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While South Africa has a small Muslim population, comprising just 1-2 percent of its population, Islamism has a distinct presence in the country. The country is generally considered peripheral to the global war on terror given its distance from the traditional hotbeds of Islamism, but in recent years both transnational and domestic Islamist groups have been active on South African soil. Given the nation’s history of political violence, it faces a continued risk of Islamist-inspired violence. There were Islamist attacks in South Africa in the late 1990s and threats of attacks in recent years. Additionally, the country continues to confront significant obstacles that could raise its threat level, including considerable economic and social cleavages left over from the apartheid era, increasing crime rates, and high unemployment rates.1  If not successfully tackled, these factors could contribute to a rise in radicalism and violence. South Africa’s liberal democratic government allows religious groups to be active in the country’s politics. As a result, Islamist inspired political parties and organizations that advocate for Sharia are present in South African society today. While these groups do not enjoy mass support, their presence indicates the potential for Islamist terrorism in South Africa.

Level of Islamist Activity: 
Low
Islamist Activity: 

While South Africa has a history of Islamist-inspired violence that occurred in the 1990s, the country has remained on the periphery of violent Islamist activity. Nevertheless, global Islamist groups have periodically used South Africa’s territory as a staging ground, compounding the danger posed by native Islamist groups which have emerged within South Africa in recent years. 

Al-Qaeda
Since the late 1990s, al-Qaeda has used South Africa as both a physical safe haven and conduit of support. In 2004, a leaked U.S. Central Intelligence Agency report stated, “A new tier of al-Qaeda leaders is using South Africa as one of its bases,” with as many as 30 leaders “thought to be in and around Cape Town, Durban and the Eastern Cape.”2  It is unclear if those numbers are the same today. 

Al-Qaeda operatives have been apprehended in South Africa several times in recent years. Ahead of South Africa’s 2004 presidential and parliamentary elections, for example, the country’s police commissioner announced that authorities had arrested and deported several individuals linked to al-Qaeda. The actions led to subsequent raids and arrests in Jordan, Syria, and Great Britain.3  

South Africans have also traveled to the Middle East and Central Asia to join al-Qaeda. Similarly, South African jihadists have also previously fought alongside the Taliban against the Soviet Union, as well as in Kashmir against India and Chechnya.4  In July 2004, two South Africans citizens, Feroz Ibrahim and Zubair Ismail, were arrested in Pakistan alongside one the FBI’s most wanted terrorists, Khalfan Ghailani.5  When apprehended, they had in their possession an array of maps highlighting tourist, financial and diplomatic targets in Pretoria, Cape Town and Durban,6  indicating that the group was planning to launch a series of high profile attacks in South Africa. Some of the targets were distinctly Western, and included the Sheraton Hotel and U.S. Embassy in Pretoria.7  

In the late 1990s, al-Qaeda operative Khalfan Khamis Mohamed used South Africa as a safe haven fleeing to Cape Town in the aftermath of the 1998 East African bombings.8  He applied for asylum in South Africa and remained there until the FBI discovered his presence and had South African authorities arrest him. He was extradited to the United States and in 2001 he was convicted for his role in the bombing.9  

In addition to being a physical safe haven for al-Qaeda, South Africa has proven to be a conduit of financial support for the group. The country has a modern banking system that is loosely regulated. In January 2007, the U.S. Treasury Department designated two South African cousins, Farhad and Junaid Dockrat, for financing and facilitating al-Qaeda.10  At the time, Farhad was a preacher at a mosque near Pretoria, and his cousin was a dentist.11  In one instance, Farhad transferred approximately $62,900 to the Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan. The money was to be forwarded to the Al Akhtar Trust, an Afghanistan-based al-Qaeda charity, which had been previously designated by the U.S. Treasury.12  In addition to acting as an al-Qaeda fundraiser, Junaid also helped send South Africans to Pakistan to train with al-Qaeda communicating via phone and email with then al-Qaeda operations chief Hamza Rabi’a.13  

In September 2009, the United States government closed its facilities across South Africa after it received credible threats against their safety.14  The threats reportedly came from an al-Qaeda splinter group.15  Different from al-Qaeda’s typical modus operandi of no-warning attacks, the threat was phoned into the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria on September 21 of that year.16  The U.S. State Department reopened its embassies and consulates a few days later. However, the incident shows that the risk for violent Islamist activity, particularly against Western targets by al-Qaeda, is present in South Africa. 

