The Johannesburg skyline.
Just over a month ago the South African government stated that it had identified so-called sleeper cells set up by Islamist extremist groups in the country. According to government investigations, the purpose of these groups is to use South Africa as a logistical base for operations outside its borders. Following the US Embassy's 4 June warning of the possibility of imminent terrorist attacks, the government statement added to the pile of mounting evidence of a security threat in the country.
The 4 June advisory, which would later be reiterated by both the UK's Foreign Commonwealth Office and Australia Department of Foreign Affairs Trade, specifically warned of terrorist attacks at high-end shopping malls in Cape Town and Johannesburg.
Although perhaps the most specific terrorism warning issued for South Africa, it was certainly not the first. Concerns regarding the presence of transnational terror groups in the country first arose in September 2009, when the US government closed its consular representations across South Africa due to an unspecified security threat. A month later, the Weekend Argus claimed the closure was prompted by the US intercepting a communiqué between Somalia-based al-Shabaab operatives in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, and their Mogadishu-based counterparts. The exchange allegedly detailed a plot to attack American diplomatic interests in South Africa.
The 2009 warning drew attention to al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab's alleged presence in South Africa. Along with the Weekend Argus reporting, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies claimed to have documented evidence of the group's presence inside South Africa. The Somali Islamist movement's links to South Africa would only strengthen following its September 2014 complex attack on the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi. In addition to confirmation that suspected al-Shabaab operative (and purported Westgate mastermind) Samantha Lewthwaite had resided in South Africa was a more damning report released by the Kenyan Intelligence Agency (KIA). Its contents, made public by Al Jazeera, indicated that KIA operatives had thwarted a number of al-Shabaab plots against the country – a number of which had involved South African-based operatives or financiers.
The Westgate massacre also exposed South Africa's links to other terror groups, most notably al-Qaeda's broader global network. For example, in 2005 British national Haroon Rashid Aswat was arrested in Zambia while travelling on a South African passport. Aswat lived in Johannesburg for at least five months prior to his arrest over his suspected involvement in the July 2005 London Bombings. A year later, British authorities arrested Mohammed Gulzar, who had also established a presence in South Africa. Gulzar admitted to being part of a terrorist plot seeking to detonate hydrogen peroxide explosive devices on at least seven flights flying out of London's Heathrow International Airport. In June 2011, east African al-Qaeda leader, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, was killed in a shootout with security forces at a checkpoint in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu. A South African passport was found amid his personal possessions.
But if al-Shabaab and its patron movement, al-Qaeda, had established a seemingly entrenched presence in South Africa, why has the country yet to register an attack? This may point to the fact that it would be counter-intuitive for these groups to do so. South Africa's neutral foreign policy, which has seen its government not embroil itself in the 'War on Terror,' provides designated terrorist organisations with little incentive to target the country. Its secular government remains highly tolerant of various faiths and cultures. This, along with a discernible lack of Salafi-Wahhabi ideologues radicalising its thriving Muslim community, is also incongruent with the development of homegrown terrorism as witnessed in other African countries. Perhaps most importantly, if South Africa was indeed serving as a key financing or logistical hub for terrorist groupings, launching an unprovoked attack there would surely compromise these important networks.
So what could be behind the US' latest warning? A potential explanation lies with the pre-eminence of ISIS. Unlike al-Qaeda, whose expansionary model in foreign countries was contingent on co-opting existing Islamist dissident movements, the ISIS model is more versatile. Via its tech-savvy public relations department and manipulation of social media, the jihadi group has been able to both popularise and disperse its extremist ideology with the literal click of a button.
In doing so, ISIS has been able to exploit grievances on an individual level with the group advocating violence as the most permissible act of retribution. This has ushered in the dawn of the 'lone wolf' terrorist. An individual who can be radicalised from the comfort of their laptop screens, and who can act on their belief system in a manner which is difficult to predict, but no less deadly, than organised terrorism. Such an attack has yet to take place in South Africa, but there is little to stop it happening, as highlighted by the July 2016 arrest of Johannesburg twin brothers who were planning attacks against the US Embassy and undisclosed Jewish interests in South Africa on behalf of ISIS.
As with al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda, there is much evidence that ISIS' ideology resonates with some South Africans. From statements issued by the Iraqi ambassador to South Africa to identification documents found on slain ISIS combatants, to South Africans who have acknowledged their presence in the caliphate, there is discernible information linking South Africans to ISIS and its nascent so-called 'caliphate.'
With self-radicalised individuals executing acts of terrorism on behalf of ISIS in many corners of the world, it would be naïve to suggest that South Africa-based sympathisers would not heed the call of the group's leadership to execute attacks against US and European interests. Indeed, the 4 June warning was issued alongside ISIS' Ramadan advisory that encouraged attacks by lone actors on such targets. In doing so, lone operators would not only be fulfilling what they would likely perceive as a religious duty, but would well know that they would be advancing the ISIS maxim of "remaining and expanding."
The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.