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Financing terror in the Rainbow Nation



While South Africans remained engrossed in the formation of a Government of National Unity, the Financial Intelligence Centre has just released details of South Africa’s National Terrorism Financing Risk Assessment (TF NRA) for 2024. It makes for sombre reading.

The TF NRA is an interdepartmental product approved at Cabinet level, and consists of inputs from several government agencies and the private sector. Two years ago, the NRA deemed terrorist finance to be a moderate risk. The 2024 TF NRA however, has South Africa at high risk.

While their relative candour is laudable, truth be told, South Africa isn’t at high risk of terrorist financing, South Africa has been at the core of global terrorist financing for more than two decades. This, I made clear in my book Jihad: A South African Perspective more than a decade ago. While the 2024 assessment speaks about South Africa’s unique vulnerabilities, none of this is new. In 2008, the Combating Terrorism Centre at Westpoint Military Academy was already pointing to our 4 862km of land borders and 2 798km of coastline as a security threat. The creation of the Border Management Authority (BMA) on 21 July 2021 to beef up our land and maritime borders seemed to have no effect to the masses entering our territory. The estimated five million illegal immigrants in the country speaks to this failure of control.

The authority’s failure is related to it being under-resourced, not properly trained, nor using technology effectively to control borders. However, even if the BMA was effective, it simply wouldn’t be able to stem the tide of undesirables entering our borders because of another vulnerability identified by the TF NRA – the abuse of South Africa’s refugee and asylum system as well as legitimate identity documents acquired by terrorists or terrorist sympathisers through corrupt Home Affairs officials. Again, this isn’t some new vulnerability. In my book, I describe the case of Libyan national and Al Qaeda financier Ibrahim Tantouch, who bribed his way into South Africa in 2005.

The 2024 TF NRA also speaks of the danger of unregistered charities engaged in terrorist financing. Again, this isn’t something new. While in South Africa, Tantouch established two charities – the Afghan Support Committee and the Revival of Islamic Society – ostensibly to assist orphans. Following investigation, it was found that the orphans were either dead or non-existent, and both charities were merely Al Qaeda financing fronts. The assessment also speaks of how natural resources, remittances, and diasporas may be used for terrorist financing. Again, this isn’t a risk, but has been a reality for years. Hezbollah has been involved in raising funds through diaspora communities in Africa and remittances for decades, and has funded its operations through blood diamonds, also in South Africa.

To be frank, with the exception of raising concerns around crypto asset platforms and crowdfunding and their potential as vehicles for terrorist financing, there’s nothing in this report which can be construed as new. If anything, recent cases suggest that South Africa has become more integrated into global terrorist networks. Following the collapse of their caliphate in Raqqa, Islamic State has shifted its operations onto the African continent. From the Sahel to East Africa and onto the Democratic Republic of the Congo and northern Mozambique, Islamic State operations have expanded exponentially – ever closer to South Africa’s borders. Meanwhile, South Africa has emerged as the locus of Islamic State funding for all its African franchises. It should perhaps be emphasised that the country’s seeming inability to curb such terrorist financing contradicts both its national legislation and its international commitments, as the TF NRA makes clear. Under the circumstances, the 2024 assessment is absolutely correct when stating that the country, “… is considered to be a hub or transit point for financial flows between terror suspects in the region”.

South Africa’s vulnerability according to the TF NRA and the reason why groups like Islamic State feel comfortable operating in the country relates to the nexus between organised crime and corruption and the intimate ties which have developed between terror groups and organised crime syndicates. Islamic State, the assessment notes has been quite adept at raising funds through criminal activities – from kidnapping and extortion to smuggling. Contrary to concerns expressed about so-called “ungoverned spaces” from Western capitals, terrorist groups thrive in a functional but corrupted state, one where politicians and key government functionaries can be easily bribed, one where in spite of the anti-terrorism rhetoric prevailing or existing counter-terrorism legislative frameworks, these are rarely or ineffectively implemented.

In this context, licit commerce is subverted for nefarious ends, and terrorism goes undetected. South Africa fits the bill. On a scale of 1 to 10, South Africa scores 7.18 on the Global Organized Crime Index. The country is also slipping on all indicators pertaining to corruption and transparency. It was for this reason that South Africa was greylisted by the Financial Action Task Force in February 2023, given its inability to curb money-laundering and terrorist finance. Given the current high-risk conclusion from the TF NRA, it’s highly likely that South Africa will remain on the grey list next year when its case is to be reviewed.

All this was avoidable. In spite of its public pronunciations and enactment of new legislative frameworks aiming to curb terrorist financing, the African National Congress government has been unable to implement any of it effectively. The formation of a new government will hopefully result in the appointment of skilled professionals, especially in the intelligence and security cluster, who are appointed on the basis of what they know as opposed to who they know.

  • Professor Hussein Solomon is senior professor at the Centre for Gender and Africa Studies, University of the Free State.

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