Red flagged: Terror-linked networks in South Africa a ticking time bomb
Financiers of extremist groups are slipping through the law enforcement cracks amid suspicions and accusations that the country is part of a vast network of terrorist cells.
Two weeks before the US warned that Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) members in South Africa were increasingly helping to transfer funds to the militant group’s branches across the continent, Parliament heard that the South African authorities are failing to properly profile terrorist financiers.
“The authorities take a conservative approach to classifying acts carried out in South Africa as terrorism,” said a Financial Intelligence Centre report presented to Parliament on 15 February.
“This approach indirectly impacts on their ability to investigate and prosecute potential [terrorist financing], including to identify financing networks and other financing activities. [SA] has failed to demonstrate that [it is] effectively identifying the specific roles played by terrorist financiers.”
The report also said that, while authorities “identified … risks such as international terrorist groups soliciting support within the country”, SA “has limited experience” in prosecuting terrorist financing cases.
This dire prognosis came just two weeks before the US announced on 1 March that people in this country “are playing an increasingly central role in facilitating the transfer of funds from the top of the Isis hierarchy to branches across Africa”.
The US also red-flagged four alleged Isis and Isis-Mozambique (Isis-M) financial facilitators in South Africa, though some sources DM168 has spoken to, with interest in international relations, have questioned the timing and reasoning behind this.
South Africa’s special forces are among those fighting against Islamic State insurgents in northern Mozambique.
DM168 has established that there are deep concerns in law enforcement circles about how extensive terrorist-linked networks are in South Africa.
Exacerbating these worries is the state of the South African Police Service, with vicious infighting and cops accused of crimes.
National police commissioner Khehla Sitole is set to step down at the end of this month in a move President Cyril Ramaphosa said was in the interest of the country.
Isis suspicions and denials
In a new development linking SA to terrorism claims, the US said on 1 March it had sanctioned four individuals: Farhad Hoomer of Durban, Siraaj Miller of Cape Town, Abdella Hussein Abadigga, an Ethiopian based in Joburg, and Peter Charles Mbaga, a Tanzanian based in Joburg.
It claimed Hoomer was a recruiter, trainer and the leader of a Durban-based Isis cell who “raised funds through kidnap-for-ransom operations and extortion…”.
“Hoomer,” the US alleged, “was in contact with members of Isis-Democratic Republic of the Congo … and Isis supporters throughout South Africa.”
In reaction, Hoomer told the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime: “I am shocked and appalled by the United States’s unilateral decision to impose sanctions on me.”
DM168 was unable to get comment from him via his lawyer.
Hoomer was previously accused of being involved in a May 2018 attack on a Shi’a mosque near Verulam, KwaZulu-Natal, in which one person was killed and two others wounded, as well as attempted bombings in Durban.
That case was later struck from the roll.
The US alleged Siraaj Miller headed a Cape Town group of Isis supporters and “provided financial assistance to Isis by training members to conduct robberies to raise funds.
Miller last week told the Sunday Times he was “100% willing to comply and cooperate with all levels of authorities, to clear my name”. He said he had met Hoomer in Hout Bay and Hoomer sponsored a R19,000 carpet for his Islamic school. National Hawks spokesperson Brigadier Thandi Mbambo this week told DM168 the police unit was aware of the sanctions.
The Financial Intelligence Centre’s report to Parliament last month said most terrorism financing cases came to light in South Africa because of foreign agencies.
“South Africa’s counter-terrorism strategy does not identify the pursuit of terrorist financiers as an operational mitigant in the fight against terrorism,” it said.
In October last year, a similar report by the intergovernmental global terrorist financing watchdog Financial Action Task Force also contained worrying findings.
“The authorities have identified limited activities of the Islamic State involving South African citizens and acknowledge potential sources of [terrorist financing] risks stemming from the country being used by terrorist groups…,” it said.
Several cases linked to terrorism allegations have developed in South Africa.
Last month a case that had dragged on for about six years concluded with twins Brandon-Lee and Tony-Lee Thulsie pleading guilty to trying to leave SA to try to join Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil).
Kidnap and killings in KZN
A case yet to be concluded is that against Fatima Patel, Sayfudeen Aslam del Vecchio and Mussa Ahmad Jackson, accused of kidnapping and murdering Rachel Saunders and her husband Rodney in February 2018 in KwaZulu-Natal.
The couple had both UK and South African citizenship and were botanists. They were making a documentary when attacked.
