear to be fringe groups, but more mainstream bodies have, in the recent past, expressed similar views. In November 2016, the Muslim Judicial Council issued a policy statement declaring marriage between Sunnis and Shi’as forbidden.
Well-known cleric Mufti Abdul Kaadir (AK) Hoosen has written several condemnations of Shi’as, declaring them unbelievers and among the “real enemies of Islam”. Hoosen has radio shows on a number of prominent Muslim platforms.
It was in response to increasingly toxic rhetoric of this kind that a number of Islamic bodies in Cape Town, marshalled by the progressive Claremont Main Road Mosque, signed a document that they called the “Cape Accord” in December 2017.
Noting that the current climate “promotes intra-faith hostility and unwarranted attacks on foremost figures, by individuals and groups within our broader faith community”, it pledged to redouble efforts towards tolerance and solidarity.
Less than five months later, the document would suddenly take on a new importance.
Three days after the knife attacks, members of the Imam Hussein mosque who had gathered to pray on Sunday evening noticed a curious device under the moulana’s chair.
White piping, an old Nokia phone and some wires had been fused together to make what looked like a primitive bomb.
The Hawks, who are leading the investigation, don’t like the term “bomb”.
“We are expecting the explosives unit to give us a report,” Hawks spokesman Hangwani Mulaudzi told Daily Maverick. “But it was just a device which was not meant to explode, just to flare up.”
Just a few hours before the device was discovered, Police Minister Bheki Cele had visited the mosque to convey his concern about the earlier attack.
It is not known exactly when the device was placed in position. Questions are being asked about how it could have escaped detection in the aftermath of the first attack – especially given that the Hawks say that forensic experts conducted a thorough search of the mosque on Friday.
Was it another unseen component of that first attack, or installed separately, at an earlier or later stage?
Two mosque insiders, who declined to be named, are adamant that it must have been put in place either before or during the initial attack. They say that the device was covered with soot when it was discovered, suggesting that it was already installed when the worst of the burning happened.
Since removing the device, police have laid a sheet of white paper under the moulana’s chair to assess how rapidly soot develops on the surface. When Daily Maverick saw the paper, it had been in place for two days, and very little soot had come to rest on it. By contrast, the arms of the moulana’s chair were covered in soot.
If the mosque insiders are correct about the sooty condition of the device when discovered, it seems likely that it may have been in place for some time.
With news spreading about the discovery of what could be a bomb on Sunday evening, houses around the mosque were evacuated for several hours. If the knife attack had caused horror and concern, this latest development sparked something close to panic. Was this only the beginning of a campaign of terror?
But the “bomb” discovery also aroused confusion – and a certain amount of suspicion.
“Definitely it’s an inside job,” local taxi driver, who gave his name as Keshan told me, while driving the road from Verulam to Ottawa one rainy afternoon this week.
“Something that happened just now and then happened again?” He shook his head: universal shorthand for “I’m not buying it”.
Initial remarks made to media by Hawks KwaZulu-Natal spokesperson Simphiwe Mhlongo seemed to hint that authorities were entertaining similar thoughts. Mhlongo voiced disbelief that the device could have stayed hidden for three days.
The “bomb” discovery triggered decisive action on a number of fronts, however. Monday would see the top brass of the Muslim Judicial Council descend on Ottawa to pay respects to the bereaved and condemn the violence. It would also see police in Verulam bring together religious leaders of all stripes for an urgent meeting to take the temperature of the area.
Mufti Liaquat Amod is a short, stocky man with a wispy grey beard. Sitting on a couch in his apartment above the Verulam Sunni mosque, he folds his hands when asked about the Imam Hussein mosque attack.
“We of course condemn it in the strongest terms,” he says. “As much as we have our ideological differences…it’s the only Shi’a mosque in Durban, we’ve never had altercations with them, any problems, although they have been in existence for close on 20 years.”
The meeting of Verulam religious leaders that took place on Monday evening, says Amod, was devoid of any “animosity or tension”.
Over the course of the interview, Amod would voice views that echoed those of other Sunni leaders after the attack.
While condemning the violence, he was at pains to downplay the idea that sectarian tensions may have played a role in it.
“I can assure you there’s nothing to do with the Shi’a-Sunni thing at all,” Amod said.
“I think personally it’s something very personal and internal. Something isolated and…trivial, really.”
Towards the end of the interview, however, the Mufti said something interesting.
