Are South Africans soft targets for ISIS recruitment?

South Africans were shocked to learn that the Islamic State (ISIS) had allegedly tried to recruit a 15-year-old girl from Cape Town to fight for the terrorist group in Syria.

This development adds to a growing number of reports of South Africans travelling to Iraq and Syria to join the group. In August last year, ISIS produced another sophisticated video titled, ‘Eid Greetings from the Land of Khilafah,’ which showed its growing number of foreign fighters. Young recruits, purportedly from Belgium, South Africa and the United States describe their experience with ISIS and urge others to join the jihad in Syria.

Some news reports allege that as many as 140 South Africans had been recruited, three of whom have been killed in action. The ambassador of Iraq to South Africa reportedly confirmed the deaths.

It is not certain whether ISIS is specifically targeting South Africans, although there is increasing concern among citizens that radical Islamist organisations may be using the country for logistical reasons. Since the end of the so-called Operation Kanu in 2010, South Africa has faced various allegations linking the country with Islamist groups. Several Islamist fighters have been apprehended with South African passports, including top al-Qaeda militant Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, who was killed in 2011, and the infamous ‘White Widow’ Samantha Lewthwaite, who is believed to have lived in Johannesburg.

There is increasing concern that these organisations are using South Africa for logistical reasons

South Africa is not alone in facing this challenge: the phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters is a global one, which can be traced back to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. These fighters are motivated by factors that range from personal reasons to social drivers, including perceived structural injustices, discrimination, religious extremism and intolerance. The greatest appeal for such fighters today is arguably the declaration of an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed leader of ISIS, in June 2014.

Since then, thousands of young men and women from around the world have flocked to Iraq and Syria to take part in what is seen as jihad to defend the caliphate. According to a recent United Nations (UN) report, as many as 25 000 foreign fighters from more than 100 countries have gone to fight in Iraq and Syria. Some 71% of these were recruited between June 2014 and March 2015. Other reports put the figure as high as 54 000. In Africa, this phenomenon was initially confined to North Africa and the Maghreb: now it is slowly spreading to sub-Saharan Africa.

In March this year, Nigerian terrorist organisation Boko Haram pledged its allegiance to ISIS. There are also reports that a number of Somalis have been travelling to Syria. These are just two documented cases of ISIS’ presence south of the Sahara. If reports that 140 South Africans have been recruited are true, South Africans will comprise the largest number of African terrorist fighters outside of North Africa, making it the most important country for ISIS in the region.

Osama bin Laden viewed South Africa as an open territory for the group’s activities

South Africa is attractive for ISIS recruitment for a number of reasons. South African recruits seem more likely to come from average-income families, which reduces the financial burden their recruitment would otherwise pose. Most of the recruits could therefore take care of their own travel arrangements, though some still require financial and technical support. Travelling on a South African passport does not raise immediate suspicion, which makes it easy for South Africans to book itineraries that would be less accessible to passport holders from other African countries.

Some experts have also blamed lawlessness and corruption for South Africa’s vulnerability to radical Islamist groups. The recently released Abbotabad Papers, which indicate that al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden viewed South Africa as an open territory for the group’s activities, are worrisome. These allegations should compel the government not only to refute such perceptions, but also to thoroughly investigate and issue white papers on the threat of jihadism.

The phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters has been outlawed internationally. In a resolution adopted in September last year, the UN Security Council (UNSC) condemned the activities of foreign terrorist fighters and urged those involved to disarm and cease terrorist activities. The Council also called on states to ‘cooperate in efforts to address the threat posed by foreign terrorist fighters,’ which includes ‘preventing the radicalization to terrorism … preventing foreign terrorist fighters from crossing their borders, disrupting and preventing financial support … developing and implementing prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration strategies for returning foreign terrorist fighters.’

In South Africa, the relevant legislation is the Protection of Constitutional Democracy against Terrorist and related Activities Act 33 of 2004. This act prohibits South African citizens from committing terrorist acts domestically and in foreign countries. Individuals may be found guilty under the law for doing anything that could enhance the ability of any entity to engage in a terrorist activity. This includes providing or offering to provide a skill, expertise, or training.

South Africa should use its regional clout to lead on developing effective strategies

Additionally, the Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act of 1998 precludes any South African citizens from participating in armed conflict, nationally or internationally, except as provided for in the constitution or national legislation. This includes military services and military-related services. Assistance to ISIS is particularly covered with reference to any action aimed at overthrowing a government, or undermining the constitutional order, sovereignty or territorial integrity of a state.

A key challenge, however, is the lack of systematic and full implementation of the Protection of Constitutional Democracy against Terrorist and related Activities Act. Both the act and the abovementioned UNSC resolution obligate the South African government to take every possible measure to prevent the recruitment and participation of its citizens in foreign terrorist organisations. Yet an increasing number of South Africans are reportedly joining such groups or participating in these organisations; with little or no response from government. The ambiguity of government’s response seems to be influenced by political and religious sensitivities to the issues.

To effectively address the growing problem of foreign terrorist fighters in South Africa, the government should establish a specialised unit within the national security apparatus to monitor, investigate and prosecute suspected cases. Government should also develop strategies to work with all stakeholders, especially communities most at risk, who should be empowered to report potential foreign terrorist fighters.

Lastly, South Africa should use its regional clout to lead on developing effective strategies to address this growing threat. History clearly shows that responding effectively to terrorism requires holistic and longer-term strategies that promote social inclusion and the rule of law, and address the conditions conducive to its spread.

These strategies require increased international and regional cooperation, which South Africa should promote at sub-regional and continental levels. The upcoming African Union summit that is being hosted in Johannesburg in June will provide an excellent opportunity for South Africa to show constructive leadership on this crucial issue.

Institute for Security Studies