Violent Extremism in South Africa: Is there a Risk? – Blog
Violent extremism remains a serious concern for many states globally. In general, violent extremism describes any form of violence that is used to enforce a certain set of values or political beliefs. Since extremist groups usually establish a network that operates in several states at the same time, it is near impossible to address the problem without international cooperation. While the path towards radicalization is often based on individuals’ personal convictions, the impact of violent extremism is profound and can change entire social constructs.
The existence of violent extremism generates fear and hatred, destroys cohesion and increases suspicion between social groups. Radicalisation towards violent extremism is often a long-term process and can be triggered by a variety of factors. Government corruption is recognised as one of the motivating factors for violent extremism. In states where people lose trust in corrupt government institutions and officials, extremist groups increasingly take advantage of the dissent against the state and use it for their extremist propaganda (Cachalia & Schoeman, 2017).
- According to the Global Terrorism Index 2017, South Africa is considered an ‘at risk’ country for violent extremism.
- South Africa has a developed infrastructure that could enable easy planning of terrorist attacks.
- In the past, South Africa harboured extremists that entered the country by using counterfeit documents.
- South Africa shares a porous border with Mozambique, which could serve as an unmonitored corridor for international extremists.
- South Africa lacks research in the field of violent extremism and therefore, security forces are unable to develop strategies that prevent or counter violent extremism.
South Africa has had a long history of various forms of violent extremism, such as the far-right group Boeremag during the Apartheid era and People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD), a group which emerged in the mid-1990s. While the political beliefs of these two groups could not have been more different, both groups relied on public attacks as a mean to enforce their convictions. Further, international terrorist organizations have attracted South African nationals (Hamilton, Bax & Sayed, 2018). Although limited, there has been evidence in the past of links to several terrorist organizations in South Africa, such as Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab and more recently the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)/ Daesh. At the beginning of 2018, two British South Africans were kidnapped in northern KwaZulu-Natal by a couple that adheres to the extremist group Daesh. Despite this, as of yet, South Africa has not experienced significant acts of religiously motivated extremism. Yet, no country or continent stands as an island, isolated from the rest of the world.
While South Africa is not considered at high risk for violent extremism, it is considered an ‘at risk’ country according to the UNDP’s framework for assessing the risk of terrorism at country level. In addition, South Africa has the potential to become a safe haven for those wishing to operate on behalf of terrorist organizations from within the country. The planning and organization that is typically essential for acts of violent extremism requires a certain level of infrastructure and established communication networks. Considering the developed infrastructure of South Africa, such as working roads, transportation, communication networks and financial institutions, the country provides a fertile ground for planning such operations. These factors in combination with an overstretched police service, may make South Africa attractive to terrorist organizations who wish to remain unmonitored during their planning of terrorist attacks, as locations perceived as ungovernable are often attractive to violent extremists (Cachalia & Schoeman, 2017).
Corruption, which is prevalent in the SADC region, plays into the hands of violent extremists. Corruption within governmental structures has not only helped extremist individuals to enter countries in Southern Africa, it has also been found to contribute to the rise of violent extremism since people lose faith in the credibility of governments and become prone to believe in extremist ideologies. In the past, the presence of corruption within governmental structures assisted individuals, with an extremist background, to enter South Africa and live unmonitored. For example, in the case of Samantha Lewthwaite, the so-called ‘White Widow’, corrupt government officials paved the way for an extremist person with counterfeit documents to enter the country and stay unmonitored for two years (from 2008 – 2010). Samantha Lewthwaite’s ties to Al-Qaeda motivated her to take on bank loans in South Africa as a means of funding the extremist group. Allegations against her claim that she was involved in the planning of an attack in Mombasa in 2012. Despite being wanted by Interpol, Lewthwaite still managed to leave and re-enter South Africa twice (Cachalia & Schoeman, 2017). Already overstretched security forces were unaware of her case for a long time and consequently were delayed in intervening. A lack of trustworthiness/loopholes in governmental institutions not only compromises security but it also paves the way for seemingly legal ways of funding extremist groups (Cachalia & Schoeman, 2017).