As an example of Sunni-Shi’a harmony in the area, he mentioned that he had offered the premises of the Verulam Sunni mosque to host the prayers for deceased Abbas Essop. But in the end, mourners opted to use the Imam Hussein mosque where Essop had been a worshipper.
“I think they wanted the media attention,” Amod said.
A throwaway comment, maybe; but also possibly a remark pointing to a sentiment I heard off-record elsewhere. A sense that there was something fundamentally suspicious and unwarranted about Shi’as claiming the roles of victims.
Many people agree with Amod: that the attack cannot be attributed to the age-old feud between Shi’as and Sunnis.
“Other theories vary from a mistaken assassination attempt, to agent provocateurs trying to divide the [Muslim] community in terms of what’s happening in Palestine,” says Shafiq Morton, a popular presenter on Muslim radio station Voice of the Cape.
Farid Sayed, editor of the Muslim Views newspaper, lists others still.
“One of the first accounts from an anti-Shi’a group was that it was Iranians [responsible for the attack],” he says. This would suggest that the attackers were Shi’a themselves, since Iran’s population is largely Shi’a.
It’s not a theory to which Sayed gives much credence.
“I think it was to deflect attention and focus away from the fact that these attacks could have happened as a result of anti-Shi’a rhetoric,” he says.
Further theories in circulation include the suggestion that the attack was motivated by a personal dispute with the mosque’s moulana, or even the result of a business deal turned sour.
Yet certain aspects of the attack seem to strongly point to a wider religious or political dimension to the crime.
Nothing was stolen, for one thing. For another, the attackers seem to have deliberately sought out rooms and items of religious significance to torch, focusing on holy texts and relics – for instance, replicas of Shi’a mosques around the world.
The South African Shi’a community has been adamant from the start that the attack was motivated by sectarian hatred.
In a statement on Wednesday, the Ahlul Bait Foundation of South Africa said that the “raging fire of sectarianism…came to our doorstep in one of the darkest days in South Africa’s Muslim history, Thursday 10 May 2018, when the Imam Husayn Mosque in Verulam, Durban was the victim of a terrorist attack”.
For Farouk Essop, brother of Abbas, the attack was the final manifestation of the discriminatory language he says Shi’as face daily.
“There are groups that are labelling wrong atrocious lies about what we believe and what we do. There’s a lot of lies that go on. We know that community leaders have been standing up on their pulpits and using their media, their newsletters promoting hate speech against us, so we knew that this is happening. It was just a matter of time.”
Whenever violence involving Muslims occurs, it doesn’t take long for two things to happen.
Islamophobic sentiments start to be voiced more openly, and discussion invariably turns to ISIS and whether Islamic extremism could be taking root on home soil.
“You never know what those Moslems are up to,” one Ottawa resident told me darkly.
The spectre of ISIS was first invoked when early reports on the mosque attack stated that the attackers were believed to be “Egyptian nationals”.
The likes of Mufti Amod have eagerly seized on this detail as a way of distancing local Muslims from the attack.
“South African Muslims are very kind of…docile. Very calm,” Amod said. “I can assure you it’s not something local.”
But Farouk Essop says that the idea that the attackers were Egyptian is “a load of nonsense”.
He repeated it for emphasis. “That’s a load of nonsense to me.”
Mosque insiders say that the attackers had been seen at the mosque before. Two allegedly had “big beards”, and one “a more trimmed-down beard”, says Essop. His information is all second-hand.
Essop claims that the moulana heard one of the attackers call for help. “And he says the voice was 100% local South African.”
The Hawks are reluctant to give too many details about the investigation at this stage.
“Progress will only be communicated when it is available,” says spokesperson Mulaudzi. “We want to give the investigating team space and time to do their jobs.”
He confirms, however, that no arrests have yet been made.
There is good reason for the Hawks to take the mosque attack extremely seriously: a country where sectarian tension begins to explode into acts of violence can become a stalking-ground for extremists. Throughout the Middle East, conflict between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims has been capitalised on by ISIS and used as a recruiting tool.
Professor Abdulkader Tayob, of the University of Cape Town’s Department of Religious Studies, warns that it is not unprecedented in a global context for attacks like the one on the Imam Hussein mosque to be orchestrated and then exploited by extremist factions.
“Radicals [could] come in and insert an attack so that the state, or civil society, acts against Muslims, and then you have a strong anti-Muslim context,” Tayob says.
Such an environment, where some Muslims feel themselves under siege, can become fertile ground for extremist recruitment.