In June 2011, Fazul Abdullah Mohammad, an al-Qaeda operative and mastermind behind the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings, was killed in Somalia. Reports indicate that he was carrying a South African passport under the name of Daniel Robinson.17  The incident was a further illustration that South Africa’s lax enforcement and weak system can be exploited by terrorist groups like al-Qaeda to conduct their operations and target the West.

Additionally, in the May 2011 raid conducted by U.S. Navy Seals in Pakistan that targeted Osama bin Laden, the U.S. uncovered revealing information regarding bin Laden’s perspective of South Africa. In the documents retrieved during the raid, bin Laden articulated that it may be “suitable to target Americans in South Africa, because it is located outside the Islamic Maghreb.”18  This illustrates that South Africa was viewed by bin Laden, and perhaps other leaders of the group, as a potential place to launch attacks against Americans. However, it is worth noting that bin Laden did not call on his followers to recruit in South Africa or establish a base there, the way the group did in Afghanistan. 

People against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD)
An organization indigenous to South Africa, People against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD) formed in 1995 in reaction to the extraordinarily high crime rate in the Western Cape.19  It was also heavily influenced by the Qibla Movement, likewise native to South Africa, which developed in the early 1980s “to promote the aims and ideals of the Iranian revolution in South Africa and in due course transform South Africa into an Islamic state.”20  Qibla is not directly linked to any violent Islamist activity in South Africa. However, its presence, desire to change South Africa into an Islamic state and influence over other groups indicates that there is potential for the threat to grow. A number of Qibla veterans were known to be amongst PAGAD’s ranks.21  

PAGAD embraced an anti-Western and anti-government ideology. While the group’s primary objective was ridding their communities of gang activity and drugs, its ideology and rhetoric was distinctly Islamist. The group held meetings in mosques and its spiritual advisor, Hafiz Abdulrazaq, was given the title amir (commander); the term, generally tied to Islamist groups, was unknown to South African clerics.22  PAGAD’s national coordinator, Abdus-Salaam Ebrahim, legitimized violence in his speeches. He called on Muslims to “prepare themselves with steeds of war against the enemies of Allah (SWT), the enemy of the Muslims and the oppressed people.”23 

In its operations, PAGAD adopted a dual strategy, acting as a community group while simultaneously operating covert military-style cells, known as the G-Force.24  Through these methods, experts note, “Pagad roused Muslims into action and castigated those who questioned its methods.”25  The group initially targeted drug dealers and gang members and “spawned unprecedented levels of violence” in the Western Cape.26  Over time, however, the group’s modus operandi changed. In 1998, it began targeting restaurants and public places as part of its Islamist objectives. During that year, there were a reported 80 pipe bomb explosions in the Western Cape, with the most notorious occurring at a Planet Hollywood restaurant.27  The group was designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the United States in 2001.28 

The group has not launched any violent attacks in recent years. In 2000, much of PAGAD’s leadership was arrested and prosecuted, bringing the group’s activities to a halt. Even though the group is no longer active, its emergence in South Africa illustrates that such a group can viably operate there. Additionally, experts say, “since the underlying reasons for its existence were never addressed, the possible re-emergence of PAGAD or similar organizations cannot be discounted.”29  

While active, PAGAD operated a series of offshoot and front groups including the People against Prostitutes and Sodomites (PAPAS), Muslims against Global Oppression (MAGO) and Muslims against Illegitimate Leaders (MAIL). In early October 2001, MAIL initiated a campaign to recruit and send Muslim fighters to fight with the Taliban.30  One MAIL operative subsequently claimed that “some 1000 South Africans” had arrived in Pakistan and Afghanistan to join Taliban ranks against the U.S.-led Coalition.31

