16th May 2018

2%: The percentage of Muslims in South Africa’s 56 million people

12%: The percentage of Shia Muslims in the world

3%: The percentage of Shia Muslims amongst SA Muslims

The Events

South Africa has an almost exclusively peaceful Muslim community. So a fatal knife attack at a mosque on Thursday 10 May, on the eve of the holy month of Ramadan, came as both a shock and a surprise. Three knife-wielding men stormed the Imam Hussain (Shia denomination) Mosque after midday prayers. Once in the property‚ the men attacked Ali and Moulana Ali Nchiyane with knives before torching the mosque’s library by throwing in a petrol bomb.

(Moulana is often the word of choice for addressing or referring to Muslim religious scholars that are respected, while Mullah is used often derogatorily for people that some consider being more agitator than scholar).

The caretaker and muzzein (the man tasked with leading the call to prayer)‚ Muhammad Ali‚ had noticed the men at the gate and thinking they were coming to pray‚ let them inside.

Abbas Essop, a mechanic at a workshop across the road, ran heroically into the Imam Hussain Mosque in the small town of Ottowa near Verulam‚ north of Durban‚ (Kwa Zulu Natal Province) after three knife-wielding men had stormed the building after midday prayers. When Abbas intervened, the attackers duct-taped his mouth and slit his throat. He died in hospital and became a collateral casualty in the attack‚ believed to be motivated by “extremist elements” intent on killing the resident Moulana and razing the building to the ground.

The attackers were first described as ‘Egyptians’ but this has since been revised to ‘South Africans’. The suspects, who were wearing half balaclavas, fled in a white Hyundai Getz with no registration plates.

No demands or ultimatums were made, left or sent. The SAPS say that they searched the building after the attack but are not specific on how.

Although still under investigation by the South African Police Service Directorate for Priority Crime Investigations, a.k.a. The Hawks, the attack was believed to be the culmination of a steadily rising hate campaign directed at Shias. Islam is divided into two main opposing groups, Shia and Sunni, and most South African Muslims are Sunni.

On the night of Sunday 13 May, a suspected bomb or Improvised Explosive Device was discovered beneath the Moulana‘s chair. This forced the evacuation of the Mosque in Verulam. Initial reports were sketchy with a poor photo made public and described the device as a pipe bomb with a cellphone attached. Latterly the authorities described it as an Incendiary Device although the chemical composition has not been released at the time of writing. The pipe is now described as made of PVC.

We understand that the Mosque did not have security officers present but we do not know if there was any other security such as CCTV. A review of available video and photographs do show an electrified fence topping the perimeter wall. This is a common feature on South African buildings.

An unconfirmed source stated that the attackers had visited the mosque three times prior to the attack when it was quiet, prayed, and taken literature and books. The same person stated that the mosque had been mentioned in an open letter published on the Jamiatul Ulama and other websites calling for action against Shia worshippers but SATAC has not seen a copy of this. Jamiatul Ulama is a council of South African Muslim theologians.

SATAC Analysis

Shia is a branch of Islam which holds that the Islamic prophet Muhammad designated Ali ibn Abi Talib as his successor. Sunni Islam adherents believe that Muhammad did not appoint a successor and consider Abu Bakr (who was appointed Caliph through a Shura, i.e. community consensus) to be the correct first Caliph.

Shias are considered more moderate and ‘westernised’, not supportive of extremist views. The group are a tiny minority with just a few hundred members in each Province but they are growing, with a new – only the third in SA – mosque having just opened in Cape Town.

A total, eternal ‘Manichean’ worldview is a central tenet of violent Islamic extremism. It divides the world strictly into ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’: those who are blessed or saved (i.e. the “right kind” of Muslim) on the one hand and those who are to be damned for eternity (i.e. the “wrong kind” of Muslim and everyone else) on the other. For violent Islamic extremists, the “wrong kind” of Muslim includes moderate Sunni Muslims, all Shia Muslims, and many others who are “mete for the sword” and can be killed, and anyone who associates or collaborates” with them” (UK Judge Charles Haddon-Cave).

Manichean: Of or relating to a dualistic view of the world, dividing things into either good or evil, light or dark, black or white, involving no shades of grey

1. The assault on the Moulana and the two attempts to set the Mosque ablaze seen in the context of the above strongly indicate that extremist members of the rival Sunni Muslim groups were responsible because they considered that Shias; a) are not true Muslims and so are infidels, and b) are taking their more moderate members

2. The two arson attempts may be symbolic of numerous references in the Quran to the punishment of infidels by fire, such as “It is not for such as join gods with Allah, to visit or maintain the mosques of Allah while they witness against their own souls to infidelity. The works of such bear no fruit: In Fire shall they dwell” (Surah At-Tawba, 17).

3. The device used was based on commonly available instructions and no attempt was made to disguise it. It was poorly concealed and the presence of a remote control (cellphone) may indicate that the person who was going to trigger it may have been present in the congregation and awaiting a particular moment, such as when the Moulana took his seat.

4. As the first arson attempt failed this appeared to be a hastily prepared device, in less than three days later. An explosive device would require considerably more skill, preparation and risk, indicating a lack of planning and expertise.

5. As ISIS have not claimed responsibility, as they did in the Paris lethal knife attack 4 days before and many others, it is highly unlikely that these attacks are connected to that terror group although the perpetrators could well have been inspired by recent terror events.

6. The 3 knife attackers did not shout the Arabic phrase “Allahu Akbar,” (God is greater) during the attack as is abused by organised terrorism groups. They are the opening words of the Adhan (Islamic call to prayer) and is also often used in approval in the same way Christians say “Amen”. The phrase is not found in the Koran.

7. We do not believe that the Shia community will call for retribution and will rather assist the authorities but there is always the possibility that an individual or group might feel they have a duty to react to these attacks with kind.

8. As usual SATAC calls for all communities to cooperate with the authorities to bring the criminals responsible to book.

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SATAC Research & Analytics Team

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