PAGAD: A Case Study of Radical Islam in South Africa

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 17

The threat of Islamic terrorism to the Republic of South Africa (RSA) is surprisingly real. Aside from the possibility of an al-Qaeda strike against U.S. and other Western interests in the country, there are a number of indigenous Islamic networks that have the potential to either engage in serious acts of terrorism on their own or in conjunction with international terrorists. Of these indigenous networks the most important is an organization formerly called People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD). This article highlights the emergence, evolution and threats posed by PAGAD and similar organizations, which use legitimate causes as a subterfuge for furthering their radical Islamic agenda.


The Muslim community makes up an estimated 2.3% of the South African population. Although well-established Muslim communities can be found throughout the country, the Muslim community in Cape Town represents 7% of the Western Cape’s population. Conditions within that region are substantially different from other parts of the country, which have contributed to PAGAD’s initial success. Primarily, poverty and related social problems affect the Muslim community in the Western Cape to a much greater extent than other Muslim communities in the Republic. Secondly, the Muslim community in Cape Town is predominately of Malay origin and came to Cape Town as part of the slave trade during the 18th century, as opposed to Muslims in other parts of the country who are predominately of Indian origin.

An Islamic revival in South Africa began in the 1950s, as teachers and professionals in the Western Cape tried to mobilize themselves into coherent movements. The Islamic revival essentially derived its religious inspiration from modern Islamic movements in Pakistan and Egypt. In December 1970 the Muslim Youth Movement of South Africa (MYM) was established. The Iranian revolution in 1979 had a massive impact on the consciousness of South African Muslims and led to the formation of the Qibla Mass Movement, an anti-apartheid movement inspired by the universal egalitarian message of the Islamic revolution in Iran.

The Qibla Movement

Qibla was created in the early 1980s to promote the aims and ideals of the Iranian revolution in South Africa and in due course transform South Africa into an Islamic state, under the slogan “One Solution, Islamic Revolution.” [1]

During the anti-apartheid struggle Qibla simultaneously supported the black consciousness movement in South Africa, in particular Pan Africanism. Although Qibla is a purely South African organization, it is manipulated from a safe distance by the Iranian intelligence services, which use the organization not only to propagate the world view of the Islamic Republic, but also as a cover to conduct espionage in RSA. In order to broaden its support base inside the South African Muslim community, Qibla initiated three projects:

1. Played a key role in the formation of the Western Cape-based Islamic Unity Convention (IUC), which was formed in 1994 to serve as an umbrella organization for more than 250 Muslim groups. The objective of the IUC is to promote Islamic unity in South Africa, as a precursor for an Iranian-style Islamic revolution in the country.

2. Positioned itself as the driving force behind the militant/extreme components in PAGAD, in particular the G-Force.

3. Assumed control over the IUC’s Radio 786. This medium proved to be useful in mobilizing individuals within the Muslim community for its cause.

Although clearly not a terrorist organization, Qibla nonetheless has whole-heartedly embraced Iran’s Islamic Republic. In his book, “Quest for Unity” Achmad Cassiem (a leader of Qibla and the current head of IUC) provides an insight into the revolutionary ideology of groups like Qibla and PAGAD:

“Any social order which does not rotate on the axis of justice is not fit for survival. The minimum demand of the oppressed under the guidance of Islamic ideology is for a just social order. Anything less than a just social order is betrayal, is treason to the oppressed people and their glorious martyrs. The essence of jihad is sacrifice and it is necessary because a revolutionary is not merely an exponent of revolutionary rhetoric but one who attacks what is oppressive and exploitative in order to destroy and eradicate it. No revolutionary worthy of the name is therefore threatened and blackmailed – not even with death.” [2]


It was the ideological and spiritual environment created by Qibla that led to the emergence of PAGAD on 9 December 1995. Another major factor in the emergence of this organization was the extraordinarily high crime rate in the Western Cape. Indeed PAGAD’s initial primary objective was to serve as a broad anti-crime front. Under its banner a variety of organizations and concerned citizens with diverse ideological, political and religious persuasions sought to combat the criminal gangs and drug dealers in their communities.

