CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - South African authorities stopped a 15-year-old girl believed to be travelling to join Islamic State from taking a flight in Cape Town, the state security ministry said on Tuesday, the country’s first known detention linked to the militant group.
The ministry said in a statement it was investigating whether Islamic State, which has overrun large areas of Syria and Iraq, had a recruitment network in South Africa.
“The family of the young girl has been spoken to and after being debriefed by officials the young girl has been released back into the care of her family,” it said.
The teenager had tried to take a domestic flight on Sunday to Johannesburg, South Africa’s main international hub. The ministry did not give her name or say where she was heading after that, but the Star newspaper reported she had been planning to fly to Turkey before travelling by road to join Islamic State in Syria.
Thousands of people from more than 80 nations, including Britain, other parts of Europe, China and the United States, have joined the ranks of Islamic State and other militant groups in Syria and Iraq, many travelling through Turkey. Young women have joined the group to marry its fighters
The teenager had been stopped at Cape Town airport after evidence was found in her bedroom indicating she had been in contact with Islamic State recruiters, the ministry said. It did not give any information on how the girl may have been recruited but said it was concerned about the use of cyber technology by terrorist groups.
Local media reports said the girl had confided to friends that she planned to join Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS, and relatives had noticed she had become increasingly politicised in the last month.
Her mother is a doctor at a surgery in a working class Cape Town suburb. A spokesman for her family declined to comment.
Pretoria has long been concerned about the radicalisation of South Africa’s largely conservative Muslim community and of the country being used as a launching pad for Islamist attacks.
The statement said State Security Minister David Mahlobo “wishes to reassure South Africans that the country will not allow itself to be used as a recruitment platform”.
Local Muslims expressed their concerns about the case. “We are all shocked but believe this case is an exception,” said Nabeweya Malick, spokeswoman at the Muslim Judicial Council, an NGO. “With the influence of technology and the cyber world our kids are constantly connected to, we are very concerned … young people, unfortunately, see ISIS members as some sort of heroes.”
In the mid-1990s, a group of mostly Muslim men set up a vigilante anti-crime group called The People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD), which carried out a series of attacks at synagogues, gay nightclubs and tourist attractions.
Some security experts said the group had ties with Middle Eastern Islamist groups. A police operation in 1998 largely ended PAGAD’s attacks.
Briton Samantha Lewthwaite, whose husband Germaine Lindsay was one of the suicide bombers in the 2007 attacks on London’s transport system, spent long periods in South Africa from 2008, according to government officials and local media reports.
Lewthwaite, dubbed the ‘White Widow’, had travelled on a fraudulently acquired South African passport. She is wanted by Kenyan police on terrorism related charges.
(This story has been refiled to correct day to Tuesday in first paragraph)
Writing by Joe Brock; Editing by David Stamp