The ISIS threat against South Africa: preliminary questions, considerations and the potential for a regional response

Author: Marko Svicevic
Post-doctoral research fellow, South African Research Chair in International Law (SARCIL), University of Johannesburg

Introduction

The recent threat issued against South Africa by the ISIS-affiliated insurgency in Mozambique has once again signaled a growing reality facing the country – an ever-increasing terrorist presence in the SADC region. While the insurgency in the Cabo Delgado province has been around for several years, it is the first time that South Africa has been the target of an open threat. Not unexpectedly, a number of questions have arisen. This post serves to highlight some preliminary questions and considerations relating to the insurgency in Mozambique and the potential threat to South Africa. These include among others: links the current insurgency holds with ISIS, the credibility of the threat issued against South Africa, probability and capacity for the insurgency (or ISIS) to follow through with the threat, and the potential for a regional response.

ISIS-(affiliated)?

The insurgency in Mozambique began in October 2017 when it first targeted government buildings during a two-day period. Over the course of three years, it has decimated entire villages and continues to launch targeted attacks across Cabo Delgado – Mozambique’s Northern most province. In its most recent attack, the insurgency has reportedly seized the port town of Mocimboa de Praia. The insurgency has since become known as Ansar al-Sunna (Al-Sunna wa Jama’a), a militant Islamist group which, most reports suggest, is aiming to establish an Islamic State in Mozambique. Locally, the insurgency is referred to as al-Shabaab, although it is distinct from the terrorist organisation operating in Somalia. The exact links between Ansar al-Sunna and ISIS are however not entirely clear. What is known is that the insurgency arose independently and operated as such until July 2019 when it pledged allegiance to ISIS. Subsequently, ISIS has claimed responsibility for several attacks in Cabo Delgado. More so, the ISIS linked Amaq News Agency has begun incorporating video footage of several attacks launched by Ansar al-Sunna. Beyond this, there have also been reports that the insurgency has occasionally recruited al-Shabaab mercenaries from Somalia for training purposes. Whether there is any direct ISIS involvement however remains speculative. Consequently, the level of communication, coordination and any possible logistical or financial cooperation between ISIS and Ansar al-Sunna is open to question. At present, the AU considers the insurgency a terrorist organisation while the US Department of State considers it an ISIS-affiliated group. Additionally, the UN Security Council Committee concerning ISIS, Al Qaida and its affiliates has noted reports suggesting a unification of ISIS groups across the DRC, Somalia and Mozambique. It also confirmed that the Mozambique insurgency has been added to the Islamic State Central Africa Province, with one member state reporting that operations in Mozambique were ‘planned and commanded’ from the DRC.

Is the threat credible?

On 7 June, an editorial piece was published addressing the Mozambique insurgency under Al Naba (#241), the official newsletter of the ISIS central media office. It warned that should South Africa become involved in Mozambique; it may result in the opening of a fighting front within the country. While an open threat against South Africa was quick to make headlines, its credibility is not entirely clear. When one takes into account the ongoing situation in Cabo Delgado and broader ISIS activities, two considerations may inform the credibility of the threat. First is the intention behind the threat, which is also closely linked to the timing within which it was issued. Second is the capacity of Ansar al-Sunna to undertake actions against the South African state (in the case at hand, reprisals on South African territory).

Where the first consideration arises, the following may be noted. On the one hand, ISIS fueled online propaganda is not a new occurrence – and those suggesting the threat is part of its broader propaganda machinations raise valid points. Since the loss of territory and control in both Syria and Iraq in recent years, ISIS has increasingly resorted to online propaganda, including threats of domestic terrorist acts. Additionally, its online recruitment capabilities through well-orchestrated propaganda mechanisms have been well documented. On the other hand, it would be naïve to brush off or underestimate the threat for several reasons. Previous threats of retaliation by a number of extremist organisations have been followed through with on several occasions. Moreover, the threat seems to have been issued at a particularly noteworthy time. While the insurgency has been around for well over two years, its threat against South Africa was released some two weeks after Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Dr Naledi Pandor publicly confirmed that discussions were underway with Mozambique on how South Africa could provide assistance. Given the relationship between the two countries and their SADC membership, it is unlikely this development took Ansar al-Sunna by surprise. The insurgency must have at the least foreseen the potential for a broader or regional response. After all, there have been reports of at least two private military entities, Russia’s Wagner Group and South Africa’s Dyck Advisory Group having provided military assistance to Mozambique.[i] The threat against South Africa may therefore be an early attempt at mitigating further external involvement.

