Johannesburg – The threat from the Islamic State extremist group is growing in South Africa and the African continent.
This is according to security experts in the country in the wake of the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announcement on Monday that four Durban-based business people with alleged ties to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had been added to the US’ sanctions list.
It also added Nufael Akbar, Yunus Mohamad Akbar, Mohamad Akbar, and Umar Akbar to its specially designated nationals and blocked persons list (SDN list).
According to the US, the Akbar brothers are senior members of an ISIS cell in Durban led by Farhad Hoomer, who was sanctioned by the US in March.
Nufael Akbar is considered a central commanding figure, while his brother Yunus functions as an enforcer and logistical coordinator.
Hoomer, the alleged leader, has however denied being a ‘terrorist’ and says he will take legal action against the FBI and the CIA for harassing him and his family.
Hoomer told Independent Newspapers that the allegations were ridiculous and upsetting for him and his family.
“Just before I could come to Morocco, about three weeks ago, they interrogated my wife, who was already in Morocco,” said Hoomer
He said the FBI had allegedly forced her to go to the police station where they interrogated her, questioning her about him for about an hour and a half.
However the US is standing by its decision.
“Treasury is targeting key individuals in Isis’s network in South Africa, as well as their business assets,” US treasury under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, Brian Nelson said in a statement on Monday.
The alleged ISIS cell is believed to provide technical, financial, or material support to the terror group in Southern Africa.
“Treasury also designated eight companies owned, controlled, or directed by the individuals in this Isis cell. Isis continues to expand its terrorist network across the continent,” reads the statement.
Security expert Martin Ewi of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) said he wasn’t surprised by the news of an alleged ISIS cell in Durban.
“There should be way more than four individuals. They have cells in most of the big cities in South Africa – in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, and Pretoria and they continue to grow at a rapid pace.”
Ewi added that South Africa was an attractive country for terrorists to operate in.
“South Africa is a liberal country. They have chosen South Africa for logistical reasons to mobilise resources. But it has huge implications because it means they are conducting illegal activities here and money is being siphoned to other places as we've seen in other reports where ISIS-linked individuals are mobilising money, and then sending it to ISIS groups in Mozambique and the DRC.
“It's not something that any country will wish to have but I think South Africa is still in a better position in the sense that it is a logistics base and they aren’t planning to attack. It's better than being in Mozambique where the attacks are actually happening, but it's dangerous for any country to have this.”
However, Ewi said that didn’t mean South Africa was immune to terror attacks.
“Of course, we are vulnerable. As long as you have ISIS members in your country you are always vulnerable.”
Godfrey Ramuhala, a lecturer in Strategic Studies at the Faculty of Military Science at Stellenbosch University, said just like any other terrorist group, ISIS was able to operate in South Africa.
“Whether or not this is done freely is speculative – terrorism by its nature requires secrecy and concealment of operations – be it technical, financial or material. It then behoves states to counter these threatening activities before they can escalate into full-blown attacks. Thus, government response, through its security apparati is crucial in intercepting activities preceding the actual acts of terrorism, i.e. funding, safehouse, training, and recruitment.”
He said South Africa had a large émigré population, which brought with it potential security issues and risks.
“Our porous borders make this possible. Our banking and supply chain system facilitates both commerce and its illicit versions, given the apparent nexus between terrorism and organised crime. Take note of the upsurge in kidnappings for ransom. Any undocumented person can commit any illegal activity with the full knowledge that even if they live behind potential forensic evidence, they remain untraceable because they are not in any database.”
He said South Africa was more vulnerable to terrorist attacks because of its links to the Southern African Development Community Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM), and other regional and continental peacekeeping initiatives.
“Our involvement in the Cabo Delgado province of Mozambique against the jihadist insurgency for instance, did not make us friends with Ahlu Sunnah Wal -Jamaah (ASWJ) or any Islamic State-inspired militant group. ISIS has warned South Africa to steer off the Mozambican conflict.”
Ramuhala added that the growing influence of ISIS in South Africa was dangerous.
“The nature and impact of which can only be measured when it unfolds if failed to be detected. The danger emanates from the fact that legal business transactions can be used for terror financing activities as well. So the interplay between terrorism, organised crime, and legal business muddies the water.”
Meanwhile Hawks spokesperson Thandi Mbambo said they were aware of the businessman who were added to the US Sanctions list this week.
"We can confirm that the Hawks is aware of the matter and investigation thereof still continues," said Mbambo.