Evaluating the threat of Islamist extremism to South Africa and the wider region

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Extremisms in Africa Volume 2. Edited by Alain Tschudin, Craig Moffat, Stephen Buchanan-Clarke, Susan Russell & Lloyd Coutts. Published by Tracey McDonald Publishers.
Extremisms in Africa Volume 2. Edited by Alain Tschudin, Craig Moffat, Stephen Buchanan-Clarke, Susan Russell & Lloyd Coutts. Published by Tracey McDonald Publishers.

In recent years southern Africa, once thought to be relatively insulated against the threat of extremism, has seen an increase in extremist activity and associated acts of terrorism. This is by no means unique to the region and reflects its continued spread internationally. As indicated by the Global Terrorism Index, although the total number of deaths from terrorism has fallen since a high point in 2013 – largely because of strategic victories against Boko Haram and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – the impact of terrorism continues to widen. In 2017, 67 countries experienced at least one death from terrorism, which is the second-highest number of countries in the past 20 years recording at least one death for the year.

The risk posed by international terrorist organisations, particularly ISIS, Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, to South Africa has been debated for several years. The challenge of this debate lies in balancing the potential security threat posed by these groups against the risk of overestimating this threat and thereby fuelling unnecessary social divisions and xenophobia against both Muslim South Africans and Muslim immigrants. As documented in Van Deventer and Goswami's chapter, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Countering the Financing of Terrorism and the Unintended Consequences for Non-Profit Organisations, governments can, and do, use regulations in the name of countering terrorism to shut down civil society space and limit press freedom.

As documented in Laura Freeman's chapter, They're All Terrorists: The Securitisation of Asylum in Kenya, politicians routinely scapegoat immigrant communities as "terrorist sympathisers" as a way of garnering public support for new security measures, or stoking feelings of nationalism for political gain.

In 2015, for example, at an event in Pongola, KwaZulu-Natal, King Goodwill Zwelithini, in reference to African migrants, told a jeering crowd of followers: "Let us pop our head lice. We must remove ticks and place them outside in the sun." What followed was a wave of anti-immigrant violence, which saw at least seven people killed and thousands of immigrant-owned shops looted and burned.

In South Africa, which routinely experiences waves of xenophobic violence, it is easy to see how populist leaders could exploit the threat of Islamist terrorism for their political advantage. In the event of a major terrorist incident, it is almost impossible to imagine a scenario where innocent Muslim immigrants, who already live a tenuous existence in South Africa, do not experience major blowback.

However, while a cautionary and nuanced approach should be taken in evaluating and responding to the threat of Islamist extremism in South Africa, recent developments within the country and in the broader region merit proactive engagement on this issue. Locally, these developments include three separate cases of individuals and groups, some with alleged links to ISIS, carrying or attempting to carry out terrorist attacks within South Africa.

Regionally, this includes the increasing spread of Islamist extremism down the "eastern corridor of Africa", a geopolitical space that extends from Somalia, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania through to Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa, and is an area of strategic importance to ISIS, Al-Qaeda and their affiliated elements.

In addition to the safety and security of its people, South Africa plays an important role in both the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU) and therefore has a responsibility to countries along the eastern corridor to help combat Islamist extremism, which poses a regional challenge to peace and security.

* This extract was taken from Extremisms in Africa Volume 2. Edited by Alain Tschudin, Craig Moffat, Stephen Buchanan-Clarke, Susan Russell & Lloyd Coutts. Published by Tracey McDonald Publishers. Available in all good bookstores. Recommended Retail Price: R285.

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