Islamism and Society: 

Islam first arrived in South Africa in the seventeenth century when the Dutch East India Company established the Cape as a halfway point for its trade ships traveling between the Netherlands and the East Indies. The first Muslims in South Africa came from what is known today as Indonesia. Today, Muslims constitute a minority in South Africa, with the majority of South Africans practicing Christianity. According to the nation’s 2002 census, there are 654,064 Muslims, comprising 1.46 percent of South Africa’s total population of 44 million.32  (The country conducted another census in 2011, but no questions about religion were asked, making the 2002 data the most current available). In 2009, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life estimated that there are approximately 731,000 Muslims in South Africa, comprising 1.5 percent of the total population.33  

Since the end of apartheid, the Muslim population of South Africa has been changing. According to one study, “Africans constitute the fastest growing segment, having increased by 52.3 per cent since 1991, when they numbered 11,986. The proportion of Muslims who are African increased from 3.5 to 11.42 per cent during this period [1991-2001].”34  The majority of South Africa’s Islamic population is comprised of Indians and “coloreds,” those of Malay descent.35  Apartheid and the isolation from the international community that it caused dramatically slowed the spread of Islam in South Africa.36  

Similar to other countries outside the Muslim world, Islam in South Africa has been influenced by international groups and events. South Africa’s position as the economic powerhouse on the continent has made it a destination for immigrants from all over Africa seeking a new life. Reports indicate that immigrants from Central and West Africa have “brought with them a new ‘Africanised Islam’ more in line with black South Africans' identities than the religion practised by followers with closer links to Asia.”37  

Islamism in South Africa appears to have been more influenced by the Iranian Revolution than by the global Salafi movement, with the roots of South Africa’s modern radicalism stemming largely from the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s brand of political Islam.38  Qibla’s formation in Cape Town followed on the heels of the Islamic Revolution,39  and the movement was explicitly created to engender the ideals of the Iranian revolution in South Africa in an effort to one day transform the nation into an Islamic state.40  As a testament to this fact, the group used the slogan, “One solution, Islamic Revolution.”41  

Qibla also formed the Islamic Unity Convention (IUC) in 1994 which serves as an umbrella organization to over 250 Muslim organizations in South Africa.42  It is worth noting that Achmad Cassiem is both a leader in Qibla and head of the IUC.43  The group has boycotted government elections in South Africa “under the pretext that leaders produced by democratic means, such as elections, are illegitimate.”44  The group owns a radio station, Radio 786, through which it preaches and promotes its ideology.45  

While Islamic states like Saudi Arabia and Iran have peddled their influence around the world, it appears that their influence in South Africa has been limited. Iqbal Jhazbhay, a senior lecturer at the University of South Africa, notes that nearly all of South Africa’s mosques are controlled by the “mainstream” Muslim Judicial Council and “if a Taliban-inclined imam speaks at a mosque and say outrageous things, the worshippers there may ignore him.”46  One report noted that there are over 600 mosques and over 400 educational centers in South Africa.47  It is not sufficiently clear where the majority of these mosques’ finding is derived from. However, it has been noted that the Muslim Judicial Council is supported by Saudi Arabia.48 

There have been a number of incidents in recent years that expose some of the racial and ethnic cleavages in South African society. In August 2012, for example, a Muslim man was beaten to death reportedly over his beard.49  Then, in January 2013, two Muslim students were expelled from their high school in Cape Town for refusing to remove their head coverings.50  The South Africa constitution prevents schools from banning wearing certain religious garments including yamulkes and headscarves. Within weeks, however, the students were readmitted after a meeting was held between representatives from the school and education department, the parents, a local imam, and representatives from the South African Human Rights Commission.51 

The legacy of apartheid has left deep cleavages within South African society. Within the Muslim community, reports indicate that there is a growing hostility between black Muslims and other Muslims in South Africa. “The grievances of Black Muslims run the gamut, from racism and exploitation to the unfair distribution of zakat (alms).”52  The divide presents a factor that could potentially be exploited by Islamists seeking greater influence and followers.

