Johannesburg - The Islamic State (Isis) is all but defeated in Iraq and Syria but the organisation is entering a new phase and has its eye on South Africa.
Lenasia and Mayfair are, according to one expert, places where Isis operatives are working to expand their footprint in the country, as the extremist organisation continues its goal of world domination.
Last week, Iraq’s Ambassador to South Africa, Saad Kindeel, warned that Isis fighters, originally from South Africa, were probably making their way home, and that the authorities should be on the lookout for them.
But Jasmine Opperman, a counter-terrorism expert at the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium, believes the returnees don’t pose a problem.
“South Africans who have returned have willingly agreed to co-operate with law and order departments so the likelihood of those returning to engage in behaviour or communication that will expose a continued link to extremism is unlikely,” she said.
However, while interviewing Isis loyalists in South Africa Opperman discovered that there was a directive instructing them not to make contact with the members returning from Iraq and Syria because it was known some were co-operating with law enforcement.
“We have active recruitment, we have active calls for expansion in South Africa, and that should be an overriding concern,” said Opperman.
“Are we seeing the initial phases of a jihadist culture evolving in South Africa? Yes.”
Opperman pointed out that the long game of Isis is world domination, which they want to accomplish in 100 years.
But as Western states improve their security and counter-security measures, Isis has begun searching for new areas in which to expand.
However, the problem in Africa is that there are clashing extremist Islamic ideologies, such as al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab.
“So what areas of Africa are left open for them to expand their footprint? That means not where they can attack, but where they can seek an organised footprint. What is left? southern Africa.”
Through her interviews, Opperman believed one of the areas which Isis was focusing on was Joburg, in particular, Lenasia.
The Western Cape she said, had been extremely difficult for the extremist organisation to gain a foothold in because of the prevalence of gangsterism, which offered immediate self-actualisation.
“Why was a Canadian fighter now in Canada exposed for the first time to extremist propaganda in a Joburg mosque?” Opperman asked.
“The latest message to South African loyalists is do not engage in, do not come to Syria, do not come to Iraq. Stay where you are and start fomenting an organised threat, she added.
The greatest threat facing South Africa from Islamic extremists, according to Opperman, was lone-wolf attacks.
In one of her interviews, an Islamic extremist told Opperman: “We will never lose as we are fighting for Allah and caliphate will reach South Africa.”
Radicalisation, she explained, was not taking place in the mosques, but away from them. Also, the preferred channel of communication was telegram messenger services.
But these supporters hadn’t crossed the “threshold where they would be willing to execute suicide attacks”.
Institute for Security Studies terrorism expert Martin Ewi, however, pointed out Isis was not able to attract the numbers they once could because of their defeats in Iraq and Syria.
“Their capability to recruit has fallen significantly and they can’t really appeal to the youth as they did previously,” Ewi said.
“Yes, of course they will continue to recruit but I wouldn’t say in South Africa that they are expanding their recruitment.”
Local intelligence services said Opperman should be analysing the narrative of these extremist groups, rather than going after individual cells.
But the problem, she said, was that these terrorists have easy access to weapons and funding, while law enforcement has in place inadequate cyber-monitoring strategies.
State Security Agency spokesperson Brian Dube said, however, that they do have a counterterrorism strategy in place.
“A major concern is the online recruitment that is taking place and we will continue to work with communities and with parents to raise awareness so wedon’tt find ourselves with active people on the ground ready to do whatever,” he said.
Defence expert Helmoed Heitman said South Africa’s intelligence services on the ground were good.
He added in the event of a terrorist attack, the country could draw on the SAPS special task force and army special forces, which were well trained and worked well together, but were “thin on the ground”.