The second consideration behind the threat’s credibility concerns the insurgency’s capacity to retaliate. Phrased differently, is Ansar al-Sunna able to, as it has threatened, wage a fighting front within South Africa. This consideration brings about more questions. What kind of capacity does the insurgency currently possess? Is it at all able to (re)direct its capacity against South Africa? On the one hand, there are numerous reports which suggest the insurgency has coordinated large scale attacks (at least on a regional level). On several occasions, it has targeted a number of sites simultaneously. Additionally, in recent months, conflict levels in the province have increased dramatically. While this may be indicative of the insurgency’s capacities, its ability to wage conflict may in part also be attributable to a weak or deficient response from the Mozambican armed forces in pushing back the insurgency. Given however the increased level of conflict which the insurgency is currently engaging in, it may question to what extent it can re-direct available resources. To this end, it seems unlikely that the insurgency could undertake a large-scale offensive against either South African assets in Mozambique or the South African state.

On the other hand, the insurgency need not consider nor re-direct any capacity to follow through with its threat. It has been well pointed out that the threat may inspire retaliation that may take the form of a ‘lone-wolf’ terrorist attacker. It would also mean that any attack against the South African state need not necessarily emanate from the insurgency but may be planned and undertaken independently of it. Moreover, this line of reasoning gains strength if one considers the threat against South Africa originated from the ISIS central media office, and at least not directly from the insurgency in Mozambique.  Nonetheless, any attack may give the impression that the insurgency (or even ISIS) has ‘infiltrated’ South Africa’s territory, and bolster too perceived capabilities.  Whether that may warrant a military response from the South African state is debatable; but it would certainly increase political expectations on an appropriate response.

The potential of a regional engagement

As was noted above, South Africa has recently confirmed it is in talks with Mozambican authorities on how it could provide assistance. Whether such assistance would take the form of military support remains uncertain. Mozambique has in the meantime reportedly requested direct intervention from Zimbabwe. Although neither state has confirmed whether they will be providing military assistance, pressure is mounting on a regional response particularly from SADC. The SADC security framework is adequately comprehensive; providing for a range of actions to assist member states against both inter and intra state situations. Additionally, SADC maintains a standby brigade for purposes of peace support missions and deployments during times of crisis. South Africa may well consider that the most appropriate assistance to Mozambique should come from SADC. A regional response may also alleviate the financial and logistical burden on individual member states assisting by means of bilateral agreements.

At the same time, political dilemmas in individual member states and complex regional relations may render the organisation unable to act. For the time being, at its 40th ordinary summit, SADC welcomed Mozambique’s decision to bring to its attention the ‘violent attacks situation in the country, and commended the country for its continued efforts towards combatting terrorism and violent attacks.’  The summit also pledged support to Mozambique in addressing the insurgency. Whether that support includes military assistance is yet to be seen. It is worth noting however that a purely military response will not solve the region’s problems in addressing the insurgency. To this end, any response from South Africa or SADC will have to take into account wider humanitarian and post-conflict peace-building considerations.

[i] Some reports suggest that the Wagner Group has withdrawn from Mozambique entirely. Other reports indicate the group maintains a presence at its primary base of operations in Nacala.

About the Author:

Marko Svicevic is a Post-doctoral research fellow at the South African Research Chair in International Law (SARCIL), University of Johannesburg.



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