Sayfydeen Aslam Del Vecchio arrives at the Verulam Magistrate’s Court. Picture: Bongani Mbatha African News Agency /Ana
Durban - One  of the three accused of the kidnapping of a botanist couple from Cape Town claimed he did not know why he had been arrested and why he appeared in court.

This, as sources revealed that Scotland Yard and the FBI were working with the Hawks on the case.

Nineteen-year-old Thembamandla Kwanele Xulu made the claim to magistrate Valaramen Kathravaloo while in the dock with his co-accused, Sayfydeen Aslam Del Vecchio, 38, and Fatima Patel, 27, when the trio appeared in the Verulam Magistrate’s Court on Thursday.

The matter was adjourned to March 6 for their formal bail  application.

Rod Saunders, 74, a well-known rare seed specialist and his wife, Rachel, 63, were travelling around northern KwaZulu-Natal and were last seen in the Bivane Dam area on February 12.

Their vehicle was found last week with blood in it.  Del Vecchio and Patel, who have been linked to terror group Islamic State (IS), were arrested after police swooped on a property in the remote area of Ongoye, near Eshowe. 

Martin Ewi, of the Institute for Security Studies, believes the couple’s kidnapping could have been primarily for financial benefit and, if this was the case, a demand for ransom should be expected.

“The key question relates to whether this can be done in South Africa. There is a possibility that the couple (if still alive) could be taken to a country where it is safe for the terrorists to request ransom and given the ongoing case against Xulu, Del Vecchio and Patel, the story can take any twist. The terrorists are watching keenly,” said Ewi.

Nick Bailey, of Gardeners' World, with missing couple Rod and Rachel Saunders shortly before they disappeared. Picture: Twitter

Jasmine Opperman, who is the director at the Southern Africa operations at the Terrorism, Research & Analysis Consortium, said this appeared more to be a criminally motivated incident than terrorism.

“If this was IS, it would not have been such an amateur kidnapping.” 

She believed that if it had an IS link, it might have been perpetrated by “weekenders” who were motivated to act alone and without any link to IS. Opperman said they had not picked up any communication between the alleged perpetrators and IS. She added that IS was active in South Africa, but was in a recruitment phase. 

Ewi said there had been a number of alleged IS activities in Durban, but these had not escalated to a level of prevalence sufficient to cause concern and panic among residents. He said that before this kidnapping incident, there had been one or two incidents of flag-displaying, which raised concern about an IS presence in Durban. 

“There are also alleged incidents of recruitment of IS members in Durban. IS activities in Durban started appearing towards the end of 2014 and by 2015 there were alleged incidents of recruitment.”

According to Ewi, as a direct result of these activities they were led to believe that there was an active IS cell in Durban.

“But the lack of empirical investigation has impeded any tangible estimate of the size and structure of the cell, as well as its activities and links to IS. I think there may be more to what we know, or the threat may have been exaggerated,” he said.

Patel was previously arrested on various charges after raids in 2016 in which terror-accused twins Brandon-Lee and Tony-Lee Thulsie were apprehended.

In court on Thursday, after Kathravaloo adjourned the matter, he asked the accused if they had anything to say, and Xulu replied that he had something to say.

“I don’t even know why I’m here,” he said as he stood with his arms folded in a purple jacket, next to Del Vecchio, who held hands with Patel throughout proceedings.

Patel wore a black burka and black leather jacket while a long-haired Del Vecchio, who was carrying a small sling bag containing what looked like a Qur’an, wore a white men’s tunic with a multi-coloured taqiyah on his head.

Xulu, after hearing that he would only be able to go ahead with his bail application next week, was shocked, exclaiming “hawu” at the news.

“I know even a single day is long, but I have adjourned the matter to the earliest date possible not exceeding seven days,” said Kathravaloo to Xulu.

According to the charge sheet, Patel and Del Vecchio are charged with kidnapping, robbery, theft and contravening of sections 3(2)(e) of the Protection of Constitutional Democracy against Terrorist and Related Activities Act of 2004: collecting and/or possessing a document or a thing connected with the engagement in terrorist activity.

Del Vecchio is also charged with malicious injury to property in relation to the burning of a sugar cane field.  Del Vecchio and Xulu were also charged with theft, which prosecutor Adele Barnard said in court had been changed to robbery with aggravated circumstances after the Saunders’s vehicle was recovered with blood in it.

Fatima Patel waits inside the Verulam Magistrate’s Court. Picture: Bongani Mbatha African News Agency /Ana
Outside court, Mbongeleni Xulu – Xulu’s older brother who lives in Mandeni – told Independent Media that while he didn’t live with his brother in Ongoye, he had never known him to be a troublesome youngster.

“I don’t live with him, I’m only here because I wanted to see him (Xulu) since I was told he was in court after being arrested. I have no knowledge of what happened to land him in the position he is in now,” he said.

Hawks national spokesperson, Captain Lloyd Ramovha, confirmed a 24-hour joint police operation had been set up in Durban to investigate the Saunders’s disappearance. 

“Police are working around the clock to solve this case. We are also appealing to the public to come forward with information that might assist police to crack the case and establish the whereabouts of the missing couple,” said Ramovha.
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The Independent on Saturday