Sanctions imposed by the United States on four obscure figures in South Africa may have gone almost unnoticed this week, but they point to an unsettling new trend in the spread of global jihadism.
They indicate how South Africa, a key western ally in Africa that has been relatively unscathed by the blight of Islamist terror, has emerged as a base for Islamic State as it seeks to extend its influence on the continent.
The US Treasury announced on Wednesday that it had designated two South Africans, an Ethiopian and a Tanzanian, all based in South Africa, as organisers or facilitators of Isis activity. It accused them of raising cash for the group through kidnap for ransom and extortion, and even by training its members to rob. Isis cells in the country are playing an “increasingly central role” in the group’s African efforts, it added.
One of the men, Farhad Hoomer, was said to have formed and led an Isis cell in the coastal city of Durban. Hoomer and associates were arrested in 2018 and charged with plotting to plant a series of bombs at various sites in the city. They were also accused of involvement in an attack at a mosque where one worshipper had his throat slit and two more were critically injured. However, the case against Hoomer and the others was eventually dropped in 2020 because of delays by the prosecution in submitting evidence, South African media reported.
Hoomer, 46, who is suing the South African authorities for wrongful arrest over the 2018 attack, has called the US sanctions on himself and the others “unlawful actions by the SA government, acting in cahoots with these US bullies”.
He denies being a terrorist but said in an interview with the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime this week: “Will I fight for Sharia? I would say yes. It is the best thing to take us out of slavery.”
He said he and other suspects in South Africa are being unfairly targeted by the state in an “injustice being perpetrated against Muslims”.
Another of the suspects, Abdella Hussein Abadigga, 48, is said to have controlled two mosques in South Africa and is accused of recruiting young men and sending them to a jihadist training camp. He had strong links to an Isis leader in Somalia, the Treasury Department said.
Siraaj Miller, 45, the third suspect, has denied any wrongdoing to reporters. Peter Charges Mbaga, 46, the fourth, has yet to respond to requests for comment.
South Africa’s finance, justice and correctional services ministries, responding to news of the sanctions, said in a statement that they “remain committed to fighting terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, and will not allow our territory to be used to fund terrorism in other countries. We assure all residents of South Africa that government is committed to ensuring the safety of all.”
The US considers South Africa a strategic partner on account of its strong democracy, and the country is by far the top tourist destination in sub-Saharan Africa. But its weak security institutions, porous borders and rising lawlessness have led to large-scale trafficking of drugs, arms and humans as terrorist groups seek to fill their war chests.
There is also a growing trend of kidnap-for-ransom cases involving wealthy targets. A review of 54 African states by the Organised Crime Index last year put South Africa tenth after assessing its levels of criminality and the state’s capacity to respond.
Martin Ewi, of the Institute for Security Studies based in Pretoria, said South Africa’s state security structures were deliberately enfeebled during the presidency of Jacob Zuma so that widescale corruption, known as state capture, went unchecked. The increased involvement of figures from the police and military in criminal acts had also provided a cushion for terrorism to flourish, he said.
In a country that prides itself on religious tolerance, where Muslims make up three per cent of a population of nearly 60 million, the South African government is loathe to take action that is likely to infuriate the Muslim community, Ewi said.
“The fight against terrorism in South Africa has always been a cautious one in order to maintain a delicate political balance in which no group should feel targeted or victimised by measures aimed at keeping a lid on the threat. The US blacklisting and some of it extended counterterrorism actions in South Africa have presented a threat to this tacit policy, an unwritten one,” he added.
Dino Mahtani, an expert on the growth of jihadism in the region and former UN investigator on sanctions regimes, said: “I know for a fact that there are South African cops, I know them, who are investigating some of this stuff, complaining to me that when they push it up to high levels not much is happening.”
He said Isis was exploiting the country as it targets east and central Africa, and that there was evidence to suggest Isis money was flowing from South Africa to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Tanzania and Mozambique, via Kenya. He said cells of Somalians and others in places like Johannesburg and Durban were creating several companies, using them to siphon cash and then shutting them down.
“There seem to be hubs in Johannesburg and Durban,” he said. “There’s a whole culture of gangsterism and jihadis intermingling with each other.”
He said the working hypothesis among some investigators was that some of this money is related to the drug trade in east Africa. Vast amounts of heroin land on the coast of Mozambique and flow south to South Africa.
“Where’s that heroin then going from South Africa?” he said. “Officials are starting to understand that it’s then being pumped out of South Africa to different parts of the world, then cash is generated.”
Ewi said the Somali jihadist group al-Shabaab and Boko Haram in Nigeria had also put down roots in South Africa “as a strategic base to support divisions elsewhere in Africa with arms and logistics”.
South Africa is also being used as a recruiting ground. A number of South Africans occupy senior positions in the leadership of northern Mozambique’s five-year insurgency which aligned itself to Islamic State in 2019. Some South Africans fought with Islamic State in Syria.
The worsening insurgency in Cabo Delgado province, northern Mozambique, has brought terrorism uncomfortably close to South Africa’s borders. Belated appeals for help from its neighbour last July forced President Ramaphosa to get involved: a limited deployment of South African special forces, as part of 3,000 troops from the regional southern African bloc, will be boosted this month with additional men, armoured vehicles and a Navy frigate patrolling the northern coastline.
Islamic State has warned South Africa directly that any intervention would “open a fighting front inside its borders”.
Such threats should make Ramaphosa “very worried”, Ewi said, but neither action nor inaction has a good outcome. Kenya first sent troops into Somalia to fight al-Shabaab in 2011, and has since suffered several retaliatory attacks. The Sahel region demonstrates how quickly and ferociously unchecked terrorism can spread over borders and create a humanitarian crisis.
Mahtani said some of the evidence of Isis money appearing to originate in South Africa stemmed from investigations into suicide bombings last November by the Allied Democratic Forces, an affiliated group in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, which killed four. He said the attackers could have killed many more with Kalashnikovs but probably prefer bombings for propaganda purposes.
The group has been beaten back in the Middle East, and has failed to gain a significant foothold in Libya, whose collapse after the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi in 2011 has seen arms flood across the Sahara. It is in Africa where it is making strides, exploiting local conflicts in security weak spots, a tactic Mahtani said it appeared to be now using in east and central Africa.
“This is definitely a new chapter for [Isis] on the continent,” he said. “Because so far they’ve been associated with the uprisings in west Africa, now they’ve got an increasingly visible footprint in east Africa, and that side of the continent.”
“Al-Shaabab in Somalia is still really the big dog, but now there’s a new kid on the block and they’ll start competing against each other for glory.” he said.