With significant progress in the retaking of Mosul – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) last major stronghold in Iraq – and continued losses in Syria, many of ISIS’ foreign fighters are returning home.
An estimated 40 000 individuals from 110 countries – including South Africa – travelled to ISIS-held territories to join the group. Countries are understandably concerned over the security implications of their return. The UK, Turkey and Sweden are stepping up efforts to identify returning fighters and to develop adequate responses to the challenge.
What are the implications for South Africa, which saw a number of its citizens leave the country to join ISIS?
When assessing whether returnees pose a security threat to their home countries, it’s important to look at the factors that motivated them to join ISIS. An estimated 60 to 100 South Africans left to join the group and more than half had returned by 2016. A study conducted by the Institute for Security Studies at the end of 2016 provided insight into factors that led South Africans to join ISIS. The study assessed the threat of violent extremism to the country.
Factors generally considered conducive to radicalisation in Africa include political and socio-economic marginalisation, government repression and brutality, political and religious suppression and relative deprivation.
But these factors aren’t prevalent in the context of South African recruits. These recruits emerged from the South African Muslim community, and were generally from stable socio-economic backgrounds, enjoying all the rights, freedoms and protection that the country’s liberal democracy affords.
In contrast to the European context or what is often the case in the United States, Muslims in South Africa are not viewed as an immigrant community but rather as part of South Africa’s diverse social make-up. The community has not faced political exclusion and has in fact been politically active, historically. Its role in the struggle against apartheid could be said to have facilitated a greater sense of unity with fellow South Africans and fostered loyalty towards the country.
The research suggests that the appeal of ISIS for many South Africans could be found in associating with the group’s utopian vision of belonging and community found in the building of a ‘just’ state for all Muslims, rather than only in the violence exhibited by the group. For these individuals, ISIS offered the opportunity for self-actualisation and identity through a ‘calling’ to serve in the creation of the Caliphate, which they see as a historic project.
Respondents to the ISS study also pointed to a sense of solidarity with the suffering of Muslims in countries such as Palestine, Iraq and Syria as a strong factor driving recruitment in South Africa. Such conflicts are often perceived as injustices against Muslims, and for some, ISIS is seen as a force for change or resistance, with the group portraying itself as a defender of justice on behalf of the global Muslim community.
In assessing whether returnees pose a threat to South Africa, it is important to note that although there have been reports of South Africans fighting for ISIS, not all those who travelled to Syria and Iraq joined the group as combatants. Many were women and children not engaged in combat. It is also unlikely that the two 15-year-old girls who attempted to travel to Syria to join the group would have served as fighters; they may have offered support in the creation of the ‘state’.
Of those who initially showed interest and travelled to join ISIS, many quickly returned once the realities relating to the group became clear. Of those who remained with ISIS, some have reportedly been killed, leaving very few South Africans still active in the group.
Although there are some sympathisers, ISIS has found little support within the South African community. Muslim authorities have been vocal in their condemnation of ISIS, leaving the group unable to garner support or exert influence in mainstream Muslim organisations. Potential returnees would thus be limited in any efforts to spread ISIS’s violent ideology.
However, as seen in the 2016 Nice attack, and the Westminster attack in March this year, even efforts by a lone attacker could have immense consequences.
For this reason, the South African government should prepare for the possible return of ex-combatants, keeping in mind that, in contrast to the earlier group of returnees, these may not be willing returnees who are disillusioned with ISIS.
The incorporation of South Africa’s Muslim community into the country’s diverse make-up provides them with a stable identity, the means to participate politically and pursue opportunities through economic inclusion. Combined, these factors have made South African Muslims far less susceptible to more radical ideologies. For those who will return, it is vital to re-establish these social bonds to promote reintegration and recommitment to the communities, among other strategies.
For those who support ISIS, their interest does not stem from resentment for South Africa or the South African government. This could mean that the risk of targeting South Africans is lower, but it doesn’t eliminate the threat to foreign interests or symbols that represent ‘Western imperialism’.
South Africa cannot be complacent and should carefully monitor international developments and ensure that strategies are in place to deal with the likely threats.
Written by Raeesah Cassim Cachalia, Junior Researcher and Albertus Schoeman, Consultant, ISS Pretoria