Foreign Office Warns of ISIS Threat in South Africa After British Couple Kidnapped

Fears of terrorism-related activities have surfaced in South Africa after a British couple was kidnapped in a small town.

Local forces said there was no evidence of terrorism being behind the incident, which occurred in February. However, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) issued a statement warning British nationals that terrorists were "likely to carry out attacks in South Africa."

"Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places visited by foreigners such as shopping areas in major cities," read the statement.

"The main threat is from extremists linked to Daesh (formerly referred to as ISIL) [Islamic State].

"News reports suggest that a number of South African nationals have travelled to Syria, Iraq and Libya. They are likely to pose a security threat on their return. There's also a threat from individuals who may have been inspired by terrorist groups, including Daesh, to carry out so called 'lone actor' attacks targeting public places including where foreigners may gather."

The FCO did not provide much detail on the kidnapping of the couple. According to Reuters, those abducted were a 74-year-old man who moved from Britain to South Africa in the 1970s and his 63-year-old South African-born wife. The couple hold both British and South African citizenships.

A spokesman for the Hawks, South Africa's elite police unit, told Reuters two suspects had been arrested in connection with the abduction. However, no links to terrorism had been found.

"The couple are still missing at this stage. No ransom has been demanded. Our investigation so far has not revealed any links to terrorists, let alone [Isis]," Lloyd Ramovha said.

He added the couple lived in Cape Town and they were kidnapped in the small town of Vryheid in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province. Police were still investigating why they had travelled there.

"Besides that, South Africa has measures to counter terrorist threats. We are more than ready to deal with such. The car the couple was driving in was found on Wednesday and is now undergoing forensic tests," Ramovha added.

South Africa's hawks
Members of the Hawks, South Africa's Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, talk with police at the Bloemfontein Regional Court in Bloemfontein, South Africa, February 15, 2018. A spokesperson for the Hawks said two suspects had been arrested in connection with the abduction. However, no links to terrorism had been found. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

The U.S. warned of possible terror attacks on American facilities or malls in the country, especially in Johannesburg and Cape Town, during Ramadan, Islam's holiest month, in 2016. A similar warning was issued the previous year.

"There is no doubt that the ISIS has a global presence and no country is immune to ISIS or AQ presence," counter-terrorism expert David Otto told Newsweek.

"South Africans have travelled to join the so called Islamic Caliphate which has now collapsed in Iraq and Syria. There may be pockets of individual foreign fighters returning back to South Africa to either remain sleeper cells or set up another branch of ISIS in Southern Africa."

Otto, however, said that the kidnapping did not bear the hallmarks of a terrorist operation.

"Terrorist groups like ISIS would not announce their presence by kidnapping elderly couples," he explained. "Kidnapping is usually a continuation tactic, after armed assaults and suicide attacks on soft and hard targets.

"South Africa has a history of high level crime rate linked to kidnapping for ransom especially against foreigners who are seen as high value targets. It is dangerous to conclude that Islamist Jihadist are behind a kidnapping when no group has made that assertion," he concluded.

Jasmine Opperman, the director of southern Africa operations at the Terrorism, Research and Analysis Consortium think tank, made a smiliar claim, arguing that the FCO alert "alarmist".

"South Africa's vulnerability for attack is there, but are there solid indications of attacks now as we sit here? There are none," she said during an interview with eNCA television.