Mosque attack: Mourners hail 'martyr' who fought knifemen

Motive for deadly raid on KZN Shia mosque remains unclear

13 May 2018 - 00:00 By JEFF WICKS
Sakina Essop, the widow of Abbas Essop, grieves at her husband's side before the burial.
Sakina Essop, the widow of Abbas Essop, grieves at her husband's side before the burial.
Image: Jackie Clausen

Sakina Essop grieved on Friday over the body of her husband Abbas, hero of the Verulam mosque attack, apparently oblivious to swirling speculation about a terrorist motive.

Her thoughts instead were on their daughters - Aaliyah, 5, and Abeda, 2 - left fatherless by the attack on Thursday, on the eve of the holy month of Ramadan.

Fellow members of the Shia Imam Hussain Mosque north of Durban hailed Abbas as a martyr for having died while trying to save others.

Abbas, a mechanic with a workshop across the road from the mosque, had charged into the building after three knife-wielding men began attacking worshippers.

Muhammad Ali, the caretaker and muezzin, the one who calls to prayer, had seen the men at the gate and, thinking they were coming to pray, let them inside. They stabbed him and Ali Nchiyane, the imam of the mosque, and started a fire in the mosque's library.

When Abbas intervened, the attackers duct-taped his mouth and slit his throat. He died in hospital.

Aftab Haider, the national co-ordinator of the Ahlul Bait Foundation of South Africa which represents Shia Muslims, said there was no doubt that the attack had been orchestrated by Islamic State terrorists.

Others, however, said it was too early to say what the motive was.

Haider said the attack was 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.

Attack survivor Ali Nchiyane.
Attack survivor Ali Nchiyane.
Image: Jackie Clausen

"We have received threats in the past, and these threats have been levelled over years," Haider said.

"There was a hate campaign ahead of the opening of a Shia mosque in Cape Town, but we have never had blood spilt.

"We have never had an organised attack on a mosque before and this attack bears all the hallmarks of an Isis attack," Haider said, using an acronym for Islamic State.

"We are extremely worried that it will not be the last."

Nchiyane said at the funeral on Friday that members of the community should be prepared for the day they needed to defend themselves.

Hawks spokesman Simphiwe Mhlongo said the attack had elements of "extremism". It is being investigated by the crimes against the state unit of the Hawks.

The same team was responsible for arresting alleged IS supporters Sayfudeen Aslam Del Vecchio and his wife, Fatima Patel, in February in connection with the murder of Rod and Rachel Saunders, British citizens who had been living in Cape Town.

Jasmine Opperman, Southern Africa director of the international Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium, advised caution in discussing a motive.

"There hasn't been any claim of credit for this attack and for as long as we don't have an official response from the usual suspects we should be cautious," she said.

"Groups like Isis would certainly claim credit as it would feed their propaganda machine."

We all believe in Islam, and that is a religion of peace that doesn’t advocate killing
Ahmed Vally Mahomed, Juma Masjid Mosque chairman

Opperman said the elements of extremism exhibited by the attackers did not mean they had acted as part of a terror group.

"We do not want to be too alarmist and totally exaggerate the Isis link, as was done in the Saunders case," she said.

"People right now are speaking from an emotional place. The government needs to intervene and look at this from a much broader view than just a police investigation."

Opperman said there was no evidence to suggest the Verulam attack was linked to the tension between Shias and Sunnis in other parts of the Muslim world.

The chairman of the Juma Masjid Mosque in Durban, Ahmed Vally Mahomed, said he discounted terrorism as a motive for the attack on Thursday.

"There has not been a history of conflict between the Shias and the Sunnis in South Africa. Yes, the Shias have different rituals, but we all believe in Islam, and that is a religion of peace that doesn't advocate killing."

Mahomed said he believed the attack was motivated by a personal dispute but that the police would get to the bottom of it.

"No matter what the motive, it was an attack on humanity and that is unacceptable," he said.

"The fact that it happened in a mosque creates a different perception of Islam to the man on the street and that is not a true reflection of our religion."


• Sunni: The largest branch of the Islamic faith; the Shias are in the minority. Their main difference relates to the successor of the prophet Mohammed

• 2%: The percentage of Muslims in the country’s 56 million people