Another risk factor for extremism in South Africa, is the porous border which South Africa shares with Mozambique. This could become a corridor for international extremists wishing to enter South Africa, in particular extremists from the group Al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab has inspired numerous terror attacks in Mozambique in the past. Moreover, the northern provinces of the country appear to be particularly vulnerable to violent extremism, considering the prevalence of great inequality, economic disadvantage of the majority, and poor development (Hamilton, Bax & Sayed, 2018). These environmental pre-conditions do not inevitably lead to the outbreak of violent extremism, however, they work in favour of extremist organizations.
The lack of research on violent extremism in South Africa, is a major challenge. If a state is not aware of the extent of a problem, state authorities will be unable to prevent or respond effectively. In the case of South Africa, this can result in the country becoming a safe haven for extremist individuals but also extremist organizations. If intelligence structures, government officials and the police service fail to cooperate effectively in addressing this problem, the safe haven will be further exploited. Operations that are planned from within South Africa and remain undiscovered, will not only have a negative impact nationally, but also internationally.
Future research should clarify what the risk factors and triggers for violent extremism in the SADC region are, and what entice individuals in the SADC region to join such groups. Such research could, in turn, facilitate further research on preventive measures that help to fight violent extremism before it escalates. A better understanding of how to create resilient communities could be of great benefit. Resilient communities, that are strong enough to identify persons who are vulnerable to extremist ideologies, would be of great assistance in the prevention of violent extremism. This is another important area for future research. An additional research gap concerns the reintegration of former extremists. Currently, there are no holistic strategies for dealing with citizens who left South Africa to join extremist groups, but would now like to leave these extremist groups and return.
Further, there is a need for research and media outputs to make a clearer distinction between Islam and fanatical Islam. Existing research in South Africa often fails to draw a clear distinction between the two, this can consequently create a misguided perception of the causes of violent extremism, with individuals perceiving the religion itself to be a threat. It could, however, be potentially beneficial if the government and Islamic religious institutions in South Africa, collaborated in developing a strategy to improve the general society’s understanding of the difference between Islam and Islamic extremism. In addition, the government could work in collaboration with Islamic religious institutions in South Africa to develop preventative strategies to prevent a rise in violent Islamic extremism in the country.
When looking at violent extremism on the African continent, extremist actions are particularly lethal. Six African states, namely Nigeria, Tunisia, Chad, Niger, Kenya and Cameroon, are among the world’s top ten countries for terror related fatalities (Institute for Economics & Peace, 2017). However, findings from the Global Terrorism Index 2017 indicate that globally there has been a decrease with regards to the threat of radical Islamist extremism. Terror related deaths were highest in 2014 and have since fallen by approximately 22%. Further, in four of the five countries in the world with the highest rates of terror related deaths, there has been a noteworthy decrease in terrorism fatalities. These countries, namely Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria, have successively experienced fewer terrorist attacks and subsequent deaths in the past two years.
Despite the overall improvement globally, with regards to a decrease in terror related fatalities, the risk for violent extremism in South Africa cannot be ignored. The numerous, inadequately monitored areas in Southern Africa provide an environment conducive to exploitation by terrorist organizations. As long as this issue is not actively addressed, there is the risk that extremist individuals will settle in South Africa; whether through the use of counterfeit documents or as a result of entering unmonitored through the porous Mozambican border.
This article was written by Isabel Kreifels. Isabel Kreifels has a Masters degree in Social Sciences and International Relations from the University of Cape Town and is currently writing for the Safety and Violence Initiative (SaVI), University of Cape Town.
This article was edited by Giselle Warton, Researcher at the Safety and Violence Initiative (SaVI), University of Cape Town.
Cachalia, R.C. & Schoeman, A. (2017). Violent extremism in South Africa: Assessing the current Threat. Institute for Security Studies.
Hamilton, L. Bax, D. & Sayed, R. (2018). Understanding and responding to Extremist Threats in Southern Africa. Resilience Policy Brief, Issue No.1, May 2018. Last retrieved 20 August 2018 from: https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/ae1dfd_d17191e29ac64eb885d99c1bb91e6ad7.pdf
Institute for Economics & Peace. (2017). Global Terrorism Index 2017: Measuring and Understanding the Impact of Terrorism. Last retrieved 20 August 2018 from: http://visionofhumanity.org/app/uploads/2017/11/Global-Terrorism-Index-2017.pdf
McCauley, C. and Moskalenko, S. (2008). Mechanisms of Political Radicalization: Pathways Toward Terrorism. In: Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 20, Issue 3.