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Kliprivier raid signals growing terrorism threat



A raid on a property in the south of Johannesburg on Friday, 24 July, may have uncovered a cell of South Africans sympathetic to terror organisation Islamic State (IS or ISIS). It’s the fourth or fifth incident of possible terrorist activity linked to IS being uncovered in South Africa over the past five years. This threat has a profound impact on the South African Jewish community.

“I believe this has a direct and concerning impact on the safety and security of all South Africans. Anyone who doesn’t subscribe to this brand of radical thought is fair game or collateral damage,” say Jevon Greenblatt, the director of operations at the Community Security Organisation (CSO) in Gauteng. “Regarding our community, doctrines such as this strongly encourage adherents to attack Jews. Earlier this year, ISIS distributed messages to its supporters instructing them to liberate Jerusalem, and attack Jews around the world.”

Police reportedly seized ISIS-related materials during a search of a property in the Kliprivier area in response to the kidnapping of a 72-year-old Indian national, who was rescued during the operation. He had been taken on 2 July, and his captors demanded a ransom in Bitcoin. The crime scene contained illegal ammunition and firearms. Five suspects were arrested.

Says Greenblatt, “We have already seen how the Thulsie twins specifically planned to target Jews. Fatima Patel, who was involved in the murder of the Saunders couple, was originally linked to the Thulsies, so must have shared their world view. It has also been reported that the mastermind behind the Durban attacks is communicating with and possibly paying for the legal expenses of Patel, so he must be directly connected or ideologically aligned to such thinking.”

Greenblatt is referring to the Verulam mosque attack and pipe-bomb threats around Durban in 2018. The case was struck off the role, but is still being investigated.

“The possibility of terrorism in our country is very real, and is no longer something we can ignore. At the risk of sounding alarmist, the CSO has been warning about the growing terror threats in South Africa for the past few years,” he says.

“ISIS sympathisers planning attacks may target Jewish facilities. In the context of a heightened terror threat, one can say the threat is heightened against the Jewish community. Terrorists see Jews as a ‘high value target’ globally and on the African continent,” says Ryan Cummings, the director of Signal Risk, which specialises in risk management across Africa.

Cummings notes that both this group and the alleged Verulam mosque attack group used a modus operandi of kidnapping civilians. He negotiated a number of hostage situations in Syria in 2014 and 2015, and says, “It’s a common ploy by ISIS for the purpose of extorting a cash ransom. There are also more macabre kidnappings, which lead to a ‘stylized execution’ to make a statement. This is commonplace enough across the African continent, and it’s possible for it to be replicated here.”

Says Greenblatt, “It’s becoming clear that many of the ISIS-related terror incidents we have seen since 2016 are in one way or another interconnected. This indicates that there is either a direct co-ordination of activities, or at least some communication and sharing of ideas between the different cells. My understanding is that at least one of the individuals arrested in this incident was also arrested in connection to the Verulam mosque case.”

Looking back at the drive-by shooting in Johannesburg in the early hours of New Year’s Day this year, Greenblatt says, “We immediately thought it may be terror-related, but couldn’t be certain. It had many of the hallmarks of such an attack. CSO never let go of the possibility, and after the Kliprivier kidnapping and arrests, we were informed that it was, indeed, terror-related and linked to ISIS. Media reports state that some of the firearms at the Kliprivier house are possibly linked to the shooting, and that one of the vehicles was also found.

“This incident [the Kliprivier raid] flags a trend,” says Willem Els, senior training co-ordinator of the Complex Threats in Africa Programme at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria. This includes the incidents mentioned by Greenblatt, as well as the case of a 15-year-old Cape Town girl who ran away from home to join IS in April 2015, but was taken off the flight at the last minute.

“What these confirm is that ISIS does have a presence in South Africa. What we don’t know is the extent of its presence. Press reports as well as comments by the national commissioner of police suggest that there may be links not only to other groups in South Africa, but also international links.”

Is South Africa taking the threat of terrorism seriously? “There are a number of highly competent and dedicated people working very hard to identify these threats, ensure terror-attack plans are disrupted, gather necessary information, and prepare sufficient evidence to prosecute the perpetrators,” says Greenblatt.

“I also believe that for the first time, South Africa’s leadership is beginning to recognise the possible danger to our country and region. Overwhelming evidence of numerous groups and individuals aligning themselves with ISIS’s violent brand of radical Islam proves that the threat is real and growing. Together with an expanding ISIS-linked insurgency just across our northern border with Mozambique and ISIS’s warning that South Africa should not get involved, we have no other option but to recognise it for what it is, and take the necessary measures to understand and address it.”

Els believes that South Africa is doing something about the terrorist threat. “The recent arrests demonstrate that. But we also know that the fight against terror can’t be done in isolation. Not even so-called super powers like the United States, Russia, and China can fight it alone. International and regional co-operation should be embraced. Intelligence agencies and law enforcement should rise to the challenge and seize this opportunity to regain the trust of the public.

“The recent appointment of Robert McBride as head of the State Security Agency’s [SSA’s] foreign branch, and the intention to fill other key vacant posts at the SSA, demonstrates a willingness by the government to address the shortcomings and fill the gaps. We also believe that he and the new management team will bring about much needed reforms to effectively address the challenges posed.

“This recent incident provides the opportunity for law enforcement to regain the trust of the public with swift and thorough investigation. The manner in which it addresses the challenges of the Verulam mosque case will also give an indication of the political will of South Africa to overcome the challenges posed by radical groups in South Africa.”

Says Cummings, “Our government has stated that it’s taking the IS threat seriously. It’s acknowledging it exists, and is following up on intelligence. The threat becomes more acute if South Africa makes a commitment to deploy forces in northern Mozambique. This could lead to punitive attacks that would most likely be undertaken by ‘lone wolf’ South Africans that aren’t formally linked to IS, but are sympathetic to their cause.”

To empower ourselves in the face of such a threat, “South Africans need to recognise that this issue is real. As concerned citizens, we all need to insist that government provides the right support and resources to those tasked with identifying, investigating, mitigating, and combating extremist ideologies, organisations, and individuals,” says Greenblatt.

“Secondly, every individual needs to take responsibility for their own safety and security, and for each other. We can’t expect to be looked after if we aren’t prepared to get involved and learn how to look after ourselves and our loved ones. We no longer live in a world where we can leave things to chance or to others. We have to be vigilant, proactive, and prepared. Always report anything suspicious to security on site, the CSO’s 24 hour emergency control room, and the authorities.”

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