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Analysts and counter-terrorism experts have described the SA as a nerve centre for jihadist financing in Africa. Picture: SUPPLIED
Analysts and counter-terrorism experts have described the SA as a nerve centre for jihadist financing in Africa. Picture: SUPPLIED

Sub-Saharan Africa has become the “new epicentre” of violent Islamist terrorism, according to a report released earlier in 2023 by the UN Development Programme.

This has dragged a reluctant SA into the war against terror, especially with its deployment of an SA National Defence Force combat team to the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) Mission in Mozambique, where it is fighting an insurgency by Islamic State Mozambique and the Islamic State-aligned Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaah.

This intervention has reportedly met with some success, but also with allegations of war crimes involving the unceremonious burning of what appeared to be enemy bodies in a bonfire.

This all appears rather ironic given SA’s historical hostility to foreign interventionism in the global war on terror. Former president Nelson Mandela rebuked US president George W Bush over the 2003 war in Iraq, saying, “They just want the oil.”

At the time the governing ANC downplayed the threat of jihadi terrorism in Africa, saying “US efforts to indoctrinate Africa with fears of Islamic terrorism, [are] to establish a US military mission in every African country, to control media, finances, religions and politicians.”

It is also ironic in the light of the government’s recent, implicitly partisan, response to the violation of a two-year ceasefire by Hamas, which governs Gaza, when it launched inhumane attacks against innocent civilians, including women and children, in Israel on October 7.

The department of international relations & co-operation did not condemn these attacks, or even name Hamas, but merely expressed “grave concern” over the “devastating escalation”, for which it blamed Israel. Only once, in passing, did the government describe the original Hamas attacks as “abhorrent”, and then only to draw an equivalence with the alleged Israeli “attack” on Al-Ahli Hospital.

Rejected right

The department claimed 500 people were killed and 1,000 injured in this “attack”, when in fact the death toll was greatly exaggerated by Hamas and the “attack” turned out to involve a misdirected rocket fired by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another extremist terror group in Gaza.

In calling for the immediate cessation of violence, the department rejected the right of Israel to use force to respond to a murderous invasion, or even to free its hostages. It followed that up with a call to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, in which international relations & co-operation minister Naledi Pandor expressed SA’s “solidarity and support for the people of Palestine”.

Soon after, Pandor embarked on a diplomatic visit to Iran, which is widely considered a material supporter of jihadi terror groups worldwide, including Hamas. After this visit SA called for “the international community to hold Israel accountable for breaches of international law”, as it pertains to civilian casualties in Gaza. In particular, the department called for Israel to be “held accountable for war crimes, crimes against humanity and … the crime of genocide”.


The department further scolded Israel, hauled the Israeli ambassador over the coals, and condemned more Israeli military actions, before referring “the situation in Palestine” to the International Criminal Court (ICC), with “like-minded states” Bangladesh, Bolivia, Venezuela, Comoros and Djibouti.

It did not indicate who exactly is to be accused of “war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide” in The Hague, but it has never accused Hamas of these things.

From the start, the best alternative to an Israeli military response to Hamas that the SA government could muster was a set of naively idealistic bromides on “talks” leading to a “lasting peace” and “two-state solution”, objectives Israel has pursued but Palestinians have violently rejected for 75 years.

Took sides

Hamas shares many tenets in its charter, strategy, tactics, recruitment methods and terror against civilians with other jihadi groups, including the Islamic State groups that are proliferating throughout Africa. This exposes SA’s conflicted stance towards Islamist extremism.

It is, of course, perfectly legitimate to criticise Israel’s conduct of the war and express grave concern about the humanitarian consequences, but by neglecting to condemn the prima facie war crime that provoked it, SA took sides.

It also exposed its own hypocrisy, since it has been largely silent on the humanitarian consequences of Russia’s attack on, and invasion of, Ukraine, and bent over backwards to avoid having to arrest Russian President Vladimir Putin on an actual ICC arrest warrant for war crimes.

The department of international relations & co-operation has therefore implicitly aligned the country with the jihadist government of Gaza in its war against what Hamas and the SA government consider to be the illegitimate, “settler colonialist”, “apartheid state” of Israel.

It is simultaneously actively at war against jihadi insurgents in Mozambique. And it has an Islamic extremism problem at home that goes back as far as the 1990s, when People Against Gangsterism And Drugs morphed from a grassroots antigangster organisation into a violent vigilante group, influenced by radical Islam. It carried out bombings of government targets, synagogues, gay clubs and restaurants, which the group associated with Western decadence.

Join groups

According to a 2021 report by the Hudson Institute, a report by the National Intelligence Agency in 1998 identified the presence of Hamas delegates and affiliated individuals in SA. It documented the fundraising efforts of these individuals, and recorded their attendance at conferences near Pretoria that were also attended by members of other Islamist militant organisations such as the Taliban, al-Qaeda, the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah.

This was just the start of numerous disclosures — some involving arrests — of Islamic extremists operating in, or from SA, and SA citizens leaving to join jihadi terror groups in Africa and the Middle East.

SA continues to be a hotbed of terrorist activity. Analysts and counterterrorism experts have described the country as a “nerve centre for jihadist financing in Africa”, comprising an extensive network of “charity” and “religious” nongovernmental organisations.

This has led to US sanctions being levied against several South Africans, and the greylisting of the country’s financial system by the Financial Action Task Force, a Paris-based watchdog combating money laundering and terrorist financing.

The alarming extent of SA’s problem with Islamic extremism and jihadi financing has been well documented and points to decades of complacency, the erosion of intelligence and prosecuting capabilities, and a lack of understanding of the nature of violent extremism and the threats it poses.

To even begin to address these issues, the government must establish clarity on its position vis-à-vis jihadism. It is fighting Islamic extremism with one hand, while supporting it with the other when it suits its parochial ideological prejudices.

Such inconsistency cannot produce an effective antiterrorism strategy.

• Vegter is a columnist for the Institute of Race Relations. This article was commissioned by the Social Research Foundation

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