The sensational headlines following the arrests of Brandon-Lee and Tony-Lee Thulsie, as well as Ebrahim and Fatima Patel, in Johannesburg and the West Rand, have dominated the South African media over the past few weeks. The #TerrorArrests, as they have been dubbed on social media, came a month after the US embassy issued its umpteenth terror alert warning of imminent Daesh attacks in the country. Even though there are still questions around the legality of the Thulsie arrests, the word “terror” has been used freely. The South African Jewish Report claims that it dubbed the Thulsies the “Terror Twins” and the “name has stuck like glue in all media reports on the case,” gloated journalist Ant Katz.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the court of public opinion has already found the accused – all of whom are Muslims – guilty of being Daesh recruits. They were, it is claimed widely, planning attacks on American sites and Jewish cultural institutions.
There has been much speculation about Daesh recruitment in South Africa — indeed, around the world — but I would argue that the extremist group has no need to make any real effort to recruit anyone; the West does a good enough job in that respect. It is the West’s support for tyrannical Arab and Israeli regimes that draws people to extremism. Daesh’s use of terminology such as “Caliphate” and “jihad”, and its Hollywood-style video clips purportedly confronting the imperial invaders, also attract marginal support from the naive.
In 2003, the South African government introduced US-inspired anti-terrorism legislation, despite warnings from civil society on the impact that this would have on the Muslim community. Since then, there has been a slew of clandestine arrests and detentions of South African Muslims, in collaboration with foreign intelligence agencies like the FBI.
Human Rights Watch and Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute reports that the FBI treats Muslims like “terrorists-in-waiting”, encouraging, pressurising and sometimes paying them to commit crimes that they would not ordinarily have committed. Informants trawl through Muslim communities, mosques and community centres, monitor and engage social media, and talk of radical Islam in order to identify possible targets sympathetic to such ideas. If suitable suspects are identified, FBI agents then run a sting, often creating a fake terror plot in which it helps supply weapons and targets. Then, dramatic arrests are made, press conferences held, terror “experts” paraded and lengthy convictions secured.
Are the authorities in South Africa headed in the same direction? It seems that we might well be seeing such a scenario. The investigating officer for the Thulsie case, Wynand Olivier, admitted in court that foreign intelligence agents prompted the Hawks — SA’s elite anti-terror police squad — to arrest the Thulsie and Patel siblings. So desperate were the authorities to effect an arrest that even paintball guns have been presented as “evidence” of an arms cache. More disturbing still is Olivier’s understanding of the word “jihad”, a term that has become central to the case against the Thulsies. The legal official has admitted that no Islamic or Arabic language experts were consulted to guide the authorities on the use of the word.
The word “jihad” is actually used widely by all Muslims, and refers to both individual and social struggles. In fact, if the Hawks were to monitor the use of “jihad” thoroughly, then every South African Muslim would qualify as a “terror” suspect. That is a day we must ensure never comes. The Muslim community is woven firmly within the fabric of South African society, a fact recognised by the government.
However, if we are to retain this social harmony, then the authorities must revisit the anti-terror laws we were coerced into adopting. Furthermore, an independent, enlightened and prudent foreign policy must be followed; it would be the best way to protect us all by ensuring that we do not give Daesh the metaphoric ammunition to entice gullible people to join the movement. Such a policy will be infinitely more effective at countering extremist ideology than a witch-hunt based on myths, stereotypes and misinformation.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.