Government mulls repatriating Isis ‘black widows’ and children
Johannesburg - More than 20 widows of South African men who died in Syria fighting for international terrorist group Islamic State want to be repatriated with their children because “they aren’t coming back to plant bombs”.
The women left the country to join their husbands who had joined the Islamic terrorist group fighting in Syria and other Islamic countries in the Middle East, according to senior government and security cluster sources.
The Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (Isil), also known as Isis, or IS, is a well-known international terrorist group whose modus operandi includes suicide bombers, car bombs and other terrorist methods.
Its aim is to create an Islamic state known as a caliphate in Iraq, Syria and other places.
Former South African ambassador to Syria Mohammed Dangor is believed to be the champion of this repatriation drive, having allegedly lobbied senior government officials to support it.
“These black widows left this country voluntarily to join their terrorist husbands who were fighting a war that has nothing to do with South Africa and now Dangor wants us to roll out a red carpet for them,” said one government official.
The official claims that Dangor has been telling government bureaucrats, especially those from the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco), that these women and children will not be a danger to society.
“He says they aren’t coming back to plant bombs all over South Africa because they aren’t terrorists themselves, but victims of circumstances.
“These women were married to terrorists, supported their cause to the point that they even sneaked out of the country to join them and some of them might have been brainwashed and indoctrinated into believing Isis propaganda by now,” he added.
Dangor, who works at Luthuli House, the ANC’s Johannesburg-based headquarters, could not be reached for comment.
Sunday Independent has established that a security cluster team, consisting of senior members from Dirco, State Security Agency (SSA), SANDF intelligence, crime intelligence and Home Affairs, was set up late last year to determine how to repatriate these women and children “quietly”.
“If these people are repatriated, they are going to be South Africa’s worst nightmare because it is going to be difficult to monitor all of them all the time. We are talking about 20 women with dozens of children who would be living in different parts of the country,” said another official from Dirco.
The official added that Dirco has already put a contingency plan in place should the repatriation be given the green light, which includes:
- A team of doctors who conduct a DNA test on all the children to confirm that they are South Africans;
- Social workers who would check everyone’s state of mind as well as psychiatric evaluation;
- Security personnel to vet and screen everyone; and
- A temporary place where they would be accommodated for a few days after their arrival.
The official added that “this is going to be one of the most expensive exercises but we have to do it to make sure that we aren’t bringing in terrorists or aiding and abetting Isis moles”.
A defence intelligence official said the government was bound by international rules to repatriate these widows and their children.
“The law is simple: a child of a terrorist isn’t a terrorist until you can prove beyond any reasonable doubt that he or she is one.”
He added that they were aware that Isis had been recruiting a number of South Africans from different mosques around the country.
“Once people are recruited, they are brainwashed and indoctrinated before they are taken out of the county to go and fight for Isis. Some of these women were supporting their husbands’ move to join Isis, but some may have been tricked into leaving the country.”
He added that some of Isis’s recruiters come to South Africa as refugees and start with their recruitment drive as soon as they settle in.
“Three Isis members were arrested in the Democratic Republic of Congo and were found in possession of South African refugee passports, and when we went there to verify their nationalities we found out that they aren’t our citizens. One of them is a senior Isis spiritual leader.”
In recent years, Isis has been using modern tools like social media to boost its recruitment drive. It is believed that there are between 80 and 100 South African men, mainly from the Muslim community, who have joined Isis since 2015.
“But most of them are dead now. They died fighting for Isis in foreign countries, leaving their wives and children behind,” said the defence intelligence official. Even though South Africa isn’t a known Isis target so far, some of the embassies here are targets.”
SSA acting director general Sam Muofhe yesterday referred all inquiries to Dirco, saying “It is the correct department since it deals with all diplomatic and international relations”.
If they are allowed back into the country, the Isis widows would not be the first to return.
In December 2018, Na’eem Jeenah, director of the Afro-Middle East Centre (Amec), a think tank which focuses on research across North Africa and the Middle East on security and terrorism, told a seminar in Durban that between 80 and 100 South Africans who had been at Islamic State camps abroad had returned home.
“We have had a number of returnees, about 80 to a 100, especially families.
“They are almost definitely under surveillance.
“Upon their return, they were interviewed by the State Security Agency (SSA) before being released and the government has been involved in ensuring their proper repatriation,” said Jeenah.
The dramatic rise of Isis started in Iraq and Syria after the US withdrew its troops in 2011 after the invasion of Iraq a decade earlier. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was the leader of Isis until October last year, when he was killed by US forces.
Isis is believed to have killed dozens of people since 2014 and is known for using methods such as public executions and crucifixion and holding women as slaves. In August 2014, Isis released a video showing the beheading of US journalist James Foley, who had been missing in Syria since 2012.
In September of that year, the group released a video showing the beheading of another US journalist, Steven Sotloff. In March 2015, the group posted pictures of a man being flung out of a building in Raqqa, Syria, after being accused of being gay.
In November 2014, the government of Iraq announced that Isis fighters had killed more than 300 members of a Sunni tribe in a series of executions. In August 2014, a lawmaker from an Iraqi religious minority group called the Yazidi said about 500 men had been murdered, 70 children died of thirst and women sold into slavery after Isis attacked their home town of Sinjar.