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South Africa has a small Muslim population, comprising just 1-2 percent of the country. Despite the relatively small number of Muslims, Islamism has a distinct presence in the nation. South Africa 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. In the late 1990s, there were several Islamist attacks in South Africa, and while there have been no recent attacks on South African soil, several recent terror threats illustrate the country’s vulnerability to terrorist activity.

The country continues to face significant challenges, including considerable economic and social cleavages left over from the apartheid era, increasing crime rates, and high youth 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, although they do not enjoy mass support.

Level of Islamist Activity: 
Low
Islamist Activity: 

While South Africa has a history of Islamist-inspired violence dating back to the 1990s, the country has remained on the periphery of current 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 that 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 a conduit of support. South Africans have also traveled to the Middle East and Central Asia to join al-Qaeda. Similarly, South African jihadists have previously fought alongside the Taliban against the Soviet Union, as well as in Kashmir against India and Chechnya.2 

South Africa has provided safe haven and financial opportunity for al-Qaeda operatives, and has been the subject of credible threats of violence. In January 2007, the U.S. Treasury Department designated two South African cousins, Farhad and Junaid Dockrat, for financing and facilitating al-Qaeda.3 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.4 In September 2009, the United States government closed its facilities across South Africa after it received credible threats against their safety.5 The threats reportedly came from an al-Qaeda splinter group.6 The U.S. State Department reopened its embassies and consulates a few days later. 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.7 

Furthermore, evidence has come to light that demonstrates that al-Qaeda’s top leadership have an interest in South Africa. 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.”8 Bin Laden clearly considered South Africa a potential site of 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, as 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.9 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.”10 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 among PAGAD’s ranks.11  

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 emir (commander).12 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.”13

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.14 Through these methods, experts note, “Pagad roused Muslims into action and castigated those who questioned its methods.”15 The group initially targeted drug dealers and gang members and “spawned unprecedented levels of violence” in the Western Cape.16 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.17 The group was designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the United States in 2001.18 

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. However, as experts point out, “since the underlying reasons for its existence were never addressed, the possible re-emergence of PAGAD or similar organizations cannot be discounted.”19  

Al Shabaab

In 2015, documents leaked to the Al Jazeera television network revealed that the South African State Security Agency and foreign intelligence services had prevented terror attacks on South African soil between 2007 and 2010. The thwarted attacks were shown to be linked to Samantha Lewthwaite, known as the “white widow,” who resided in South Africa between 2009 and 2011 on a fraudulent South African passport.20 Lewthwaite was married to Germaine Lindsay, one of the suicide bombers responsible for the death of 26 people in the London underground in July 2005. Lewthwaite has been linked to both the Al Shabaab Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, and the attack on Garissa University in Kenta that killed 148 people.21 

The Islamic State 

In September 2015, the U.S. Embassy issued a security warning regarding a possible terrorist threat to American interests in South Africa.22 The statement, which came as the Islamic State appealed to its followers to attack Western targets during Ramadan,23 did not include any specifics regarding the location or timing of the attack but urged U.S. citizens to take the appropriate steps to enhance their personal security. In June 2016, the U.S. Embassy in South Africa again issued a security message to warn U.S. citizens that the U.S. government had “received information that terrorist groups are planning to carry out near-term attacks against places where U.S. citizens congregate in South Africa.”24 The British and Australian Embassies issued similar warnings the same day, encouraging their citizens to be “vigilant” about personal security.25

The warnings caused a furor—South African Department for International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) and the State Security Agency (SSA) felt that the statements questioned South Africa’s ability to protect foreign citizens on its soil. DIRCO questioned the credibility of the threats raising alarm among citizens who doubted the government’s capacity to advance counter-terrorism efforts.26 

In July 2016, the South African authorities arrested twin brothers Tony-Lee and Brandon-Lee Thulsie, along with two accomplices, for plotting to attack the U.S. embassy and a “Jewish Building” in Pretoria. South Africa’s State Security Agencies had twice prevented the brothers from leaving to join the Islamic State (IS) in Syria. The brothers were charged with “conspiracy and incitement to commit the crime of terrorism.”27 

It is estimated that approximately 23 South Africans have left the country to join IS in Syria and Iraq to date.28 South African authorities have kept details of their investigations and monitoring efforts classified.  In April 2015, a 15-year old girl was removed from an aircraft leaving South Africa on suspicion that she was travelling to Turkey with the intention of joining the Islamic State.29 There has been no documented evidence of IS organizing in South Africa. 