According to the summary of substantial facts in the case, the last communication they had was on 8 February 2018 when they told colleagues they were camping at Bivane Dam in KwaZulu-Natal. The Saunders’s bodies, both showing signs of blunt force trauma, were recovered the same month. Meanwhile, purchases were made with Rachel Saunders’s FNB bank card.
On 15 February 2018 Patel and Del Vecchio were arrested. Jackson was detained the following month.
WhatsApp communications between the accused were accessed. One of these, sent on 9 February 2018, allegedly said they were planning to “kill the kuffar and abduct their alias, to destroy infrastructure and to put fear in the heart of the kuffar”. (Kuffar means disbeliever or infidel in Arabic.)
Although the summary of facts against the accused does not mention terrorism, the UK government’s online foreign travel advice about SA and terrorism referred to the Saunders murders.
The trial of Patel, Del Vecchio and Jackson is expected to proceed in May.
Terror in the Netherlands
While the case has been unfolding in SA, a suspect identified as Mohammed Ghorshid, but widely referred to in the media as Mohammed G, was arrested in the Netherlands in 2018.
Ghorshid, originally from Iraq, previously faced accusations of wanting to travel to Islamic State territory and join the fighting.
In the Saunders matter, Ghorshid reportedly tried to buy bitcoins with Rachel Saunders’s credit card details.
He was suspected of having links to an Islamic State-affiliated network stretching across Libya, Syria, Somalia and South Africa.
In October 2019 it was reported in the Netherlands that Mohammed G was sentenced to six years in jail for participating in an Islamic State-affiliated organisation.
This week, Serge Weening, who legally represented Ghorshid, told DM168 he could not divulge anything about the case.
Former Dutch justice and security minister Ferdinand Grapperhaus, in response to a June 2018 question about whether he was aware of Mohammed G’s suspected involvement in the Saunders kidnappings, confirmed he was.
Hezbollah and a ‘threat’ to the US
Meanwhile, a case involving allegations about Hezbollah, which the US classifies as a terrorist organisation, has come full circle. In February 2018, Usama Hamade, a citizen of both Lebanon and South Africa, and his brother Issam, were arrested in Gauteng for allegedly conspiring to export drone parts from the US for Hezbollah.
“According to the indictment, from 2009 through December 2013, [they] willfully conspired to export and attempted to export from the United States to Lebanon, and specifically to [Hezbollah], goods and technology without obtaining the required export licences,” a press statement from the US attorney’s office for the Minnesota district said at the time.
It said that, between September and November 2009, Usama Hamade directed someone known as Individual A to place orders for digital compasses and inertial measurement units for delivery to SA.
Hamade allegedly lied, “falsely telling Individual A that the parts would be used in [unmanned aerial vehicles] in SA to fly over wildlife areas to prevent poaching. Instead, Usama Hamade transshipped [the items] to Hizballah co-conspirators in Lebanon.”
The US wanted the Hamade brothers extradited from SA and this happened in 2019.
Issam Hamade subsequently pleaded guilty and was sentenced to time served.
In July 2020, the US announced that Usama Hamade, who also pleaded guilty, was sentenced to nearly three-and-a-half years in jail.
It appears that Usama Hamade finished his prison term early. At the end of March last year, the US’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued a statement saying Usama Hamade, who it described as “a clear threat to our nation”, had finished his sentence and had been sent back to South Africa. DM168
Trail of terror
1 March 2022 — The US announces it has sanctioned “four Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) and Isis-Mozambique (Isis-M) financial facilitators based in South Africa”.
15 February 2022 — Parliament hears “South Africa has failed to demonstrate that they are effectively identifying the specific roles played by terrorist financiers”.
7 February 2022 — Brothers Tony-Lee and Brandon-Lee Thulsie plead guilty to charges relating to the Islamic State and terror attacks.
1 April 2021 — The US sends Usama Hamade back to South Africa. He was previously arrested in South Africa and subsequently jailed in the US for conspiring to illegally export goods and technology for Hezbollah, a US-designated terrorist organisation.
10 May 2018 — An attack is carried out at a Shi’a mosque near Verulam, KwaZulu-Natal. One man, Abbas Essop, is killed, and two others wounded. Holy texts are set alight.
Between 10 and 15 February 2018 — Husband and wife botanists Rodney and Rachel Saunders are murdered in KwaZulu-Natal. Four suspects are arrested. The UK government warns that “extremists linked to Daesh” (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) pose a threat in South Africa. A suspect arrested in the Netherlands, with alleged Islamic State connections, may be linked to the Saunders case.
Sources: 15 February 2022 Financial Intelligence Centre report, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, US Department of the Treasury, UK government travel advice, court papers, previous media reports.
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.