In South Africa, the government’s non-interventionist foreign policy has been used an excuse not to develop a robust response or build the capacity of the relevant state actors to analyse or respond to threats. Experts agree that this may be short-sighted considering a) South Africa has historically served as a place of rest and respite for terrorists, b) the spread of radical ideology from Somalia down the eastern corridor of Africa to Northern Mozambique, where at least twelve attacks attributed to suspected Islamist militants have occurred since October 2017, c) the fact that 60-100 South Africans have left the country to fight alongside ISIS in the Middle East, who must only represent a small portion of the number of South Africans exposed to ISIS propaganda online, and d) the arrest of six South African citizens suspected of criminal plots linked to ISIS on South African soil (the Thulsie twins, who have been charged with plotting to attack the US Embassy and Jewish institutions in South Africa in 2016, and four people connected to the disappearance of couple in KwaZulu-Natal in 2018). As ISIS’ physical caliphate continues to grow smaller, the extremist group has called upon home-grown terrorists to conduct domestic attacks wherever they can.
Police play a central role in monitoring extremist threats and preventing attacks. Building trust between the police and communities believed to be at-risk is paramount, while the excessive use of force by police and other security actors against civilian populations has been shown to one of the leading motivations behind joining an extremist group in Africa. In previous workshops run by ALPS Resilience on preventing violent extremism in Africa, police have expressed interest in learning how to analyse and respond to extremist threats.
In response to this, ALPS Resilience hosted a workshop on the role that police play in preventing violent extremism in Pretoria. 30 participants from the South African Police Services, diplomatic missions and civil society heard from subject matter experts, who took lessons from prevention initiatives in Europe and East Africa and applied them to the South African context. The participants also took part in a discussion-based scenario planning activity, during which they had to plan their response to a terrorist-related incident at a major South African airport.
Key messages from the workshop:
Police play a definite role in the prevention of violent extremism, but police can either be part of the problem or part of the solution. In South Africa, police are largely unaware of extremist threats and the best practices for responding to them. This means that they might rely on profiling, arbitrary arrests or collective arrests instead of quality community engagement and good community policing.
Violent extremism is one part of criminality, and therefore SAPS can use some existing mechanisms – such as community policing forums – to raise awareness about extremist threats. The relevant legal and procedural systems are also in place for police to prevent violent extremism. But SAPS and other key stakeholders would benefit from training, standard operating procedures and process models for information flows/referrals.
Prevention is the most effective strategy, including from a cost perspective. South Africa should invest in awareness raising and training now instead of waiting for an attack on domestic soil to occur.