It’s been confirmed by SA government that South Africa is being used by Islamic State militant groups as a “logistics” hub, and the government has identified a number of “sleeper cells” that are operating in the country.
On Friday, Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba made the announcement, confirming the country’s prominence as a zone of heightened activity for the likes of IS and other terror groups.
“The government is aware that there are people who are using South Africa… as a hideout,” Gigaba said, addressing a news conference. He added that the government’s aware of the identities of the individuals of these cells of underground terrorists, who lay low, plotting attacks in locations around the world in co-ordination with their central command units. Gigaba also confirmed that they know the whereabouts of these cells, but stressed that the situation is “under control”.
Asked what action is being taken, he said: “We don’t talk about those things.” He would not be pressed for more details. Concerns have been raised, however, over the country’s preparedness to deal with terrorist attacks, as well as the government’s lack of communication in passing on valid information timeously to South African citizens.
Gigaba’s comments on Friday came after years of information from research organisations, think-tanks and other governments that have long flagged the risk of attack. In July, South African police arrested four people, including twins, who were accused of planning attacks on the US embassy in Pretoria, as well as on buildings owned by Jewish people.
The brothers also stand accused of attempting to travel to Syria to join IS.
South Africa had been named, a month earlier, as a possible target for attacks on upmarket shopping malls and other popular public spots during Ramadaan by the US Diplomatic Mission in South Africa, as well as the UK and Australian governments.
Government officials have previously stuck to the line that there were no known militant groups operating locally, even though State Security Minister David Mahlobo told Parliament in May that a growing number of South Africans were “associating themselves with terrorist organisations”. He added that continuous efforts were being made to identify such individuals.
In a policy brief in April, the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) reported on concerns that radical Islamist organisations could be using South Africa as a hub for logistical reasons.
The institute said several Islamist fighters with South African passports have been apprehended. These include top al-Qaeda militant Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, who was killed in 2011, and the infamous “White Widow”, Samantha Lewthwaite, who’s believed to have lived in Joburg. It also said it was “unclear” exactly how many South Africans have travelled to fight with IS and that the country could be “attractive” for IS recruitment.
Gigaba’s statement on Friday is an acknowledgement that the country is more under threat than the government has previously admitted, and that analysts haven’t been exaggerating their concerns.
Pretoria, he said, would continue to ensure it didn’t become a target, and added: “We don’t want to be mobilised into other people’s fights.”