Islamism and the State: 

Since the fall of apartheid and the introduction of a true multi-party electoral system, South African politics have been dominated by the African National Congress (ANC). Competing with the ANC are a variety of smaller political parties representing geographical, ethnic and religious groups.

Notably, some advocate for the imposition of sharia law as the governing mechanism for the state. One such group is Al-Jama-ah, which was created in April 2007 as a political party for South Africa’s Muslim youth.53 Ahead of the 2009 elections, Al-Jama-ah aimed its campaign at sixteen and seventeen year olds, noting that come 2009, they would be eligible to vote. The group advocates for the establishment of sharia law in South Africa.54 Ahead of the elections, the group posted a statement on their website calling on voters to opt for sharia law, writing: 

Voters must choose. There is a new space for fresh ideas to be heard in politics. Is it going to be ideas from the shariah or will it continue to be the unruly mix of corrupt crony capitalists including some of the Muslim elite (Islam is bad for business type), conservative patriarchs, liberals, social democrats or Stalinists and die hard communists. The shariah was suppressed in Parliament under the eyes of Muslim lawmakers and their deliberate co-operation. Aljama will change this. We will be proud of our Shariah and not apologists, prejudiced against our own values.55

Similar to other western states, South Africa’s government does not recognize Muslim marriages. In 2012, the South African pension fund authority allowed a spouse a portion of their partner’s pension after a Muslim divorce had been granted.56 While the decision does not put in place any binding precedent on the South African courts, some South African Muslims “hope the case could open the way towards acknowledging the dissolution of an Islamic marriage as a divorce in terms of the Divorce Act.”57

South Africa’s history of apartheid and resistance movements has put it in a unique position in today’s war on terrorism. Embracing its new democracy and pluralistic society, South Africa “is obsessed with protecting basic rights—a preoccupation which could be exploited by international terrorists working in tandem with local militants.”58  This may also be compounded by the widespread corruption plaguing South Africa.59 Additionally, the state has porous borders and large immigrant communities that have the ability to harbor jihadists.60 South Africa also suffers from a high crime rate.61 However, “what distinguishes the crime in South Africa from elsewhere is the level of gratuitous violence associated with these crimes, as criminals are not hesitant to use lethal weapons in the course of carrying out their activities.”62 This propensity towards violence, if coupled with a rise in Islamist activity, may increase South Africa’s risk for Islamist-inspired attacks against targets within the country.

However, the state appears to have been making efforts to reach out to the religious communities in South Africa to “manage the expression of Islam.”63 The ANC’s Commission for Religious Affairs was developed in 1995.64 The group meets with the President several times per year to discuss relevant issues.

The South African government has generally hoped that its neutrality in the war on terror and pro-Palestinian stance would spare the nation from being targeted by Islamists.65 Yet, it is likely that there is more the state can do to prevent Islamism from threatening the state’s security. One of South Africa’s largest threats may come from the state’s reluctance to admit that there is in fact a potential danger from radical Islamic ideology.66

Citations: 

