On October 2, South Africa’s state prosecutor successfully opposed bail for the “Thulsie twins” in their prolonged trial on terrorism offenses (Daily Maverick, October 2). The alleged offenses and corresponding court case highlight South Africa’s growing concern about South African-origin foreign fighters and the deteriorating security situation in northern Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province.
Motivations of the Thulsie Twins and Renaldo Smith
Tony-Lee and Brandon-Lee Thulsie and their friend Renaldo Smith converted to Islam in 2013. The trio became radicalized, and in April 2015 the Thulsie twins and Smith attempted to fly out of Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport on Qatar Airways to Turkey. According to South African security authorities, the intended destination for the trio was Syria, and the motive for their travel was the desire to join Islamic State (IS).
Their travel, however, was disrupted when the airline declined to allow them on the flight after receiving a tip of their true intentions from an unknown source that was most likely South African intelligence services. Despite this, several months later, the trio attempted a different route. This time they drove to Maputo, Mozambique’s capital, to board a Kenya Airways flight, but again they were declined.
Frustrated by their failure to join IS abroad, the trio apparently decided to plan attacks in South Africa. However, security authorities arrested the twins after Tony-Lee allegedly discussed their terrorist plans with IS operatives, including on how to build and obtain explosive devices for carrying out attacks. Unbeknownst to Tony-Lee, he had come in contact with an undercover U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent, who was posing as an IS operative, and unwittingly shared his attack plans with the FBI. Following a 10-month investigation, the Thulsie twins were arrested, and their homes were searched on July 9, 2016. Handwritten notes containing information on how to join IS and bombmaking instructions were found (News24.com, August 1, 2016).
New Counter-Terrorism Precedents in South Africa
Tony-Lee and Brandon-Lee became the first South Africans to be arrested and charged for having Islamic State links. According to South African security authorities, the twins were plotting to attack the U.S. embassy, the UK High Commission, the South Africa Zionist Federation, King David High School in Johannesburg, and the South African military technology conglomerate, Denel. In addition, the Thulsie twins contemplated targeting Jewish South African cartoonist Jonathan “Zapiro” Shapiro, Jews who fought in Israel with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and returned to South Africa, a Jewish South African investment banker, and an unidentified gay imam (The Star, June 11, 2019).
Meanwhile, the Thulsie twins’ friend, Renaldo Smith, was only questioned by security authorities and became a witness. However, Smith later disappeared until resurfacing in May 2018 in northern Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province, where he joined the jihadist group that locally calls itself ‘al-Shabaab,’ but that one year later became Islamic State in Central Africa Province (ISCAP). A photograph circulating among IS supporters on Telegram showed Smith and other jihadists in Mozambique posing in a field with weapons and the black-and-white Islamic State flag (2OceansVibe, August 26).
The U.S. government designated the Thulsie twins as terrorists in September 2017 (U.S. State Department, September 19, 2017). Their court process, which was seen as a test of South Africa’s counter-terrorism legislation, has, however, been postponed and delayed since 2017. The Thulsie twins launched their latest bail bid in January 2020, but this was successfully opposed by the South African government, which argued that the twins could abscond and join their friend, Renaldo Smith, in Mozambique. The state stressed that the twins had “already used this route before,” referring to their July 2015 travel attempt to Syria from Maputo (The Citizen, October 2).
South African Concerns About Jihadism in Mozambique
The escalating jihadist insurgency in Mozambique has moved the threat of international terrorism right to South Africa’s doorstep. In July 2020, State Security Minister Ayanda Dlodlo admitted that South Africa’s intelligence services were having “sleepless nights” because of the threat posed by IS in neighboring Mozambique (2OceansVibe, August 26). Echoing Dlodlo’s words, the country’s Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (DPCI) stated one month later that South Africans were aiding and abetting IS in Mozambique with “financial and material support.” According to DPCI spokesperson, Lloyd Ramovha, “the investigation into South Africans’ involvement in the insurgency [in Cabo Delgado province] involves Interpol and Mozambican authorities. The investigation has multiple legs, with detectives looking at cross-border financial flows, the origins of these funds and the involvement of organized crime in raising finances” (DispatchLive, August 27).
The South African government has not provided public estimates of the numbers of South African nationals who have traveled to or returned from IS territories in Syria and Iraq. As seen in the Thulsie twins’ and Renaldo Smith’s frustrated travel attempts, South African authorities have tried to handle cases quietly that involve South Africans who tried to traveled to Syria, or even some who have traveled and returned. Iraq’s Ambassador to South Africa, Hashim al-Alawi, caused some debate in 2015 when he claimed to Fox News that “certainly” some 50 to 60 South Africans had joined IS in Syria and Iraq, but that the number could be as high as 300 (Fox News, October 3, 2015).
Prominent think tanks and analysts in South Africa, however, estimate that around 100 individuals migrated to IS territories in Syria or Iraq between early 2014 and late 2016, with the majority having subsequently returned to South Africa or been slain on the battlefield (U.S. State Department, 2018). They included:
- Fayyaz Valli of Vereeniging, who was the first South African to have died while fighting in Syria in October 2013 (Sunday Times, May 31, 2015);
- Bilal and Ahmed Cajeel, who were brothers who traveled to Syria and Iraq to join IS, with the former dying during Syrian forces’ recapture of Palmyra in March 2016 and the latter dying earlier in 2014 (TimesLive, March 3, 2016);
- Musa Abu Mujahid Oscar, who is from Mabopane township in Pretoria and was reported to have died while fighting for IS in Raqqa, Syria in 2016 (TimesLive, December 23, 2016); and
- Firoze Ganchi of Upington, Northern Cape, who worked prior to his departure to Syria as a surgeon and with his wife, Safiya, a psychiatrist from Durban, and their two children traveled to IS territory in 2016, but in February 2019 Ganchi was killed near Baghouz, Syria, in an airstrike targeting Islamic State fighters (Mail & Guardian, March 3, 2019).
Future Threats to South Africa
While South African authorities continue to keep a tight lid on information concerning jihadist travelers to Cabo Delgado province, a growing number of credibile threats are emerging from that region. One example is the case of another identified South African foreign fighter, Mohammed Suliman. He was seen in the photograph with Renaldo Smith in Cabo Delgado province. According to Suliman’s father, he left South Africa in 2018 and traveled to Mozambique with a group of 15 other young South Africans, who intended to fight for IS. Mohammed Suliman, however, is now believed to have died in Cabo Delgado province. According to a recent report, 100 South Africans have already travelled to Mozambique to join the jihadists (2OceansVibe, August 26). If correct, this would indicate that with the demise of IS in the Middle East, Cabo Delgado province has become the destination of choice for South African foreign fighters since 2018.
Moreover, in June 2020, the official newsletter of the IS’ central media office, al-Naba, published an editorial addressing Mozambique. It warned that should South Africa become involved in Mozambique militarily, it could result in the opening of a ”fighting front” within South Africa itself (Memri, July 2). With the presence of South African foreign fighters in IS ranks in Mozambique and with other supporters in South Africa itself, the group is in a position to back up its threats.
South Africa’s quiet efforts to prevent its nationals from joining IS in the Middle East have previously been aided by the sheer distance between South Africa and the group’s strongholds. The emergence of a jihadist arena in Cabo Delgado province, however, complicates South Africa’s counter-terrorism efforts. South Africa’s border with Mozambique is known to be porous. To prevent jihadist travelers from reaching Cabo Delgado province, South Africa and Mozambique, as well as the wider Southern African Development Community (SADC), will need to strengthen border control and surveillance and boost regional information and intelligence sharing.