With five explosive devices found in public areas of Durban within three days, public alarm is growing. Police and authorities are alternately urging calm or staying silent, while risk analysts say it’s way too soon to be talking terrorism. But there’s one detail that cannot be overlooked. The incendiary device found at a Woolworths store in Gateway bears a striking resemblance to the device uncovered at a Verulam mosque in May 2018 following an attack which left one man dead.
Two pictures posted online tell a more interesting – and potentially worrying – story about what may be happening in KwaZulu-Natal than any statement from police or government so far.
The first was posted on Twitter by Tiso Blackstar journalist Jeff Wicks on 13 May 2018. It shows the explosive device which was found at the Imam Hussein mosque in Verulam, KwaZulu-Natal, just days after the knife attack on the mosque which left one man dead and two others seriously injured.
— Jeff Wicks (@wicks_jeff) May 13, 2018
The second picture was also posted by Wicks, seven weeks later, on 6 July 2018. It shows an explosive device retrieved from Woolworths in Gateway – one of five such devices identified around Durban in the course of three days.
— Jeff Wicks (@wicks_jeff) July 7, 2018
Even to a layperson, it is clear that the two devices pictured are strikingly similar.
“There appears to be commonality in their basic construction,” African Defence Review director Conway Waddington confirmed to Daily Maverick.
“The devices appear to consist of simple plastic housings, made from ordinary PVC piping. Attached to each device is a small mobile phone of very basic functionality – something along the lines of an MTN P16, Alcatel 1011, Nokia 105, or ZTE S651. The phones themselves are connected to the plastic housings with wires running from the side or base of the phone.”
Unlikely, says Waddington.
“It seems reasonable to presume that these devices are from the same source. It seems highly unlikely that more than one person or group would decide to start constructing or planting or detonating devices of the same basic design, in Durban, at the same time.”
Police are saying little. Repeated attempts to reach Hawks KwaZulu-Natal spokesman Simphiwe Mhlongo were unsuccessful.
Interviewed on eNCA, the only detail SAPS KwaZulu-Natal spokesman Thulani Zwane would divulge about the explosive devices was that they resemble “a cellphone attached to something else, of which we cannot divulge more information”.
The five devices found at Woolworths stores in Gateway and Pavilion, and attached to cars in the vicinity of the Durban July horseracing event, have been removed by police for further investigation.
At least two detonated, Zwane confirmed, causing small fires in soft fabrics areas of Woolworths stores.
Waddington stressed that his analysis was a superficial one based on the available images, but he suggested that the devices would work as follows: wires running from the phones carry a current to a wire housed within the PVC piping, which ignites whatever substance is packed around it. The devices can be detonated remotely – either by phoning the cellphone, or by arranging a timed detonation.
“They seem to have merely burnt, or at most, popped like large fireworks,” says Waddington.
“Imagery from the Woolworths stores show only burnt clothes, and no noteworthy blast damage. It is important to note that the devices do not appear to have been packed with any sort of shrapnel.”
Consensus appears to be that these are not sophisticated devices. Waddington says they could be manufactured with relative ease, even by someone who was inexperienced at wiring or soldering.
Signal Risk analyst Nick Piper agrees.
“These quite clearly are not devices set out to cause casualties or mass damage,” Piper told Daily Maverick.
“It suggests that we are not dealing with groups with bomb-making capabilities. This is not the modus operandi of sophisticated outfits.”
But these devices are also not common. Waddington points out that South Africa most frequently sees the use of explosives in cash-in-transit and ATM robberies.
“In those cases, the explosive compounds and detonators appear to largely be commercial explosives – often stolen from mining and demolitions operations. The Durban devices appear wholly home-made. They appear to be unique in their use in South Africa as far as I am aware.”
KwaZulu-Natal has been a hotbed of factional tensions of late, evident in everything from the assassinations of politicians and activists to the mobilising of forces loyal to former president Jacob Zuma. As such, it is possible to imagine multiple potential motives for the destabilisation of the province – but Piper warns against leaping to any such conclusions for now.
If the explosive devices were the work of individuals or a group with a particular ideological stance or aim, he says, one would expect to see either demands for concessions to be made on the back of these events, or responsibility to be claimed.
“This could just as easily be a means for somebody to gain vengeance or air grievances,” Piper says, adding that this interpretation is the one that his risk consultancy is leaning towards “for now”.
Yet how is one to interpret the undeniable similarity between the device used during the Verulam mosque attack, and those placed around Durban?
The Hawks have still not made any official statement about the outcome of their investigation into the Verulam attack – with the Muslim Judicial Council on 6 July releasing another plea for them to do so.
The Durban-based Sunday Tribune reported on 8 July, however, that a “well-placed source” within the Hawks had revealed that the arrests of three suspects from Wentworth in Durban could be imminent. There is not yet any official word confirming this.
If the more recent explosive devices in Durban are found to originate from the same source as that used in the Verulam attack, the outcome of the Hawks’ investigation into the mosque attack takes on a heightened resonance.
There are indications that the events of the past months are being taken seriously at the highest levels.
One such sign was the visit paid by President Cyril Ramaphosa to the Verulam mosque on Sunday, almost two months after the mosque was attacked. There, Ramaphosa expressed condolences to Shia worshippers and was reported as saying that “law-enforcement agencies have been tasked to give this [attack] high priority”.
To put this visit into perspective, Ramaphosa’s schedule in KwaZulu-Natal was so busy that he was forced to miss the launch of his own #ThumaMina campaign in south Durban two days previously. Making time for the mosque visit is a possible indication of the importance being given to the issue.
For now, KwaZulu-Natal Premier Willies Mchunu has called for calm and asked that “government is given the space to conduct the necessary investigations into this matter”. DM
Read Daily Maverick’s in-depth report on the Verulam mosque attack here.