[1] According to the CIA World Factbook, South Africa has an unemployment rate of 24 percent and ranks 173 out of 200 countries in terms of its unemployment rate. “South Africa,” CIA World Factbook, August 3, 2010, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/sf.html.
[2] Neil Mackay, “After Egypt, Where will al-Qaeda Strike next? The Deadly Tentacles,” Sunday Herald, October 10, 2004, http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4156/is_20041010/ai_n12591815/.
[3] “Transcript: SAF/AL-QAIDA,” Voice of America, May 27, 2004, http://www.globalsecurity.org/security/library/news/2004/05/sec-040527-3f9dbb85.htm.
[4] Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst, December 1, 2006.
[5] Craig Timberg, “S. Africa Discounts Reports of Plans for Terror Attacks,” Washington Post, August 5, 2004, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A40891-2004Aug4.html; Andrew Holt, “South Africa in the War on Terror,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor 2, iss. 23, December 1, 2004, http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=27237.
[6] Holt, “South Africa in the War on Terror.”
[7] Ibid.
[8] Anneli Botha, “Preparations for the 2010 FIFA World Cup: Vulnerability and Threat of Terrorism,” Real Instituto Elcano Working Paper, April 16, 2010, 15, http://www.realinstitutoelcano.org/wps/portal/rielcano_eng/Content?WCM_GLOBAL_CONTEXT=/elcano/elcano_in/zonas_in/dt14-2010.
[9] Anton Katz, “The Transformation of South Africa's Role in International Co-Operation in Criminal Matters,” Paper prepared for the criminal justice conference, February 7-8 2005, http://www.csvr.org.za/wits/confpaps/katz.htm.
[10] U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Targets Al Qaida Facilitators in South Africa,” January 26, 2007, http://www.ustreas.gov/press/releases/hp230.htm.
[11] Michael Georgy, “Al-Qaeda Inroads into Sleepy SA Town?” Mail & Guardian (South Africa), January 29, 2007, http://www.mg.co.za/article/2007-01-29-alqaeda-inroads-into-sleepy-sa-town.
[12] U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Targets Al Qaida Facilitators in South Africa.”
[13] Ibid.
[14] “South Africa: Security Threat Closes U.S. Diplomatic Offices,” AllAfrica.com, September 23, 2009, http://allafrica.com/stories/200909230863.html.
[15] “South Africa: Al-Qaeda Threatened U.S. Offices – Report,” AllAfrica.com, September 24, 2009, http://allafrica.com/stories/200909240664.html.
[16] “South Africa: A Deeper Look at a Telephonic Threat,” Stratfor, September 24, 2009, http://www.stratfor.com/sitrep/20090924_south_africa_al_qaeda_behind_u_s_embassy_closure.
[17] Peter Fabricius, “Al-Qaeda Head had SA Passport – Report,” IOL News (South Africa), June 14, 2011. http://www.iol.co.za/news/africa/al-qaeda-head-had-sa-passport-report-1.1083125#.UUnA1leE3u0.
[18] “SOCOM-2012-0000017-HT,” in “Letters from Abbottabad,” Translated and provided by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. http://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/letters-from-abbottabad-bin-ladin-sidelined.
[19] Anneli Botha, “PAGAD: A Case Study of Radical Islam in South Africa,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor 3, iss. 17, September 14, 2005, http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=561.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Goolam Vahed and Shamil Jeppie, “Muslim Communities: Muslims in Post-Apartheid South Africa,” in John Daniel, Roger Southall and Jessica Lutchman, eds., State of the Nation: South Africa 2004 – 2005 (Cape Town, South Africa: Human Sciences Research Council Press: 2005), 257.
[22] Heinrich Matthée, Muslim Identities and Political Strategies: a Case Study of Muslims in the Greater Cape Town area of South Africa, 1994-2000 (Kassel, Germany: Kassel University Press GmbH: 2008), 157.
[23] Ibid., 159.
[24] Botha, “PAGAD: A Case Study of Radical Islam in South Africa.”
[25] Vahed and Jeppie, “Muslim Communities: Muslims in Post-Apartheid South Africa,” 256.
[26] Ibid., 258.
[27] Ibidem.
[28] Holt, “South Africa in the War on Terror.”