Islamism and Society: 

Muslims constitute a minority in South Africa, with the majority of South Africans practicing Christianity. In 2010, the Pew Research Center estimated that approximately 1.5 percent of South Africa’s 54 million people are Muslim.30 Since the end of apartheid, the demographics of the Muslim population of South Africa have been changing. The majority of South Africa’s Islamic population is comprised of Indians and “coloreds,” the accepted term used to describe those of Malay descent.31 Apartheid and the isolation from the international community that it caused were responsible for a dramatic slowdown of the spread of Islam in South Africa.32  

As in 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. 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.”33  

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.34 South Africa’s Muslims largely identify with more libertarian Sufism, which has been a long established tradition among the Islamic population in the country.35 Qibla’s formation in Cape Town followed on the heels of the Islamic Revolution,36 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.37 As a testament to this fact, the group used the slogan, “One solution, Islamic Revolution.”38   

Qibla also formed the Islamic Unity Convention (IUC) in 1994, which still serves as an umbrella organization to over 250 Muslim organizations in South Africa.39 It is worth noting that Achmad Cassiem is both a leader in Qibla and head of the IUC.40 The group has boycotted government elections in South Africa “under the pretext that leaders produced by democratic means, such as elections, are illegitimate.”41 It likewise owns a radio station, Radio 786, through which it preaches and promotes its ideology.42  

While Islamic states like Saudi Arabia and Iran have peddled their influence around the world, their influence in South Africa appears to have 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.”43 However, as one report has noted, there are over 600 mosques and over 400 educational centers in South Africa,44 and it is unclear where the majority of these mosques find their funding. It has been noted, however, that the Muslim Judicial Council is supported by Saudi Arabia.45

A number of incidents in recent years have exposed 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 the fact that he wore a beard.46 Then, in January 2013, two Muslim students were expelled from their high school in Cape Town for refusing to remove their head coverings.47 The South African 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.48

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. As Israeli scholars Reuven Paz and Moshe Terdman have noted, “[t]he grievances of Black Muslims run the gamut, from racism and exploitation to the unfair distribution of zakat (alms).”49 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.50 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.51 Ahead of the elections, the group posted a statement on their website calling on voters to opt for sharia law.52 

Similar to other western states, South Africa’s government does not legally recognize Muslim marriages, even those that are monogamous.53 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.54 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.”55

South Africa has porous borders and large immigrant communities that have the ability to harbor jihadists.56 South Africa also suffers from a high crime rate.57 This propensity towards violence, if coupled with a rise in Islamist activity, may increase the risk of 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.”58 The ANC’s Commission for Religious Affairs, developed in 1995,59 group meets with the President several times per year to discuss relevant issues.

In terms of its counterterrorist response and readiness, however, South Africa remains lackluster. 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.60 

Furthermore, there has long been concern that South Africa’s weak intelligence services and high crime rate would render it vulnerable to large-scale terrorist attacks. In the wake of the U.S. terror warnings in 2016, Minister of State Security David Mahlobo issued his own statement claiming that South Africa remains a “strong and stable democratic country and there is no immediate danger posed by the threat,” further urging that there was “no need to panic.”61 The apparently contradictory messages from the South African government and international embassies do not instill confidence that the South African government is taking the threats seriously. An important first step would be the acknowledgement of potential danger from radical Islamic ideology—something currently missing from state discourse.62

