Dismissal of Verulam case a setback for fight against terror
“The dismissal of the Verulam case, in spite of overwhelming evidence against the suspects, is a major setback that will embolden those who seek to use terrorism and violence to harm us and our way of life,” says Community Security Organisation (CSO) director of operations in Gauteng, Jevon Greenblatt.
He says that since 2016, there have been at least three ISIS-inspired attacks or foiled plots in South Africa. “The first was the members of the Thulsie twins’ terror cell, which were arrested in 2016 in what was believed to be the advanced stages of planning attacks against Jewish and Western targets in Johannesburg.
“The second was Fatima Patel and Sayfudeen Aslam Del Vecchio, who were arrested for the 2018 murders of Rachel and Rodney Saunders. Although the initial murder investigation pointed to theft, it was later established that the stolen money was to be used to fund an ISIS-inspired terror training camp. It’s important to note that Patel was originally arrested with the Thulsies, but then released.
“Later in 2018, an ISIS-affiliated cell was arrested after carrying out this attack on a Shia Mosque in Verulam, KwaZulu-Natal, and planting incendiary devices around Durban. Radical Sunni groups view Shia Muslims in the same light as they view Jews, and see both as legitimate targets.
“All three of these are watershed cases that will set the precedent for countering terrorism and extremism in our country, and if not dealt with properly, will effectively give the green light to groups and individuals who wish to spread their extreme ideologies through violence,” Greenblatt says.
“Rising levels of hopelessness, lawlessness, and radicalisation in South Africa, together with the rapidly growing ISIS-linked insurgency in Mozambique, are a dangerous formula that deeply affects the safety and security of our region, our country, and our community. Although Patel and the Verulam attackers ended up choosing non-Jewish targets, they could just as easily have chosen differently.
“The South African Jewish community is the largest on the continent, and will at least be considered – if not specifically chosen – as a legitimate target by radical Islamists looking to carry out terror attacks in the country. This isn’t conjecture. The motivation to carry out such attacks is very real, and is something we have to work against every day to ensure our community is properly protected.”
The case in question goes back to May 2018, when attackers entered the Imam Hussain Mosque near Verulam (north of Durban), shouting that they were going to kill people.
Abbas Essop was murdered. His mouth was taped shut, and his throat slit. Two other men were stabbed, and the library of the mosque was petrol bombed. A few days later, a device resembling a bomb was found under the chair of the imam, and worshippers were evacuated.
In the aftermath, President Cyril Ramaphosa and Minister of Police Bheki Cele visited the mosque, promising justice.
The suspects were arrested in October 2018. Out on bail a month later, the 12 accused faced charges arising from the placing of pipe bombs in Woolworths stores, at the Durban July race, and at the mosque, as well as murder, attempted murder, arson, and extortion for the mosque attack.
They were also charged with furthering the aims of ISIS, violating the POCDATARA Act (The Protection of Constitutional Democracy Against Terrorist and Related Activities), and kidnapping, when a person was found chained in a dungeon at one of the houses where the arrests were made.
But on Monday, Magistrate Irfaan Khalil struck the case off the role. “I feel that this verdict was long coming because the state made some blunders along the way,” says Willem Els, senior training co-ordinator at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.
“The biggest of them was to replace a very competent state prosecutor in the middle of the case. Advocate Adele Barnard is a senior state prosecutor who specialises in the prosecution of terror-related cases. She was replaced with a novice in this field, and no reason was given for this. Apparently, the state requested more time, but this was rejected. But all isn’t lost. Through the director of public prosecutions (DPP), the state can reinstate the case and appeal against the verdict.
“This case once again demonstrates that South Africa isn’t ready for terrorism. It also unravels the capacity of the criminal justice system to deal with such cases. It may also send the wrong message to radical elements that it’s safe to perpetrate these acts in South Africa. In order to restore faith, the authorities should demonstrate that they are able to fulfil their mandate to the South African public by pursuing this case and rendering a professional prosecution. ISIS would surely be laughing, and through this case, it can evaluate South Africa’s capacity,” Els says.
“With the Thulsie case still not resolved four years later, the Verulam case further illustrates how far we need to go to protect this country against terrorism. With Mozambique under fire, the authorities need to act now to put in place a viable system to defend our constitutional democracy against terrorist acts.”
Natasha Kara, the spokesperson for the DPP in KwaZulu-Natal, says, “The matter is being closely monitored and worked on together by the South African Police Service and the prosecutors of the organised crime office of the National Prosecuting Authority. Investigations will continue.”
Shaun Zagnoev, the chairperson of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, says, “We reiterate our abhorrence of attacks on places of worship, and continue to express our condolences to the victims of the Verulam mosque attack. We acknowledge that the alleged perpetrators of the crime are entitled to a fair trial and the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ must be upheld. We are deeply concerned that there may have been tardiness by the investigators, resulting in the inappropriate dropping of the charges and the release of highly dangerous criminals with the resolve to attack places of worship.
“We would welcome investigators prioritising this matter, and obtaining the evidence required for it to be properly dealt with in court. Should they be proven guilty, we cannot allow for perpetrators of this type of crime to escape justice and sow fear among religious worshippers.”
Dr Taj Hargey, the founder of the Open Mosque in Cape Town says, “The decision to throw out the case sets a devastating precedent in South African law. A successful prosecution would have put on the brakes on embryonic violent extremism.
“While South Africa has so far been spared the worst excesses of Islamic fanaticism, the dismissal of this case will only foster greater sectarian intolerance and denominational bigotry. Minority groups will now be far more vulnerable to the jackboot mentality of foreign-inspired Sunni fanatics. Certainly, the Open Mosque, with its inclusive philosophy and interfaith outreach is also susceptible to this frightening new local Sunni militancy.”
Where to from here for the 12 accused? Says Greenblatt, “We have to accept the fact that in the eyes of the law, people must be treated as innocent until proven guilty, but if this group is indeed guilty of what they have been charged with, they will certainly be emboldened to commit more atrocities now that they have been shown there are no consequences for their actions.”