Johannesburg, South Africa – At least 23 South African citizens have travelled to Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL), raising concerns of recruitment activity among the country’s sizable Muslim community, an Al Jazeera investigation has revealed.
Various sources have confirmed with Al Jazeera that at least 23 people, including families with children, have left South Africa to join ISIL over the past year. At least eight families are believed to be among the recruits.
Some of the affected families have reacted with shock and confusion to the defection of their relatives.
An official in the Turkish foreign ministry, who asked to remain anonymous because they are not authorised to speak to the media, confirmed that around a dozen South Africans were detained and subsequently deported to South Africa for attempting to reach ISIL territory last month.
Some 14,500 people from all over the world have been placed on a “no fly” list that the Turkish government has compiled in consultation with other governments, including South Africa, the official said. The list is an attempt to impede volunteer fighters from travelling to Turkey to enter ISIL-held territory in Syria.
According to a Jasmine Opperman, a Cape Town-based analyst with TRAC, a terrorism research and consultant consortium, there are three categories of South Africans currently travelling to Syria.
She said there are those looking to assist with the humanitarian emergencies of refugees, others seeking to assist ISIL in bolstering its administration and emergency services and a final group of people, who travel with the express intention of joining the war.
Most South Africans who travel to ISIL-held territory, Opperman said, do so in a non-combatant capacity. There have, however, been reports of at least two South Africans who died in battle in Syria.
While some reports suggest the men were killed in a car crash in Syria in 2014, relatives of one of the deceased men confirmed he had died in combat.
Deported from Turkey
It is clear that the mainstream in the Muslim community, and almost all Muslim organisations oppose ISIL and reject - many of them publicly - ISIL's ideology.
Brian Dube, spokesperson for South African state security in Pretoria, declined to comment on the number of South Africans who travelled to Syria to join ISIL over the past year, but did admit “online recruitment was taking place, among other things [that] targeted young people”.
The South African State Security agency would neither confirm nor deny the April deportations, and lawyers close to the case would not comment on the specifics of the case, except to note that the individuals had returned to South Africa.
“We heard of those reports of 11 people being brought back. We cannot confirm this at this stage,” Dube told Al Jazeera earlier this month.
Meanwhile, the Turkish government said they remained concerned about foreigners transiting in Turkey to enter ISIL territory, but they were not particularly concerned with ISIL recruits from South Africa.
“We are, after all, dealing with thousands of fighters from some 90 countries,” the official said.
Muslims comprise just 1.5 percent of South Africa’s population and feature prominently in public life in the country. Religious leaders, however, say that the conflict in the Middle East has affected the morale of young Muslims in the country.
“The desire to do something meaningful to change the world … pushes them to challenge the status quo,” said Moulana Ebrahim Bham, secretary-general of Jamiatul Ulama South Africa, a Muslim religious body based in Johannesburg.
Likewise, the Iraqi ambassador to South Africa, Hisham al-Alawi, told Al Jazeera that the powerful propaganda machine of ISIL puts every community at risk of recruitment.
“If we allow this trend to continue, it will distort the positive image that South Africa is known for, the Muslim community is known for,” Alawi said.
In efforts to combat ISIL propaganda, the United Ulema Council of South Africa (UCSA), an umbrella body of Muslim organisations in the country, has issued a national khutbah, or sermon, “encouraging Muslims to be wary of recruitment activities of the ISIL group in South Africa”.
The sermon, scheduled for Friday, is the latest in a series of public lectures and messages disseminated by Muslim organisations against ISIL, as fears over the influence of ISIL in the country grow.
Sheikh Ihsaan Taliep, the president of the UCSA, said in a statement that there were serious concerns within the community. He added that there are elders who have “become haggard and depressed, and miserable” because of the intention of family members to join ISIL.
Reacting to the latest developments, Na’eem Jeenah, director of the Afro-Middle East Centre, said that while ISIL recruitment in South Africa is indeed a reality, he cautioned against linking the greater Muslim community to the group.
“The concern about South Africans trying to join ISIL emanates from our doubts about the conduct of the group,” Bham says. “Abuses in the name of Islam perpetrated by ISIL have not spared anyone, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.”
Jeenah told Al Jazeera that support for ISIL was an aberration to the deep-seated sense of belonging among Muslims in South Africa.
“It is clear that the mainstream in the Muslim community, and almost all Muslim organisations oppose ISIL and reject – many of them publicly – ISIL’s ideology,” Jeenah said.
In early April, a 15-year-old girl was removed from an aircraft in Cape Town after police had received a tip-off indicating she might have been headed for ISIL. Later that month, another girl was taken off a plane for the same reason. State Security have since denied there was a second incident, but sources close to the case say the girl, who is a minor, was indeed prevented from travelling to Turkey.
Brian Dube, the South African State Security agency’s spokesperson said the government was aware of various forms of recruitment taking place across the country.
The problem, however is not uniquely South African.
Last month, the Associated Press news agency revealed that a classified United Nations report had found that 15,000 foreign fighters are currently in Syria and Iraq.
While South Africa’s Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act forbids citizens from participating in military activities abroad, South African mercenaries are well known to be active in Somalia,
Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, while South Africans with dual Israeli citizenship have also been noted to have actively participated in battle for the Israeli army.
While several warnings have been issued against South Africans fighting abroad, to date, no South African has been tried for being in contravention of this law.