Tayob suggests that some elements of the mosque attack – in particular, the throat-slitting – are reminiscent of the modus operandi of groups like ISIS.
“The slitting of the throat is something we have seen elsewhere by ISIS. It seems like a signature,” he says.
Yet security experts say that other elements of the attack lack the hallmarks of a group like ISIS.
The mosque attack “lacked the level of sophistication and organization one would expect from a centrally-coordinated attack,” risk analyst Gabrielle Reid told Daily Maverick via email.
“IS has not sought to claim the attack nor has South Africa been previously identified as a priority territory by IS for IS sympathisers. Furthermore, personal disputes, including poor business relations, have not been ruled out as possible motives. The initial knife attacks appear to be targeted in nature, rather than following a traditional ‘active assailant’ type attack where violence can be indiscriminate.”
Where radical elements have been identified in South Africa, Reid says they appear to be mainly isolated individuals who have “self-radicalised” rather than fighters formally linked to ISIS.
The Hawks say that they are considering the possibility that the attack may be linked to a potential flare-up of Islamic extremism.
“We cannot rule it out,” Mulaudzi says. “But we don’t want it to go to a position where we are bringing panic into the public. We don’t have that evidence as yet, and we have to make sure if this is an isolated incident.”
One of the biggest question marks hanging over the case is: why would this obscure corner of KwaZulu-Natal be targeted for an attack of this nature?
This is doubly mysterious because the province has never been seen as a site where Sunni-Shi’a tensions might bubble to the fore.
“If anything, most of the debate has been going on in Cape Town,” says Professor Tayob.
Last November, the opening of a new Shi’a mosque in the suburb of Ottery, in Cape Town, was preceded by incendiary remarks on social media, says Muslim Views editor Sayed.
When he attended the opening of the mosque, accompanied by a few other high-profile Muslim figures like University of Johannesburg Professor Farid Esack and Cape Town Judge Siraj Desai, Sayed says a photograph of them present at the event was circulated on social media with hostile comments along the lines of: “What are they doing there?”
Experts agree that if an attack of this kind were to happen in South Africa, one would expect it to take place in Cape Town rather than outside Durban.
But while Verulam rarely hits the news, it has recently played a bit-part in another strange and horrible story.
On 10 February this year, British botanists Rodney and Rachel Saunders were kidnapped while collecting plant specimens in the Ngoro Forest Reserve. Rodney Saunders’ body was found dumped in the Tugela River in March. Rachel Saunders is still technically classified as missing, but is assumed dead.
Police arrested couple Sayfydeem Aslam Del Vecchio, 38, and his wife Fatima Patel, 27, on a plot bordering the forest. State prosecutors have said that the two were found in possession of the Saunders’ bank cards and an ISIS flag.
Del Vecchio allegedly had advised someone how to make a bomb via messaging service Telegram, while Patel – who had previously been arrested in 2016 as part of a Hawks raid which nabbed terror-accused brothers the Thulsie twins – allegedly helped a teenager join ISIS.
Del Vecchio and Patel have made court appearances on several occasions over the last few months – at the Verulam Magistrate’s Court. Hawks spokesperson Lloyd Ramovha told Daily Maverick that the couple’s car was found in the vicinity of Verulam.
Last Thursday, the two appeared at the Verulam Magistrate’s Court and were denied bail, just a few hours before the Imam Hussein mosque attack.
It might well be a coincidence. The Hawks are staying tight-lipped.
A week after the attack, the mosque is still an eerie place.
In its ruined library, the charred pages of books flutter in the breeze entering through a window broken by firefighters extinguishing the blaze.
Against a row of sinks used for hand-washing before prayers, a lone black boot sits. It belonged to Abbas Essop, who must have shed it during his fight with the attackers.
In the kitchen, blood is still pooled on the tiled floor, and smeared over the fridge and wall.
The mosque’s once white ceiling is now blackened by smoke, and light fixtures have melted into their fittings.
The tangible damage is estimated at around R2 million. The bigger question, however, is whether worshippers will ever feel totally safe returning to the scene of this gruesome crime.
Yet Farouk Essop is stoic in the face of his family’s loss.
“Because of this incident, many community leaders from the same organisations that label us atrocious names, have come to convey their condolences, to sympathise with us, and also have promised that they will go back to their communities and make sure this hate speech stops,” he says.
“We believe that my brother’s blood has not been shed in vain.” DM