Seven reasons why Sunday Tribune’s South Africa-Islamic State link is irresponsible journalism

On Sunday, Independent Newspapers’ Sunday Tribune published a piece titled “Islamic State’s SA link”. The article claims the Islamic State group, operating in Syria and Iraq, is active in South Africa and that three South African citizens had died in Syria. (You can read a PDF version of the story here.)

South African law prohibits citizens from partaking in foreign combat and the article’s claims are very serious. In a post 9/11 world, the repercussions of such claims are far-reaching and damaging and unfortunately, the article makes bold claims without offering substantial evidence.

Of course, if South Africans of any religious or ideological persuasion, partake in foreign wars, be it in Iraq or Syria for Israel, which has routinely seen South Africans fighting for the Zionist state, they ought to be called out, apprehended and charged.

But sweeping statements, or trashy journalism creates phobia and unnecessary panic. They lead to stereotypes, and misunderstandings.

We have outlined SEVEN reasons why the Sunday Tribune’s story is problematic, unnecessary and irresponsible.

1 First and foremost, the article, written by Solly Maphumulo, relies on just one named source, the Iraqi ambassador to South Africa, Dr. Hisham Al-Alawi, to establish that South Africans were fighting for the IS group. Here, the paper’s editors decided to tell a story that affects an entire community based on one person’s account. The story goes on to say that South Africa’s Department of State Security said they were “not aware of any people who had left South Africa to join the Islamic State”. The Syrian Embassy (part of a government which is hardly legitimate itself) said they were not aware of any recruitment either. The ambassador describes the men, but the bread and butter of journalism are missing – no names, dates, locations are mentioned.

2. In what may seem at first as unimportant, the article fails to mention that Al-Alawi is part of an Iraqi government that is a) fighting a crisis of legitimacy at home and abroad and b) currently at war with the Islamic State group. So put it simply, it is like quoting Helen Zille on Jacob Zuma but failing to mention she is the leader of the opposition. Does it matter that she is leader of the opposition? Yes. Likewise, the Iraqi government has a vested interest in trumping up their fears over the activities of the IS group. By leaving it out, the article creates the impression that the Iraqi ambassador is a by-stander with some important information and not a player himself.

3.The article then quotes a second source that adds to the ambassador’s claims, but a) does not verify the Iraqi ambassador’s claims that three South Africans were killed in Syria and b) alludes to a new claim that as many as 140 fighters had joined from South Africa. This remarkable claim comes with a caveat: “it was not certain if all of them are [South African] citizens”. Not only is there no quote attributed to his unnamed source but there isn’t any indication to the reader who this source is, and why he/she should be taken seriously.

A recent UN report says that up to 15,000 people have traveled to fight for IS. There is no confirmation that South Africans part of the group, and the article mentions this. But strangely, the Sunday Tribune does not find it necessary to explain why they believe this unnamed source was more reliable than this UN report. Even the Iraqi ambassador said he “wasn’t aware” of 140 South Africans fighters joining IS.

4. Then, it goes on to quote the Jamiatul Ulama South Africa.

Why is a religious body concerned with spiritual, legal interests of a segment of South African Muslims pushed to comment on a) people who might have fought for IS from South Africa who may not even be even South African (as mentioned already) and b) mere speculation and not recorded incidents?

What does a Muslim body have to do with three fighters who might or might not have died fighting/died in a car crash in Syria, or 140 people who might or might not have left South Africa to fight for the Islamic State, whom may or may not even have South African citizenship.

Is this not a matter instead for Institute for Security Studies (ISS) or Department of Home Affairs – which should comment on our borders being ‘abused’ by locals or foreigners?

Instead, the Sunday Tribune falls into the trap of turning this into an opportunity to reflect on the Muslim community and issues regarding ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’ that is currently the fashion du jour in the western world.

The story even quotes the Iraqi ambassador Al-Alawi narrating a story about a man who went with a friend to a mosque on Friday in the Eastern Cape and heard some speakers spill hate at the mosque. “He said they were saying all non-Muslims should be sent to hell. He was shocked by the actions of the men – a father and his son,” the ambassador is quoted as having said in the article.

Let’s break down this anecdote: An unnamed random man went with his unnamed friend to an unnamed mosque in some part of an entire province where he heard a random, hateful sermon by some unknown speakers.