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] Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst, December 1, 2006. FULL CITE NEEDED, IF POSSIBLE
[3] 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. 
[4] Ibid. 
[5] “South Africa: Security Threat Closes U.S. Diplomatic Offices,” AllAfrica.com, September 23, 2009, http://allafrica.com/stories/200909230863.html. 
[6] “South Africa: Al-Qaeda Threatened U.S. Offices – Report,” AllAfrica.com, September 24, 2009, http://allafrica.com/stories/200909240664.html. 
[7] 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. 
[8] “SOCOM-2012-0000017-HT,” in “Letters from Abbottabad,” Translated and provided by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, n.d., http://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/letters-from-abbottabad-bin-ladin-sidelined. 
[9] 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. 
[10] Ibid.   
[11] 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. 
[12] 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. 
[13] Ibid., 159.
[14] Botha, “PAGAD: A Case Study of Radical Islam in South Africa.”
[15] Vahed and Jeppie, “Muslim Communities: Muslims in Post-Apartheid South Africa,” 256.
[16] Ibid., 258.
[17] Ibidem.
[18] Holt, “South Africa in the War on Terror.”
[19] Botha, “PAGAD: A Case Study of Radical Islam in South Africa.” 
[20] Agiza Hlongwane and Jeff Wicks, ‘White Widow’ Paid for South African Passport, IOL Politics, September 29, 2013. 
[21] Samantha Payne, “Who is White Widow Samantha Lewthwaite? Shy girl from Aylesbury who became world's most wanted woman,” International Business Times, May 22, 2015, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/who-white-widow-samantha-lewthwaite-shy-girl-aylesbury-who-became-worlds-most-wanted-woman-1502582
[22] Fred Lambert, “US Embassy in South Africa Issues Terror Attack Warning, UPI, September 9, 2015, http://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2015/09/08/US-embassy-in-South-Africa-issues-terror-attack-warning/5841441748232/
[23] Reuters, May 22, 2016, Islamic State calls for attacks on west during Ramadan in audio message, 
[24] U.S. Embassy Pretoria, “Security Message for US Citizens: Threats to Shopping Areas and Malls,” June 4, 2016, https://za.usembassy.gov/security-message-u-s-citizens-threats-shopping-areas-malls/
[25] Adetula David, “Terrorist Attack Warnings: Here is Why South Africans Should be Worried,” Ventures, June 8, 2016, http://ewn.co.za/2016/06/08/International-Relations-responds-to-criticism-on-terror-threat
[26] Chris Williams (2016) Terror threats and turmoil: a bad time for US-South Africa relations, http://theconversation.com/terror-threats-and-turmoil-a-bad-time-for-us-...
[27] Normitsu Onishi, “South Africa Charges Twins Over Plot to Attack U.S. Embassy and Join ISIS,New York Times, July 11, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/12/world/africa/south-africa-islamic-state.html?_r=0
[28] Azad Essa, Khadija Patel, “South African families among ISIL's newest recruits”, in Al Jazeera, May 29, 2015,  http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/05/south-african-families-isil-newest...
[29] Ministry of State Security of South Africa, “Statement by Minister of State Security, David Mahlobo, MP, on the incident involving a South African and alleged terror links,” April 6, 2015, http://www.ssa.gov.za/Portals/0/SSA%20docs/Media%20Releases/2015/Media%20Release%20Statement%20by%20Minister%20of%20State%20Security%20on%20a%20South%20African%20with%20suspected%20terro%20links%206%20April%202015.pdf.
[30] Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, “Mapping the Global Muslim Population,” October 2009, 31, http://pewforum.org/newassets/images/reports/Muslimpopulation/Muslimpopulation.pdf. 
[31] Ibid., 253-254.
[32] 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. 
[33] 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. 
[34] Schmidt, “Islamic Terror Is Not a Problem for SA.” 
[35] Michael Schmidt, Islamic Terror is Not a Problem for SA, November 20, 2004, http://www.iol.co.za/news/politics/islamic-terror-is-not-a-problem-for-s...
[36] Terdman, “Factors Facilitating the Rise of Radical Islamism and Terrorism in Sub-Saharan Africa.”
[37] Ibid. 
[38] Ibidem.
[39] Botha, “PAGAD: A Case Study of Radical Islam in South Africa.”
[40] Ibid. 
[41] 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. 
[42] Ibid. 
[43] Schmidt, “Islamic Terror Is Not a Problem for SA.”
[44] 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. 
[45] “Militancy Among South African Muslims,” Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst, October 24, 2006. 
[46] 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 
[47] “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. 
[48] “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. 
[49] 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. 
[50] Salih, “Islamic Political Parties in Secular South Africa,” 195. 
[51] “Al Jama-ah Targets Young Voters,” The Voice of the Cape (South Africa), October 12, 2007.
[52] “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. 
[53] Megan Harrington-Johnson, "Muslim marriages and divorce." De Rebus, May 2015:40 [2015], DEREBUS 93, http://www.saflii.org/za/journals/DEREBUS/2015/93.pdf
[54] “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. 
[55] “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. 
[56] Ibidem.
[57] Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), “South Africa 2010 Crime & Safety Report,” June 9, 2010.
[58] Schmidt, “Islamic Terror Is Not a Problem for SA.”
[59] “The ANC and Religion,” ANC website, n.d., http://www.anc.org.za/ancdocs/misc/anc_and_religion.html. 
[60] Terdman, “Factors Facilitating the Rise of Radical Islamism and Terrorism in Sub-Saharan Africa.”
[61] “Government on US Terror Alert: No Need to Panic,” Mail and Guardian, June 6, 2016, http://mg.co.za/article/2016-06-06-sa-state-security-department-breaks-silence-on-us-terror-alert
[62] “Militancy Among South African Muslims.”