TERRORISM IN SA
Zapiro recalls the chilling moment he heard the Thulsie twins planned to kill him
It was ‘pretty scary’ hearing that the Thulsie twins and an operative outside South Africa had discussed using small arms, explosives or poison to assassinate him.
Daily Maverick editorial cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro – aka Zapiro – distinctly recalls the “absolute chill” he felt when the Hawks informed him back in 2016 that two young converts to the Islamic State (IS) had planned to assassinate him.
That moment came back to him on Monday when those two IS recruits, Johannesburg twin brothers Tony-Lee and Brandon-Lee Thulsie, pleaded guilty in the Johannesburg High Court of trying to join the Islamic State in Syria and of conspiring to carry out terrorist attacks in its name in South Africa.
Tony-Lee Thulsie was sentenced to 11 years and his brother to eight. The sentences were each reduced by the five years and seven months they had already spent in prison since their arrests in Johannesburg in July 2016.
The convictions and sentences ended a protracted legal saga of many delays, including a recent attempt by the Thulsies’ lawyers to get the case thrown out of court or returned to the Regional Court where it had started.
The “Thulsie twins”, as they have come to be called, twice tried to leave South Africa in 2015 – once via Maputo – to travel to Syria to join Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil). They were blocked each time by authorities tipped off by family members.
Confined to South Africa, they then plotted to carry out terrorist attacks against the enemies of Isil in South Africa, including Western embassies and diplomats, Jewish interests and mosques of the Shia Islam sect.
And they planned an attack on Zapiro because, years before, he had drawn a cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad reclining on a psychiatrist’s couch, bemoaning his adherents’ lack of humour – a reference to the uproar in the faith about other satires on Muhammad.
On Monday, Zapiro recalled being contacted by the Hawks to inform him of the communication they had intercepted between the Thulsies and an operative outside South Africa, discussing how they could use small arms, explosives or poison to assassinate him.
“That’s pretty scary stuff. It was absolutely chilling,” he said, especially coming not long after two French Muslim brothers, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, had killed 12 people and injured 11 others in the offices of the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris. The publication had also satirised the Prophet Muhammad.
“There were colleagues of mine overseas who had already been assassinated, who had already been targets of this exact kind of thing,” Zapiro said.
“So for this to be happening in South Africa, right around the corner, for it to be a real possibility that I could be assassinated, was enormously chilling. I felt it was a threat to freedom of expression, a threat to individual journalists.
“It was a threat to satire in general, because I’m not a reporter, I’m a visual commentator. So this was not about anything which I reported. This was about the simple act of being able to comment on and to satirise events that happen in society.
“I was very, very worried. I had to submit an affidavit. It’s part of the court record. I thought I was going to be called as a witness.”
In the end, though, Zapiro was not called as a witness. The original 11 counts against the Thulsies under the Protection of Constitutional Democracy against Terrorist and Related Activities Act were reduced to three, and the specific charges of conspiring to attack embassies and Shapiro were dropped.
What remained of the charge of “conspiring to carry out terrorist attacks in South Africa” – and this was applied only to Tony-Lee Thulsie, which was why he got the longer prison sentence – was the accusation of plotting, with an individual known only by the alias Abu Harb, to attack “Shia mosques; Jewish events and/or conferences; and foreign interests at airports”.
“The purpose of the conspiracy was to intimidate the Shia and Jewish communities in South Africa and foreigners at South African airports and to cause or spread feelings of terror, fear or panic in the civilian population of South Africa and in particular the sections of the civilian population so targeted,” the charge in the plea deal said.
“The conspiracy to carry out terrorist attacks was done directly or indirectly, in whole or part, to further the political, religious or ideological motives of Abu Harb and the objectives of international terrorist organisations which have been designated by the Security Council of the United Nations, namely ISIL and Al-Qaida, which the accused had adopted and committed himself to.”
In addition, Brandon-Lee Thulsie was charged with downloading the manual How to Survive in the West; A Mujahid Guide (2015), which aimed to teach its readers how to conduct jihad, including instructions for evading arrest, making bombs and acquiring other weapons.
Zapiro said that he had come to believe, as the years dragged on with no closure, that the Thulsies were not getting the trial they deserved and an opportunity to explain themselves in court.
He said he had now come to realise that the delays in getting the case to trial seemed to have been the result of a defence strategy.
“I’m actually pretty flabbergasted that their own defence, for whatever reason, was delaying their getting a trial. Especially in the light of the fact that the offences were so serious that even when they got a plea bargain, they got very heavy sentences.
“It does appear from everything that is now coming out, that whoever was radicalising these young people was prepared to sacrifice them. It seems pretty despicable to use people who were that young.” (The Thulsies were barely out of their teens when they first got involved in Islamic State.)
“So, obviously there are people who are using and in a way abusing young people by trying to radicalise them to do things that are absolutely catastrophic and are going to get them into enormous trouble,” said the cartoonist.
The Thulsies’ relative young age at the time of their offences was a mitigating factor, prosecutor Adele Barnard told the court on Monday. So were the facts that they were both married, that they had not carried out any of the acts they planned, that no explosives were found on them or in their premises, and that they had no previous convictions.
Unsurprisingly, not everyone agrees that the young Thulsies were cynically manipulated by Islamic State. The Media Review Network, a civic organisation that monitors South African media for signs of Islamophobia, suggested instead that the twins had been “entrapped” by US agencies.
“The Media Review Network wouldn’t be surprised that the State agreeing to the plea bargain is an acknowledgement of a weak case. That the State never possessed a concrete case is what we deduce,” Dr Ahmed Jazbhay, an executive member of the network, said on Monday.
“In addition, the confidentiality of terms also implies that it shields the State from disclosing details of meddling by foreign intelligence agencies. Earlier this year, the US placed the twins on a terrorism watchlist, even though no conviction was made. It is clear that the twins were entrapped online through CIA/FBI intermediaries,” he said. DM
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