South African police hunting for three men who stabbed worshippers at a mosque outside Durban said on Friday that the attackers’ motive was unknown but “elements of extremism” were involved.
One Muslim leader said the mosque was targeted because it was a Shia place of worship that had received previous threats — exposing deep tension between South Africa’s Shia and Sunni communities.
Three attackers killed one man by slitting his throat and injured two others after midday prayers on Thursday at the mosque in Verulam town on the outskirts of the eastern port city of Durban.
“There are elements of extremism,” Simphiwe Mhlongo, spokesman for the Hawks police unit, told AFP. “It shows hatred towards the worshippers.”
Local Islamic leader Aftab Haider said the Shia community in South Africa had been victim to a prolonged hate campaign.
Haider did not name the Sunni community directly, but said the attack had “all the hallmarks” of the Sunni extremist Islamic State group.
“There (has been) a huge organised hate campaign in different mosques, radio stations and on social media against the Shia community,” he said.
“There have been threats at this mosque before, but not in the weeks leading up to this incident.
“It has all the hallmarks of the ISIS (Islamic State) style of operations in Iraq and Syria.”
– ‘I will kill you’ –
The assailants, who also set off a petrol bomb inside the mosque, escaped in a car after the attack.
The blood-soaked victims were found lying in the forecourt of the mosque by emergency services.
“These people were not robbers. They did not want cellphones, they did not want laptops or money,” said Ali Nchinyane, who was stabbed in the abdomen, speaking at a press conference on Friday.
“They came to the gate saying they want to perform prayers. They prayed and afterwards they wanted to kill.
“One of the suspects told me ‘I will kill you’. If I did not fight, I would have been dead,” Nchinyane added, saying he used a martial arts weapon to defend himself.
Police spokesman Mhlongo added that a major hunt was under way to find the attackers.
“The whole law enforcement forces are out, including private security, local detectives and police,” he said.
The incident appeared to be unprecedented in South Africa, where about 1.5 percent of the country’s 55-million population is Muslim.
The country prides itself on religious tolerance and has little record of violence related to religion.
The parliament’s police committee condemned the attack.
“A mosque is a religious institution, and South Africa’s constitution guarantees and protects the right to religious practices,” its chairman Francois Beukman said.
“We want our communities to live in harmony, practising their religions without fear.”