Police investigating the crime scene at the mosque.
Motshwari Mofokeng/ANA

DURBAN - The three men wanted for the brazen attack on the only Shia mosque in KwaZulu-Natal allegedly prayed before slitting the throat of Shaheed Abbas Essop and stabbing two others.

One of the last people to see Essop alive was Ali Nchinyane, who had been in the upstairs section of the Imam Hussain mosque in Verulam, Durban, when the attackers struck.

“They had entered under the pretext of coming to pray at the mosque. They rang at the gate, saying they wanted to perform prayers, which they did. Afterwards they wanted to kill,” said Nchiyane.

The killing made international headlines: “Outrage after deadly South Africa mosque attack”, read the headlines on Al Jazeera.

The next day, about 40 worshippers who gathered for Jummah (Friday prayer) found the mosque cordoned off with police tape.

A photo of Essop, printed on a large banner, adorned the wall of the adjacent house where worshippers met for prayer.

About a dozen journalists had also converged on the scene. After the prayers, a hastily convened press conference was held in a marquee next to the mosque.

The first person to address the media about the attack was the mosque moulana, Aftab Haider.

Police investigating the crime scene at the mosque.
Motshwari Mofokeng/ANA

Haider said the Shia mosque had, for a long time, been the target of smear campaigns from others in Durban’s Muslim community.

“Over the last few years and more specifically in the last seven to eight months, there was a huge, very organised campaign in different mosques, on radio stations, and on all social media platforms against this community by the name of Shia,” said Haider.

He said Shia worshippers were labelled as “disbelievers”, given derogatory names and dehumanised.

“This attack is an ugly event. It appears to have the manifestation of extremism of a religion,” said Haider, describing the incident as an act of terror.

First of all it’s an attack of a place of worship, an indiscriminate killing of innocent people purely based on their religious faith and belief. It has all the hallmarks of Isis style operations in Iraq and Syria where they burned down the masjid. They claim to be Muslim, but they burn down the most holy book in Islam - our Qur’an,” he said.

Moulana Ali Nchinyane. Picture Doctor Ngcobo/ANA.
Moulana Ali Nchinyane. Picture Doctor Ngcobo/ANA.

Nchinyane said he was lucky to have survived the attacked. Nchinyane said when the caretaker, Mohamed Ali, let the three men in for prayer, he had been in his room upstairs. A short while later he heard screaming and ran downstairs. Essop had already had his throat slit. Ali was being attacked.

The men also turned on Nchinyane. 

“Luckily I went downstairs with my machete. I could fight back,” said Nchinyane

“They did not want phones, laptops, money, clothes. They wanted to kill us, that’s what they wanted to do. One of the suspects told me this and I quote ‘I will kill you’. He was going to kill me if I did not fight back. I would have been dead,” said Nchinyane.

Nchinyane sustained a stab wound on the neck and two wounds on his chest. He was released from hospital on Friday. Ali was seriously injured and was still in hospital at the weekend.

“He went through surgery and has been moved from intensive care to a normal ward,” said Haider.

Also read: Hawks label Verulam mosque attack 'one of a kind'

“But due to (police) investigations, there is very little access to him. He is the first witness, so the police are very sensitive about anyone around him,” Haider said.

Nchinyane described Essop, as a hero who had tried to stop the attackers. He said Essop had run from across the street when he heard the commotion in the mosque to “help the brother (Ali) who was being attacked. This man sacrificed himself by protecting the mosque and protecting somebody else”.

“His own selfish needs were not there. This is a hero, someone who should be celebrated. He should be an icon for us. We should learn from such people,” Nchinyane said.