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UNDERCOVER COOPERATION

Despite global political tension between SA and US, countries cooperate to take down Isis cells

Despite global political tension between SA and US, countries cooperate to take down Isis cells
The Thulsie twins – Brandon-Lee and Tony-Lee – were given prison sentences for trying to leave SA to join Isis in 2015. (Photo: Gallo Images / Papi Morake)

Relations between SA and the US have been strained over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Yet documents reveal the two countries have been cooperating in the international fight against terrorism.

A high-ranking Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) weapons smuggler, who sent thousands of “radicalised fighters” from Western countries to the Middle East – including an Australian who became a suicide attacker – has been sentenced to life in jail in the US.

That case is linked to another against an Isis sniper who trained people to kill.

South Africa played a key role in cracking these major US terrorism cases – probably via legal input and information sharing, Daily Maverick has established.

Clues to South Africa’s involvement lie in expressions of thanks in US government statements to several international agencies. These include South Africa’s Justice and Constitutional Development Department. One message of thanks refers to “critical assistance”.

The Justice Department was not able to respond to a Daily Maverick query about this by the time of publication.

Strained relations over Russia

Suspicions that several international terror groups are based in South Africa have surfaced in recent years.

The US has openly stated that an Isis cell is operating in this country. It therefore makes sense for the US and South Africa to share information.

But relations between the two countries have been under intense scrutiny over the war in Ukraine. South Africa says it has a nonaligned stance on the conflict, whereas the US is overtly against Russia’s invasion.

In May this year, days after it emerged the US suspected South Africa had loaded weapons and ammunition on a US-sanctioned Russian cargo ship, Parliament was told there was a “false impression” that the government was anti-America.

During a meeting about the State Security Agency’s budget policy, Minister in the Presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni said: “I must clearly indicate that we have cooperation agreements with the US on areas of intelligence sharing, training, cyber security [and] counterterrorism, amongst others…

“We must also assure South Africans that genuine intelligence from the US or South Africa, in each other’s territories, is shared through proper channels and at all material times.”

Mirsad Kandic in the dock in the US on 14 July 2023. (Photo: Supplied)

In one of the latest cases of such cooperation, Mirsad Kandic was sentenced to life in jail in the US on 14 July 2023. He had been convicted in May for providing support to Isis.

The US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York thanked several foreign countries for help in this case, including agencies in Australia and Bosnia, as well as “the Department of Justice & Constitutional Development in the Republic of South ­Africa”.

The US statement said that, during Kandic’s trial, it emerged he had repeatedly tried to get from the US to Istanbul, Turkey.

“Kandic took a two-day Greyhound bus ride from New York City to Monterrey, Mexico, in November 2013, and flew through Panama, Brazil, Portugal, Germany, Kosovo and Turkey before arriving in Syria at the end of 2013,” the statement said.

He joined Isis as a fighter, “wielding Russian-made PK machine guns and AK-47 assault rifles”, at an Isis stronghold on the outskirts of Aleppo.

Isis leaders sent Kandic to Turkey to smuggle “foreign fighters and weapons into Syria from abroad” and he also got involved in Isis’s media platforms.

Gruesome propaganda

“Kandic disseminated Isis recruitment messages and gruesome propaganda, using more than 120 Twitter accounts. For example, [he] sent out an Isis-produced ‘documentary’ titled ‘Flames of War’,” the US Attorney’s Office said.

“This video celebrated Isis atrocities and macabre executions of Isis captives, including instances where victims were forced to dig their own graves before being summarily executed by gunshot. The defendant tweeted that this video was ‘the best thing ever seen on screen’.”

The statement added that Kandic sent “thousands of radicalised Isis volunteer fighters from Western countries into Isis-controlled territories in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East”.

Among them was Jake Bilardi of Australia. In 2014 Bilardi, who had just turned 18, contacted Kandic wanting help getting to Syria to join Isis. Kandic arranged this.

“Bilardi went on to commit a suicide truck attack with fellow Isis members on March 11, 2015, in Ramadi Iraq, killing himself, more than 30 Iraqi soldiers, and an Iraqi policeman,” the US Attorney’s Office statement said.

“Prior to the attack, [Kandic] wished Bilardi well and stated, ‘May Allah make there [sic] inner organs implode.’

“Bilardi’s attack was coordinated with others … 30 members of the Iraqi military were killed, 61 were injured, and 25 were missing, whose bodies were never found.”

SA helps US with Isis.

Ruslan Asainov (Photo: Twitter)

Another of Kandic’s recruits was fellow New Yorker Ruslan Maratovich Asainov.

In February 2023, the US said Asainov had been convicted over a conspiracy for supporting Isis.

At the time, Breon Peace, US attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said Asainov “became a lethal sniper for Isis and trained many other Isis members to kill”.

After his capture, Asainov pledged allegiance to Isis in recorded phone calls with his mother. He told her he was “carrying out Allah’s orders when he waged jihad and killed for Isis, that he intended to return to waging jihad if released”.

In a statement on Asainov’s conviction, the US government thanked South Africa’s Justice Department for critical assistance.

In February last year, Tony-Lee Thulsie was sentenced to 11 years in jail, and his brother Brandon-Lee to eight years, for trying to leave South Africa in 2015 to join Isis.

They now reportedly go by the names Yakeen and Sallahuddin, respectively.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Thulsie twins convicted on terror charges after plea bargain

In 2017 the US labelled the Thulsie brothers Specially Designated Global Terrorists.

At the time of their conviction, the South African Police Service suggested the brothers – now out on parole – may have been working with Abu Harb to perform terrorist acts in South Africa.

A few weeks later, in March 2022, the US announced it had sanctioned four individuals it alleged were Isis financial facilitators.

The four were Farhad Hoomer of Durban, Siraaj Miller of Cape Town, Abdella Hussein Abadigga, an Ethiopian based in Johannesburg, and Peter Charles Mbaga, a Tanzanian based in Johannesburg.

The US said Hoomer had “raised funds through kidnap-for-ransom operations and extortion of major business, which provided more than R1-million in revenue for his cell”.

‘Will I fight for Sharia?’

At the time, Hoomer told the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime: “I am shocked and appalled by the US’s unilateral decision to impose sanctions on me. I have never been convicted of any crime whatsoever … no country has the right to sanction a person without evidence or due process.”

Hoomer added: “Will I fight for Sharia? I would say yes… It is the best thing to take us out of slavery.”

South Africa’s ministries of Finance and Justice issued a joint statement to say they were giving “assistance to other states and relevant international and regional organisations” to protect the country from terrorism.

In October last year, the US Embassy in South Africa warned it had information “that terrorists may be planning to conduct an attack targeting large gatherings of people at an unspecified location” in Sandton.

The US Embassy advised staff to avoid crowds in the Sandton area of Johannesburg on the weekend of 29–30 October. No incident was subsequently reported.

In November, the US said it had “designated four members of an [Isis] cell operating in South Africa” – associates of Hoomer.

Meanwhile, South Africa’s anti-terrorism measures have been under scrutiny.

Towards the end of February this year, the country was placed on the Financial Action Task Force’s “grey list”.

A South African Treasury Department document said this meant South Africa’s “effectiveness in combatting financial crimes like corruption and money-laundering as well as terror financing are deemed to be below international standards”. DM

This article first appeared in Daily Maverick’s weekly sister publication, DM168, which is available countrywide for R29.

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