Brief: South African Military Counters IS at Home and in Mozambique With One Hand And Reaches out to Russia With the Other

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 5

Man believed to be Abdella Hussein Abadiga via Sowetan Live

In December, South African special forces arrested Abdella Hussein Abadiga at a shopping center north of Johannesburg. Although South Africa has not yet confirmed this arrest, a still image of Abadiga at the mall has been released publicly. This indicated that he was indeed being surveilled and that his arrest was plausible (, March 1).

Abadiga recruited for Islamic State (IS) in South Africa and controlled two mosques in the country for that purpose. In addition, he raised funds at his mosques, which he then sent to IS supporters elsewhere in Africa (, March 1). His case reflects that even while South Africa has not been the target of any IS attacks, it nevertheless has become a logistical and financial hub for the organization (Terrorism Monitor, January 6).

South Africa’s motivation to arrest Abadiga and other IS financiers in the country relates not only to the need to prevent IS activities and attacks, but also the desire to avoid being listed on the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) “grey-list” (, February 27). In February, FATF gave South Africa the “grey-list” label for “falling short of certain international standards for the combating of money laundering and other serious financial crimes.” The reputation South Africa has acquired for having IS operatives use its territory to finance IS provinces only hurts its case. Thus, if the country’s crackdown on IS members and the trafficking and laundering of money succeeds, it could allow South Africa to get itself removed from the list relatively soon.

Outside of South Africa, the country remains involved in countering IS fighters in neighboring Mozambique, where South Africa has over 1,500 troops deployed (, February 28). Nevertheless, it should be noted that Rwanda has taken the lead in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) military coalition’s efforts against IS in the region; they have deployed 3,500 troops to fight alongside their Mozambican counterparts (, January 12, 2022). Notably, the South African army suffered setbacks in Mozambique in October 2022. At that time, IS fighters ended a lull in operations and carried out several major attacks, occupying small towns in rural areas and establishing checkpoints on roadways (, October 10, 2022).

In the broader military perspective, South Africa is currently weighing whether, and to what extent, to engage with Russia. Despite being embroiled in the war in Ukraine, Russia now maintains more than 20 military partnerships with African countries. Moscow has been quick to fill voids on the continent in countries whose relations with France—a regional security partner since decolonization—have soured (, October 14, 2021). An indication that Russia’s military ties with South Africa will ultimately become stronger is that the two countries (and China) held military drills off of South Africa’s coast on the one-year anniversary of the Russian re-invasion of Ukraine (, February 27).

On the one hand, many South African politicians remain ideologically aligned with Russia, harkening back to the period when the Soviet Union supported southern African nations in their wars to end colonialism and white majority rule. On the other hand, opposition politicians realize that closer relations with Russia will harm South Africa’s efforts to be removed from the FATF “grey-list.” Thus, while South Africa is attempting to maintain a balance between the West and Russia, the image of Russian ships labelled with “V” and “Z” participating in the naval drills suggest that South Africa is straying too far from the West for comfort. This will affect the country’s standing with the West militarily, economically, and politically (, February 25).