This is very credible journalism. Way to go to establish a point about hateful mosques. Kudos though, at least we know it was a Friday for certain.

But on a more serious note: Do these type of conversations happen? Yes. Are there bigots in mosques, temples, churches, in Parliament? Yes.

Is this how you report it? Hell no.

5. If this is not enough, the writer (and his editors no doubt) then raise the much publicised beheadings of western journalists and activists in trying to establish IS’s barbarity. In so doing, they firmly tow the line of western portrayal of IS.

The Sunday Tribune goes to lengths to describe the brutality of IS in precisely the same way it is sold on American televisions and newspapers: How westerners are brutally killed by a savage machine.

In reality, most victims of IS have been locals, be it Syrians, Iraqis or minorities like the Yazidis and the Kurds.

Muslims have faced the wrath of IS more than any other demographic; the story makes no mention of this and buys into the fear of an Islamic group that is primarily anti-modern, anti-western, and beats the drums of a legitimate war.

If we are to be honest, the IS group is an aberration and not legitimate by all standards. The stories of a resurgent Caliphate aside, they are feared by Muslims more than anyone else. They affect Muslims more than anyone else. And they force Muslims (like the Jamiat) to explain their faith and beliefs, more than anyone else. Making it a clash of civilisations is very silly, when the Islamic State group is an Islamaphobe’s dream come true.

6. Then the charities. Groups pretending to feed hungry kids were actually sponsoring war criminals, the report says. The vagueness of these accusations are alarming. Aid agencies are forever under scrutiny for being fronts for arms dealers or terror groups. The latest westerner to be brutally killed by IS, Peter Kassig, was an aid worker “who was kidnapped last year as he delivered medical supplies to victims of Syria’s civil war”.

After meeting such a horrible death, no one would dare question Peter Kassig’s activities, would they? He was just a defenceless aid worker, and he might well have been, but raise questions, you dare not. Why then, is it so easy to raise questions over local aid agencies, who are doing remarkable and important work in the Middle East, for the heck of it? Does it not put South African aid agencies at risk, or under unnecessarily harsh scrutiny? How is this sort of journalism in the public good, when there are no details, just vague speculations?

7. Finally, and clearly for good measure, the Sunday Tribune throws the “White Widow”, Samantha Lewthwaite, who was believed to have been behind the attack on the Westgate shopping in Nairobi in 2013, into the mix.

“Last year South Africans were shocked when it emerged that “White Widow” Samantha Lewthwaite – believed to be the mastermind behind the terrorist attack in Kenya – reportedly lived in South Africa in a flat in Mayfair with her three children,” the article reads.

To bring up the “White Widow” in this story about IS fighters is a cheap shot at creating ‘precedence’. These are two completely different stories. The insertion of the “White Widow” clearly conflates it with the apparent common denominator: Islam and radical Muslims.

This illuminates both a hysterical, prejudiced and bigoted understanding of the current war in Iraq and the circumstances surrounding the Westgate affair in Kenya. Al Shabab, said to be responsible for the attack on Westgate, are part of an ongoing story of a two decade long civil war in Somalia. There is no connection to Islamic State’s activities or ambitions and editors should know better than to conflate the two and send signals of “rising extremism” in South Africa.

Also, if we might add, there is also no evidence still that Samantha Lewthwaite was behind the attacks and there is a lot more evidence to suggest she was a figment of the media’s imagination. So there is also that.

Bonus point: We understand newspapers need to be sold, editors want to be bold, and everyone is out to break the mold. There may indeed be South Africans fighting for IS, but until we have more substantial information, we’d prefer such stories aren’t told. Newspaper readers deserve well researched and substantiated news, not the type of rumours and conjecture more fitting of those messages shared on group chats.

[Update: Al Alawi posted a comment to this Daily Vox story on Tuesday saying that the Iraqi embassy in Pretoria had received “reliable information from multiple sources” about the three South Africans alleged to have been killed in Syria whilst fighting with ISIS, including their locations and names. “We have shared [this information] in writing with officials in the Directorate of Middle East at the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO).”]

You can read the full comment below this article.

* An earlier version of this story made reference to the theological society known as the Jamiatal Ulama (Kwa Zulu Natal). The Sunday Tribune article quoted the Jamiatul Ulama South Africa, which is a national organisation. This has been corrected.