[29]  Botha, “PAGAD: A Case Study of Radical Islam in South Africa.”
[30] Moshe Terdman, “Factors Facilitating the Rise of Radical Islamism and Terrorism in Sub-Saharan Africa,” The Project for the Research of Islamist Movements African Occasional Papers, March 2007, http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/malam_multimedia/English/eng_n/html/prism0307.htm.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Vahed and Jeppie, “Muslim Communities: Muslims in Post-Apartheid South Africa,” 252.
[33] “Mapping the Global Muslim Population,” Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, October 2009, 31, http://pewforum.org/newassets/images/reports/Muslimpopulation/Muslimpopulation.pdf.
[34] Vahed and Jeppie, “Muslim Communities: Muslims in Post-Apartheid South Africa,” 253.
[35] Ibid., 253-254.
[36] Nicole Itano, “In South Africa, Many Blacks Convert to Islam,” Christian Science Monitor, January 10, 2002, http://www.csmonitor.com/2002/0110/p13s1-woaf.html.
[37] Gordon Bell, “Islam is Spreading among Black South Africans,” Reuters, November 14, 2004, http://www.iol.co.za/index.php?set_id=1&click_id=139&art_id=qw1100423885802B264.
[38] Schmidt, “Islamic Terror Is Not a Problem for SA.”
[39] Terdman, “Factors Facilitating the Rise of Radical Islamism and Terrorism in Sub-Saharan Africa.”
[40] Ibid.
[41] Ibidem.
[42] Botha, “PAGAD: A Case Study of Radical Islam in South Africa.”
[43] Ibid.
[44] M. A. Mohamed Salih, “Islamic Political Parties in Secular South Africa,” in M. A. Mohammed Salih, ed., Interpreting Islamic Political Parties (New York, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 199.
[45] Ibid.
[46] Schmidt, “Islamic Terror Is Not a Problem for SA.”
[47] Moulana Ebrahim I Bham, “Muslims in South Africa,” Prepared for The Challenges and Opportunities of Islam in the West: The Case of Australia Conference, Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia, March 3-5, 2008, http://www.griffith.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/58308/Bham.pdf.
[48] “Militancy Among South African Muslims,” Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst, October 24, 2006.
[49] Yusuf Abramjee, “Muslim Man Dies after Fight over Beard,” News24, August 8, 2012, http://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/Muslim-man-dies-after-fight-over-beard-20120808 
[50] “School Hijab Ban Shocks Cape Town Muslims,” OnIslam, January 23, 2013, http://www.onislam.net/english/news/africa/461020-school-hijab-ban-shocks-cape-town-muslims.html.
[51] “S. African School Lifts Muslim Headgear Ban,” OnIslam, January 25, 2013, http://www.onislam.net/english/news/africa/461038-s-african-school-lifts-muslim-headgear-ban.html.
[52] Reuven Paz and Moshe Terdman, “Islam’s Inroads,” The Journal of International Security Affairs no. 13, Fall 2007, http://www.securityaffairs.org/issues/2007/13/paz&terdman.php.
[53] Salih, “Islamic Political Parties in Secular South Africa,” 195.
[54] “Al Jama-ah Targets Young Voters,” The Voice of the Cape (South Africa), October 12, 2007.
[55] “Choose: The Shariah or Unruly Mix,” Al-Jama-ah Website, November 20, 2008, http://aljama.co.za/2008/11/choose-the-shariah-or-unruly-mix.
[56] “S. Africa Pensions Recognize Muslim Divorce,” OnIslam, March 17, 2012, http://www.onislam.net/english/news/africa/456258-s-africa-pensions-recognize-muslim-divorce.html.
[57] “S. Africa Pensions Recognize Muslim Divorce,” OnIslam, March 17, 2012, http://www.onislam.net/english/news/africa/456258-s-africa-pensions-recognize-muslim-divorce.html.
[58] Paz and Terdman, “Islam’s Inroads.”
[59] Ibid.
[60] Ibidem.
[61] Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), “South Africa 2010 Crime & Safety Report,” June 9, 2010.
[62] Ibid.
[63] Schmidt, “Islamic Terror Is Not a Problem for SA.”
[64] “The ANC and Religion,” ANC Website, n.d., http://www.anc.org.za/ancdocs/misc/anc_and_religion.html.
[65] Terdman, “Factors Facilitating the Rise of Radical Islamism and Terrorism in Sub-Saharan Africa.”
[66] “Militancy Among South African Muslims.”