From its inception until the eventual split in September 1996, there were three distinct strands within PAGAD:

1. Populist moderates and concerned citizens.

2. Islamic extremists and Qibla infiltrators that became the primary driving force of PAGAD after the split in 1996.

3. Drug dealers that used PAGAD to protect their “turf” against competitors.

Modus Operandi and Target Selection

Initially PAGAD employed a dual strategy, acting as a community pressure group while at the same time forming and activating covert cell structures known as the G-Force. The patterns of militancy evident in PAGAD activities indicated the prevalence of both paramilitary-style attacks on alleged drug dealers perpetrated primarily by G-Force members, and mass marches by PAGAD supporters intended to portray the organization as a grass-roots movement. PAGAD’s modus operandi developed in the following stages:

1996-1997: The Fight Against Drug Dealers. Between July 1996 and December 1997, PAGAD’s covert structures were implicated in 222 acts of violence against alleged drug dealers and their property. Explosives were used in 124 incidents in comparison to the use of firearms in 98 incidents. [3]

1998: Reaction to Opposition. From July 1998 onwards PAGAD began to target academics and clerics critical of the tactics employed by its G-force. At the same time, the personnel and facilities of the state’s security and intelligence community were attacked by PAGAD. The explosion outside the offices of the police special investigation task team on 6 August, 1998 elevated PAGAD into the world of Islamic terrorism. Moreover, the increasing selectivity of targets by PAGAD’s covert teams reflected a noteworthy qualitative shift in strategic objectives. Furthermore, PAGAD attacked business linked to the U.S., after the latter launched missile strikes against targets related to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Sudan in August 1998.

1999-2000: Restaurants and Public Places. There was a significant change in suspected PAGAD-related acts of violence after 1998. Although the number of bombing and shooting incidents declined, PAGAD became more deadly and indiscriminate. Attacks were no longer focused on drug dealers and gangsters but tended to target public places and places of entertainment. Between January and August 1999, six bomb explosions injured 81 people, while 17 armed attacks killed 17. In 2000, at least 14 prominent acts of terrorism that included attacks against eyewitnesses in PAGAD-related court cases, restaurants and international interests were recorded. For example, on 29 August a car bomb was detonated near the United States consulate injuring seven people.

PAGAD’s covert activities came to a standstill with the arrest and prosecution of its prominent leaders. However, since the underlying reasons for its existence were never addressed, the possible re-emergence of PAGAD or similar organizations cannot be discounted.


Ostensibly created to fight drugs and the socio-economic problems that are associated with it, PAGAD was essentially a political organization with distinct Islamist objectives. Should the RSA government be able to effectively combat gang violence and drugs it is likely that Muslim extremists—particularly in the Western Cape—would find other issues to bolster public support. Indeed after the establishment of PAGAD, similar structures with seemingly identical aims were formed: People Against Prostitutes and Sodomites (PAPAS), Muslims Against Global Oppression (MAGO), and Muslims Against Illegitimate Leaders (MAIL). Each of these organizations represented a different challenge and therefore a different support-base. In other words, each organization has a specific target from which small numbers of extremists could be recruited.

It is also clear that community-based organizations modeled on PAGAD are heavily penetrated by the highly secretive Qibla organization. Qibla uses this penetration to marshal support for its Islamic revolutionary aims. Although in many respects Qibla is worlds apart from al-Qaeda and the broader Sunni Islamic militancy which it inspires, nonetheless its radical ideology can prepare vulnerable individuals for terrorist recruitment further down the line.

The key question, of course, revolves around the likelihood of an al-Qaeda attack against Western interests in South Africa. For its part, the government of RSA hopes that its neutrality in the so-called war against terrorism and its pro-Palestinian stance will spare it from the wrath of international jihadists.

The real threat is to U.S. and other Western interests in the country; in this respect there are major causes for concern. As a nascent democracy, South Africa is obsessed with protecting basic rights, rights that could be exploited by international terrorists working in tandem with local militants. This “rights-based” environment is compounded by widespread official corruption in South Africa that makes it very easy for skilled and experienced terrorists to operate and further their aims (for instance by acquiring fake documentation) without fear of detection. Moreover, South Africa has porous borders and large immigrant communities that can shelter terrorists. Furthermore, high-value targets, including large embassies and the headquarters of multi-national corporations, proliferate in the country.


1. N Jeenah, PAGAD: Fighting fire with fire, Impact International, Vol. 26, No. 9, 1996, p. 9.

2. A Cassiem, Quest for Unity, Cape Town: Silk Road International Publishers, 1992, p. 68

3. R Friedman, “Govt. blamed for lack of action as war escalates”, 24 January 1997, Cape Times, Cape Town.